The Aboriginal people who encountered the First Fleet in 1788 belonged to a sophisticated and culturally diverse population whose ancestors had lived in this region – now called Sydney – for at least 60,000 years.
Gadigal land, where the Museum of Sydney now stands, covered the southern shore of Sydney Harbour from Watsons Bay to Sydney Cove. The coastal Eora (meaning people) were saltwater people who lived on the rich resources of the harbour and rivers. An estimated 250 different languages were once spoken across the continent; in the Sydney region alone there were at least 30 distinct clan groups, speaking several languages, including Darug and Dharawal.
Governor Phillip struggled to communicate with the diverse Aboriginal communities of Sydney. In an attempt to conciliate and understand the natives, Governor Phillip captured Arabanoo in December of 1788 before Government House had been built.
Arabanoo is a key character in the history of Aboriginal Sydney. He was held captive during the construction of the first Government House and saw the effects of the British colony on Aboriginal people. Fifteen months after the arrival of the First Fleet, Sydney’s Aboriginal clans were decimated by an outbreak of smallpox, which caused terrible suffering and social upheaval. Arabanoo died as a result of the outbreak, and it is estimated that the disease also killed between 50 and 90 percent of the population.
Yet, through cultural resilience and astonishing adaptability, the Aboriginal people of Sydney have survived. They are today a dynamic part of our city with deep spiritual connections to this land.
The Gadigal Place gallery honours the diverse and complex history, culture and survival of the Gadigal clan on whose land this museum stands, and acknowledges the complexity and ongoing variety of Aboriginal communities in the Sydney region today.