Ancient anger a potent symbol for modern times

The replica bark canoe or nawi moored at Barangaroo in as part of the Sydney festival.
Inset: A fish made of frozen sea water forms part of the installation. Photo Mary Gardner.

This replica nawi, unlike the bark canoe at the Maritime Museum, is oversized and made of steel. It is moored at a cove at Barangaroo, the inner city place named after a Cammeraygal woman.

On opening night of the Sydney Festival, we take part in the ritual devised by curator Emily McDaniel. We place fish made of frozen seawater on the steel pad in the nawi next to the steel sculpture of banksia cones. Between the heat of the gas fire flickering in the cones and the setting sun, the melting seawater returns to the harbour. We are all remembering an enraged woman. Yes, an angry Aboriginal women is the inspiration for what has become a highly popular event.

Associate Professor Grace Karskens pieced together her story from various writings by colonialists. From 1790 to 1792, Barangaroo, a forty-year old woman, is mentioned repeatedly. Most of the references are about her being angry.

Barangaroo was angry that her new young husband Bennelong consorted with the British and wore clothing. To make her point, she broke his fishing spear. What good came of befriending these new people? Already her first husband, two children and many others had died of smallpox.

Barangaroo was so outraged seeing officers flogging a man that she interfered, grabbing the whip. When Bennelong slapped her, she hit him back. But the full fury of Barangaroo’s anger was about fish.

In November 1790, the British gave to Bennelong and other men of the group forty fish, about 91 kilos in all. This was a token from the previous night’s catch of 4,000 large fish, hauled up by nets. The gift was excessive, more than the small group could eat. It was a gesture from men to men. Eora women were in charge of fish.

Fishing was women’s work and the source of social authority. From childhood, girls learned from women fishing. There were songs and rules, individual hook-and-line effort and team work. With babies and children aboard, women managed bark canoes night and day, whatever the weather. They cooked the catch over small fires made of banksia cones on clay pads, located in the centre of the canoe.

According to colonial reports, Barangaroo was angry about the catch. Karskens explains this from the perspective of a senior fisher-woman. She saw the waste of fish as food taken from the mouths of people in the future.

Gifts of fish to men from men violated women’s authority. So much of Aboriginal life and country was changing drastically but wasting food and violating fishing authority was outrageous.

At the start of 2018, we still have cause for anger. Women or men, fishing in the harbour east of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, are still advised that they can only eat about 150 grams of their catch per month. West of the Bridge, starting from coves including Barangaroo, recreational fishers must release any of their catch. Sydney’s wild seafood is simply too toxic.

Back in Byron Bay and surrounds, our anger must still smoulder. Tap-water is used without any care for conservation.

Fish kills occur at the Tallow, around the Belongil and in the Richmond. Oysters die in the water near Ballina, ‘place of many oysters’.

Polluted stormwater often ends up at our swimming beaches. Some, part of the marine park, sport discredited ‘safety’ nets that often kill more turtles and rays than sharks.

Mega-development proposals promise more work for sewage treatment plants. Organic wastes from food hubs could overwhelm the Bangalow one. More effluent is planned to be released from the one at Byron Bay.

This is already an excess of agreements with landowners. A development moratorium may be required until this is fixed.

Finally, mega-development proposals for degraded wetlands, such as at West Byron, would pave over forever the swamp habitat needed by baby fish and other aquatic species. No wetland restoration here. No plans here to feed the people of the future


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