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Last of the tribe? - 1863

As I have written about in past posts, Aboriginal people were still a part of Sydney life in the 1840s. Many European Sydneysiders knew them by name and also had an idea of which ‘tribe’ they came from - the Sydney tribe, Botany tribe, Liverpool tribe, Port Hacking tribe and so on. A decade later though, it became common for newspapers to refer to prominent people from these various group on their death as the ‘last of their tribe’. We saw this with Botany Bay man Mahroot’s death in 1850 in the blog post of 31/1/17, and by the 1860s it was even more common.

On 10 February 1863 an Aboriginal man named Jack Harris was found dead at the Rushcutters Bay Aboriginal settlement (you can read more about him here). His connections to coastal Sydney were recognised by Europeans, and he was known for reminding people of this fact if they hassled him - emphatically stating ‘this is my country’! On his death he was described as ‘a relic of the now nearly extinct Sydney tribe’, the same label given to another man of that tribe, William Warrell (see blog post for 5/12/16), who lived down the road at Rose Bay. When Warrell died a few months after Jack, many Europeans wrote that the Sydney ‘tribe’ had ceased to exist.

But did they mean that literally? As many of the same writers noted, Jack Harris’s wife was still alive, as were others at the Rushcutters Bay settlement and at many other locations around coastal Sydney. They were really trying to say that Aboriginal people whom they regarded as ‘authentic’ – those who were born in the early years of the colony and had learnt language and culture from their parents – had died. They didn’t regard those of mixed ancestry or those who did not appear to live ‘traditionally’ as being Aboriginal. There is no denying that Aboriginal people had changed in Sydney since 1788, but they also continued to live in areas to which they were connected, and retained more language and cultural knowledge than outsiders were aware of. From a European perspective though, ‘real’ Sydney people were no more from the mid-1860s, and this simplistic view unfortunately influenced historians and the general public for over a century. It is only in the last decade or so that the assumptions behind this view have been challenged, helping to write the Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney back into history. Stories like those featured in this blog show that Aboriginal people were very much still part of Sydney life after they had supposedly ceased to be.

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