This week is NAIDOC Week. The acronym officially refers to the ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ and the week is sometimes referred to as the ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Days of Celebration’. At church on Sunday there was a short act of remembrance, including the words ‘We also acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and worship – the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation’. There is a plaque to the same effect in the foyer of the building.
The tribal name Cadigal is attested in the writings of the early British colonial period from 1788 to approximately 1801. The Cadigal took their name from Cadi, the land ‘[f]rom the entrance of the harbour, along the south shore, to the cove adjoining this settlement [then called Long Cove, now called Darling Harbour]’ (Governor Arthur Phillip). They were ‘reduced … to three persons’ by the epidemic (usually identified as smallpox) of 1789, no doubt because their country lay adjacent to the British settlement.
The word ‘eora’ is not as clear in its scope. Judge Advocate and Colonial Secretary David Collins wrote ‘I then asked him [Bennelong] where the black men (or Eora) came from?’. The word also appears in his word list ‘Eo-rā, The name common for the natives.’, and in those of Marine Lieutenant William Dawes ‘Eeōra Men, or people’, three anonymous writers ‘People, Eo_ra (or) E_ō_rāh +’; Navy Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King ‘Eo-ra, Men or People.’, and Navy Midshipman Daniel Southwell ‘Yo-ra, A number of people.’ and ‘People. E-o-rāh.’.
Dawes’s notebook also contains short sentences and dialogues in the Sydney language. He uses ‘eora’ (variously spelled) and a possible plural form ‘eorara’ in six sentences, uttered by at least three different people (himself and two young local women):
[unattributed] ‘·Yenmaou1 mullnȧoul2 naabaou3 eeóra4. ·I will go1 morning2 I will see3 people4. In plain english, ·I will go tomorrow morn-ing to see the people· (before spoken of)’
[presumably Warrawear] ‘W. Nābao‸uwı :ŋalía: nāba eora widadwȧra The eoras shall see us drink (sulphur) Or Nābao‸uwı ŋalārı wida-dwȧra eorára nāba This last in preference’
[himself] ‘D. Mínyın gūlara eóra? Why are the b. m. angry?’
[Patyegarang] ‘P. Ŋwıyí̇ tālı tyu̇ŋóra breada eóra He gave pork (and) bread to the eoras, P. Ŋwiadyaoúwı magŏra eorāra dyı The eoras gave fish to him’
So the word is translated as ‘black men’, ‘The name common for the natives.’, ‘Men, or people’, ‘People’, ‘Men or People.’, ‘A number of people.’, ‘People.’, ‘the people’, ‘the b. m’. There is nothing in ‘Men, or people’ etc which would preclude it from referring to the British, but it never was — they were ‘Bèreewolgal, meaning — men come from afar’ (Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench), or more ominously ‘Goòroobeera’ those who carry ‘a stick of fire’ (musket).
Clearly, ‘eora’ is word only applied to the locals, by themselves and by the British. To whom did it refer? There is no direct record by the First Fleet writers. Friendships and enmities, between people and groups, waxed and waned. The Gamaragal (commemorated in the name of the modern-day suburb of Cammeray), who lived on the lower north shore, were ‘very powerful’, and the Buruberongal, who lived ‘inland’ (somewhere between Parramatta and the Hawkesbury River), were ‘bad men’, Colebee’s and Ballooderry’s ‘enemies’ and ‘climbers of trees’ (that is, they lived by hunting and not fishing) (Phillip, his italics).* Bungaree came from ‘the north-side of Broken-Bay’ (Collins), ‘Gòme-boak’ was ‘a stranger of an extraordinary appearance and character’ from ‘far to the southward’ of the southern shore of Botany Bay and several unnamed people came from ‘a great distance inland’.
So, there is no contemporary use of ‘eora’ to refer to a larger language/social/?political group, and no record of where the boundaries of that group (if it existed) lay. This does not mean that there wasn’t a larger social group – the First Fleet writers were at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong in what they recorded.
The other issue arising is what the word ‘nation’ means. Dictionary.com’s first definition is ‘a large body of people [in this case, yes], associated with a particular territory [in this case, yes], that is sufficiently conscious of its unity [in this case, questionable] to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own [in this case, questionable – there is no record of ‘government’ even at the tribal level, let alone the ‘national’ level]’. But can or should we apply modern Western definitions to situations as they stood among indigenous peoples in the late eighteenth century? The fourth definition, though, is: ‘an aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages’, which clearly applies, but is less specific.
Last thought: the pronunciation of ‘eora’ is not ‘ee-ora’ or ‘ay-ora’. Modern linguistic reconstructions of the word are ‘Iyura’ (Jeremy Steele) and ‘yura’ (Jakelin Troy).
* Sneering at ‘Westies’ has a long history. Collins records: ‘The natives of the coast, whenever speaking of those of the interior, constantly expressed themselves with contempt and marks of disapprobation. Their language was unknown to each other, and there was not any doubt of their living in a state of mutual distrust and enmity. Those natives, indeed, who frequented the town of Sydney, spoke to and of those who were not so fortunate, in a very superior tone, valuing themselves upon their friendship with the white people, and erecting in themselves an exclusive right to the enjoyment of all the benefits which were to result from that friendship.’
For more information, see Val Attenbrow, Sydney’s Aboriginal Past, UNSW Press, (2002), pp 35-6.