Revisioning our history: Books read lately — 2

One thing I like about history is that it never quite runs out, is never quite settled. Some find this disturbing. I would find it disturbing if it were not the case.

Take Mahroot for example.

In 1789 a devastating outbreak of smallpox swept through the Aboriginal people of Sydney. The true impact of the arrival of Europeans on the Aboriginal people became clear to all. It remains unsure whether the British or French brought the disease that killed countless Aboriginal people or whether it was already in the local population.

Obed West in his 1822 account The Bays of Sydney documents meeting an Aboriginal elder called Mahroot in the 1840s who as a young boy, witnessed the Lapérouse expedition’s camp at Botany Bay and the pox that erupted shortly after their departure. In 1789 people refused to return to La Perouse for the fear of the pox and set up what was referred to as the ‘blacks’ hospital’ at Little Bay. Here the sick and dying were isolated and brought provisions of fish and water.

Well Mister… all blackfella gone! All this my country! Pretty place Botany! Little piccaninny, I run about here. Plenty blackfellow then: Corrobory: Great fight: All canoe about. Only me left now…
Mahroot c.1845

Well. not quite ALL gone. Here is a descendant of Mahroot’s people.


maloneyAnd his descendants are still with us, together with plenty more like them. That’s one of the lessons of smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[3]smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7] Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People on Sydney’s Georges River by Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow,  UNSW Press 2009.

From colonisation through to the present, Rivers and Resilience traces the social and cultural history of Sydney’s Georges River and its interaction and connections to Aboriginal lives. The authors assert the centrality of this beautiful river, comprised of sandstone escarpments, overhangs and plateaus; a network of creeks and marshy swamps that yield all manner of produce from fresh and salt water fish, eels, crabs, yabbies and oysters and an abundance of berries and wildflowers. If you have an association with the Georges River you’ll really enjoy this book, as you could slot your own story into the stream. The intellectual contribution continues Goodall’s thesis about the centrality of land demands to the everyday social, cultural and economic lives of Aboriginal people. But there is an extra dimension that details both the production of locality – that is the active process of connection to place – and the significance of the past, as it is permanently etched in the land (and water) and continues to shape relations among the river people.

Heidi Norman
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences UTS

There’s a related photographic exhibition doing the rounds at the moment. It’s currently in Hurstville.

The rivers? The Cooks River, but especially the Georges River, the northern border of The Shire – among other things.



Quite a long river, actually, running from all the way out from past Campbelltown and Appin. Again, as I noted with Grace Karskens’s The Colony, much is gained by setting different territorial frames for our histories.

I found again, as I had with The Colony, that things I had heard of or even seen suddenly came into focus as I read much that is in such books as these but has hitherto escaped much notice.

Endlessly fascinating.

Related: PDF on Aboriginal Sites in South-East Sydney.

Check out Resilience Science as well.