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An Aboriginal entrepreneur - 1850

In early February 1850 the Sydney Morning Herald reported the death on 31 January of Mahroot (also known as Boatswain), aged in his fifties. Mahroot’s death was newsworthy because he was a leader of his group at Botany Bay, and was ‘a favourite with all who knew him, and especially his white countrymen.’ He was also described (incorrectly) as the ‘last of the Botany Bay tribe’. Mahroot grew up in the 1790s in the aftermath of a terrible smallpox epidemic that claimed many lives in 1789 (the year after the first fleet arrived). He lived in rapidly changing times but he met the challenges of the colonial world head on.

Mahroot worked on whaling and sealing boats in the early 1800s but by the 1830s he returned to the area of his birth around Botany Bay. He chose a 10 acre block of land on the eastern shore of the bay, built a few huts and obtained a lifetime lease over the land from the governor. From this base he and his wife used their rowing boat to set up a commercial fishing business, and shared some of the proceeds among his people. In the 1840s the Banks Hotel was built nearby among the dunes at Botany as a weekend pleasure ground retreat for the people of Sydney. Mahroot saw an opportunity, and established himself as a boatman and guide for hotel patrons who wanted to sightsee, or to fish and hunt around the bay.

Mahroot was often accompanied in these activities by (unnamed) young Aboriginal men, and it was probably some of them who took advantage of the market created by Mahroot after his death. By the 1860s and 1870s, an Aboriginal settlement halfway between the hotel and Mahroot’s lease was known as the place to go for expert Aboriginal guides. Mahroot was one of many at this time who interacted with the colony - not to abandon their Aboriginal roots, but to ensure that they could continue living as much as possible on their own terms. These people paved the way for the successful fishing settlement established by Aboriginal people at La Perouse in the 1870s, which is still there today.

You can read a bit more about Mahroot here - and here - He also features in Grace Karskens’ The Colony and KV Smith’s Mari Nawi: Aboriginal Odysseys. You’ll also be about to read much more about him in my forthcoming book Hidden In Plain View.

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