Camden High School

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Local history

A brief overview

The Camden area has a long history of Aboriginal occupation and is located at the intersection of three tribal boundaries; the Gundungurra, Tharawal or Dharawal, and Dharug. The Dharawal of Camden, occupied the land where ‘the rivers run the wrong way'; the Nepean, Wollondilly, Georges, Cataract and Nattai catchments. The Camden Dharawal were known as ‘Sweet Water People', and were provided with a plentiful supply of food and water from the Nepean River. The Dharawal spoke a distinct language (Dharawal or Thurrawal) and two distinct dialects have been recorded. The Sweet Water Dharawals consisted of  40 or 50 clans with about 30 to 60 individuals belonging to each clan.

The Dharawal called the area around the Nepean River Yandel'ora, which means land of peace between peoples. Yandel'ora became an important Aboriginal meeting place as each generation all the nations from as far north as Maroochydore, to as far south as Melbourne, met to make laws, settle disputes and arrange marriages. About every four years smaller meetings were held to settle disputes between Dharawals and their immediate neighbours. Those who entered Yandel'ora with problems were not to leave until they had been resolved, and all weapons were laid down upon arrival and throughout the duration of stay in the area. The lyrebird; totem of the D'harawal people is a symbol of peace and conciliation.

Visiting groups would be allocated an area to camp within Yandel'ora and would stay for weeks or sometimes months. Trees were marked to demarcate ‘lands within lands' for different groups, and plants and seeds were brought in from the homelands to grow for the duration of their stay. The legacy of the meetings stand today with a wide variety of plant communities across the region.

The Dharawal people enjoyed a diverse diet and used their knowledge to treat poisonous plant in such a way as to make them edible. In some cases, this meant soaking plants for two weeks or more to wash away the toxins and make them safe to eat. The most important of these was the ‘burrawang' (Macrozamia) plant that produces clusters of seeds that were pounded to make flour, which was baked into flat cakes. They were soft to eat and formed a staple of the Dharawal diet.

Banksias, grevilleas and melaleucas were soaked in water to make a sweet drink called ‘bool'. Protein came from small wallabies and possums, and occasionally freshwater mullet from the rivers and creeks. Orchids, lilies and the native ‘yam' were dietary staples. Edible roots and leaves and berries were also eaten. Plants provided medicine and material for making string and rope, and grass-tree resin and beeswax were used to attach hatchet heads to handles and barbs to fishing and hunting spears.

The Dharawal people left evidence of their first encounter with Europeans in a local sandstone rock shelter, today known as ‘Bull Cave'. Six months after the arrival of the First fleet, two bulls and four cows wandered south from Port Jackson and established themselves on the good grazing ground in the Menangle-Camden area. The Dharawal saw these strange creatures and drew them on the wall of a sandstone shelter. Their drawings clearly show the bulls, and one can only imagine the confusion the Dharawal felt at the appearance of these new animals. Unfortunately, the drawings have been defaced by ignorant vandals with spraypaint, and a significant piece of national and local history has been destroyed.

Rapid and extensive European occupation of Aboriginal land throughout the Campbelltown and Camden area meant that conflict was inevitable. However, there is much evidence showing a friendly and cooperative relationship existed in areas;  Charles Throsby of Glenfield, a persistent critic of European treatment of the Aborigines, was accompanied by Dharawal men when he explored the southern highlands area. Hamilton Hume, in 1814, made the first of a number of long exploratory trips southwards with a young Aboriginal friend named Doual.

Macquarie recognized that settlers and their servants were often responsible eliciting acts of violence from the Aboriginal people. Following the murder of an Aboriginal woman and her children in Appinn in 1814, Governor Macquarie issued an order in the Sydney Gazette, critizing settlers in the Appin and Cowpastures area, stating "Any person who may be found to have treated them [natives] with inhumanity or cruelty, will be punished?."

Ongoing tension and conflict occurred with European clearing and fencing of Aboriginal land, irrecoverably changing the patterns of hunting and gathering that had been followed by the Dharawal people for tens of thousands of years. A severe drought (from 1814-1816) would in no doubt have contributed to tensions. At the peak of the drought in 1816, the Gundagerra came down from the mountains in search of food and instead, found conflict. European farmers were killed and about 40 armed themselves with muskets and pitchforks.

Macquarie declared war, sending three detachments of the 46th Regiment to 'chasten these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments on them...'. The main party based at Camden frightened many Aboriginal people, shot several and took half a dozen prisoners, but were unable to inflict Macquarie's 'terrible and exemplary punishments'.

However, on the evening of April 16, a turning point in European – Aboriginal relations occurred. It was reported that a group of Aboriginal people were camped at Broughton's Farm, Appin and at around 1 o'clock in the morning soldiers arrived at the camp to find the fires burning, but camp empty. A child's cry gave their position away. Captain Wallis writes "I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek. The dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs? It was moonlight." ¿"I regret to say some (were) shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice". Fourteen Tharawal and Gundungurra men, women and children were massacred and five surviving women and children taken prisoner.

Following the massacre, the Dharawal remained in the Cowpastures district under the unofficial protection of the Macarthurs. In March 1818 James Meehan marked out land on the Macarthur's Camden estate for Dharawal (and others) that wanted to live there under Macarthur's protection. Corroborees were still held at Camden in the 1820's and 1850s with the gatherings comprised of a number of tribes, including the remaining Dharawal.

The 1820 influenza epidemic and the removal of traditional hunting grounds for pastoral land and the dispersion of their tribe in the years following the conflict meant few Dharawal remained in the district. However, the Dharawal people are resilient and strong. The 2011 Census recorded an Aboriginal population of 4,113 in Camden, Wollondilly and Campbelltown. However, most Aboriginal people recognize this as a significant underestimate.

In Camden, Aboriginal families mainly reside in Narellan Vale, Currans Hill, Narellan, Smeaton Grange and Mount Annan.  In Wollondilly, they live in Tahmoor, Bargo, Picton, Buxton-Thirlmere-Couridjah-Lakesland and Sliverdale-Warragamba-Wallacia.

Today, the Aboriginal community in our area continues to grow. Traditional lands have been covered by cities and towns and much of is hidden, but paintings and rock engravings, middens, grinding grooves, the remnants of bush ovens and the stories and lore still held and passed on by the Dharawal, remind us that long before Europeans, Aboriginal people were nurtured by, and cared for this land.

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