Coexistence between traditional owners and European settlers in Western Sydney in the early 1800s

Posted by barbara on September 16, 2016


Inner Western Sydney suburbs straddling the Parramatta River were once occupied by large estates taken up by landed gentry including John Blaxland of 'Newington' and John Macarthur of 'Elizabeth Farm'. It was on estates like these that evidence suggests Indigenous people coexisted with the 'incoming' Europeans.


Revisiting the ‘middle ground’ of Aboriginal and European co-existence in NSW  in the early 1800s

While the extensive outdoor gallery of Aboriginal engravings carved into Sydney sandstone over generations of occupation may be gradually fading, a quiet revolution has been unfolding in our understanding of the ‘culture clash’ that followed the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet. And just as the ‘10,000 artworks, carved or painted on stone’1 become harder to see year by year, so too do widely accepted understandings of the past fade, to be replaced by newly incised, ‘out of the rut’ perspectives. Many baby boomers and their antecedents, for example, grew up with the impression that the Aboriginal people who once peopled the Sydney Basin quickly succumbed to disease, dispossession, and demoralisation.

But as Grace Karskens explains in The Colony ‘the Sydney region was not suddenly transformed into white space when the first white feet sloshed onto the beaches in that year.’ Indeed, it took ‘six years before whites began building huts and planting maize on the river of the Hawkesbury’.2

Aboriginal people made a place for themselves

Writing about the aftermath of the European’s arrival, Karskens reminds that, ‘On the plain and near the coast, Aboriginal people came to live ‘between’ the lines of the Europeans’ cadastral grids and boundaries, in areas not yet taken, or not wanted, making other histories in places which were hidden from view’.3 As she points out, ‘Despite the disasters that befell them, Aboriginal people successfully made a place for themselves in Sydney for at least four decades’.4

Conflict versus co-existence and the middle-ground history

In summarising the overarching message of the late Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, Karskens reminds us that, ‘Australia’s race relations did not begin with racism and violence, but a remarkable ‘springtime of trust’5, one that involved both parties dancing hand in hand as depicted in Lieutenant William Bradley’s watercolour, View of Broken Bay, New South Wales, March 1788. Similarly Clendinnen was at pains to clarify that Governor Phillip brought a determination verging on obstinacy to the business of persuading the local populations to friendship; a determination rare, possibly unique, in the gruff annals of imperialism.6

According to Karskens, ‘much of the story of what happened after the early colonial period has been retrieved, patiently pieced together by historians and archaeologists, Indigenous and non-Indigenous’. But she issues a challenge to her fellow historians when she says that as ‘. . . much more of this ‘middle-ground’ history still needs to be recovered and acknowledged; the story remains, and remains to be told’.7

Citing anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s description of how the ‘great wheel of colonisation’ impacted the northern Australian frontier, Karskens reminds that in ‘one newly taken area after another, Aboriginal people disputed and disrupted this new version of time, place and ownership; they challenged the Europeans’ conviction that colonisation was both inevitable and justified by larger historical processes’.8

But in acknowledging such inevitable disputations and dispossessions, Karskens argues for the examination of the interwoven counter-theme: the one recorded only in fleeting glimpses, as in the corner of our eye—the ‘middle ground’. The world of relations and negotiations between settlers and Aborigines, of words, concepts and practices which crossed over, were grasped, of cultures which overlapped and sometimes ran together on common ground.9

In The Colony, Karskens saw her ‘ground truthing’ role as continuing Inga Clendinnen’s and Kate Grenville’s ‘project of examining and rethinking early colonial race relations’. In doing so, her aim was to take ‘a broader and longer view’.10



Either sides of the Parramatta River were once occupied by large estates taken up by landed gentry including John Blaxland of 'Newington' and John Macarthur of 'Elizabeth Farm'. It was on estates like these that evidence suggests Indigenous people coexisted with the 'incoming' Europeans during a short-lived window of opportunity in the early 1800s.
Read about it here: Coexistence_BLOG_18-9-2016.pdf

1  Grace Karskens, The Colony - A history of early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2009, p 33.

2  Karskens, The Colony, p 33.

3  Karskens, The Colony, pp 4-5.

4  Karskens, The Colony, p 14.

5  Karskens, The Colony, p 13.

   Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2003, pp 8-9.

6  Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, p 25. 

7  Karskens, The Colony, pp 14-15.

8  Karskens, The Colony, p 456.

9  Karskens, The Colony, p 456.

10 Karskens, The Colony, p 14. 




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