Eora Courmangara

This Place: Watsons Bay & South Head

Including Kutti, Metallar (Mit-t?-l?), Bir-ra-bir-ra,  Burrawarre (Burra.w?-r?), Woo-l?-r? (Tar-ral-be)

I have always planned on writing a social history of Watson’s Bay where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and where my family had lived from around 1905.

In the 1970’s, I completed an Arts degree in which I had studied only European colonial and economic history and sociology subjects.  I studied the English colonisation of America, South Africa, South Asia, Australia and China, the French colonisation of North America, the Portuguese colonisation of South America and Asia, the Dutch Colonisation of SE Asia, and the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.

For forty years I primarily worked in publishing and bookselling and accumulated a vast history library.  The largest collection was of American Indian and Australian Aboriginal works.  My focus was primarily on social and cultural history, although almost all included references to physical and cultural clashes with the invading European settlers.

It is only in the last three years that I have met indigenous people socially.  I am tempted to say, “made friends with”, however that is not for me to claim.  It has meant however, that I have a more personal understanding of some of the issues that continue to divide our society.  On “Sorry Day” in 2017, I wrote to two of my friends:

“I express my sorrow, apologize and say I’m sorry, to all Australian indigenous people, past, present and future for the destruction and disrespect shown to you as a people and as individuals, and to your society, culture and country.

While our government struggles to define our cultural values and determine the criteria for citizenship, it is obvious that a majority of our people only play lip-service to the concept of a multicultural society.  We are however, a society that has developed over the last 200 years with every wave of immigration and exposure to global communications. 

 Sadly, ours is a society and culture that should be so much richer and uniting.  If we had only learnt from and adopted the societal and cultural values of your people; values developed over 50,000+ years, and values in harmony with our country.

 We are poorer for our continued failure to show respect for your people and culture.”

It was then that I realised that a history of Watsons Bay had to include the history of the Gadigal people and in particular, the Birrabirragal clan.

 I also realised that this history might also help to reconcile.  If future generations are to finally appreciate and respect indigenous people and culture, they need to know more.  They need knowledge, not opinions and bigoted beliefs.  They need to know about how sophisticated indigenous society was and still is.  Perhaps understanding one clan will help them identify with people on a person to person basis rather than as a “race”.

This is therefore a social history, exploring what is described in the Wiradjuri language as ‘Yindyamarra Winhanganha’ – ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in’.  Respect, Gentleness, Honor and learning to live doing things slowly.  Living with Yindyamarra, is living in harmony and with respect for each other and country.  It is a history of the Birrabirragal people who lived there for 35,000 years or more and the Europeans who have lived there for the last 230 years

The boundaries for the purpose of this “history’ are close to the current local government boundaries of Watsons Bay, being from a line drawn between the Signal Station on the cliffs at the top of Old South Head Road and Kutti Beach on the harbor.  Occasionally I will stray outside this are only insofar as the people who lived there from the Dreamtime till the 1970’s,  traveled south in their  country as far as Wuganmagulya (Farm Cove).  The Birrabirragal to meet with their Gadigal families and the Europeans to work in the city.

I have settled on the original indigenous name of Courmangara for Watsons Bay rather than Kutti.  This is because D’Arcy Wentworth recorded it in the early 1800’s prior to the record of Kuttiby J Larmer the NSW Surveyor General in 1829.  It is also the only name not specifically associated with a particular part of South Head.  Kutti is a beach within Watsons Bay, where I launched Sabots and 12’ skiffs in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Metallar  or Mit-t?-l?, is Laings Point later named Green Point at the north/western end of  Camp Cove where I played in the WW11 tunnels and gun emplacements.  Bir-ra-bir-ra is the Sow & Pigs reef several hundred meters off Green Point where I witnessed and experienced numerous sailing disasters and mishaps.  Burrawarre  or Burra.w?-r? is inner south head, north of Camp Cove which was  fenced off as a naval base (HMAS Watson), where I watched schools of porpoise fishing close to the cliffs and fished for leather jackets from the wharf.Woo-l?-r? or Tar-ral-bem is outer south head where we were restricted to playing from “The Gap” up into “The Glenn” toward the signal station.  Occasionally we were allowed onto the cliffs of the naval base to watch the guns shoot at targets towed by aircraft off the coast.

I will not attempt a history from the Dreamtime (60,000 to 80,000 years ago) to the 1970’s but from roughly 200 hundred years either side of the 1st Settlement/Invasion on the 24th January 1788.  The 200 years of Dreaming as lived by the Birrabirragal clan of the Dharawal language group, related to the Gadigal (Cadigal) and Dharawal people.  I am also only covering the post invasion period to the 1970’s, by which time the ferry service returned, bringing mass tourism to The Bay, coinciding with the end of the working class social networks with the death of the old fishermen and the influx of an affluent population with no real connection with “Country”.

It is believed that the few Birrabirragal people who survived the infectious diseases that killed many of the Gadigal in the first ten years of European invasion, moved to La Perouse and the European Australians who replaced them, identified with “Country” up till the 1960’s.  Not the same concept of “Country” as the Birrabirragal, but still a connection with the land and the sea.

Like the Birrabirragl before them, many of the fisher families were forced from “Country”.  Not by disease, but by higher rates and taxes, old age and loss of family with the decline of fishing as a profitable occupation. They moved to nursing homes where they died more quickly than they would have done if able to stay on and live “In Country”. They would have identified with ‘Yindyamarra Winhanganha’.  I witnessed their practice of “respect, gentleness, honor, generosity and living life slowly.

Some history books are thematic.  They deal with elements of politics, society or religion/spirituality and discuss their development or evolution and are basically sociological.  Other histories are chronological.

Writing a history of post 1788 Watsons Bay isn’t difficult.  There is a wealth of written records and my personal memories.  There is so much information that I will be breaking it down into chapters that are chronological in order.

Writing the pre-1788 history is far more of a problem because until 1788 in Australia, there was no concept of time.  There were seasons, so in a sense there were years, however the people didn’t record or pass down stories that specified periods of time.  They referred to “Dreaming”, which is past, present and future.

It is a mistake to think of indigenous society as being the repetition of one year over and over again.  Just as the climate changed over a 65,000 year period, so did the life forms and vegetation.  Even over a ten year period or one hundred years, there would have been fluctuations just as there are today.

I could write a history chronologically based on the seasons, however there would be insufficient information to know what rituals were conducted when or even exactly where people lived.  I will therefore have to adopt a sociological approach.

In regards to “Dreaming” I am indebted to Jens Korff, owner and author of the Creative Spirits website for the following:

“Aboriginal spirituality does not consider the ‘Dreamtime’ as a time past, in fact not as a time at all. Time refers to past, present and future but the ‘Dreamtime’ is none of these. The ‘Dreamtime’ “is there with them, it is not a long way away. The Dreamtime is the environment that the Aboriginal lived in, and it still exists today, all around us,” says Aboriginal author Mudrooroo [2]. It is important to note that the Dreaming always also comprises the significance of place [3].

Hence, if we try to use an English word, we should avoid the term ‘Dreamtime’ and use the word ‘Dreaming’ instead. It expresses better the timeless concept of moving from ‘dream’ to reality which in itself is an act of creation and the basis of many Aboriginal creation myths. None of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages contain a word for time [4].

We are the oldest and the strongest people, we’re here all of the time, we’re constant through the Dreaming which is happening now, there’s no such thing as the Dreamtime.—Karl Telfer, senior culture-bearer for Kaurna people, Adelaide [5]”

2] in: Us Mob, Mudrooroo, 1995, p.34
[3] Penny Tripcony, Manager, Oodgeroo Unit, Queensland University of Technology,
[4] Voices of the First Day, Robert Lawlor, 1991, p.37
[5] ‘Leader ‘incorrect”, Koori Mail 469 p.15


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