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KEITH VINCENT SMITH: The exhibition ‘Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770 – 1850’ is being held in the Mitchell Galleries at the State Library of NSW. This exhibition is to tell the story of the Eora, the people who lived in the Sydney area on the coast and in Port Jackson – that’s now called Sydney Harbour. In the same geographical space that now 4 million people inhabit, about 1,500 people lived in clans of perhaps 10 to 60.

MELISSA JACKSON: The reactions of the local Indigenous community to the exhibition was (sic) overwhelming. They felt that at last their story is being told, the story of the people who were here before the colonists arrived.

KEITH VINCENT SMITH: What united the Eora was their language, common language, their saltwater economy, their canoe culture and their way of life, and that, close kinship ties, marrying people from the adjoining clans. They had the best harbour in the world. These people could make a canoe in a day, for example, and this was probably the proudest possession of the Eora – would be their canoe. They would cut them from stringy-bark usually along the Parramatta River. And women were in the canoes daily fishing with handlines. They had a fire amidships on which they cooked mussels and other shellfish. They spat them into the water as a berley to attract fish. They made their own lures out of the turbine shell. Men were out along the rocks and in the shallow water with their ‘mudings’ – that’s the four-pronged fishing spear – and they would catch a different set of fish. So you had that access to 500 varieties of fish which happened in Sydney Harbour. So it would take an hour and a half for people to get the food they wanted in a day. The usual practice was to get the fish, take them ashore, cook them and eat them, and then they went to sleep. Every journal I’ve seen says, “Then they went to sleep after the meal.” So that might have happened three times a day, but what happened in the rest of the day was a rich cultural life. They told stories to the children, they educated the children. All around Sydney there are a thousand sites still where there are engravings in the sandstone rock, outlines of fish, whales, eels, sharks.

Bungaree was a flamboyant character. He wore a cocked hat and naval uniforms but at the same time was barefoot and was often seen in the streets of Sydney. In the course of researching that, I discovered there’s (sic) 17 portraits of Bungaree, while at the same time contemporaries like Governor Lachlan Macquarie, there’s (sic) three portraits of them. That’s just how much a figure he cut in colonial Sydney.

MELISSA JACKSON: One of the greatest characters of the colonial era was a man by the name of Pemulwuy. And people look up to Pemulwuy as a resistance leader. It’s quite ironic that there are no statues of Pemulwuy anywhere in the Sydney region but he was definitely seen by the Indigenous people as a leader. Ricketty Dick also amazed me because he saw that within the colony they were charging a toll to go on roads. So he decided that he would set his own tollbooth up and charge the people to go onto his land. And when he passed away, the people of Sydney minted some coins in his honour.

KEITH VINCENT SMITH: By and large in the Sydney area, life was peaceful, but what happened to cause trouble were (sic) convicts stealing artefacts. That caused enmity and by about the end of 1788, about 15 people had been killed. The most surprising thing I learnt in this exhibition was that Aboriginal people never relinquished their canoes on the harbour. So the white people settled everywhere but the waterways were still the highway of Aboriginal people.

MELISSA JACKSON: What this exhibition does is shows (sic) that the Indigenous community of Sydney was vibrant and it was part of the making of this city.
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