We tend to think of Oz as a young country and tell ourselves that while Aussies have great weather and year-round tans, they can’t rival our historical legacy.
But Sydney is Australia’s oldest and largest city and the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants have been around since at least the last ice age – indeed, Australia’s Aboriginal people, split into about 250 separate nations, boast what is considered the world’s oldest surving culture.
They were the first people to make polished stone tools, cremate their dead and create pictures of themselves and their surroundings. You can still find examples of Aboriginal rock art daubed and engraved on rock faces around Sydney, with one of the best places to see it, strangely enough, being at the golf club at North Bondi. The ancient artworks are just a short walk from the beach most famous for being a plastic paradise. But we still think we’re the ones with culture…
Australia’s indigenous population believe the land, wildlife and people are all part of an interdependent whole.
However, their harmonious co-existence with nature was rudely interrupted by the arrival of white settlers keen to expand the British Empire.
In 1770, Captain James Cook docked in Botany Bay and wasted no time in planting a British flag firmly in Australian soil. It was quickly decided that Oz would be a great place to dump convicts from England’s overstuffed prisons (after the American war of Independence put an end to sending prisoners there).
On 26 January 1788, the Brits returned and formally took possession of New South Wales, bringing with them the first fleet of criminals for this fledgling penal colony. Australia Day celebrates the anniversary of this arrival.
While this day is a cause for celebration for many, for Aborigines it is the anniversary of their land being taken over against their will. Since 1988, Invasion Day protests have been held almost every year on 26 January.
The arrival of British settlers meant devastation for the Aborigines. The Brits brought with them foreign diseases like smallpox, which quickly killed around half the local population. They were dispossessed, often violently, and their population dwindled drastically. Plus, because the Aborigines were an egalitarian bunch, they had no organised response to invasion.
There were, however, a number of resistance fighters, the most famous being Pemulwuy, also known as the Rainbow Warrior. He lived near Botany Bay and was the leader of the Bidjigal tribe. Armed with fire and spears, Pemulwuy launched guerrilla attacks on British farms, houses and supplies. In 1797 he led 100 other fighters in “the Battle of Parramatta” and, despite being shot seven times, including in the head and leg, he survived and escaped capture.
He joked that he could not be killed by English firearms… Until he was killed in 1802 by English firearms. His head was preserved in spirits and sent to London along with a letter in which the Governer of New South Wales sportingly wrote: “Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.”
When the British came to claim Australia as their own they brought with them convicts as well as disease and flags.
The prisoners had mostly committed crimes we would today consider trivial. Irish Catholics could be transported simply on the grounds that they looked suspicious. The life of a convict consisted of various forms of slow torture – floggings, hangings and public lectures on the topic of religious immorality.
One of the most colourful characters among them was Charles “Boney” Anderson. After repeated escape attempts, often through shark-infested waters, and countless lashes, he was chained to a rock on Goat Island for two years. He had no clothing covering his back or shoulders and his near-naked body was covered in maggot-ridden sores from his repeated floggings. Believed to be insane, Anderson was treated as a wild beast, denied water and fed via a long pole. He would swear and flash his bum at passing HMS ships as onlookers taunted and jeered.
Coming to Australia the British settlers found not only an excellent storage solution for their overflowing gaols, but also some remarkable new wildlife. Pictures of the kangaroo caused quite the sensation back in England. Another controversial creature was the platypus.
It was first discovered by the Hawkesbury River near Sydney in 1797, but when a stuffed platypus was sent to the British Museum, scientists found it so bizarre they assumed it was a practical joke and that some cunning scallywag had stuck a bill and flippers on a dead mole. The original animal can still be viewed in the London museum, bearing the scissor marks where the curator had tried to prove it was a hoax.
The first European colonists were a rowdy bunch made up of prisoners and sailors.
They set up their debauched camp on the sandstone cliffs now known as The Rocks. It is reported that these pioneers drank more alcohol per person than any other community in human history… a tradition many Australians and European settlers still seem to do their best to uphold today.
On the theme of alcohol, the so-called Rum Rebellion took place on 26 January 1808. This was Australia’s first and only military coup, which took place after Governor William Bligh tried to crack down on the unruly and powerful New South Wales corp, who had used their power to make huge profits by replacing money with rum. Yes, rum.
They managed to depose Bligh, but London wasn’t too impressed and called them all back to the homeland for trials. Governor Lachlan Macquarie then took the hot seat and introduced widespread social reforms that set the tone for modern-day Sydney.
Another landmark in Sydney’s history was Manly’s Quarantine Station at North Heads. Between 1835 and 1984 it acted as a holding pen for any immigrants suspected of carrying contagious diseases. People were detained here for an average of 40 days and conditions were often cramped and unpleasant. As time went on the rich demanded their quarantine accommodation be upgraded to match their first class travel tickets. Meanwhile the poor continued to endure disempowerment and death at the dreaded Q-station.
By 1840 England had stopped using Oz as a rubbish bin for unwanted prisoners and two years later Sydney the city was born. When gold was discovered here in the 50s, there was a massive influx of new inhabitants. To this day Sydney continues to attract millions of tourists, backpackers and people hoping for a fresh start in the sunshine.