The History of Australia Podcast

Episode 7 - Bundjalung Country

December 03, 2020 Jasmin O'Connor Season 1 Episode 8
The History of Australia Podcast
Episode 7 - Bundjalung Country
Show Notes Transcript

This episode provides an acknowledgement of Arakwal and Bundjalung land and a history of the local area, Byron Bay.

The History of Australia Podcast

Transcript - Episode 7 Bundjalung Country

Hello and welcome to The History of Australia Podcast, Episode 7 Bundjalung Country. 

 In Episode 0, I acknowledged that I was writing the History of Australia Podcast on Bidjigal Country. 

 For the last little while, I have been living and working on this podcast from Bundjalung Country, which has been getting a lot of attention lately as the abode of the Hemsworths, Zack Efron and other famous faces. 

 So this is an acknowledgement of the privilege I have to live and work on the traditional lands of the Arakwal people of the Bundjalung nation. I also acknowledge any Arakwal and Bundjalung people listening to this podcast, and any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast and I pay respects to Elders past and present. 

 The Arakwal people of Cavenbah (meaning “meeting place” also known as Byron Bay) actually have a beautiful, digital welcome to Country available on their website, I’ll put the link to that in the bibliography for this episode if you’d like to check it out and check the rest of their website out too. A lot of the information I’m running through today, that’s information generously made available by the Arakwal people on their website. 

 The Arakwal people of the Bundjalung nation are the indigenous people, the first nations people of the area around Cavenbah/Byron Bay. The lands of the Bundjalung extend from Nerang River in South East Queensland, down to the Clarence River in the South, East from the Pacific Ocean and West towards the Great Dividing Range. All of the following towns are on Bundjalung land: 

  • Kurrungul (Gold Coast)
  • Beaudesert
  • Gooragooby (Warwick)
  • Djanangmum (Casino)
  • Lismore
  • Ballina
  • Cavenbah (Byron Bay)
  • Murwillumbah
  • Tweed Heads

 Arakwal Country extends from Seven Mile Beach south of Broken Head to the Brunswick River up north, out to the escarpment west of Byron Bay, and east out into the Tasman Sea.

 Some of the significant and sacred sites of the Arakwal people that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting include Walgun, Julian Rocks and Brunswick Heads River. 

 Walgun is the eastern most part of the Australian mainland, and is today marked by the Byron Bay Lighthouse. Walgun means “shoulder” and was a lookout point, and was a location for boys’ initiation ceremonies prior to the lighthouse being constructed there in 1899. It remains a beautiful and significant place today and can be accessed by a coastal walk or by car. 

 A second sacred sight is Julian Rocks. This is a group of small islands in Byron Bay that are popular with scuba divers and snorkelers due to the abundance of turtles, fish, sharks, rays, coral and other marine life that live in the waters around them. 

 These islands are significant for the Arakwal as in one dreaming story, they are the resting place of the creator, Nguthungulli. The Arakwal tell that:

 “Nguthungulli, Father of the World, who created all the land and the waters, the animals and plants, now rests in a cave at Julian Rocks. The Elders have instructed over the generations that Nguthungulli must be protected from any misuse or it will cause destruction.

According to Elder, Yvonne Stewart, Nguthungulli was used by Arakwal people in ceremonies when the ocean water levels were lower 7000 years ago and it was accessible land.” - Arakwal Website

 The Brunswick River (known as Durrumbil) was a special meeting place for ceremonies and trade purposes. There was a steady source of food such as dugum (pipis), julum (fish), oysters, bird eggs, terrestrial animals and other bush foods. Middens are common around Brunswick Heads, although many of these important cultural sites have been destroyed since the 1930s by sandmining (Arakwal Website).

 The dolphin is the totem of the Arakwal women. The Arakwal women believe that once their spirit leaves the land, they turn into the dolphin. The dolphin, Wajung, gives the Arakwal people messages about clan members, ancestors and the past, and also to particular places and sites on Country.There are around 1000 resident and transient Bottlenose dolphins using waters surrounding Byron Bay. Importantly there is a large nursery of female dolphins and their young, who are reared in the shallow waters of the bay, where they are protected from sharks who may prey upon them. Dolphins can easily be seen from the shore or upon the water and really are just a delight if you are visiting the area.

 The men’s totem is, the sea eagle. The sea eagle, Miwing, also provides the Arakwal people with messages about their Country. Again the sea eagle is a common and beautiful sight hunting on the beaches for creeks for eels, fish, sea snakes, crustaceans, small birds and mammals.

 The totem of the Arakwal people is the carpet snake. The carpet snake, Kabul, I have to say I haven’t run into this totem while out on a bushwalk because while they are non-venomous, so they aren’t going to kill you necessarily if they bite you, they do get up to 3.5 metres long, so that would still give you a bit of a fright.

 Other totems include the Brush Turkey (Wollum); Pied Oystercatcher (Bijahlin), and Turtle (Binguing). And again these are all beautifully plentiful around Byron and make getting outdoors there really worthwhile and memorable.

 Country provided seasonal, rich foods which allowed for permanent settlement 

This Country is very plentiful, with the ocean, rivers and bush, so the Arakwal were not “nomadic” people, as indigenous people are often sort of poorly and simplistically characterised. 

 Country provided yams as a staple, as well as lilli-pilli, wild cherry, plums, black apples and ash trees, macadamias, pine nuts and honey. These are all some of my favourite foods, so it just sounds fantastic. There were also wallabies, possums, goannas, echidnas, brush turkeys, pigeons and other birds to feed upon. That’s not to mention the plentiful seafood including Sydney Rock Oysters.

 They would travel to other nations and tribes during seasons of plenty, including mullet runs, or harvest seasons. For example, the Bundjalung travelled north to the Blackbutt Ranges in Queensland every three years to feast on bunya pine nuts. These gatherings usually lasted for three months. 

 Their dwellings were made from grass and palm fronds. And local stone and wood were used to fashion an array of tools. There is a wide array of stone and wooden artefacts on display at the local museums and historical societies in the area, including: 

·    Stone Hatchets: Made of local basalt, with a ground end and wooden handle, adorned with what appears to be white ochre or other paint. 

·    Stone Axes: the blade again has a ground edge and there is a wooden handle. A groove is made in the stone head to enable the attachment of this handle. And the handle is then bound with a thin vine that is wound around both the head of the axe and all the way along the handle seemingly creating a textured surface with good grip. The handle is then set in place with resin. 

·    Wooden Shields: These are stout and thick shields, carved out of a single piece of wood. The handle of the shield is also carved out of the single piece of wood. 

·    Wooden food carriers, decorated with Decorated with geometric and swirling lines burnt into the outside of the bowl.

·    Bullroarer: a musical instrument or communication device made by attachding a panel to a piece of string and swinging it around in circles until it gathers enough speed to create a roaring noise. These bullroarers are made of wood and decorated in geometric patterns of lines and arcs painted with a white ochre. 

·    Wooden woomeras or spear throwers

·    And so it continues. 

 Shell Middens are amongst the most prominent archaeological evidence of aboriginal pre-history in the region. 

Aboriginal shell middens are piles of seashells that have built up over the course of aboriginal occupation of an area. When shellfish are eaten, the shells, bones and also plant remnants, ash and charcoal are left in the midden. Midden sites can actually be enormous, some are even hundreds of metres long and several metres deep, built up over thousands of years. 

 For example, there was a large shell Midden located at The Pass in Byron, that was originally 60 metres long and 15 metres wide. Unfortunately, most of it has been damaged or destroyed, like those in Brunswick mentioned earlier. Many shell middens have been destroyed, mined for limestone or used as a base in roads. 

 There are thousands of shell middens along the coast in Bundjalung country. Most of these range up to 2,000 years old and archaeological dating techniques suggest continued use up until the 1840’s. Older shell midden sites are likely to be flooded due to sea level rises after the end of the last ice age. About 20-25 kilometres of the ancient coastline in this area are underwater, so that means that if these people were always living on the coast, then a lot of earlier occupation sites are now going to be underwater. The coastline only reached its current position about 5000-6000 years ago. 

 Burials also occur in the shell mounds. Mining of the shell mounds for limestone etc. uncovered eight skeletons. The last report of burials in the shell mounds of North Creek was in 1936 and described five skulls and skeletons which had been unearthed. It is reported that the remains were used combined with shell for materials of road. 

 Another important artefact are fish traps

Fish traps are large structures built from rocks in the tidal zone of rocky shores. The traps are baited and fish are attracted by this into the trap on the high tide, but then become stuck. Once in the fish trap, the fish are either collected in smaller traps or speared.

 There are fish traps found in the Solitary islands and Port Stephens-Great Lakes marine parks. 

 Dolphins are known to assist in the fish harvest at many coastal locations. When dolphins are seen, a gifted community member will sing to them. The dolphins circle the fish and drive them onto the shore where they can be collected by the local people.

 Tony Hart, Gumbaynggirr artist (side note: the Gumbaynggirr are a people from the mid north Coast of New South Wales, so just south of the Bundjalung people), was told by his grandfather that:“Each year, when the mullet were running, one of the tribal elders would go to a point overlooking the ocean. They would call out in Gumbaynggirr lingo for the dolphins to help round up all the fish and bring them in so the tribal people could feast.” 

 On 15 May 1770, Captain James Cook sailed past Walgan and renamed the area Cape Byron. 

On 15th May Cook noted in his journal that: “ At 9, being about a League from the Land, we saw upon it people and Smoke in Several places. At noon ... A Tolerable high point of land bore North-West by West, distant 3 Miles; this point I named Cape Byron. It may be known by a remarkable sharp peaked Mountain lying in land North-West by West from it…”

 So as for nearly all of Cook’s voyage up the east coast of Australia, fires lit by indigenous people could be seen from his ship the Endeavour. 

 Joseph Banks also remarked on remarked upon the obvious signs of human habitation as well as many of the natural characteristics of the area that would later attract merchants and settlers.

  In his journal, also on May 15th 1770, Joseph Banks noted “... The land in the Morning was high but before noon it became lower and was in general well wooded. Some people were seen, about 20, each of which carried upon his back a large bundle of something which we conjectured to be palm leaves for covering their houses; we observed them with glasses for near an hour during which time they walked upon the beach and then up a path over a gently sloping hill, behind which we lost sight of them. Not one was once observed to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance entirely unmoved by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one... In the evening two small turtles were seen. At sunset a remarkable peaked hill was in sight 5 or 6 Leagues of in the country, which about it was well wooded and looked beautiful as well as fertile...”

 Even though Cook claimed all of the east coast of Australia, including Bundjalung land, for the British in 1770, It wasn’t until much much later that non-aboriginal people first moved into what was now known as Byron Bay. 

Non-indigenous people were quick to recognise the economic potential of the local marine resources. Captain Flinders for example noted on his 1802 circumnavigation of Australia meeting two whaling ships off the coast between Cape Byron and Cape Moreton. Whaling became one of the first, large industries of the British colonisers. But it took much longer for the British to find a way to settle in the area. Tough terrain, deep rivers and dense vegetation travel by land to the area.

 Perhaps the first non-indigenous people to come to Bundjalung land would have been run away convicts. A convict escaped from Moreton Bay, a penal colony in Queensland, made it as far as the Brunswick River, which he referred to as Pine River, for the vast quantity of pine trees in the area. 

 The first “official” non-indigenous people to set foot at Byron Bay were Captain Henry Rous and William Johns in 1828. Johns prepared a map of the coast and bay between Cape Byron and Brunswick River. That map recorded the characteristics of Byron Bay at the time, including a salt water lagoon (Belongil Creek), Julian Rocks and anchorage at The Pass. Rous and Johns actually took on board eight escaped convicts who surrendered themselves when they were anchored off of Tweed. 

Surveyor Robert Dixon visited Cape Byron in June 1840 on a horseback traverse along the coast from Moreton Bay to the Richmond River. This was the first documented visit by land. He cleared vegetation off a peak on Cape Byron and established a trig station for surveying. Dixon came into contact with the Bundjalung people. He recorded meeting a group of “fine looking” and “friendly” men with fishing nets. 

 Dixon also recorded another ship anchored in Cape Byron on its way to the Tweed River in search of cedar trees to log. The arrival of cedar loggers really heralded in an era of intense land use conflict with the Bundjalung people. 

 And then there was the passing of the Crown Lands Alienation Act in 1861 which meant land was open for free selection by settlers. The decision was taken to establish a reserve around Cape Byron extending from Tallow Creek to Belongil Creek, which preserved some of the natural sub-tropical rainforest along that stretch of coast. But, the earliest dwelling recorded within the present Byron Bay area was a timber hotel building in Palm Valley built by David Jarman and first noted in 1882. This was actually within the reserve and so was illegal.

 And adding to that, in 1884 the village of Cavvanba was laid out behind Main Beach, also within the Reserve. The land was divided into 40 half acre lots that were sold and slowly built upon, with the pace of development increasing with the completion of the railway to the town in 1894. Cavvanba was renamed Byron Bay in that same year.

Arakwal People at this time found it increasingly difficult to use their country and its resources as they had traditionally as forests gave way to western crops, cattle and sheep farming. Many local aboriginal people went to work for the new settlers, paid with food.

 There are instances of atrocities too. 

There was one instance where one aboriginal man who was working for cedar cutters was paid with flour laced with arsenic and as a result twenty four people died. 

 Attempts were made by the colonists to replace indigenous culture and hierarchy with systems that were controlled by the British-Australian hierarchy. For example, Governor Macquarie introduced a system of metal breastplates that were worn around the neck. These breast plates were awarded to indigenous people that were dubbed the “Chiefs” of a district. This was without regard to indigenous systems of government.

 Breastplates were a practice that spanned 115 years and the whole of Australia and more than 500 survive today. Some tribes scorned the system while other tribes or individuals used it to their advantage, for example by gaining status or recognition with British-Australian authorities and later as evidence for Native Title.

 Overtime, terminology changed from “Chief” to ‘King” and a range of government and non-government British Australians issued breastplates.

Several Bundjalung people, were known and referred to as Kings of their tribes or family networks. For the Arakwal, Bobby of Bumberbin was widely recognised as a “King”. The Cairns Morning Post ran a story in April 1907 about the “Aboriginal King” Bobby, king of Bumberbin. The story was run coinciding with his centenary and death. So I read:

 “Last week (says the “Tweed Herald” of 4th April) there was gathered, to his fathers, full of years, and if not the oldest aboriginal, Bobby, king of Bumberbin. Bobby, so far as is known was born in the vicinity of Cope-Byron, about 100 years ago, and after the death of his father, who was slain in battle, in a tribal fight, at the head of his dusky warriors against a tribe from Willson’s Creek known as the Burahs, ascended the throne of Bumberbin. According to the native calendar, this happened about 50 years ago. When Bobby was asked about six years ago how long he had been King, he replied, “About half im life.” He showed several signs of warfare on his wiry old body, and took part in several tribal fights with Richmond and Tweed River [aboriginal people]. He formerly owned a war club with a number of marks on it. They totalled upward of 100, and some say they represented Bobby’s victims in warfare. Others asserted the marks gave the numerical strength of his tribe; while other again considered the marks represented years. Some 12 or 15 years ago Bobby was adorned with a brass plate. He was buried by his son at night in the neighbourhood of Tallow Beach, but the exact whereabouts are unknown to the invading white man. The deceased monarch is succeeded by his son, harry Bray, who inherits the estate, which extends from Broken Head to Cape Byron and bounded on the west by the South arm of the Brunswick River. Harry is not quite the last of the tribe, as he has a son about 14 years of age, who periodically deserts the parental mia-mia. “The late King. Bobby became very feeble in his later days, and was almost blind when he died. His English “yabba” was very slight.”

 Many Bundjalung people resisted the move to designated settlements, which helped to preserve their culture and language into the 20th century. 

Nevertheless, in the 1950’s some Arakwal members were coerced to move to the Cabbage Tree Island Mission and leave their Country.

 One Bundjalung man from Coraki described his experience of aboriginal reserves to Margaret Gummow, a PHD student at Sydney University in the 1980s and 90s: “The managers on these reserves or missions ran the place like prison farms...The Bundjalung language didn’t die out, it was strangled, murdered and now you’re trying to dig it up again. What do you expect? In the 50s and  60s we were arrested for speaking our language in the street. If I said one word at school I was given six cuts...

 Nevertheless, there are recordings, by both aboriginal, non-aboriginal people and in the local newspapers, of the practicing of culture, including corrobboree well into the 20th Century by different Bundgalung groups.  

 I love this remembrance by Jim Morgan from Coraki, of a Corroborree he attended in his youth, this has been recorded in the PHD of Margaret Gummow:

 “ Corroborees to us were more or less what your theatres are to the white men. The most exciting part of a Corrobboree to me – was the lovely big fires we had. The fires acted as “stage lights” as well as for warmth in the winter or cold nights….this and the entry of the dancers into the Corroboree ring. The dancers would come from all directions for entry into the ring. The dancers were painted – “made up” you would call it. Their dressing room was some selected place in the bush. It was impossible to identify who a dancer was when painted. The dancer’s costume was  a kind of loin cloth.

 The Corroboree that I remember fascinated me, tho’ I aw it through a child’s eyes. The story of which centred around two men lying in the ring – about 16 ft apart, both were wrapped in possum rugs, and were still as tho’ either were unconscious or passed away from the world of life.

 When the dancers had entered the ring, they would appear as if they were very nervous when they beheld and gathered around one of the two men lying in the ring. So they would dance close to the men in a nervous and apprehensive manner using pantomimic movements all the time. Gradually they would get closer to the man they had first gathered around, and pick him up. The dancers would then carry him to where the other man was lying, placing the man they had carried beside him. Next the dancers would carry the other man to the place in the ring where they had picked up the first man. Gathering around the man they first danced around, they indicated by their actions or what is better termed “mime” that they were massaging this man, trying to restore him to either consciousnesses or life. After a while, he would commence to show some signs of movement, this he would do gradually till he finally reached a “sitting-up” position. And after further massage, would stand up, appearing to be very weak, and unable to stand properly, acting the part of a man whose strength was gradually returning to normal. When his strength and vigour had returned ot him, he would then take part in the Corroboree with the other dancers. Then the dancers would proceed to where the other man was lying. They would repeat their dance routine. Finally, all would dance together and the Corroboree would end.”

 The 1980’s and 1990’s saw a changing legal framework and the Arakwal people worked to have their continuing connection to country recognised and protected. This has been a process that has spanned several decades.

 In the 1980s, applications under the NSW Land Rights Act are made to conserve the Ti Tree Lakes and to secure the Ironbark Avenue land for housing. 

 In 1994, a Native Title application was lodged over crown lands around Byron Bay by the Elders. This was the first of three Native Title claims over Crown land and waters. After an extensive period of consultation, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA 1), a voluntary agreement about land use and management, was signed by the Arakwal and the NSW Government on 28 December 2000. This agreement created Arakwal National Park, jointly managed by the Arakwal People and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Arakwal People would have access to the National Park for:

·    Protection and conservation of areas of cultural heritage

·    Conduct of ceremonies under traditional law and custom

·    Gathering of material for traditional medicine and ceremonies

·    Fishing and hunting.

 This land use agreement was a landmark in Australia for conservation and protection of Country. And I think we are all so lucky to have access to this beautiful national park. Since the 2000’s two subsequent land use agreements have been entered into adding more area to the national park and other heritage uses.

 That’s all for now. Thanks for listening to this episode on Bundjalung Country. Next week, we will cover megafauna, the episode I promised last time. Until then, stay safe and see you again soon.  

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