Skip to content
20 Jul 2018

You are in Cadi: Uncovering the story of the Gadigal

For thousands of years, the land on which the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney stands has belonged first and foremost to the Aboriginal people. Originally known as the ‘Cadi’, the area was the place of the Gadigal, who had a strong and significant connection to the land, and the flora and flora within it.

The significance and natural beauty of their native land was long known by the Gadigal. But following the arrival of the First Fleet, the area was quickly moulded into a version of England, in a way that would inevitably be a consequence for the Aboriginal communities of the area.

The physical and spiritual heart of Cadi would be irrevocably changed. But in the 21st century we pause to reflect and commemorate 20,000 years of Aboriginal presence on this land.

Who were the Gadigal?

The Gadigal were a group of Indigenous Australians whose traditional lands are located in what is now the city of Sydney. Before being named Sydney in the 1770s, the land was originally called ‘Cadi’. ‘Gal’ means people, so the Gadigal literally means the people of Cadi.

The name Cadi comes from the grass tree species Xanthorrhoea, a native plant that local Aboriginal communities would make sections of spear shaft from the stems and glue together with the resin.

The Gadigal were part of a wider group known as the Eora Nation, who numbered roughly 1,500 individuals in the wider coastal area. There were roughly 29 clans in the Sydney region, with the Gadigal making up around 100 people.

The inhabited area of Cadi included the cove area, known then as ‘Warrane’ and what is today’s Sydney CBD and Royal Botanic Garden. As a coastal community, they were dependant on the harbour for providing the majority of their food.

An ancient connection to the land

Over the thousands of years that the Gadigal had inhabited the land, they learnt to work in harmony and thrive with what could initially appear a harsh environment, with dense bushland, nutrient poor soil and erratic rainfall.

The women were marvelled as highly skilled fishers, swimmers and divers. Warrane was an important gathering place for canoe routes and fishers, to provide food to the 29 surrounding communities. As well as skilled fishers, the Gadigal were hunter-gatherers, hunting possum, emu, kangaroo and reptiles.

A painting of Aboriginal men and women fishing circa 1790

They had an incredibly close relationship with the land, harnessing nature to provide for their community. Tools and weapons were all made from the plants native to the area, and fishing lines were made from the fine silk thread of the golden orb spider's web, dried lomandra leaves, palm tree husk and kangaroo sinew.

The waters of Woccanmagully (Farm Cove) were their special hunting place, and these waters were also a ceremonial area where complex rituals were enacted.

A more sustainable way of life

The Gadigal had an incredible respect for the land and waters surrounding them, acknowledging the resources it provided. Sustainability was a core moral, with minimal food wastage being a priority. It was because of this that the Gadigal ensured the waters of Woccanmagully around them remained plentiful and untarnished.

A modern example of the food collected by Aboriginal communities of the area

Arrival of the First Fleet

Following the arrival of the First Fleet in 1787, the Cadi began to change to make way for the First Farm, Government House farm and Sydney Town.
A painting, circa 1790, of the earlier stages of the European settlement, or 'Sydney Town'

An area originally studded with towering eucalypts, Angophora and Banksia that had stood for hundreds of years were felled to make way for the First Farm.

In some of the earlier accounts from convicts, it was noted that when they attempted to cut down the trees, their tools broke and the tree trunks had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder.
It will scarcely be credited that I have known twelve men employed for five days, grubbing out one tree
a report from John White during the establishment of the colony

Species that had provided sustenance and materials to Indigenous communities for thousands of years, and had evolved over millennia to the conditions of the Great South Land, were removed. This continued clearing would later have consequence on the local fauna the Gadigal hunted, and would be driven out from the area as their habitat was displaced.

During this destructive period of the first encounter, the Aboriginal communities would have been shocked at the blatant disregard for protocol and resource management, as fish stocks were depleted at an alarming rate by the new colonists and slow growing Cabbage Tree Palms were removed to build housing.

Painting of the raising of the flag, 1788

Surviving through loss

The frustrations encountered by the First Fleet during the establishment of the colony were minuscule compared to the difficulties they imposed on the Aboriginal societies.

The occupation of the area by the British would also lead to an introduction of foreign European diseases which would prove tragic for the Gadigal.

The spread of smallpox in 1789 was estimated to have killed 53% of the Indigenous population, with only three Gadigal individuals remaining in 1791. However, it was suspected that individuals from the clan may have dispersed out to the Concord area and settled to escape the epidemic.

This engraving depicts British troops practicing naval action at Mrs Macquaries Point

Despite the pressure from disease, land clearing and resource depletion which was brought on by colonialists, the Eora clans continued their ceremony, culture and spirituality. The importance of the ceremonial site, on which the Botanic Gardens now occupies, could not be more overstated given the devastation that afflicted the local groups.

So, regardless of the arrival of these intruders, the rich culture of Indigenous Aboriginal communities would continue. Even through dramatic episodes in Sydney’s history, such as the great Garden Palace fire of 1882 that would see the loss of numerous, priceless Aboriginal artefacts collected from across the Eastern Australian coastline.

The Garden Palace, prior to the tragic fire, held a wide variety of priceless Indigenous artefacts

Gadigal culture in the 21st Century

In the 21st Century, the Gardens play an important role for the Aboriginal people of modern Sydney, as custodians of an area of deep significance.

To acknowledge that the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney stands on Gadigal ground, the Cadi Jam Ora – First Encounters Garden and First Farm was opened in 2001, and is literally translated as “I am in Cadi”.

It explores the relationship between people and plants on the site of the first frontier between the Gadigal and first European settlers. Visitors are taken on a journey through the Gardens of the Gadigal’s past, present and future.

The Cadi Jam Ora display

To reconnect the public with a pivotal time in Australia’s Aboriginal history, Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones has hosted stunning and thought-provoking sculptural installations in the Gardens. In 2016, barrangal dyara (Gadigal language for “skin and bones”) was installed where the Garden Palace original stood before it was devastatingly burnt to the ground.

The project was Jones’ response to the immense loss felt throughout Australia due to the destruction of these culturally significant items. It represented an effort to commence a healing process and a celebration of the survival of the world’s oldest living culture despite this traumatic event. Thousands of bleached white shields echoed masses of rubble—the only remnants of the building after the fire

"Skin and Bones" at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney by Jonathan Jones

Uncover Gadigal culture at the Gardens

It is estimated that around a hundred Gadigal descendants live in Sydney today. In order to learn from the past, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney invites visitors to take part in our Aboriginal programs, designed and presented by our Aboriginal educators.

To learn more about the way that Indigenous communities used and connected with Gadigal land, discover the Garden’s Aboriginal Bush Food Experiences. For more information about the diverse history of the land, join a Aboriginal Heritage Tour or explore the Cadi Jam Ora Garden.

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney would like to pay their respects to all Cadi elders and people, past, present and future, as well as acknowledge the youth of today who will one day be our leaders of tomorrow.

If you are a journalist and have a media enquiry about this story, please click here for contact details and more information.