Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have occupied this lands and have been telling stories and creating art for tens of thousands of years. There is clear evidence that Aboriginal people occupied lived on sites in the area now known as Waverley in the period before European occupation. We know this through trodden pathways, ancient rock carvings, artefacts and discoveries of shelters used as living quarters.
Middens Collecting shellfish
The Sydney coastline including Bondi once had an abundance of shellfish. This included yangga (lobster), gurung (abalone), gariga (crabs), bidhinja (oysters) and a range of other shellfish native to the region.
The importance of shellfish as a food source is demonstrated by a midden found within a rock shelter at the southern end of Bondi Beach. Middens are piles of shells discarded by Aboriginal people after the shellfish have been consumed.
Middens across Coastal Sydney grew over thousands of years as the traditional owners consumed shellfish in traditional camps and placed the leftover shells in the same place.
This practice of collecting and eating shellfish at Bondi continued well into the 1900s, as demonstrated by records of Aboriginal men wearing football jumpers collecting crabs in 1928 at Bondi.
Prior to Bondi being over-fished and over-developed, the Aboriginal people of Coastal Sydney could collect shellfish from the rocky shores at low tide. Since shellfish are no longer abundant, traditional owners of Coastal Sydney now dive to collect many species of shellfish. Regulations on catch sizes also limit the ability of Aboriginal people to continuing shellfish gathering practices handed down for thousands of generations.
Tamarama Engraving Site
Look out for the coastal rock art at MacKenzie’s Point at Marks Park, Tamarama. It is an engraving of a six-meter shark with a fish inside. A Dreaming story related to the site, about the Arrival of the Dharawal People, has been shared by Elder Beryl Timbery Beller:
At the start of time, all the people were animals that lived in another land and the best means of travel was by water. Some of the animals decided that it was time to go live in another country to find better hunting grounds.
Whale, who was bigger than everyone else, owned the only canoe big enough to carry them all. Whale was not a friendly one and would not lend the canoe, so they got Starfish, Whale’s only friend, to help by doing something with him so they could sneak the canoe away.
One day Starfish said to Whale “You’ve got lots of mulas, let me clean them for you” and so Whale agreed.
They went to a sunny place on the rocks lying in the sun. Whale soon fell asleep and the other animals slipped away in his canoe. Koala, being the strongest, was the main rower.
But Whale woke up and was very angry with his friend Starfish and they had a fight. Starfish hit the whale on the top of the head and put a hole in it.
Whale won the fight, beating poor Starfish and throwing him to the bottom of the rock pool where we find him today. Whale then chased the other animals, swimming as fast as he could, spurting water out of the hole in his head. They reached land in what is now known as Port Kembla.
Brolga then stamped a hole in the boat and it sunk. It can be seen at low tide in the harbour.
Whale is still seen going up and down the coast today looking for his canoe, spurting water from the hole in his head.
The origin and meaning of the name Bondi remains a subject of debate. Since the early decades of white settlement in Sydney, the beach’s name has appeared with various spellings including Bundi, Bundye and Boondye. All agree the word has an Indigenous history.
The spelling of Bondi may have changed over time, but the suburb’s name is derived from the Dharawal language spoken by Aboriginal people from Sydney Harbour to the Shoalhaven. It is the Dharawal word for a loud thud noise – the sound made by waves breaking over rocks. The word is also associated with clubs, or fighting sticks, due to the loud thud noise made on impact.
The first known written reference appeared in a field book of the colonial surveyor James Meehan, who in 1809 referred to it as Bundi Bay when he mapped the 200-acre land grant made to the ex-convict road builder William Roberts by Governor Macquarie.
Roberts made his land available for cattle grazing soon after he received the grant. In an advertisement in the Sydney Gazette on August 21, 1819, he offered his farm at ‘Bundye’, “which is well-calculated for the depasturage of stock … which will be taken every possible care of at the low rate of six-pence a week for each head, which will be necessary to defray the expense of a proper herdsman”.
The name Bondi was used in the NSW Calendar and Directory in 1832. An advertisement for the sale of Bondi Estate land in 1852 also used it. The Australian Museum also records the use of the name Boondi, described in sources dating from 1896.
Whatever names the historical record contains, archaeological studies show that Bondi was and remains a significant place for First Nations people, who were still camping and practicing culture in the area in the 1870s.
A large gale that hit Bondi in 1899 blew away enough sand to expose vast quantities of cultural objects from a highly significant Aboriginal beach campsite. Many of these objects are in the Australian Museum.
The gale revealed that Bondi was significant to Aboriginal people, and its surf-derived name proved prophetic with the beach becoming the birthplace of Australia’s surf culture.
Cultural Identity of Indigenous people
Aboriginal people belonging to Coastal Sydney can identify themselves in a number ways, including:
- Clan or family group like those associated with the Bondi coast e.g. Gadigal, Birrabirragal, Bidiagal.
- Region e.g. Kamayngal or Gamayngal (people belonging to Botany Bay)
- Environmental e.g. Gadhungal (saltwater people)
- Overarching language spoken e.g. Dharawal
These layers of identification link Aboriginal people on a personal, local and regional basis. The term ‘clan’ was introduced by Europeans and there is a false perception clan groups within a cultural area are separate cultural groups and not interrelated.
Clans, like the Gadigal clan, Birrabirragal clan, Bidiagal/Bidjigal clan or Gweagal clan, are extended family groups which have responsibilities to care for certain parts of their broader cultural area. However, the Aboriginal people of Coastal Sydney were not restricted to a clan-specific area and could move freely within their broader cultural area, which stretched from Sydney Harbour down to the Shoalhaven.
In the 1860s, Turuwul (Dharawal) was described as “the language of the now extinct tribe of Port Jackson and Botany Bay (from John Malone, a half-caste, whose mother was of that tribe) and was the first known language name for the greater Sydney area”. At that time, it was common for Aboriginal people to be described as belonging to an “extinct” tribe, due to the belief that Aboriginal people born after colonisation were not “authentic” Aboriginal people.
Dharawal is also the name of the native plant commonly known as the cabbage tree palm and is the overarching spirit ancestor or totem for all Aboriginal people and clan groups who belong to and speak Dharawal. From an Aboriginal perspective, Dharawal language and country go together and the people speaking Dharawal belong to Dharawal country.
As saltwater people, the Aboriginal people of Coastal Sydney used canoes to travel across bodies of water, including Bondi Beach. There are different types of canoes, but they are commonly referred to as mudjari (something that goes across the water). Canoes where used for travel and by men and women practising traditional fishing techniques. Men would stand up and spear fish using their garrara (fishing spears). Women would fish with hooks and lines while sitting on seaweed or fern in the canoe. Children would accompany them fishing or travelling. A small fire would be lit in the canoes, built on a bed of clay to prevent the canoe burning. They would cook fresh fish and keep themselves warm.
The canoes were made of bark taken from a large tree. The bark sheets were prepared by roasting them over fire. They were then lashed together at either end using strong vines. Spreaders were then fixed inside the canoe to maintain the required shape. These canoes ranged between 2.5 to 5 metres in length and could navigate rough surf with ease. They used two wooden paddles that were roughly a metre long, with two hands working in a sweeping backwards motion.
If a canoe took on water, it was bailed out using a flat stone. Any holes in the canoe were repaired using materials such as gum and glues with leaves and other materials to make a putty-like material. The lightweight canoes could be dragged on shore when not in use. Coastal Sydney Aboriginal people often used a stone attached to a line as an anchor to prevent canoes from drifting.
Aboriginal people belonging to Bondi and the broader Coastal Sydney cultural area made tools using various types of wood, bone, shell and stone. One such area in which Aboriginal people made these tools was a camp in the sand dunes near Bondi Beach. This location was referred to as a “workshop” in the early 1900s due to the volume of tools and related materials found there after a storm in 1899. Similar “workshops” have been found in Curl Curl, Dee Why, Cronulla and Botany. However, the Bondi location was recorded as the most extensive. Some of the tools found in this camp are as follows:
The tools have become known as the Bondi Points. The name comes from the thousands of backed spearpoints made of flaked ancient river cobbles that were uncovered by the storm. Many were thought to be barbs to be affixed to a spear.
Stone axe heads were also found at the Bondi camp. They had a range of uses and some were made of stone that was not found in Coastal Sydney. This confirms that the traditional owners of Coastal Sydney participated in extensive trade networks.
Implements used to engrave wood were also found at the Bondi camp and were used for line-based designs on boomerangs and other weapons.
A whale washed ashore just north of Bondi Beach on 1 November 1845. Aboriginal people living at the traditional camp at Bondi delivered the news of the rare event to Sydney Town. The story reveals that Aboriginal people were living at Bondi in 1845, just as they were in the 1870s and all through the 19th century. The presence of Aboriginal people in the Bondi area for such a long time after colonisation is rarely acknowledged.
It also reveals how comfortable Coastal Sydney Aboriginal people were in engaging with the colony. That the Aboriginal people camping at Bondi took the time to walk into Sydney town (today’s CBD) to tell settlers of the whale beaching indicates they had positive relationships with some Europeans. Nineteenth-century records of Coastal Sydney Aboriginal reveal that identities such as Mahroot, Cora Gooseberry, William Warrell and Thomas Tamara frequented Sydney Town and the homes of other Europeans in the eastern suburbs as it pleased them. Europeans did not realise at the time that these Aboriginal people were moving within their traditional cultural area.
The term ‘Sydney’ also had a different meaning in the 19th century. Aboriginal people said to be travelling from outside “Sydney” simply meant that they were coming from outside of the centre of the town. By this definition, Bondi and Rose Bay were “outside of Sydney”. This reveals that Aboriginal people with a traditional connection to Coastal Sydney, despite not living in the centre of ‘Sydney’, continued to live in the area and were comfortable travelling into the town and leveraging personal relationships they built up with settlers when necessary.
Bondi Pavilion room names
First Nations names have been given to Bondi Pavilion spaces as a part of its conservation and restoration. The words are drawn from the Dharawal language, the overarching language spoken by the Aboriginal people of Coastal Sydney.
The Pavilion’s central atrium, opened to the in its redesign, is named, Mirrar using the Dharawal term for ‘above and sky’.
The courtyards are renamed Garu (meaning ‘northern’) and Guya (‘southern’).
The Pavilion balcony overlooking the beach is called Nandiri, which is Dharawal for ‘look and see’.
The Yalagang Room, designed for a range of activities, takes on the Dharawal for ‘rejoice’.
The naming process was led by the Gujaga Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that is part of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community Alliance. Gujaga leads language, cultural and research activities in collaboration with local Elders, senior knowledge holders and leading academics.
The Dharawal language was spoken by Aboriginal people from Sydney Harbour to the Shoalhaven. It is also the name for the cabbage tree palm, which is the overarching spirit ancestor (totem) for people speaking and belonging to the Dharawal language group.
In traditional culture, many variants of the language were spoken within the area. Clan groups such as the Gadigal, Birrabirragal, Bidjigal and Gweagal all spoke Dharawal, the overarching language belonging to their cultural area.
Use of Indigenous languages was banned for much of white settlement, but language reclamation studies are seeing many revived. Dharawal is being taught to children in schools and early learning centres within the Dharawal cultural area.
In late 2021, Gujaga launched the free Dharawal Language and Culture App, developed to preserve connection to Country, capture cultural knowledge for future generations and share the language with the wider community.
Building Bridges Concert
On 24 January, 1988, Bondi Pavilion hosted the Building Bridges concert. It is now regarded as a significant moment in the recognition of Indigenous rights in Australia. The event showcased black and white talent and was planned as a lead-up event for people arriving from all over Australia for the Bicentennial Long March for Justice, Freedom and Hope in Sydney the next day.
The two events were a counterpoint to official Bicentenary celebrations, which did little to recognise the contribution of First Nations people or the injustices they had endured over the previous 200 years. Indigenous groups, supported by many in the Maori community, came together across the nation to boycott and protest against official celebrations.
The Building Bridges concert aimed to combat racism and raise the profile of First Nations musicians. It was described as an uplifting, politically charged event, with 3000 Indigenous and non-indigenous people on their feet for 6 hours in the Bondi Pavilion courtyard. The MCs, Gary Foley and Peter Garrett, delivered messages of anti-discrimination, unity and hope, while artists including Shane Howard, Goanna, Mixed Relations and Les Shillington performed. Now-MP Linda Burnie received one of the loudest cheers of the day, telling the crowd: ‘If you hear racist words, don’t sit back and not speak up; if you see whites mistreating blacks in any way, act upon it; otherwise you are as much a hypocrite as everyone who has let these problems exist until today.’
Garrett surprised the crowd when his band, Midnight Oil, performed. It was their first show together for 12 months.
The event was co-ordinated by the Building Bridges Association, which included musicians Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, Jacqui Katona, Tony Duke and Jim George.
The association aimed to use music to link Aboriginal people and culture to wider audiences. The following year, the group launched a compilation album at the Bondi Pavilion called Australia has a Black History. It supported many emerging First Nations artists including Yothu Yindi.
Many Aboriginal rock engraving sites can be found along the coast of Sydney, several of which are across the cliff edges of Bondi. Rock engravings were a common form of artwork used around Coastal Sydney, as a way of teaching, potential boundary markings and to show the sources of food within the area. Coastal Sydney people continued to hold knowledge of engravings in the 19th century and these places are still very important to Aboriginal people today.
There are rock engravings to the north and south of Bondi Beach. At north Bondi, is an engraving of one side of a whale and a turtle, and a small distance away two shields and an eel can be found.
The whale engraving is significant to Aboriginal people belonging to the Coastal Sydney cultural area, who have a significant cultural connection to ocean life and in particular their spirit ancestor the buriburi, which in Dharawal language means humpback whale.
The Old People said: We know where buriburi and his descendants have been because of the islands that are made in our country. Islands in Sydney Harbour, like Clarke Island, and others in Botany Bay and the Shoalhaven, were made by burburi.
Over time, buriburi and then his descendants thinking that they found their lost barangga (meaning ‘large vessel’ in Dharawal), they went around it, made it deeper, then realised it wasn’t theirs and off they’d go again spurting water out the top of their heads.
Stories like this allow First Nations to understand the world through a spiritual lens. For them, knowledge is abstract and theoretical, applying spiritual reasoning as a matter of logic. Spiritual reasoning is therefore logic for them.
This story was told to current community members when they were young, by senior Dharawal women. It was told to them in the early 1900s by people who lived under full kinship lore, including in camps throughout Coastal Sydney.