While there is no surviving evidence of the historic Aboriginal presence on Cockatoo Island itself, there is ample evidence of Aboriginal inhabitation on the surrounding shores.
The people who lived in the areas of the Sydney Basin, spreading from Botany Bay and Georges River up to Pittwater, the Hawkesbury, and along the Parramatta River, were called the Eora (meaning ‘from this place’).
Within the Eora there are various groups whose ancestors inhabited different parts of the harbour. The evidence of First Nations people on surrounding shores is clear: Wallumedegal to the west, the Wangal to the east, and the Cammeraygal and Gadigal to the south.
Additionally, all these groups shared the Dharug language, and in Dharug, Cockatoo Island is known as Wareamah - ‘war’ meaning women and ‘eamah’ meaning land - suggesting that the island was a site for women’s ceremonies.
The physical signs of the Eora's connection to Cockatoo Island began to vanish over time, likely commencing in 1839 when the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, chose Cockatoo Island as the site of a new penal establishment.
The natural balance of the island was disturbed by gunpowder blasting rocks and convicts manually excavating the site. Over time, industrial waste and the continual disturbance of the environment would have eroded any physical evidence of First Nations people.
First Nations Peoples were a small but notable segment of Cockatoo Island’s prisoner population during the convict era (1839-1869) and were involved in general prison activities, including excavating and working Fitzroy Dock.
Between 1839 and 1856, seventeen First Nations prisoners died at Cockatoo Island. Authorities were left wondering why First Nations prisoners were dying of sickness, sometimes within weeks of arrival, but would make a recovery when transferred to other prisons. It was concluded the deaths were a result of confinement in an overcrowded setting plus low immunity to diseases affecting the island’s population
Source: ‘Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869’ by Sue Castrique, published in 2014 by Anchor Books Australia.
Prior to 2007, Cockatoo Island wasn’t opened to the public, and in 2000, an Aboriginal rights group set up camp on the island. The group was a branch of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has occupied land outside Old Parliament House in Canberra since 1972.
The Tent Embassy submitted a land claim under the Native Title Act 1993, and rejected the Commonwealth’s sovereignty over the island. The group stated that when Captain Cook claimed Australia he did not specify Cockatoo Island. Isabel Coe, the group’s leader, said that it was a meeting place for the Eora people prior to European settlement:
“This would have been a very sacred site. It is where the rivers join and is in the middle of where the sun rises and sets over the harbour. It is part of the milky way dreamtime stories ... “
The Commonwealth Government launched legal action to have the Tent Embassy removed. They argued the Embassy were trespassing, that the island was unsafe, and if anyone was hurt, the Government would be held liable.
After appeals through lower courts, the High Court refused the Tent Embassy’s application on March 13, 2001, and the group peacefully left the island after four months of settling there.
Physical evidence remains of the time the Tent Embassy spent on the island, including several murals on the upper island near Biloela House. One mural featuring the Aboriginal Flag along with items painted in the Aboriginal flag colours, whilst another depicting native animals.
“[Cockatoo Island] would have been a very sacred site. It is where the rivers join and is in the middle of where the sun rises and sets over the harbour. It is part of the milky way dreamtime stories ... “ – Isabel Coe