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Fighting fires - 1845

In the 1840s, the eastern suburbs was still largely uncleared scrub with the occasional interspersed house - prime tinder for bushfires. In January 1845, a fire broke out in the bush on the large Cooper and Holt estates at Point Piper, and was heading towards their homes and other buildings. The alarm was raised and the owners, their assigned convicts and other residents grabbed shovels, axes and other tools and started clearing a firebreak and beating back the flames.

Among the firefighters were some Aboriginal people, described as ‘a tribe of friendly blacks in the neighbourhood.’ At this time there were Aboriginal settlements on either side of Point Piper at Double Bay and Rose Bay, as well as a number of other locations around the eastern suburbs. These Aboriginal people knew the owners of most of the large estates that were spread around the area, so their assistance was not random.

As they fought the blaze, one of the convicts was bitten by a snake. Different details were provided in two versions of the events that appeared in the local papers, but both accounts show that one of the convict overseers sucked the poison from the wound (something that is definitely NOT recommended today). This was apparently based on an Aboriginal practice, but one report stated that the Aboriginal bystanders refused to do it themselves, suggesting that there may have been specific circumstances surrounding this remedy - or perhaps they just didn’t want to. Interestingly, the other account states disparagingly that one of the Aboriginal men performed a ceremony to attempt to cure the man, and that despite the emergency, the onlookers allowed the wounded man to be left alone with him to complete the cure. This incident shows that traditional Aboriginal practices were still being used at the time and that even though Europeans often ridiculed them, they still allowed them to be carried out on one of their own. You can read about the fire and the snake bite cure here - and here - We don’t know the names of any of the Aboriginal people who participated, but some may have been among the mourners at Charles Smith’s funeral in Sydney several days later (see post for 16/1/17).

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