A day in the Mitchell Library is always filled with the promise of discovery.
But, of course, it’s mostly the slow but satisfying slog of research. Today is no different. I’m looking through microfilm copies of the papers of the Reverend John McGarvie, Presbyterian minister at Pitt Town and Ebenezer on the Hawkesbury River in the late 1820s, hoping as ever for glimpses of this river Country and its people.
So far it’s slim pickings. Reverend McGarvie spent a lot of time writing long, elaborate poems and wordy diatribes for the Sydney Gazette, but very little time describing what life was like on the river.
I keep scrolling, and suddenly a list appears on the screen. It’s headed ‘Native names of places on the Hawkesbury’. And there follow five pages of Aboriginal placenames along Dyarubbin (the Hawkesbury River), over 170 of them, written neatly in ink or pencil.
I’m stunned. I sit there staring at the screen, hardly believing my eyes. After years of research, my own and others, I had thought that most of the Aboriginal names of the Hawkesbury were lost forever, destroyed in the aftermath of invasion and dispossession. Yet, suddenly, this cache of riches.
Looking more closely, it’s clear that McGarvie took a lot of care with this list. The names appear to be in geographic order, and he included locational clues, like settlers’ names, creeks and lagoons.
An extraordinary idea dawned on me: what if we could restore these names to their places on the river? And then: what if these beautiful, rolling words came back into common usage?
The scores of names on these pages contrast so strikingly with the modern landscapes of the Hawkesbury and Western Sydney. Once every place had an Aboriginal name. Now there are so few reminders of Aboriginal history and presence.
Yet Western Sydney is home to one of the biggest concentrations of Aboriginal people in Australia. With some important exceptions, Aboriginal people rarely see themselves represented in key heritage sites, or in the everyday reminders and triggers of public memory. Could this list be the catalyst for change, for shifting the shape of our landscapes towards recognition of Aboriginal history?
I contacted Darug knowledge-holders, artists and educators Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins, Jasmine Seymour and Rhiannon Wright, asking if they would be interested in working on a project based on McGarvie’s list. The response was instant: in fact I was bowled over by their enthusiasm!
We designed the ‘Real Secret River Dyarubbin’ project together, and were thrilled when it won the State Library’s Coral Thomas Fellowship for 2018–19. This generous fellowship brought the project to life: not only because the funding enabled us to carry out the research and fieldwork, but because the Library and its staff have been so welcoming and supportive.