From ancient trade route to buzzing shopping destination

From the Gadigal people of the Eora nation to today’s retail hub, World Square has always been a meeting place.

World Square acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land we have gathered on today. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation.

Long before the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal people were camping and hunting in the area that became World Square. In fact, George Street follows an ancient trade route of the Gadigal clan which stretched from the fishing grounds of Warrang (Sydney Cove) to the grasslands of what is now Newtown and Petersham.

The Dharug-speaking Gadigal used the word “Eora” to describe where they came from to the newly arrived British and it became a name given to coastal Aborigines around Sydney. There were an estimated 1500 Aboriginal people from about 30 clan groups in the wider Sydney region at the time of the first Europeans and they were distinguished by body decorations, songs and dances, tools and weapons.

Things started well enough, with Governor Arthur Phillip arriving with instructions to treat the inhabitants well and Aboriginal people were happy to barter fish for potatoes, tea and other goods. The Gadigal, however, found that the area east of what is now Darling Harbour, which they had used as hunting, fishing and ceremonial grounds for generations, was being overrun. In March 1788, just two months after disembarking at Sydney Cove from their voyage, convicts of the First Fleet found themselves making bricks at the head of Long Cove (Darling Harbour), near present-day Hay Street. It soon became known as Brickfield Hill.

But rifts soon developed as the colony grew and traditional Aboriginal meeting grounds were rapidly overtaken.The British also delivered harsh punishments to those who stole introduced crops and animals even though they were grown and raised on traditional land.

The earliest known Aboriginal resistance fighter was a Bidjigal tribesman from Botany Bay named Pemulwuy (c.1750-1802). From 1792, Pemulwuy led raids on outlying settlers. In 1794 he commanded several clans of the Eora in an attack on Brickfield Hill on what is now World Square. The military garrison was totally unprepared and suffered heavy casualties. Regarded as immortal by his followers, Pemulwuy was wounded and escaped from custody, but was eventually shot dead on June 1, 1802. Even Governor Philip Gidley King acknowledged: “Although a terrible pest to the Colony, he was a brave and independent character”.

Traditionally, Aboriginal clans went to neighbouring clan areas to settle disputes and included Brickfield Hill which was the scene of many payback trials involving the ritual spearing of those who had broken Aboriginal law. Even after British settlement, clans continued to stage corroborees and physical contests. The Sydney Gazette in December 1805 reported on Pemulwuy’s son Tedbury and Bennelong, who had visited England with Governor Phillip in 1792, both being at one such trial.

“The different tribes of natives met yesterday se’nnight [sic] at the Brickfields for the trial of two malefactors, of whom Bennelong was the principal. He withstood innumerable flights of spears with his accustomed sang froid; but narrowly escaped translatien [sic], as seldom less than three were thrown at once, and most of his adversaries peculiarly skilled in the deadly sciences. Young Tedbury was afterwards wounded through the thigh by a visitor from Botany Bay; who in turn submitted to a similar destiny…”

Disease, the disappearance of hunting, camping and ceremonial grounds and social collapse meant the traditional owners were all but forced aside. But Aboriginal people have left an enduring legacy both culturally and physically. In fact Sydney has more rock engravings than any other city in Australia. Remember that when you next walk along George Street, once an ancient track connecting tens of thousands of Sydney’s original inhabitants over 40,000 years.

Written by Grant Jones

With thanks to World Square: Ceremonial Grounds to International Precinct by Terri McCormack for Rydges World Square.

A Native Corrobory [Corroboree].Picture: Dixson Library, State Library of NSW, IE8803734.

Brickfield Hill, 1796.Picture: Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW, IE8951620.

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