Sydney’s Aboriginal people
NAIDOC Week 2016 celebrations are in full swing at the moment and the Dictionary of Sydney recently published new articles about Sydney’s Aboriginal past by historian, Keith Vincent Smith. I spoke with Nic Healey on 2SER Breakfast about two interesting Aboriginal character’s — Carangarang and Willemering.
Many will have heard of Bennelong, the Eora man who was captured by Governor Arthur Phillip and travelled to England and back to Sydney. But few may know about Bennelong’s sister, Carangarang. She was born in 1771 into the Wangal clan on the south shore of the Parramatta River.
The first written record of Carangarang described her as ‘pretty’. Lieutenant David Collins said her name meant ‘The Sea’, but was also interpreted as ‘pelican’. He also observed what he called a ‘family party’ one day at Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands, with Bennelong and his wife along with Carangarang, who breastfed her child while Bennelong cleaned the fish and cooked them on a fire. In another incident, Carangarang was in a boat when it capsized and she quickly carried her two children on her shoulders and swam to safety.
Later in life there were descriptions of Carangarang walking along the Parramatta River, wearing an ‘Opossum cloake’, carrying a net bag over her shoulders, and her hair decorated with eel bones. At that time she was the wife of the chief of the Burramattagal clan, the people of Parramatta, whose totem was the burra or eel.
Keith Vincent Smith also wrote about Willemering, a doctor or ‘clever man’ from the Garagal clan around Broken Bay. There has always been debate and mystery surrounding the role of the clever man. Smith notes they not only healed wounds, they were ‘sorcerers with secret-sacred knowledge’ who could ‘make rain, kill by chanting, conduct inquests and take part in revenge expeditions’.
During a famous encounter with the British in September 1790, Willemering threw a spear at Governor Phillip. David Collins wrote about the incident, noting Willemering ‘lifted a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor. The spear entered a little above the collar bone, and had been discharged with such force that the barb of it came through on the other side’. After the incident, Bennelong told Collins he beat Willemering for his actions.
Just after Bennelong’s wife, Barangaroo, died and was cremated in 1791, Bennelong clashed with Willemering and wounded him in the thigh with a spear. He claimed Willemering had not come quickly enough to treat Barangaroo when she was ill. After this incident, nothing further was recorded regarding Willemering.
Much of the historical narrative on Sydney’s Aboriginal people is dominated by accounts from the British. It is important also to listen to the oral traditions passed down the generations to understand Sydney’s Aboriginal past and celebrate the oldest continuing culture in the world.