This Place: Watsons Bay & South Head
Including Kutti, Metallar (Mit-tă-lā), Bir-ra-bir-ra, Burrawarre (Burra.wă-rā), Woo-lā-ră (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 Birrabirragel 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 Kutti by 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-tă-lā, 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.wă-rā 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-lā-ră 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 Dharug 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 high rates and taxes and the pressure from wealthy people who wanted to live at “The Bay”. 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 . It is important to note that the Dreaming always also comprises the significance of place .
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 .
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 ”
2] in: Us Mob, Mudrooroo, 1995, p.34
 Penny Tripcony, Manager, Oodgeroo Unit, Queensland University of Technology, http://www.oodgeroo.qut.edu.au/academic_resources/academicpape/tooobviousto.jsp
 Voices of the First Day, Robert Lawlor, 1991, p.37
 ‘Leader ‘incorrect”, Koori Mail 469 p.15
I am not setting out to write a traditional academic history of Courmangara. In fact, one of my sons is disappointed that I am not prepared to undertake a post graduate doctorate or masters study as a basis for this work. At 71 years of age, the degree would be of no value and in many respects a hindrance to what I hope to achieve. He nevertheless sees a benefit in being able to access a wider range of material and assistance and yet I only see constraints.
What I am aiming for is a social history that is accessible to everyone. I want it to be accurate, however I also want it to be readable and as enjoyable as a novel. I almost wrote “academically accurate”. Here in lies the heart of the problem … what is “academically accurate”. Historians over the last several thousand years have written “academically accurate” histories. Actually, many haven’t. They have written histories to justify or glorify the lives and actions of their people and/or rulers. The most obvious are the historians and authors such as Shakespeare who rewrote the history of Richard the 3rd to justify the actions of the Tudors. Historians for the next 500 hundred years cite The Croyland Chronicle, Dominic Mancin, Polydore Vergil, Thomas More’s History
Shakespeare’s Richard III and James Gairdner: The Victorian Anti Richard to maintain a false history.
Australian Aboriginal history and as a consequence Australia’s indigenous people have been so abused over the last 229 years, that we are likely to suffer the consequences of a divided society and a poorer culture, for several more centuries.
In researching and writing this history, I refute the argument of many Australian historians who claim that recent histories are exercises in “revisionism”. They use the term pejoratively, to charge that revisionists are deliberately distorting the true historical record. In the last 10 years in particular, some historians have gathered so much primary source material to actually mount the argument that for 200 years, many historians distorted the true historical record. Historians such as Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe have gathered so many documents written by the early explorers and settlers that testify to a totally different story, and they are in fact correcting a false historical record that has gone unchallenged for 200 years.
While Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe’s research has provided written primary source material to allow some idea of the Dreaming for some indigenous peoples across the continent, there is none for the Birrabirragal people of Courmangara. We cannot know if every Birrabirragal died in the first two years of English occupation. Some may have survived the diseases that ravaged their families and joined up with relatives in Cadigal country. It is still unknown as to the origin of the smallpox that killed 70% of the aboriginal population. It was either introduced by the English or the French who arrived a few days after the 1st Fleet. At Lappa (La Parouse), aboriginal elder Tim Ella believes that the disease was introduced by the French. Either way, it is highly likely that there are descendants of the Birrabirragal living there today.
In writing a history of Courmangara I am aware that the Birrabirragal only spent part of the year there, and that Courmangara is only part of their “Country”. I am also going to have to rely upon the oral history as passed down through generations of Gadigal people. Unlike other Australians who have relied upon written family histories and written academic and media records, indigenous people have an oral tradition that in many respects is as reliable as our written records. I make this claim because their oral history in integrated with their “Dreaming” foundation. The Dreaming “stories” express all elements of their culture and society. They are the same now as they were perhaps a thousand years ago. The Birrabirragal would have shared almost all Dreaming with the Gadigal and other Dharawal people.
I am not suggesting that the Birrabirragal had a culture or societal structure that had existed in Courmangara for 60,000+ years. Logic dictates that the continent of Australia or Terra Australis as it was referred to, was occupied over a lengthy period. The indigenous people moved into the northern parts of the continent 60,000+ years ago and spread south and eastward as they adjusted to “country” and as their population expanded and they required new country. Academic studies suggest that the first people arrived from SEAsia 60,000+ years ago and that the climate and vegetation changed quite dramatically (including the drowning of country following the “ice age” over the following 20,000 years. The earliest datable artifacts found in the Eora country is approx. 40,000 years old, suggesting that it took 20,000 years for the people to move from northern Australia.
My parents lived in Ningy Ningy country (Redcliffe, Queensland). They came from Boonwurrungm country (my father – South Melbourne) and Gadigal country (my mother – Vaucluse)
The Ningy Ningy clan was the southernmost clan of the Undambi people. I was born in 1947, in Turrbal country (Virginia Hospital), some kilometers south , but lived in Ningy Ningy and Wakka Wakka country (Kingaroy) for the first two years of my life.
Around 1950, we moved to my grandparents (mothers parents) house in Birrabirragal (Gadigal) country (Vaucluse) and three years later to Courmangara (Watsons Bay).
In 1966 I moved to the Kulin nations country, living in Boonwurrungm country (Beaumaris). Over the next 5 years, I lived in other parts of Boonwurrungm country (South Yarra, St Kilda and Chelsea). For a brief time, I also lived in Boroondara (Camberwell), home of the Wurundjeri clan of Woiwurrung people, and was married there in 1970.
In 1971, I moved back to Gadigal country (Vaucluse and Bondi), where our son Kent was born, before once again moving in 1972, to Ningy Ningy country (Redcliffe) where another son, Drew, was born.
In 1978, we moved to Darramuragal country (St Ives) and in 1996 again to Gadigal country (Petersham).
For over half my life I have lived in Gadigal country, and Cournmangara is my spiritual home. It is where my ashes will be buried.