Cover of book: The Sydney Wars

Stephen Gapps
The Sydney Wars

Australia Day. Invasion Day. The politics around commemorating January 26 has become angrier. While the history of European settlement will likely always be contested, often bitterly, it is clear Indigenous Australians did not acquiesce in the occupation of their lands.

Historian Stephen Gapps’ new book details the first 30 years of European–Aboriginal interaction in the Sydney basin. He takes us beyond Sydney Cove to fringes of the settlement, where clashes between Europeans and local tribes were common. Outposts in Parramatta, the Hawkesbury and Georges River were heavily armed garrisons. Convicts venturing beyond Sydney were armed in case of resistance.

Indigenous fighters, known at the time as “the Sydney people”, were neither weak nor helpless in the face of the musket and gunpowder. “The British conducted numerous difficult campaigns against combatants who held the distinct advantages of terrain and local knowledge,” he writes. “Aboriginal warriors won several battles and often stretched the limits of the colonial military forces.”

Gapps shows that by the early 1800s, Aboriginal resisters had seized and mastered the use of guns. There was much violence and atrocity committed by all combatants – spears through the heart, eyes gouged out, skulls cleaved. But bloodshed wasn’t always inevitable. At a confrontation on the lower north shore, they emerged from the bush to face down the Europeans. They were armed with spears, which the settlers knew they could wield with lethal accuracy. But the Indigenous men first threw their spears into the nearby grass – their version of a shot across the bows.

As European settlement spread, quickly and intensely, along the tributaries of greater Sydney, Aboriginal tribes increasingly worried about very practical things – their fishing and hunting groups and access to water. These became existential clashes.

Colonial authorities made formal declarations of war. Pemulwuy, the most noted and feared of the warriors, was eventually captured, shot and decapitated, his head kept as a trophy. The governor, Phillip King, called him both a “pest to the colony” and “a brave and independent character”. King hoped his death would quieten the colony and lead to better relations with the First Peoples.

Gapps’ assiduous use of original sources – gazettes, letters and personal accounts – makes for a compelling story and an even more important history.  PT

NewSouth, 432pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 9, 2018 as "Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars ".

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