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First Contact: a contemporary Aboriginal perspective

The following is an an interview with Allen Madden and Terry Smyth, Welcome to Our Land, as published in Site, a new MCA publication. The interview was first published in The Sun Herald on 15 February 2009. Site investigates the significant history of the MCA’s site on the west side of Circular Quay, where the First Fleet landed in 1788. It also looks at the MCA buildings themselves – the history of the Art Deco sandstone building, the archaeological remains below the new extension, and the artworks that have been commissioned for the buildings since the mid-twentieth century.

Gadigal elder Allen Madden believes knowing the past is the key to a better future for all Australians. In an interview with Terry Smyth, Madden imagines how his Gadigal ancestors might have responded to the arrival of European settlers in Warrane, or Sydney Cove. He describes the revisionist nature of some earlier histories of Sydney, the emergence of ‘black pride’ and Sydney’s ‘living black heritage’.

When he closes his eyes, Allen Madden can picture a typical summer day in Warrane. It could be a thousand years ago or it could be the summer of 1788, just a day before the white sails appeared and the world changed forever.

In a landscape sculpted by the last ice age, he sees his family going about their daily business. On the sparkling harbour, in the waters off Warrane, and off Wallumede on the north shore opposite, women and children are fishing from canoes and bodysurfing on bark. From the massive sandstone outcrops, men are fishing with spears or preparing for a day’s hunting in the forests of redgum, blackbutt, bloodwood and peppermint that run down to the shore. Others are heading off along ancient trading routes that would one day be called George Street and Oxford Street. Women, too, are going bush to gather roots and fruit, while nervous youths set out for the initiation ground at Woccanmagully, now Farm Cove.

In the freshwater creek later called the Tank Stream, soon quickly polluted and all but forgotten, women are collecting drinking water, while on the banks men are flaking stone for tools and weapons.

At Tallawoladah and Cadi, campsites that would be renamed The Rocks and Watsons Bay, people are baking fish and preparing shellfish or simply sitting in the sunshine. That was the scene before booted feet stepped ashore and Warrane became Sydney, named after Britain’s otherwise undistinguished home secretary.

As a Gadigal man of the Eora nation, he is a traditional custodian of the Sydney region, and in recent years has become highly visible through his work with welcome to country ceremonies, conducting hundreds each year, often several a day. Yet, for most of his life, Madden was one of what he calls “the invisible people” – the original Sydneysiders.

His family, his clan, were the people on the shore at that fateful first encounter and while whitefella history has taught that Sydney’s first family had died out by the 1790s, in Madden’s words: “We’ve taken a lickin’ but we’re still kickin’.”

Madden is quick to point out that the Eora were not wiped out by murder, disease and deprivation. Of the original population of 1500 estimated by Governor Phillip, hundreds of descendants of the four Eora sub-groups are living in Sydney today. Until recent years, however, discrimination deterred many from identifying as Aboriginal. On the 1996 Census only 117 Sydney residents identified as Aboriginal, but today that number is topped by Madden’s extended family alone. Emerging black pride, he says, has inspired more original Sydneysiders to stand up and be counted.

Of that 1788 first encounter, Madden says: “Blackfellas saw them coming up the coast and didn’t know what the bloody hell they were. It was strange for us blackfellas on the east coast to see these ships because not many passed along this way. Blackfellas up the top end had been seeing them for hundreds of years – coming across from Indonesia, the Dutch were there, and even down in Tassie they’d seen them before but we had no idea.

“Even when they got here, blackfellas thought they were possums running up and down the masts. Then you get all these fellas jumping off the ship, coming ashore all dressed up in their uniforms – and it’s stinking bloody hot. And our fellas are standing around bollocky.

“We had no idea if they were men or women. When you see a bloke in a red coat, a hat and a wig, wearing a pair of leotards, you’ve got to be a bit suss.”

Governor Phillip made a good first impression thanks to a gap-toothed smile. “The initiation ritual here included the removal of teeth and the first thing we notice about Phillip is that he’s got this. So this is a man of wisdom, an initiated man. That’s if he is a man, so we ask him to drop his pants, which he declines and gets one of the sailors to do it.

“At that point, everything was OK. There was new blood on the block, in modern-day speaking. But it didn’t take long to fester into arguments because we found that these fellas weren’t going anywhere. They were here to stay. And it didn’t take them long to clear all the trees from Farm Cove back up to the swamp up where Hyde Park is.”

The Eora were in a dire predicament. “Your food source starts to go once they start cutting down trees and clearing land. So what do you do? You’re too black to join them – they’ve got different ways, laws and rules – but there’s one thing about us blackfellas, we’re great survivors. If they dropped a nuclear bomb on this joint, only blackfellas and cockroaches would survive.”

Madden was born in Cornwallis Street, Redfern, one of a family of 13. His father, who worked at the Eveleigh and Alexandria railway yards, had served in the army in World War II.

“White soldiers were on six bob a day but my father was on two bob a day for dodging the same bullets,” Madden says. “Aboriginal soldiers couldn’t even get into Returned Services League (RSL) clubs when they came back. You can go away and fight for this bitch of a land that’s yours, and can’t get recognition in the country you own.

“Urban blackfellas in and around Redfern didn’t have to be told we were black. On the other hand, some of my best friends were white. The racism around this area was all police-orientated. The catch-cry was: 'Keep the niggers in their place and if you can’t do that, put them in jail.”’

Although Madden had been taught by his parents that Sydney was his country, he was surprised to discover that his school history books referred to his people in the past tense, as if they no longer existed.

“When I was a kid, we used to have social club outings on the harbour every year. I remember being on a boat going up the harbour and my father saying, 'You have mob that come from there.’ Being a kid, it was just one of those things that stuck. Later on, I started getting involved in the land rights movement. I wasn’t so much up front in [the movement] but I’ve always backed them up. I marched with them, got arrested with them.

“It still pisses me off when people talk about us as if we’re extinct,” he says. “I was sitting at Alice Springs Airport with my brother and sister-in-law and overheard these people saying there are no blacks in Sydney, unlike Alice Springs where they’re all over the bloody place. 'We often stay in Sydney for up to four days and have never seen a black,’ they said.

“It turns out they stay at Vaucluse and dine out at Watsons Bay, so of course they’re not going to see any blackfellas.

“I do talks at university and students say: 'This is not what I’ve been told about Aboriginal people.’ And I was talking to a Swiss journalist recently who said: 'Over in Europe, we know more about the blackfellas than your own people know about them.’

“That’s what I’m about – letting people know we’re still here. We might be dressed different from those 'real’ blackfellas that everyone seems to think only come from up north, with a spear and a kangaroo, but we’re here. We’ve always been here.”

And it’s not only whites who are ignorant of Sydney’s living black heritage. “I took seven youths out to Ku-ring-gai National Park who didn’t even know it existed. They didn’t know there was bush this close because they’d been brought up in this concrete jungle. I told them about respect. I said, 'You fellas might be city kids but you’re all blackfellas and if you muck up here I don’t think you’ll be able to sleep tonight. They never mucked up because it doesn’t matter who you are, that old blackfella thing in the back of your head goes back a long way. It’s powerful stuff.”

As for Australia Day: “To us it’s a remembrance day. We celebrate survival. We know we can’t change things that happened back then but you have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. Aboriginal people have never wanted sympathy. All we ever wanted was understanding.”

Still, if he found himself standing on the Warrane shore in the summer of 1788, there’s no way he’d conduct a welcome to country ceremony for the First Fleet. “Knowing what I know now, I’d be picketing: 'Go home! Go home!’ And all my mob would do the same.”

Today, the Gadigal mob number in the hundreds. “I’ve got 10 kids and 17 grandkids,” Madden says. “Counting myself, there’s 28 for a start. Then there’s my brother, who has four kids and seven grandkids, and my sisters who’ve got four kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. So you’re looking at more than 100 just with Maddens. Then we have our first cousins that married into the Maddens – the Davises – and they’ve got a big family.

“And that’s just around here. If you want to go out to Mount Druitt where some of the other mob live, you’ll get another 50 or 60 just there. Some families have moved out but they’re still all members of this land council.”

When Madden looks out on his country today, he doesn’t take pride in its famous landmarks – the bridge, the Opera House and such – but in its people, whatever their skin. “I see a lot of people who are passionate about the place where they live,” he says. “I’m really proud of the Sydneysiders. They’re making a difference and they’re really starting to think about their country. My father told me many years ago: 'Son, look after what you’ve got now because God’s not making any more.’

“Aboriginal people have never, ever professed to own this land. This is our mother. This is where we come from and where we’ll go back to. We can’t do anything with you fellas. There’s too many of you. We can’t put you on a boat and send you back home, so we’ve all got to share and care for this country. It’s all of our country. We just happened to be here first.”

Terry Smyth is Books Editor for The Sun Herald and Deputy Literary Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Allen Madden has worked as a cultural and education officer with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and is a consultant for land, site and heritage projects, as well as lecturing widely and conducting Welcome to Country ceremonies as a Gadigal elder.

This interview was originally published in The Sun Herald on 15 February 2009.

Images (from top): Daniel Boyd We Call Them Pirates Out Here 2009, oil on canvas, Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006, Image courtesy and © the artist
M Lesueur Sydney in 1803 Frontispeice for Photographs of Public and Other Buildings, etc by Charles Pickering PXD 524 Album ID 823409 Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales