Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia


Indigenous people of Sydney

>> Click here for a general overview of Aboriginal heritage at Sydney's Botanic Gardens 

Vibrant, living communities of Aboriginal people have lived in the Sydney area for more than 20,000 years. Like all other traditional Aboriginal communities, Sydney Aboriginal people lived off the land. They also fished the waters of magnificent Sydney Harbour. The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust commemorates the culture and lifestyle of the original Indigenous inhabitants, the Cadigal, in its Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters garden display.

The display attempts to convey the vegetation that would have existed around Sydney Harbour prior to European invasion/settlement approximately 200 years ago. A woodland with tall eucalypts and an understorey of banksia, wattles, perhaps waratahs and ground orchids would have covered the land now occupied by the Royal Botanic Garden. The sandstone outcrops and a few remaining Forest Red Gums in the Royal Botanic Garden are the present-day reminders of a time just over two centuries ago.

Aboriginal people have a holistic connectedness both to place and to each other. Their culture is alive today and their oral tradition is unbroken. We can learn a lot about Indigenous cultures by studying Aboriginal bush foods, that is, native plants and how they were used for food, shelter, utensils and weapons.

A pictorial history of the Aboriginal people of the Sydney region, from an Indigenous perspective, is told in a Storyline in the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters garden. The Storyline is a 50 metre sculptural element running the whole diagonal of the site and interpreting the history of Sydney from Creation to the present. The text on the Storyline was compiled from a variety of sources including over forty interviews with local Aboriginal people.

Kool links - links to other websites which have information about Aboriginal communities of Australia’s east coast.

The Invasion

22 August 1770

Lieutenant James Cook claims possession of the whole east coast of Australia by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula.

Australia is discovered - or is it?

In the 18th century European sailors talked of a ‘Great South Land’ somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 1768 the British Government sent James Cook, in The Endeavour, to search for this land. Cook’s impressions of the Aboriginal people that lived on this Great South Land, now known as Australia, were wrong. He reported back to Britain that there were few Aboriginal people living there, and that they wandered from place to place without homes. Based on Cook’s erroneous observations, the British government decided they could take possession of Australia under the legal fiction of terra nullius – that it belonged to no-one.

18-20 January 1788

The First Fleet, a fleet of 11 ships from Britain carrying convicts, soldiers and government officials, arrives in Botany Bay to establish a penal colony.

25 January 1788

Aboriginal people greet the First Fleet as it sailed along the coast between Botany Bay and Port Jackson with threatening gestures and cries of warra warra.

26 January 1788

Captain Arthur Phillip raises the British flag at Sydney Cove and the colonisation of Sydney begins. Estimates put Australia’s Aboriginal population at 750,000.

The people of Cadi

For many thousands of years, the traditional owners of the land on which you are standing were the Cadigal. They were a clan of 50-80 Aboriginal people whose land included Farm Cove (Woggan-ma-gule) and Sydney Cove (War-ran). The Cadigal were coastal people who were dependent on the harbour for providing most of their food. They were one of seven clans living in coastal Sydney who spoke a common language and have become known as the ‘Eora people’. ‘Eora’ simply means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ in their language. Like Aboriginal people of all times and places, their identity, community, means of survival and spirituality were inseparable from their ancestral land.

The coming of the strangers

On 26 January 1788, not far from where you’re standing, Australia’s first Europeans established a penal colony. They had sailed from Britain on 11 ships known as the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip.

The 700 convicts or so who endured the eight-month voyage were part of a public crisis for 18th-century Britain. They, and thousands like them who had avoided the gallows, sat diseased and sick in rotting old ships in Britain’s waterways because the gaols were full. Establishing a penal colony was the proposed solution. It was part social experiment and part strategic opportunity to get the better of the French, Dutch and Spanish in the Pacific.

February 1788

Land is cleared by European colonists and a farm of 3.6 hectares is established at Farm Cove.

A landscape changed forever

You are standing on some of the first land in Australia to be cleared by Europeans. Look through the branches of the trees to the city skyline and reflect upon the pace and extent of the transformation of this continent.

By 1800 birds such as the emu, magpie goose and brolga had gone from the swamps and forests at the head of the Tank Stream (near present-day Hyde Park). The Cabbage Tree Palms (right) were perhaps the first plants to disappear from this area because they were a valuable building material and provided food for the Europeans. When you walk around the city centre today you can see their distinctive forms again, but now they are surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

From boyhood to manhood

At the head of Farm Cove was a Bora ceremonial ground named Yoo-lahng. The Cadigal held initiation ceremonies to mark the coming of age of the young men of the clan. The ceremony known as Yoo-lahng Erah-ba-daling involved the removal of a front tooth as a mark of manhood and the assumption of responsibilities as a hunter. The Dog Dance and the Kangaroo Dance were performed to impart to the young men the power over the hunting dogs and the power to kill the kangaroo.

August 1788

Food shortages in the new colony are becoming apparent. The large European population is depleting the number of fish in the harbour by netting huge catches, killing  kangaroos and polluting the streams. The Aboriginal people are close to starvation.

Winter of discontent

The arrival of the Europeans almost doubled the number of people trying to live off the land and sea. By the first winter, with no crops to harvest for the Europeans and with fish moving out of the harbour to warmer and deeper water, it was clear these resources were overstretched and the local Aboriginal people began to starve. Not only were the Cadigal denied access to the two main freshwater creeks of Cadi, but sometimes their tools and canoes were stolen by convicts or soldiers for souvenirs or to sell in Britain. Violence between Europeans and Aboriginal people started to escalate.

29 December 1788

The Europeans decide they have to be able to communicate with the local Aboriginal people if they are to ‘live together’. The Aboriginal people aren’t as keen.

A link between two cultures

Arabanoo, the first Aboriginal person kidnapped by British Officers to help Governor Phillip learn more about their culture and language, died from smallpox. When first captured, he was shackled and accompanied everywhere by a convict ‘keeper’. When able to be ‘trusted’, Arabanoo was released from leg irons, dressed in European clothes and ‘trained’ in English. He became friendly with the colonists and dined regularly with Phillip, providing the first information about Aboriginal society and culture for the Europeans. When the smallpox epidemic began, Arabanoo nursed many of the victims brought into the settlement. Arabanoo was buried in the Governor’s garden, now the site of the Museum of Sydney.

April 1789

An outbreak of smallpox occurs at Sydney Cove and within three years decimates the local Aboriginal population. With such a loss of the population comes social collapse, grief and bewilderment.

Smallpox - the silent killer

Just one year after the British arrived, Sydney’s local Aboriginal people, the Cadigal, found themselves dispossessed of their land, starving because their local food sources were exhausted, and in conflict with the British soldiers and convicts. But the worst was yet to come … smallpox. The Cadigal gave it a name - gal-gal-la. The outbreak of this disease, introduced by the British, devastated the local Aboriginal population. Historical records show that the ‘beautiful War-ra-taw’ flower was used as part of burial ceremonies.

25 November 1789

Bennelong, a 26-year-old Aborigine, and his friend Colebee are captured by British soldiers in today’s Manly District. Taken to the Governor‘s house, they are bathed, dressed, fed and guarded. Colebee escapes 17 days later. Governor Phillip teaches Bennelong to speak English and uses him as an interpreter.

Bennelong: hero or traitor?

Born in 1764, Bennelong was from the Wangal, the western neighbours of the Cadigal, and was one of the first Aboriginal people to be ‘civilised’ into the European way of life. Despite being kidnapped, Bennelong quickly established himself as a mediator between the colonists and neighbouring Aboriginal communities and developed a close relationship with Governor Phillip. Bennelong travelled with the Governor to England in 1792 and arrived back in Sydney in 1795 with an altered sense of dress and behaviour. The attempt to ‘civilise’ Bennelong ended in failure with alcohol and dispossession taking their toll on him. He died in 1813, a broken man, alienated from both his own people and the colonists.

November 1790

Governor Phillip has a brick hut, 12 feet square, built for Bennelong on the eastern point of Sydney Cove. Today this area is known as Bennelong Point and is where the Sydney Opera House now stands.

The domination

Fighting for his people

Pemulwuy was Australia’s first Aboriginal resistance leader. Though possibly from the Bediagal, a clan living in the hinterland, he camped quite often near the coast with others he led in a guerrilla warfare campaign against soldiers and settlers alike. Pemulwuy saw the damage done to Aboriginal society by the colonists and was not tempted to befriend them. He survived being shot several times, escaping to fight again after he recovered. For this reason he gained legendary status - many thought that he could not be killed or stopped. Colonists feared him. Wanted dead or alive, Pemulwuy was finally shot dead in 1802. His head was hacked off, preserved in spirit and sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England, presumably for scientific research.

December 1790

Pemulwuy spears Captain Phillip’s much-hated game keeper John McIntyre.

13 June 1816

Governor Lachlan Macquarie gazettes part of the Governor’s Domain to establish the Botanic Gardens.

Parramatta’s Native Institution

Governor Lachlan Macquarie tried a number of ways to try to integrate Aboriginal people into the new European society. In 1815 he founded The Native Institution, a school at Parramatta where Aboriginal people were encouraged to board their children to have them learn ‘the new ways’. They didn’t come voluntarily. The numbers at the school were so low that in 1816 the Governor sent out an expedition to capture 12 more children (they only caught two). In 1819, 20 children from The Native Institution competed in the New South Wales Anniversary Schools Examination with about 100 white children. A 14-year-old Aboriginal girl claimed the first prize.

18 January 1815

The Native Institution, for Aboriginal boys and girls between four and seven years old, is opened at Parramatta by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.


Governor Macquarie holds the first ‘Native Conference’ and feast in the public market place in Parramatta. This becomes an annual event to encourage ’friendly’ relations between Aborigines and
European settlers.

Aboriginal history in flames

The Garden Palace was a magnificent, predominantly timber structure built right here in the Botanic Gardens to house the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Until the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was the biggest global event to be celebrated in Sydney. In the early hours of 22 September 1882 the Palace burnt to the ground. With it went about 3000 irreplaceable ethnographic items stored after the exhibition, including every publicly-owned artefact of the Sydney Aboriginal people.

22 September 1882

The Garden Palace burns down and with it every publicly-owned artefact of the Sydney Aboriginal people.


Australia becomes a nation when the six English colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia form the Commonwealth of Australia.

Celebrate Federation?

Federation, in 1901, was a time when a nation was born and Aboriginal Australians were considered to be a dying race. They were the fringe dwellers of society, living on reserves and in missions, on the outskirts of country towns and cattle stations, and in ghettos in capital cities. Significantly, no Aboriginal people took part in the founding of the Commonwealth. They were neither consulted nor invited to vote on Federation. With the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901, there was the desire that ‘coloured’ people living in Australia would eventually fit into our Anglo-Saxon Christian society.

September 1883

The Aboriginal Protection Board is set up to address the ‘Aboriginal problem’. It creates reserves on which Aboriginal people are directed to live and where the powers of the Board effectively give it control over the lives of all Aboriginal people living there.

26 January 1938

The Aborigines Progressive Association declares a Day of Mourning and holds the first Australian Aborigines Conference in Sydney. The conference resolves to appeal to the nation to give Indigenous Australians full citizenship.

The survival

The freedom ride

About 30 Sydney University students, led by Charles Perkins (pictured right with his arms crossed) and Jim Spigelman, undertook a 3200 km bus tour of northern and western New South Wales to protest against discrimination against Aboriginal people. This group became known as the ‘freedom riders’. Considered by some to be the most significant act in cross-cultural relations in the 20th century, this event marked the beginning of substantial awareness of the problems of Aboriginal people.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act is amended to give ALL Aboriginal people the right to vote.

27 May 1967

90.7% of Australians vote ‘Yes’ in a Referendum to alter Australia’s Constitution to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census.

1967 - Citizens at last

After no less than 94 petitions to the Federal Parliament and a 10-year campaign by Aboriginal people to have the question put to voters, Australians say ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly to giving the country‘s original inhabitants citizenship rights. Faith Bandler, Aboriginal rights campaigner in the 1950s and 1960s, lobbied the new Prime Minister Harold Holt:
“And we said to him . . . I remember saying,
‘If your Government is asked how many sheep you have in this country, how many horses, they will be told. Ask them how many Indigenous people there are and they wouldn‘t have a clue. So the matter of changing Section 127 was very important, because the people were then counted in the census.”

26 January 1972

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is pitched on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day, 1972, in a demonstration for land rights.

She gave power to the powerless

A Wiradjuri woman, Colleen Shirley Smith, lovingly known as Mum Shirl, was born on Erambie Mission in Cowra in 1921 and moved to Sydney with her family in the mid-1930s. Mum Shirl is best remembered for her work with Aboriginal people in prison. In 1971 she co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, and while she could not read or write, she could speak 16 different Aboriginal languages. In 1979 Mum Shirl received an award for Parent of the Year, and was presented with an Order of Australia and an Order of the British Empire. She died in 1998 and was given a State-like funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

A few old warriors

On the manicured lawns along the original shoreline of the Royal Botanic Garden and clinging to the sandstone outcrops in the Domain, a few direct descendants of trees from 1788 survive. Forest Red Gums, pictured left, Swamp Oaks (Guman), some old Port Jackson Figs (Damun) shrubs of Muttonwood and Hairy Clerodendron are all that remain. These ‘old warriors’ have stood witness to the transformation of this land into a modern city.

We survived!

One of the largest expressions of Aboriginal political and cultural action took place on 26 January 1988. Aborigninal people came in convoys of cars and buses from all over Australia to express the survival and solidarity of Aboriginal communities throughout the continent. The Tent Embassy, first set up on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra in 1972, was re-established nearby at Mrs Macquaries Point in Sydney’s Domain. Tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people marched through the streets of Sydney on Australia Day to celebrate their survival during the last 200 years, while non-indigenous Australians commemorated the bicentenary
of their immigration.

3 June 1992

The Mabo case - Eddie Mabo and others versus the State of Queensland - leads to a ruling by the High Court of Australia that Aboriginal native title was not extinguished or wiped out by British colonisation and that Australia was never terra nullius or ‘empty land’.

Fighting for survival

The Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub is a plant community found in an area so rich in plant diversity that it was called Botany Bay by Captain Cook. Now it is on the brink of extinction. Only 3% of the Scrub has survived the growth of industry and housing in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. To the Cadigal and Dharawal people the Banksia Scrub provided a wealth of plant resources. They made spear shafts and resin from grass trees (gulgadya), ate fruit from pigeon berries and drank nectar from banksias (wallum) (pictured right). To contemporary Aboriginal people, the small pockets of Banksia Scrub that remain, must be protected as they are vital for keeping alive their culture and traditions for future generations. On 13 June 1997 the Scrub was listed under the Endangered Species Act as a rare and threatened plant community.

26 May 1998

Australia’s first National Sorry Day is celebrated here at the Royal Botanic Garden. The Sea of Hands, a display of 3000 multicoloured hands, symbolises support for Aboriginal reconciliation. The hands represent just some of the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) petition, protesting against the Federal Government’s proposed changes to native title laws.

Hands up if you're sorry

Sorry Day is a national event that gives all Australians an opportunity to express their sorrow about the ‘stolen generations’, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families as children ’for their own good‘. The ‘stolen’ children were raised in institutions or fostered out to white families. Sorry Day and the subsequent Journey of Healing celebrate the beginning of a new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

28 May 2000

More than 150 000 people stream across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in an emotional expression of support for reconciliation between Indigenous people and the wider Australian community.

Consider this ...

The Royal Botanic Garden has long acknowledged that the ’First Farm’ established by Europeans on the Australian continent occurred on this site. But what of the local Aboriginal people, the Cadigal, who lived here? The Cadi jam ora garden features plants brought by the First Fleet and plants that originally grew here. Learn about the Cadigal and the importance of this site to Aboriginal people today.

Community voices

The following members of the Aboriginal Community contributed their voices to this storyline:
Jennifer Smith, Byron Ashton, Claude Flanders, Lesley Donovan, Gavin Close Jnr, Gavin Close Snr, Martin Greenup, Steve Taylor, Alan Madden, Frances Bodkin, Gavin Andrews, Rodney Mason, Merv Ryan, Colin Gale, David Watts, Linda Burney,  Beryl Timbery-Beller, Geoff Page, Iris Williams, Lola Ryan, John Foster, Rick Shapter, Vince Kenney, Pamela Young, Jenny Munro, Joanne Selfe, Jason Field, Angela Martin, Tanya Koeneman, Nathan Tyson, Col Evans, Alison Page, Dillon Kombumerri, Susan Moylan, Shane Phillips, Murray Hipwell, Fred Malone, Len Malone, Delma Davison, Ray Cruse, Mark Donovan, Susan Lyons, Patrick Simpson  and Roger Brandy.

Members of Sydney’s Aboriginal community wish to thank the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust for acknowledging the Indigenous connection to this land.

Consider this ...

As you walk along this pathway, think back to a time when the local Aboriginal people, the Cadigal, lived here. Stop and consider how different the plants, animals and ideas brought by Europeans were. Remember the original people of this land who, ravaged by smallpox and thrown into conflict with an alien society, watched as their people died and their land, Cadi, was transformed forever. Cadi Jam Ora means ‘I am in Cadi’.


New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board is empowered to remove and apprentice Aboriginal children without a court hearing.

The stolen Generations

The removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their assimilation into the white community was the main aim of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. Girls between 10 and 14 years were the main target of the Board, especially so-called ‘half-caste’ or ‘mixed blood’ girls. The girls were trained as domestic servants and sent out to work for middle class white families. This was part of the process to make the girls suitable as wives for white men, in the hope that through interracial marriages, Aboriginal blood would be ‘bred out’. Between 1909 and 1938 some 2000 children in New South Wales were taken from their families, never to be reunited again.

Fighting for his people

Pemulwuy was Australia’s first Aboriginal resistance leader. Though possibly from the Bediagal, a clan living in the hinterland, he camped quite often near the coast with others who he led in a guerrilla warfare campaign against soldiers and settlers alike. Pemulwuy saw the damage done to Aboriginal society by the colonists and was not tempted to befriend them. He survived being shot several times, escaping to fight again after he recovered. For this reason he gained legendary status - many thought that he could not be killed or stopped. Colonists feared him. Wanted dead or alive, Pemulwuy was finally shot dead in 1802. His head was hacked off, preserved in spirit and sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England, presumably for scientific research.

Kool Links

Try these excellent other sites which have information about Aboriginal communities of Australia’s east coast.


‘Barani is an Aboriginal word of the Eora, the original inhabitants of the place where Sydney City now stands. It means 'yesterday'. Sydney dates from the arrival of the first convicts to the place in 1788. For Indigenous people, who have lived here for at least forty thousand years, that is only yesterday.’ This website explores the history of Sydney through the eyes of its Indigenous people.

Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney

This is a website of the Australian Museum and explores traditional and modern day use of the Harbour by Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal plant use in south-eastern Australia

The Australian National Botanic Garden in Canberra has produced this information about the plants used by Aboriginal people of the south-east coast of Australia.

Click here to find out about the Aboriginal self-guided walk and the Aboriginal Heritage Tours in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

Cadi Jam Ora storyline

Cadi Jam Ora storyline

Aboriginal girl