Colonists struggled to grasp the dynamics of Aboriginal societies. They sought – and sometimes imposed – categories from their own traditions: clans, tribes and nations. In reality, people formed links with several places through their mothers and fathers, spouses, cousins, and life-changing events. Family groups also moved in response to seasons or circumstances.
People in Pirrama (today’s Pyrmont) accepted the term Gadigal and spoke Dharug (or Eora), as did their Wangal neighbours to the south-west. People around Darling Harbour may have lived as a separate clan, tentatively named the Gommerigal: if so, it is not clear how “separate” they felt themselves to be. The term Eora covered many people living on the coast, around Sydney and further south. This term is now used as a political term, as in the formal acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of Pyrmont as “The Gadigal people of the Eora nation.”
Fishing and Hunting
Aboriginal people were skilled in fishing, and their middens demonstrate their enthusiasm for shellfish. Less is known of their hunting, but we know that people were adept in fire-stick farming and hunting. Fishing remained important for many years until the waters were heavily polluted, and most of the peninsula was not closely settled until the 1840s, so some hunting continued. The people used this time to adopt new skills and styles of livings. As hunting declined, and western clothes replaced animal pelts, the people were less noticeable in the ways they made a living. As late as the 1870s distinctively Aboriginal people lived here: after that they no longer stood out among other poor residents.
We believe that Cadigal people called this area Pirrama, but particular sites of importance can no longer be identified easily. Tinker’s Well, a popular source of drinking water, disappeared as quarrying and other industry reshaped the land. Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay provided fish and seafood until they were polluted: Tumbalong Park celebrates this abundance, but there is no known connection to the site of the park.
Governors formed relationships with (for example) Bungaree and Bennelong, but we do not yet know about individual Cadigal people in the first generation of colonial settlement.
Visits by Cook, la Perouse and others intrigued Aboriginal people, but the import of these events was not immediate. Even the First Fleet was – at first – an event of limited significance. The eruption of smallpox in 1789, however, was devastating. Many died, and survivors had to reorganise their communities.