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A royal performance (part 2) - 1868

In the last post we saw how Aboriginal people had been gathering in their hundreds around Sydney in February and early March 1868. They were preparing to perform a ceremony for Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son and the first member of the royal family to visit Australia). This was the biggest gathering of Aboriginal people in Sydney for many years, possibly since the earliest days of the colony. They were living in a number of camps around the harbour and elsewhere. In the days leading up to the ceremony on Thursday 12 March, ads were placed in the newspapers asking Sydneysiders to let Aboriginal people know that special ferries were booked to transport them to the ceremony from the main camp around North Sydney, and from Circular Quay.

The day had been declared a public holiday. Steaming across the harbour all morning to the site of the ceremony at Clontarf (near Manly) were packed ferries from Circular Quay and Woolloomooloo. Aboriginal people started to prepare over the hill from the main gathering near the water. After the prince arrived and refreshments were served, the prince moved down to the bay where the performance was to take place. But while the performers were still preparing over the hill, Irish nationalist Henry O’Farrell ran up to the prince and shot him. He was rushed from the scene and the rest of the day was cancelled. The prince survived, but the Aboriginal performance never took place. Aboriginal people were reported to have returned angry and frustrated to their various districts.

Because of the colonial shame surrounding the attempted assassination, no detailed description was published about the preparations for the dance and there are no images either (these were the early days of photography in Sydney). We are left to wonder at the legacy of the event – what did Aboriginal people talk about as many groups met for the first time since the arrival of Europeans? What ceremonies took place in the lead-up to the performance for the prince? Hopefully more information will one day come to light, but it remains a largely forgotten but incredibly important event in Sydney’s Aboriginal history.

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