Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia


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

>> Click here to see the information on our interpretive signs in the First Farm and Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters Garden

The Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters Garden Display

The land occupied by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is the site where the modern transformation of the Australian continent began and can be regarded as the ‘first frontier’ between Aboriginal and European societies. Some of the earliest prolonged European encounters with Indigenous Australians occurred here, leading ultimately to the tragic demise of the local people, the Cadigal. A four-bed display called Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters has been developed to explore these encounters and convey Aboriginal people’s prior use of the site and their understanding of plants and the environment.


To the casual visitor the landscape of the Royal Botanic Garden appears controlled, groomed, contrived, and distinctly European in origin. There is little visible evidence that this was once a wild landscape, or that dramatic remodelling and transformations occurred here to create this high-Gardenesque setting. Nor is there any evidence that another culture once thrived here until its displacement by British colonists in 1788.

On this site the first attempt by Europeans to establish an agricultural foothold on Australian soil happened and failed. Of equal significance, some of the earliest prolonged European encounters with Indigenous Australians occurred here, leading ultimately to the tragic demise of the local Indigenous inhabitants, the Cadigal.

Until the construction of the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters garden there was nowhere apparent that the site of this modern day botanic garden once supported native plants and animals in a natural balance, providing food, shelter, and building materials, as well as carrying the spiritual meaning of an indigenous culture for thousands of years.

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust made a corporate commitment to recognise these aspects of the history of the place, and to identify specific ways of representing and interpreting Indigenous culture, particularly the differing environmental perspectives of Aboriginal and European people. A range of interpretive techniques and displays has been utilised to evoke the memory of prior Aboriginal presence at the site and to provoke a contemporary response in visitors.

The Design Process
  • The Cadi Jam ora: First Encounters garden display was originally proposed by horticulturists Dawson Ougham and Paul Nicholson in 1998.
  • A project team was formed to explore the themes and develop the display. A workshop with key stakeholders and community consultation clearly indicated that if the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust was going to interpret its Indigenous history then it needed to find out what this involved and what the Royal Botanic Garden means to Aboriginal people.
  • To help us develop stronger links with Sydney's Indigenous communities, John Lennis was appointed to the project team as Aboriginal Education Officer.
  • This garden display incorporates The ‘First Farm’ display that was developed in 1988 and told the story of early European farming practices. The coexistence of the two cultures and the differing European and Aboriginal perspectives are now conveyed in adjoining garden beds.
  • The display was finally completed in July 2001 with the installation of a 50 metre interpretive storyline. It was officially launched by Her Excellency, Professor Marie Bashir AC, Governor of NSW with Ms Linda Burney, Director General, NSW Dept of Aboriginal Affairs.

What the display conveys

The main objectives:

  • to create an experience of what happened here, on this very spot, at the time of European settlement/invasion.
  • to convey Aboriginal people’s prior use and significance of this site and their understanding of plants.
  • to represent Indigenous culture and the differing environmental perspectives of Aboriginal and European people at the time of settlement.
  • to work closely with the local Aboriginal community to foster Aboriginal reconciliation and develop channels for communication and shared understandings.

Differing cultural perspectives

The Aboriginal perspective:

  • The Sydney basin is profoundly sacred to Indigenous people - there is a long attachment to this piece of country.
  • The Royal Botanic Garden site is valued by Aboriginal people as the last resting place of the Cadigal nation.
  • Aboriginal people have a holistic connectedness both to the place and to each other.
  • Aboriginal culture is alive today, the oral tradition is unbroken.
  • This is the place where the transformation of the continent began.

In contrast, the European perspective:

  • The Australian bush is ‘wild’ and ‘inhospitable’ and in order to survive in this unfamiliar environment the land should be cleared and cultivated.
  • European plants and farming methods are appropriate in an new environment, perhaps even superior to any other cultures practices.

Who were the Cadigal?

  • Who were they, where did they live, what happened to them?
  • Their language and relationship to other Aboriginal clans.
  • Their relationship to land and water.
  • The place of plants in Aboriginal culture:

- The role of plants as a food source and as medicines and how this varied with the season and the geographical location of the group.
- The uses made of plants in the construction of shelters, weapons and tools.
- The significance of plants in rituals and the spiritual world.

What was the Royal Botanic Gardens site like?

  • What were the ecosystems and the topography like in 1788?
  • How was the land perceived by Aborigines and Europeans?
  • What was the site’s capacity for human occupation?
  • What happened here in 1788-1791?
Who were the Europeans?
  • Who arrived, why did they come, what did they bring with them?
  • Their reaction to and relationship with the Aboriginal people they encountered.
  • Their relationship to land and water.
  • The First Farm story.
  • Transplanting European agricultural practices.
  • Failure to establish a staple grain source.
  • Using and exploiting native plants.

Community Programs

If you'd like to know more, take a tour with an Aboriginal guide. Call the Community Education Unit on 9231 8134 for more information.

Click here for information on our Darug Connections display at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden.

Click here for information on our plans for a Stolen Generations display at the Australian Botanic Garden.

bush food

Cadi Launch