Barangaroo The Woman

Barangaroo is named after a powerful Cammeraygal leader of the Eora Nation at the time of European colonisation. 

Barangaroo, the Cammeraygal woman from whom Barangaroo the place takes its name, was a considerable influence in the days of the early European colony. From the Eora language group, she was one of the Cammeraygal clan who lived in and around the north harbour and Manly. Independent and strong, she had her own way of dealing with the early settlers.

The first written account of her in 1790 described Barangaroo as being in her early 40s, worldly, wise and freer of spirit than the settlers expected of a woman - at least the English women of the time.

Her first husband is said to have died of small pox, which decimated the clan around Sydney after European settlement. Her second husband was Bennelong, a Wangal man and one of the best known Aboriginal people from Sydney's early days.

Bennelong, after initially being captured and shackled, grew to become friendly with the colonists, dining with Governor Phillip and adopting many of their customs. He later travelled to England and met King George. The site of the Sydney Opera House is named after him.

Barangaroo was quite different. In September 1790, at a meeting between soldiers and a group of Aborigines including Bennelong, Barangaroo was presented to the British party and encouraged to eat and drink their offerings, which she refused.

The colonists observed her to be a determined and persuasive character. On one occasion, she refused to go to Sydney Cove to visit the governor with Bennelong, who went anyway. In a fit of rage, Barangaroo broke one of his fishing spears.

In another incident, a convict was being flogged for stealing hunting and fishing gear from her clan. Barangaroo threatened the executioner with a flogging of his own. Like her people, she did not have the same ideas about possessions as the Europeans.

Barangaroo also refused to wear European clothes or drink their wine and was one of only a few women who had a pierced septum. When she did visit the colony with Bennelong she was 'dressed up' with a bone through her nose and painted herself with white clay - a proud statement of her spirituality and culture.

Why the difference in her and Bennelong's attitudes? Grace Karskens, Associate Professor of History and Philosophy at UNSW, has written about Barangaroo and the Eora fisherwomen and suggests that Barangaroo's power came from her role as a hunter and provider. She provided for the clan's men with fish caught in and around the harbour, using a simple black wood canoe known as a Nawi.

Unlike the settlers, Barangaroo would only ever catch enough fish for her people's immediate needs. So when she witnessed a trawl of some 4,000 salmon - more fish than the settlers or the local clan could possibly eat - she was outraged. This fiercely independent woman perhaps could see the demise of her traditional way of life.

This way of life was something she defended until the end. When giving birth to Bennelong's child she wanted the connection to the land, to give birth according to her traditions. Governor Phillip forced her to go to the hospital - which she considered to be the place of death. And, sadly, so it proved to be. In 1791, Barangaroo died shortly after giving birth.

After a traditional cremation ceremony with her fishing gear, Bennelong spread his wife’s ashes in Governor Phillip's garden, the present day Circular Quay.

This article has been provided by Aden Ridgeway of Cox Inall Ridgeway.

Learn more about the important contribution of Barangaroo to Aboriginal culture here

VIDEO: The legacy of Barangaroo resonates in the local Aboriginal community today. This oral history of her contribution is told by influential contemporary Aboriginal women living and working in Sydney who are inspired and influenced by Barangaroo. The film was made by Lendlease, the developer of Barangaroo’s southern financial and retail precinct.