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Saltwater Dreaming – Welcome to Cadigal Country

By Thomas Saunders-Sheehan on June 13, 2014 in News

Picture: National Library of Australia

Picture: National Library of Australia

If you are reading these words, there is a good chance you are in Cadi Country, the traditional land of the Cadigal.

A historical misnomer has the Traditional Owners (TOs) of Sydney commonly and collectively known as the Eora (or Yura). Yet there is no evidence that the TOs ever used Eora as the name of a clan or place. There is historical evidence distinguishing the Cadigal as the TOs of eastern Sydney.

Historical sources variously spelt Cadigal as Gadigal or Kadigal, with all three used by modern sources. More important than spelling is to understand the pronunciation as a nasalised ‘C/G’ sound.

Cadigal is made up of the word Cadi, which is the name of place, and the suffix -gal which means ‘people’, hence Cadigal translates to ‘the people of Cadi’.

TOs see country as deeply interwoven with meaning and identity, and a definition of boundaries in a European sense should be approached cautiously. Usually natural features of the landscape helped define clan boundaries. This has helped anthropologists to understand Cadi Country as extending from South Head along the southern shore of Sydney Harbour, past Sydney Cove to a western border not precisely known today, but is believed to be beyond Pyrmont. The eastern border extended out into the Pacific and the southern border is believed to be the northern side of Botany Bay.

The size of the Cadigal clan is not known. Anthropological studies from all around Australia indicate that clan sizes usually varied from 25 to 60 people, and it is believed that the Cadigal numbered somewhere toward the higher end of this range. Like all clans, though, the numbers living on country might not indicate an accurate number of actual Cadigal, as clan members would marry members of other clans and move to the country of their spouses.

The TOs of the Sydney region were described at contact by First Fleet settlers as “always appear[ing] cheerful and in good humour” and elsewhere as “seemingly enjoying uninterrupted health and live to a great age”.
Captain Cook famously described the peoples of Botany Bay as “far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous, but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them will all things necessary for life… This, in my opinion, argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessaries of life…”

Unfortunately these early observations, which included the Cadigal, were about to be devastatingly affected by the settlement of New South Wales.

The tragedy for the Cadigal as a distinct clan was the settlement of Sydney Cove within their traditional land. In April of 1789, there was an outbreak of smallpox, brought by the settlers, with horrific consequences. It was believed by the colonists that by 1791 there were only three Cadigal still alive. This remains a widely held belief, yet this dire account is known to be untrue. Although the fate of the Cadigal is not fully known, historical accounts focus on a localised understanding of the TOs and tend to stress the devastation that existed and was witnessed on the fringe of the settlement. It is suggested, however, that the impact was varied across the Sydney region. The Cadigal may have been forced to abandon the occupation of their traditional land, but it is believed that those surviving Cadigal moved into surrounding regions.

As noted above, some Cadigal already lived with neighbouring clans through marriage, and no doubt welcomed their relatives. New communities reformed and one enduring and strong community formed in proximity to the Eastern Beaches in La Perouse. Given the likelihood of Cadigal playing a part in the reforming Aboriginal groups within Sydney, it is very likely that some members of these communities have a direct line of descent with the Cadigal.
There is no early record of the mother tongue spoken by the Cadigal. The most common belief is that they spoke a distinct dialect of the Darug Language Group known as ‘Coastal Darug’, as distinguished from ‘Hinterland Darug’ to the west. There is suggestion that they may have spoken Dharawal, the language spoken to the south and southwest.

And while the language’s name has been lost to history, we of the Eastern Beaches and use Cadigal words daily. The forgotten origins of these words, like the unseen rock engravings discussed last month, are just a small part of of the hidden legacies of the Cadigal. Next month we will explore some more of them.

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  1. This is unusual for me forever claiming to be White yet a grandmother when it was on one of her Drinking bender’s mentioned Cadigal people and said it was on my Father’s side and Why they claimed to be Dark French Gypsies instead of saying they had Cadigal blood. It’s only in later life have I begun to admit to being part Aboriginal which explains my olive skin and features and that other Aboriginal people have always treated me as one of them all my life. Even still today I am asked Why haven’t I got Governmental Aboriginal Aid and Support ? To the Government I am White to the Aboriginal I am one of them, Who knows? As everyone that may have proved or Disproved is Dead

    Posted by: Raymond Young | March 25, 2018, 5:37 PM |

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