Beyond ‘White Guilt’: imagining Sydney as pre-colonial site

Helen Moore

UK

Biophony, Prior to Invasion

Waran, 1787

Here, at the edge of day, the land articulates a wild music to assure itself that it has stayed, despite night’s perpetual wash, the thieving of shadows. 

Resuming its rounds, Sun glitters the Pacific rim as Kookaburrah, Currawong, Whipbird, Crow, Magpie Goose, Galah, Lorikeet, Cockatoo, Emu, Brolga, Frog, Cicada sing it up. A unique colour springing from the throat of each – at dawn’s advance, variant hues & tones infuse the land. 

Song gilding the creams & yellows of sandstone. Song greening coverts, silvering branches, trunks. Song lightening the Crab-holed mud of Mangrove, Saltmarsh. Song above all defining the soul of the cove. 

No one voice displaces another, whilst the orchestration – improvised through evolutionary time – resonates with call & response. Amongst it all, people sit by the smoking embers of their fires. Drawing breath into their lungs, they pour sonic rainbows into country, communing with ancestral lines unbroken for 20,000 generations. [i]

This dawn vision of the pre-colonial site known to indigenous Australians as ‘Waran’ [ii], the wide and deep bay in the Paramatta River, where the British first landed, now named Sydney Cove, is an imagining born of an embodied and intuitive relationship with Nature in the modern city. In this essay, I share how I came to write both this poem and others published in The Mother Country, my third collection, revealing my creative process as an ecopoet. But let’s begin with that fateful day on which the First Fleet of eleven English ships weighed anchor, spilling their febrile cargo of hundreds of England’s urban poor, ostensibly deported for ‘crimes’ such as stealing a pocket watch to buy a loaf of bread. Along with these ‘convicts’ came the fleet’s naval officers, including Lieutenant General Watkin Tench, who wrote detailed accounts of this first phase of colonisation. [iii]

26 January 1788. The date is still generally celebrated as a national holiday – ‘Australia Day’, awash with beer, barbecues, sweet treats, and Aussie flags. But for Indigenous Australians and their allies, it is a day, like many others, to grieve and mark traumatic experiences of invasion and genocide, ongoing struggle, and survival. The traditional owners of Waran are the Cadigal People, and today their ancestors would barely recognise the place they inhabited two hundred and thirty-four years ago. Forested with high-rise hotels, casinos, and corrugated office skyscrapers, its shores now serve as a transport hub, with blasting, whirring trains and ferries daily bringing thousands of passengers into the Central Business District via Circular Quay. For anyone approaching by ferry, or on one of the bloated cruise ships that berth at The Rocks, the cove is characterised by the iconic sights of the white architectural sails of Sydney Opera House and, straddling the Parramatta River, the huge coat-hanger minus its hook, which is Sydney Harbour Bridge.

*****

The glossy-leaved Mangroves that fringe parts of the bays, coves and creeks around Sydney’s complex river system have evolved unique root systems to cope with the almost airless soil they inhabit. Walking regularly by Five Dock Bay, close to where I was staying in Sydney’s Inner West district, I’d often contemplate thousands of short, brown stumps protruding from the thick mud at low tide. These are Mangrove roots, the so-called ‘pneumatophores’, which enable the trees to absorb oxygen. Around those snorkel tubes, I would also observe a shifting tangle of natural and consumer-society detritus. And amongst it, the dishevelled, black and white figures of Ibis, probing for juicy morsels with scimitar beaks. 

Conscious of being another white settler, I was keen to learn about native wildlife, which differs so greatly from all I’d known and loved back home in the UK, as well as anything I could about local Aboriginal cultures. Bush walks, bush tucker, contemporary Indigenous theatre, dance, film, literature, art. I sought out and attended almost everything on offer. And all the while, those waterlogged Mangroves kept drawing my attention on my daily walks. Initially, I found myself metaphorically relating to roots, and particularly air-deprived roots, as by contrast I was exploring a new, and potentially freer chapter of my life.

An unhappy childhood in rural Buckinghamshire in the 1970s took place alongside the overthrow by developers of the sleepy English village, Seer Green, where I was raised. By the time I’d reached my teens, Cherry orchards had been grubbed up and gated mansions built for wealthy commuters working in the City of London. With a dislocated sense of family and place, I left as soon as I could, and over subsequent decades, shifted restlessly about, living in various countries and locations in England and Scotland. Often yearning for a constant sense of home and an intimate relationship with land, my rootless life was nevertheless bestowing me with a curiosity to explore in depth each place where I temporarily settled. Out of this my creative practice as an ecopoet and socially and ecologically engaged writer emerged. 

Moving between Highland Scotland and my in-laws’ Australian home over the three-year period 2015-18, prior to emigrating, I also found my lived experience of dispossession, including having been disinherited by my mother, lending me greater empathy for the peoples and ecosystems I was exploring. I wanted to educate myself about these colonial legacies, and although I know of no ancestors directly implicated in either the Highland Clearances or the colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, it felt important to move beyond a vague and yet paralysing sense of ‘white guilt’. Inspired by stories of survival and the healing of trauma, I wanted to use the privilege of my education to communicate back home about aspects of British history that are rarely taught in schools; and through my writing, to contribute to the regeneration that is essential in this era of global social and ecological crises. In this process, I was encouraged by the words of the Indigenous historian and author Jackie Huggins, who writes:

“The constant demand placed on Aboriginal people to be educators is trying … it is time for non-Aboriginal people to begin their journey of discovery by themselves.” [iv]

Contemporary Australia prides itself on being ‘multicultural’, which obscures the primacy of Indigenous cultures and experiences that evolved out of deeply rooted relationships with Nature, and that have been severely ruptured by colonisation. Similarly, the traditional Gaelic-speaking Highland way of life has been largely eroded, with land which was long held in collective guardianship (the ‘commonty’ in Scots), and which provided communities with a sustainable wealth of resources, steadily appropriated and enclosed by lowland Scots and English landlords for large scale Sheep farming. The brutal displacement of Highlanders from their homes through the late 18th and 19th centuries increasingly made emigration to the new British colony of ‘New South Wales’ a necessary option. There people became low-cost labour for the so-called ‘Mother Country’.” [v]

“What sort of ‘mother’

                                 cuts off her offspring,

casts them away

                                in ships to a land

she claims

                                belongs to no one?

(‘Terra nullius’,         

                                out there – beyond the Indian Ocean –

‘New South Wales’

                                has a few ‘Natives’, is barely on the map.)

Heart of cut-glass,

                                a mother craving

her next fix

                                (gold, coal, wool, flax,

timber); & with her

                                hulks & prisons filled, her

American colonies

                                 raising fists – into a new fleet she packs a brood

locked in leg-irons

                                with their soil down in the hold.”

My annual visits to Sydney over the period I was researching and writing this book gave me ample opportunity to explore the site of ‘first contact’, as the British invasion at Waran is euphemistically termed. Here I evoke the British sense of superiority in that encounter:

“Imagine, instead, Michelangelo’s

                                                         hoary-headed God

                                in white robes,

His finger

            condescending

                                to Adam –

                                                                in this frame depicted as

                                black –

naked, Manly…” [vi]

In the relict Mangrove pockets some ten kilometres west of Sydney Cove’s invasion site, I was also coming to feel a tantalising sense of vestigial natural features. Pre-colonial vegetation? Perhaps there had always been Mangroves around this shoreline now known as Five Dock Bay, even if the accompanying Salt Marsh had mostly disappeared? From this idea, a psychogeographical mode of urban orientation evolved, which I came to term ‘the biophilic dérive’. An unplanned journey through an urban landscape, a ‘dérive’ [vii] is usually intended to create a radical re-reading of place, and it can be a means to subvert or counteract the modern capitalist city’s denaturing and dehumanising effects. Combining this with a ‘biophilic’ approach, [viii] I gravitated initially on foot towards natural spaces, flora and fauna, extant natural topography, and any signs/storyboards acknowledging Traditional Owners, all the while trying to imagine the city as a pre-colonial site.  

At Waran itself, there was little evident apart from the waters of the cove and some bronze-coloured disks set into the paving slabs in a meandering pattern that indicate where the foreshore lay in 1788. The poem emerging from such absence, ‘Biophony, Prior to Invasion’, which opens this essay, focussed on an imagined reconstruction of the original sounds of the place at dawn. The biophony, or wild music of what would have previously been a richly biodiverse ecosystem, would no doubt have included humans as well as a range of native Australian birds and animals whose homes have also been destroyed by the development of the modern city.

Call and response often feature in an ecosystem’s wild music, and it shapes my creative process too. Allowing myself to follow an intuitive pull in a certain direction, I respond to what I encounter. Moving eastwards along Sydney Cove past the Opera House, I entered the green space of the Botanic Garden. There, lush lawns, trees, shrubs and beds fringe the adjacent cove, Wuganmagulya. This Aboriginal name was anglicised by early colonisers as Woccanmagully but is nowadays known as Farm Cove – despite the colony’s failure to grow food in its thin soil. Gravitating towards the largest and perhaps oldest trees in the garden, I wondered if any had survived the colonial axe. An enormous Moreton Bay Fig with a girth as wide as a small truck was surely a contender. However, like several other significant trees in the garden, such as an 18m tall Forest Red Gum, this mighty Fig is, according to the garden’s curators, likely to be a descendant of parent-trees growing on pre-colonial rocky foreshores. Trees grow quickly in a warm temperate/sub-tropical climate, I realised.

Other ‘warrior trees’ that have withstood a substantial period of this city’s development include Swamp Oaks and Damun/Port Jackson Figs, the fruit of which formed part of the diet of Indigenous humans and animals. In ‘Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters’, a section of Sydney’s Botanic Garden which honours the Cadigal people through some of the native Australian plants that provide ‘bush tucker’, medicines and materials for practical purposes, I discovered the Gul-gad-ya/Grass Tree. Traditionally, Gul-gad-ya resin was used to make glue. And from the Bujor/Paperbark Tree, soft wraps for new-born infants were fashioned using the pale, spongy bark. Of course, the British lacked this deep knowledge of the local flora, and were even at pains to misrepresent it, as did Captain David Collins, Deputy Judge Advocate of New South Wales, when he wrote in 1798:

“The woods, exclusive of the animals which they occasionally find in their neighbourhood, afford them but little sustenance.”

Returning to the seawall that has replaced the cove’s natural foreshore and marine biodiversity [ix], I followed the footpath, looking for some acknowledgement of there having been a sacred initiation site or bora ground on the site. My research [x] had shown that the cove was where First Australian male elders conducted ceremonial practices to initiate young men as warriors and hunters, and that the British had witnessed this before appropriating the place for their farming experiments. I eventually found some faded murals in the ground and a neglected plaque paying homage to the Yura, the original clans of the site, and to other clans who travelled great distances to attend ceremonies here. However, the significance remains unstated. And, I suspect, unknown to the majority of visitors. 

Moving beyond the Botanic Garden into the fringes of the Domain, an adjacent park, I was drawn towards wilder-looking terrain with tree-topped outcrops of sandstone. At a pinch I could screen out the few signs of modernity, such as fencing and streetlamps, and imagine the place as it once might have been. Sydney was built from this sandstone, which in its natural form is weathered into smooth shapes and often exquisitely streaked with creams and yellows of various hues. Along this far side of the cove, I noticed pitted areas caused by water drops. Jutting overhangs that may have provided shelter – and indeed, sooty deposits from fires corroborate this traditional use. Then, where the natural topography flattens at what is now known as ‘Mrs. Macquarie’s Point’, my attention was caught by the sight of a white man in rolled shirtsleeves and straw-hat fishing from the rocks. Watching him, I recalled contemporary government warnings about the presence of dioxins in fish caught in Sydney Harbour, and this came into creative contrast with what I knew of the sustainable fishing practices of the pre-colonial period:

“… off these rocks, Cadigal women

observant, singing,

cast hand-woven lines from slender canoes,

shell-hooks baited with cockles.” [xi]

Above my head the large, grey buttressed trunks of Moreton Bay Fig trees soon drew my inner eye to visions of First Australian children clambering up into branches to spy across the Parramatta towards the territory of other clans on the North Shore. Might these very trees have nourished pre-colonial people, unaware of the disaster being prepared for them by the British government? The wife of an early governor of the new colony, Mrs Macquarie, liked coming to this point to look for English ships, and her husband soon had a seat carved into the rock for her. 

It was whilst meandering around this area that I suddenly recalled a story recounted by my own husband about a teenage escapade that took place there – a car chase ending horribly with his vehicle smashing into a rockface. I was struck by the proximity of the site to the bora ground where young Indigenous men would have been initiated by their elders. Soon I was contemplating the loss of similar rites of passage in modern Western cultures, and which young men now involuntarily, and often dangerously, enact for themselves. These events have been immortalised in the poem ‘Teenage Skate Punk’ in The Mother Country.

*****

My practice of ‘biophilic dérive’ seemed to allow all kinds of chance associations and creative impulses to occur, and on subsequent excursions into central Sydney, I encountered two public artworks that resonated with my explorations. Overlooking Wuganmagulya, ‘A Folly for Mrs Macquarie’ is a wrought iron gothic style folly, with the open work of its walls and ceiling featuring details including an axe, barbed wire, and the bones of animals. On the very top, a fist holds a dagger as if about to strike. A statement by the artist, Fiona Hall, indicates that the piece alludes to there having been much folly in the way in which Britain chose to colonise Australia. Another installation, ‘The Children’s Fountain’, is located parallel to Circular Quay in Herald Square. Made by Stephen Walker, this series of bronze pools and flow-forms features a variety of birds and animals which would have inhabited the site, such as Goannas, Water Dragons, Spoonbills, Herons, Snakes and Echidnas. A plaque bears the dedication to all the children who have played around the Tank Stream.

An important source of freshwater for the Cadigal people and for the British in the very first years of the colony, the stream now passes through a culvert below the Central Business District. Watching a real-life Ibis drinking from the fountain, I felt a wave of sorrow at the artist’s dedication. It seemed unlikely that First Australian children would have played in the stream after the British invasion, and even the colonisers’ offspring – the ragged children of convicts – would have probably been barred from its cooling waters, given its rapid demise: 

“A cesspit within four years

of the British flag, the stream isn’t quite

forgotten – through its dismal culvert, it trickles

down to the harbour,

is a buried thread of history.” [xii]

Tracing these ‘buried threads of history’ repeatedly revealed that any paralysing ‘white guilt’ I felt in embarking on this journey was masking streams of subterranean sorrow at the genocides of Indigenous peoples and creatures. Determined to continue, I reminded myself why I’d begun my explorations. And I found it helpful to acknowledge to myself that the grief I’ve felt at my own experience of dispossession pales in significance alongside the collective trauma and ongoing injustices that First Australians still contend with.  

My Scottish-Australian husband often inspired and engaged in my process of discovery, and together we made excursions into various parts of Sydney, sometimes on foot, sometimes by kayak. Our water-born mode of travel allowed us to encounter less accessible pockets of remnant forest, and we would often return with a little bush tucker as well as bags of litter we’d collected – a reciprocal exchange for the ‘gifts’ we were taking from these places in the form of nourishment and inspiration. We also made regular visits to Boronia Park in the nearby suburb of Hunters Hill. There, a nature reserve bordering a tributary of the Parramatta, known as Lane Cove River, protects a stretch of intact bushland, which offers a deeper sense of the biodiversity of pre-colonial times.

In the suburb of Gladesville we brought friends to experience the Wulaba Track, a boardwalk meandering through Mangroves and remnants of Salt Marsh along the shores of Glades Bay. Rich in Wallumedegal clan history, the site reveals traces of traditional ways of life, including shell middens, evidence of tool making and beautiful rock carvings of the Wallabies that once lived here. Joining a Council-run bush-care team, we also met with like-minded volunteers to contribute to the ongoing regeneration of habitat amidst the city’s ever-encroaching tarmac and concrete.

These actions mitigated my sorrow, and through the alchemical process of creativity, I started to establish tender roots in a city, where, just a few months later, we inhabitants became besieged by toxic smoke, as the catastrophic bushfires of November 2019-March 2020 raged around suburban fringes. I’d planned to start a new life in Australia, but it wasn’t to be. My horror at this mass extinction event along with a lack of adequate resources to support me through this transition period uprooted me once again. A dream of being embraced by wild Atlantic Salmon summoned first my soul and then my discombobulated, rather traumatised Self back to Britain in early 2020, just before the Covid pandemic was unleashed. Since then, I’m glad to say, my creative practice of the ‘biophilic dérive’, which first evolved in tracing pre-colonial Sydney, has been variously deployed here in the UK. But those are other stories, other poems.

Endnotes

 

[i] ‘Biophony, Prior to Invasion’, in The Mother Country, Helen Moore (Awen Publications, 2019)

Note on use of capitals – names of more-than-human Beings and wild phenomena are deliberately capitalised in my writings as part of my longstanding ecopoetic practice, raising their status from the margins to which industrialised culture has relegated them.

[ii] ‘Waran is a name in the local Dharug language. As with any oral language, spellings of words vary, and thus I have also seen the name written as ‘Warrane’. Only a few hundred words of Dharug are said to remain.

[iii] A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: With an Account of New South Wales, its Productions, Inhabitants, etc, Watkin Tench (Cambridge Library Collection, 2013)

[iv] Quoted in Black Politics: Inside the Complexity of Aboriginal Political Culture, Sarah Maddison (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

[v] Extract from ‘The Mother Country’, title poem of The Mother Country

[vi] Extract from ‘First Contact’ in The Mother Country

[vii] See Theory of the Dérive, Guy Debord (1956)

[viii] ‘Biophilia’, from the Greek ‘bio’, (life), and ‘philia’, (brotherly love or affectionate friendship), denotes “love of life or living systems”. The ‘Biophilia Hypothesis’ developed by E.O. Wilson suggests humans possess an innate “urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.

[ix] A display board told me that the Botanic Garden is currently collaborating with scientists to increase the biodiversity here by installing pots that act as artificial rock pools.

[x]  Aboriginal Sydney: A guide to important places of the past and present by Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2001) was a very helpful resource amongst others I consulted.

[xi] From ‘Whitefella Fishing’, The Mother Country

[xii] From ‘Daughter of the Dissolution’ in The Mother Country

Helen Moore is a Guest Contributor at Panorama.

Helen is an award-winning British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and nature educator. She has published three poetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (2012), ECOZOA (2015), acclaimed as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics,’ and The Mother Country (2019) exploring British colonial history. Helen has shared her work on international stages, including India, Australia, and Italy. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, which guides people on a creative writing journey into a deeper connection with nature. Her work is supported by Arts Council England, and she has recently collaborated on a cross-arts-science project responding to pollution in Poole Bay and its river systems. www.helenmoorepoet.com