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Family admiring the First Nations Mural at Cockatoo Island.

First Nations

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5 min read
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the lands, waters and sky of Sydney Harbour – including Cockatoo Island / Wareamah – and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

The island connects to the waterways and homelands of the Wallumedegal, Wangal, Cammeraygal and Gadigal peoples. During the 60,000 years leading to European settlement, the island was a meeting place for these groups. They have the Dharug language in common and, in Dharug, Cockatoo Island is known as Wareamah.

Natural balance disturbed

From the mid-nineteenth century, the island’s landscape was reshaped for different uses including a convict gaol and a shipyard. As a result of these colony-led developments, signs of the island’s use and inhabitation by Sydney’s First Nations peoples are no longer visible. Nevertheless, Wareamah continues to hold significance for Traditional Custodians and Owners.

First Nations convicts

During Cockatoo Island’s convict era (1839 to 1869), First Nations peoples were a small but notable segment of the prisoner population and were involved in general prison activities, including the excavation and construction of Fitzroy Dock.

Tragically, by 1856, 17 First Nations prisoners had died in incarceration. The authorities concluded that confinement in an overcrowded setting, as well as low immunity to diseases circulating in the gaol, were the cause. [Source: ‘Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869’, Sue Castrique, 2014, Anchor Books Australia.]

Two of the most famous figures from the island’s convict era are Frederick Ward, a serial horse thief, and his wife, Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg. On 11 September 1863, Ward cemented his place in folklore when he became the first and only person to successfully escape Cockatoo Island. Although accounts vary, some hold that Bugg rescued Ward. Namely, she swam to the island from Balmain and left Ward a file to remove his chains. After a swim through shark-infested waters, Ward made it to shore where Bugg was waiting for him with a horse and they rode to freedom.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

One of the island’s contemporary First Nations stories is that of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Land Claim. On 20 November 2000, an Aboriginal rights group, led by Wiradjuri woman Isabel Coe, rowed to Cockatoo Island – then inaccessible to the public – and established a camp, claiming the site for all Aboriginal people. The group of 10 was a branch of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has occupied land outside Old Parliament House in Canberra since 1972.

The federal government took legal action to have the group removed and the matter proceeded to the NSW Supreme Court. It was claimed the group was trespassing, that the island was unsafe and if anyone was hurt, the Government would be held liable. Conversely, the group rejected the Commonwealth’s sovereignty over the island. In a statement issued to the government on 18 December 2000, Coe’s solicitor advised she would defend the claim brought by the government on the following grounds:

“… there is an Aboriginal title to the land which pre-dates the title of the Commonwealth of Australia and which has not been extinguished. The islands of Sydney Harbour were not part of the act of possession by James Cook. Both Cook and Arthur Phillip had express instructions not to act contrary to the rights of the indigenous people. Journals written by some of the First Fleet recorded the ownership of the Harbour Islands by identifiable Aboriginal families, but the evidence is that Cockatoo Island was the meeting place of all of the different clans of aboriginal people. The Island was accordingly the joint property of all aboriginal people, not the property of any individual clan or family now extinct."

The group’s claim was ultimately rejected and, consequently, they left the island peacefully on 13 March 2001. Artworks on the upper island, including murals on the timber shed and searchlight tower, are reminders of their 4-month stay.

Dreamtime story of Buriburi – the origins of Sydney Harbour

To mark National Reconciliation Week 2021 (27 May to 3 June), the Harbour Trust collaborated on a short interpretation film with the Gujaga Foundation, the Gamay Dancers and First Nations videographer Tamati Smith. Filmed at Cockatoo Island, ‘The Dreamtime Story of Buriburi’ was presented as an opportunity for audiences to consider the origins of Sydney Harbour from the perspective of coastal Sydney’s Traditional Owners.

In the video, Ray Ingrey, Chairperson of the Gujaga Foundation and a Dharawal community representative, shares the Dreamtime Story of Buriburi with the aid of the Gamay Dancers of the Gadigal and Bidjigal nation. Set against the backdrop of Biloela Lawn, Cockatoo Island, the Gamay Dancers complement Ray’s words with a traditional performance that captures the essence of the story.

Did you know?

Cockatoo Island / Wareamah was named for the sulphur crested cockatoos that once frequented the island. Later, the island briefly went by the name ‘Biloela’, which is an Aboriginal word for cockatoo. Due to the island’s transformation from 1839 onwards, red gum trees were removed and cockatoos were forced to find a new home.


Helpful links

Did you enjoy reading about the First Nations history of Wareamah? You may find these links and resources useful.