In late February 1868 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a feast was to be held in Sydney in March to give Aboriginal people a chance to meet Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son) – the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. The wording of the article makes it sound as though Aboriginal people were being assembled by the government in Sydney to ‘dance’ for the prince and receive some food and clothing, but there was much more to it than this.
Word had been spreading among Aboriginal people since the prince had arrived in Sydney in late 1867 before heading north on tour. They learned that he was to be back in Sydney in March and wanted to meet him – he was after all a higher authority than any colonial governor or official. Government correspondence at the time reveals that Aboriginal people had begun to converge on Sydney from all over New South Wales in February – by steamship, boat, horse, foot or whatever means they could. Some of them found their way to George Thornton, a member of parliament who was an unofficial government advisor on Aboriginal affairs, and asked that they be able perform a ceremony for the prince.
There were eventually over 300 men, women and children camped in a number of locations around the harbour, waiting for the event to occur. It was the biggest Aboriginal gathering in Sydney since the very earliest days of the colony and it included some groups who had probably never been there before. Several accounts from the time mention Aboriginal people painted up in traditional designs, practicing in the bush near their camps. Far from the novelty entertainment and benevolent event that newspapers suggested, this was serious ceremonial business instigated by Aboriginal people who came to Sydney of their own accord. Things did not however turn out as planned, as we will see next month.