History in the Shoalhaven
Shoalhaven Indigenous History
Twenty thousand years ago, the most recent ice age was coming to an end and the Shoalhaven coastline was approximately 20 kilometres further east than it is today. At that time, the region was already inhabited by Aborigines, but as the ice melted the sea level rose slowly, burying much of the archaeological evidence of habitation beneath metres of sea and sand.
During the ice age the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven Rivers flowed across what is now the continental shelf. Silt deposits at the Nowra Bridge exceed 70 meters (with freshwater shells at that depth) and indicate that the river would have been flowing at the bottom of a 100m gorge.
The sea reached its present level approximately 6,000 years ago and from this time numerous archaeological sites survive, which provide evidence of the Aboriginal lifestyle. Excavation has revealed the shells of edible shellfish, bones of fish, the remains of a variety of mammals, charcoal, hearthstones, bone and shell artefacts.
At this time Greenwell Point was a small island (with the shore around Jervis St) and the farm land toward Nowra was a large lagoon bordered by the sand dunes of Seven Mile Beach with a small opening at Crookhaven Heads. This enclosed marine lagoon was rapidly filled by sediments carried by the Shoalhaven, to sea level or just above it and is now very productive farm land.
With such a bountiful and varied supply of food and a temperate climate it is thought that the Indigenous people enjoyed a good lifestyle. Tools were manufactured from bone, stone or shell. Flaked stone artefacts such as cutting and scraping tools, spear barbs and points have been excavated from campsite locations throughout the Shoalhaven. Due to the soft nature of the local stone, stone for axe heads was traded from considerable distances. Although evidence of rock art is not extensive in the region, paintings have been found in rock shelters on the Beecroft Peninsula.
Aboriginal names are prominent as place names throughout the region. Coolangatta means splendid view, Culburra means sand, Myola is a place of crabs and Nowra is the word for black cockatoo. Ulladulla is a corruption of the Aboriginal word Woolahderra which means safe harbour and Cambewarra is a combination of two words, camba meaning fire and warra meaning mountain, probably because of the Illawarra flame trees which used to grow there. Captain Cook bestowed the name Pigeon House Mountain on the remarkable outcrop of stone which dominates the skyline in the south of the region, but the Aboriginal people know it as Dithol, which means woman’s breast.
The first encounter the Aborigines had with Europeans were merely two races sighting each other from a distance. It wasn’t until 1797 that direct contact first occurred, when survivors from a shipwreck at Point Hicks in Victoria were making their way northward. As they travelled through the lands of many different tribes they were received in a friendly manner where it was perceived they were passing through, and with hostility if they were viewed as permanent invaders.
Long before the time the First Fleet arrived Aborigines’ had developed a lifestyle, achieving a life expectancy of about 48 years. This was the approximate life expectancy of the European settlers at that time. Present day statistics show that the white inhabitants’ life expectancy has risen to 70+ while the Aboriginal life expectancy remains at 48.
In the latter years of the eighteenth century the indigenous people would have witnessed regular visits from whalers and cedar cutters, but it wasn’t until Alexander Berry took up a grant of 10,000 acres on the Shoalhaven River in 1822 that settlement by Europeans commenced in earnest and the traditional lifestyle of the Aboriginal people was threatened and decimated.
Around this time the Aborigines on the southern side of the Shoalhaven River belonged to the Wandiwandian Tribe whose territory extended southwards along the coast to Burrill Lake, just beyond Ulladulla. On the northern bank was the Wodi Wodi Tribe whose area extended along the coast to Woonona, just north of Wollongong.
The activities of the Aboriginal men and women were moulded by the myths and legends of the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime was the period in which spiritual ancestors were said to have created the original Australian people and all the natural features of their world.
Through the actions of the ancestral beings in Dreamtime myths, a code of everyday living was indirectly stated. This governed the role of men and women, marriage, the bearing and raising of children, and the search for food, as well as its distribution in the camp.
Aborinines saw themselves as part of the land and it as part of them. As elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia the people who were born here and reared by their parents and tribal members came to regards their particular locality as their birthright.
Once the country was stocked with sheep and cattle, many of the edible plants disappeared and the Aborigines were forced away from their traditional hunting grounds. Contact with Europeans also brought new diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and syphilis.
Over the years, Berry and family members acquired more land north and south of the river. As a result more Aborigines were either dispossessed of their land and their right to use it, or at the very least, found their free movement on their traditional land severely restricted. A number of the Coolangatta people were allowed to live near the Berry Homestead and attempts were made to make farm labourers of them. Being unsuccessful Berry then acquired a number of Maoris.
During the early decades of the 19th century, some traditional food gathering practices were maintained, but by the 1830’s the former population had been decimated by the combined effects of disease and the removal of land and those who remained were relocated to reserves such as Roseby Park at Orient Point (Jerrinja) and Bilong at Myola.
With the disruption to the tribal units and loss of control of their land there came a time when the elders refused to hand on much of the traditions developed over thousands of years. As a great proportion of their culture was transmitted only by verbal means much of this rich heritage was lost in a generation. This was assisted by encouraged assimilation which required the Aborigines to live on missions or reserves where they were strictly controlled. They were expected to adopt a European lifestyle and European beliefs with children attending special schools, where no Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal beliefs were taught.
By 1914 small groups of Aboriginal fisherman had settled at Wreck Bay, south of Jervis Bay, and in 1952 the area was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve. The Wreck Bay Community were granted land rights over an area of 403 hectares in 1986 and today the community numbers about 50 families, most descended from or related to the first settlers at Wreck Bay. In June 1995 the Federal Government offered the title of the Jervis Bay National Park to the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community upon the condition that it was leased back to the Australian Nature Conservation Agency for a period of 99 years.
Text reproduced with permission of Lightstorm Photography, from their book ‘The Shoalhaven’ and “Greenwell Point – An Early Shoalhaven Port” Compiled by RJ Walliss for the Greenwell Point Bi-Centennial Sub-Committee.
A Short History of Aborigines and the (English) Law By Laddie Timbery
Laddie is a respected Koori elder from the Eora Nation. His people are the Bidjigal clan, which span from La Perouse, Botany Bay (known as Goorewall), down through the South Coast regions of NSW and known as the Yuin Nation. He belongs to the Dharawal language group which spans from Sydney to Jervis Bay, where his family currently live and produce artwork and artefacts and co-ordinate the Internationally-renown Bidjigal and Doonooch dancers. He has a vast knowledge of culture and history, particularly involving the region of Botany Bay and the South Coast of NSW and this is evident throughout all of his works.
Laddie and his family make the traditional original returning boomerang. Made from mangrove knee it has a natural bend. They make and decorate a large variety of artefacts and artworks and are highly regarded for their unique craftsmanship of “burning in”, a technique Laddie’s family has been using for 193 years, selling boomerangs and artefacts throughout the Botany Bay and South Coast regions of NSW.
The shell work produced by the family is also world renowned. Laddie’s great grandmother Emma Timbery’s shell work was sent to England for Queen Victoria in the early 1900s. The family continues to make and sell shell work. Many of the works made by Laddie’s family can be viewed in National and International museums and galleries.
Laddie’s art work is available for sale at the Lady Denman Museum and (to a lesser extent) at Angler’s Rest
For 50,000 years or more we were a well-adjusted nation of peoples, attuned to our land. Our tribal laws sustained and enforced this natural harmony – we were one with the land.
Our tribal laws were all defined and rigidly observed.
We killed only for food and for survival. If a human life was taken, the reason was always for maintenance of tribal law.
Two hundred years of English domination is but a moment in this time frame, but the impact has been cataclysmic.
Our workable and enduring law was spurned and an alien and incomprehensible one was enforced.
If we demurred or resisted we were slaughtered.
Great Britain possessed the most refined and advanced machinery for killing the world had ever devised. They were adept at the putting down of insurrections by “primitive savages”. This was a euphemism for genocide.
Africa and India had been good training grounds. Ireland also provided an arena for the sharpening of killing skill.
Our boomerangs were no match for bullets, our spears for strychnine. Disintegration had begun.
Our time-immemorial relationship with our ancestral land severed, we watched in pain and anger as we were fenced off from our hunting grounds while cattle and sheep trampled to dust the land’s lifeblood, while forests were restructured into desert.
If we intervened we were slaughtered – we were a subspecies, certainly less important than sheep and cattle.
We were hunted and shot. The Tasmanians were hunted by hounds – Tally Ho! To extinction.
We were trapped and disposed of by that fine example of pioneering subtlety – gifts of strychnine-laced flour.
Our trust was repaid by deceit, our willingness to coexist in harmony by extermination. We were decimated by the white man’s pox and pestilence, against which we had no immunity.
Nothing! Nowhere! No family! No tribe! No reason!
Thus went the dispossession of a spiritual people.
This was the most insidious of evils for us.
Deeming us to be subhuman, we were dispersed throughout the country. Our children were taken from us and imprisoned in various religious homes. There they were forbidden access to their parents and family.
The girls in particular were taken as babies and, in Christ’s name, were instructed and trained in bewildering, alien things to render them eligible to become unpaid servants for squatters and farmers, who had unwritten, though none the less indisputable rights to do with them what they willed.
Thus began, in earnest, the problems of forced miscegenation – interbreeding.
Humiliated, despised, frightened, fragmented and lonely, we drifted to be with our kind to the fringes of the towns and to the slums of the cities.
Harried by police, benumbed by alcohol, petrol and glue sniffing, we were thrown in goals where some of us, unwilling to continue to face the bleak horror of futility, took our lives by hanging.
I wonder if you can understand our disillusion?
What we must guard against is that disillusion not turn into despair.
In 1937 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed.
Children of mixed race – forced miscegenation – were forcibly removed from their supposedly incompetent and uncaring Aboriginal parents and, in the name of a compassionate Christ, trained as lackeys for white land owners.
A stanza from Eva Johnson’s poem best sums up this “protection”.
Gone were our children to missionary
Gone was our land and the power to be free,
Gone was our spirit and dignity
Such was the power of protection.
Not so long ago we were deemed responsible enough to be permitted to vote.
How the Politicians have solicited our vote!
We’ve been conned for a long time now – forgive us if we are somewhat cynical.
A multitude of promises have been and continue to be made. Public Service sub-departments, study groups, committees, fact-finding missions, have proliferated.
Largely ignoring the results and recommendations of previous and costly studies, they zealously strive to determine what is best for us.
Apart from the memorable achievements of the Whitlam Labor Government in recognising Aboriginal Land Rights, what else has really been achieved?
Plenty of high-sounding, airy rhetoric!
The 1993 decision by the High Court of Australia, the ultimate judiciary, to uphold Eddy Mabo’s claim to his family land and to formally recognise the validity of Native Title, is a landmark in our demand for land rights.
Despite the recent shuffling for cover, the pressure from multinational mining and mineral conglomerates, the rantings of the ratbag Koori element, the double-deals and the double-speak, the salient point remains: Native Title is a fact.
If we have continuously occupied ancestral land for an identifiable period, it is entirely probable that we can claim that land in our custody by right of title.
This does not mean that we intend taking over the Opera House or the Federal Mint. It does mean, however, that for the first time in 200 years, our clain to ancestral occupied land is valid under Australian law.
We have lived with discrimination for so long we are accustomed, perhaps even inured, to it.
Offensive words like “Abo” and “Boong” we don’t like because of the attitude behind them still exists.
We are constantly reminded of our supposed inferiority, the colour of our skin, our alleged limited mentality, our apparent disposition to violence, our natural indolence, apathy, alcoholism and inability to hold down a responsible job.
We don’t delude ourselves – discrimination is alive and well and lasting for a long time yet.
We don’t enjoy it. We have to accept it. We will surmount it, and in the end we will be the stronger for it. For a long time Kooris placed great store in hope that we would co-exist in cooperative harmony.
Hope is a fragile hook to hang our future on!
But, we will make things happen.
There is a resurgence in pride – pride of our origins, our culture, our indestructibility, our Aboriginality.
We will not permit racist attitudes to impede us.
We are the original Australians and we are here to stay.
Thanks to Laddie for taking the time to write this, and for allowing us to share it.
FYI – Laddie and his family can usually be found at the Lady Denman Museum in Huskisson where they provide fantastic bush tucker tours and Boomerang throwing classes. If you would like to know more please just ask at reception, or call the Lady Denman on 4441 5675.
Shoalhaven European History
In December 1797, George Bass, sailing down the coast in a whaleboat with six seamen, discovered the mouth of a river. Due to the large number of sand bars and sand spits at the entrance he named it “Shoals-Haven”. As land around Sydney was taken up, the Shoalhaven was further explored and surveyed.
The Scotsman Alexander Berry explored the Shoalhaven District in January 1822, looking for land on which to settle. Six months later on 21 June he entered the Crookhaven River in the ‘Blanche’, after an attempt to enter the Shoalhaven River had resulted in the boat capsizing and two men being drowned. Berry then sailed up the Crookhaven River but was stopped by a sand spit that separated the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven Rivers. Undaunted, the crew hauled the Blanche across the spit. Four days later Hamilton Hume was left with three men at the isthmus to cut a passage using only hand tools.
The canal, which was 191 m long, was completed in 12 days. This was the first transport canal to be cut in Australia. The river has since cut the passage wider and deeper to its present dimensions, making the Crookhaven now the real entrance to the Shoalhaven River.
Berry settled permanently at Coolangatta on the north bank of the Shoalhaven River. Other members of his family from Scotland joined him later. With his partner, Edward Wollstonecraft, Berry took up land grants of 10,000 acres, and Shoalhaven’s modern history began.
In the early 1800s, the Shoalhaven was noted for it’s ceder timber and these logs were used to supply sleepers for the early railways. In 1829 the first wharf was constructed at Greenwell Point for the loading of local produce. Wool and wheat, as well as fresh vegetables and fruit such as potatoes, corn and tobacco were shipped to Sydney from Greenwell Point in sailing ships mainly built on the banks of the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven Rivers. The mill at Jindy Andy was built in 1830 and products taken by bullock train to Greenwell Point for shipping to Sydney. By 1857 the paddle steamer “Kiama” was calling at Greenwell Point twice weekly.
In August of 1846, Berry’s schooner, the Coolangatta was wrecked between Point Danger and Cut Hill, Queensland. This place still bears the name of Coolangatta, linking the Gold Coast and the Shoalhaven with an historical tie. The anchor of the Coolangatta serves as a monument by the beach at Queensland’s Coolangatta.
In 1863 the dredge “Pluto” commenced dredging the river channels from Greenwell Point to Bomaderry. By the 1880s Greenwell Point had 2 wharfs and the Shoalhaven was the 4th largest port in NSW. The paddle steamer “Illawarra” (1878-1908, 65m, 500 tonnes) was the most famous ship carrying cargoes of maize, barley, potatoes, oysters, kegs of butter, hay, cheeses, eggs, poultry, pigs, calves, tallow, leather, wax, bacons, skins, shingles, gin, honey and fish. This produce was collected from along the rivers by droghers (blunt ended, flat bottomed rivers boats with plenty of deck space) such as the “Alexander Berry” and delivered to the larger steamers at wharfs situated at Greenwell Point, Numbaa, Terara, Bomaderry and Berry.
From 1861 the Dent and Settree (1936) families pioneered shipbuilding in Currambene Creek, Huskisson, Jervis Bay. Many ships were built but perhaps the most famous is the former Sydney Harbour Ferry, Lady Denman, which was returned to Huskisson under the cover of darkness from Sydney Harbour by John Hatton AO (most famous for initiating the shockingly successful Wood Royal Commission into NSW Police Corruption) and colleagues in 1981. She is now restored and on display within the Lady Denman Heritage Complex. Interesting details behind this “theft” can be found in “Maritime Battle”, at the end of this section. (Reproduced from the Illawarra Mercury).
Shipping declined after the railway reached Bomaderry in 1893, ceasing altogether at the beginning of WW2.
A major feature of the changes wrought in the last 150 years or so is the transfer of the river outlet from the Shoalhaven Heads to the Crookhaven Heads through Berry’s Canal. Shoalhaven Heads is increasingly silted up, while Crookhaven Riven is widening – so much so that the NSW Department of Lands mapping system (below) has marked land boundaries (the white lines) that have become part of the river.
The river, because of the low lying nature of it’s flood plain will continue to behave as it has in the past, changing its channels and maybe it’s course.
On the upside, the flood liable nature of the farm land surrounding Greenwell Point and the safe bar at the Crookhaven’s entrance will continue to support our existence as a small, village surrounded by highly productive farm lands and waterways.
Shoalhaven – History of the Shire of Shoalahven William A Bayley 1975 South Coast Printers, Port Kembla NSW (http://www.jervisbaymaritimemuseum.blogspot.com.au/)
Greenwell Point – An Early Shoalhaven Port Comiled by R J Walliss for the Greenwell Point Sub-Committee 1988 Bomaderry Printing Company