Involvement in European Economic Activity

Aboriginal people throughout the south coast were involved in a wide range of economic activities associated with the new economic regime introduced by Europeans. Aboriginal people worked in the fishing industry, the timber trade, as agricultural and domestic labourers, and in some instances as self employed farmers and contractors.

In a journalist’s account of a journey down the south coast in 1871 a different way of engaging with the cash economy is evident in an account of a man known as Narrang Charlie agreeing to show the journalist the track he needed in return for a cash payment:

I left Nelligen for Moruya at about 5 p.m., the distance being twentyeight or thirty miles. There are two roads, viz, via Bateman’s Bay, and by the Coast Range. I again chose the Coast Range track, I say track, for I unfortunately found what was called “the Coast Range road” little better than a cattle track… After travelling for about an hour or two, it became quite dark, and when coming down a range, I should think five or six miles from Nelligen, I found that I had got off the track, and was wandering on barren, pebbly ground, with scarcely a blade of grass… After several hours hard climbing (I led my horse), I got to the summit of the opposite range, and down the other side, over gullies, rocks, stones, and fallen timber, and through hundreds of those aggravating zamias, better known as burrawangs. The poor horse patiently followed me, and we arrived at last on a clear open flat, which we followed down for several miles. I then saw a light in the distance, in a scrubby place. I went up to it, feeling sure that I was at last near some habitation, but judge of my surprise when it proved to be a small fire, from around which, as I approached it, there rose a lot of dogs that rushed howling at me, and a most unearthly row and yabber met my ears. When the noise was in a measure quelled, with the exception of the yelps of the smaller brutes, I managed to make out that I had come on a blacks’ camp and gunyah, in front of which was an astonished looking old blackfellow and his lubra – personages of by no means prepossessing looks, in the fitful gleams of light cast by their little fire, which gave these native denizens of the wilds a most weird appearance. As I spoke to the old fellow, he kept throwing handfuls of dry grass on the fire – making it blaze up in flashes, in order to have a full and better view of me.

I found him both stubborn and inquisitive, and at intervals he had a dialogue in the native language with his gin, who had retreated under scanty covering into the gunyah. I endeavoured to make an arrangement with him to show me the road to the nearest house, which he said was four miles, and he modestly asked a pound. I, of course, refused to transact business on such terms. After repeated consultations with his better-half (blacks don’t like to stir about at night), he ultimately said, “Well, how much you gib me?” I proposed half-acrown as a start. The lord of the forest would not hear of such low terms, but ultimately he bargained to go for two half-crowns. I was glad to agree to this, for it was now nearly one o’clock in the morning, so, after considerable preparation and grumbling on his and the lubra’s part (for he would not go without her), they prepared a “bush lantern,” described on a previous occasion as being made of “stringy bark,” They at last collected their movables, and made a start; and when they did so it was a peculiar sight to see them dashing about and making circles with the blazing stringy bark in order to keep it alight, and perhaps keep away spirits. Travelling for about three-quarters of a mile, we reached a track, which we followed for a mile-and-a-half and arrived at the river bank, which we followed for about half-a-mile to the crossing place. Here my sable guide demanded half-a-crown, and having got it, refused to go any further. I tried bouncing and persuasion by turns without effect. Blacks have a great fear of spirits at night, and the old fellow appeared to have some superstitious dread of crossing this river after dark, which feeling proved more powerful than anything I could say or offer him. They , however, asserted that there was a track on the opposite side of the river which would bring me to “Mitter McCloud’s,” and that it was only “two mile” distant, so I resolved to again try my luck, and left the blacks, who quickly retraced the way towards their camp. The name of the old blackfellow is “Narrang Charlie,” and he is, of course, well-known in the district.

It is not possible at this distance to know the reason for Narrang Charlie refusing to cross the river, it may have had to do with the spirits or it may have reflected a group boundary. In another article by the same journalist he mentions an Aboriginal man working at bark-stripping in the Moruya area:

… we came to a point of the Polwoombra Mountain, from which opens out in the distance a view of the broad Pacific to the east, with the old township of Broulee at our feet, the Pigeon-house to the north, and the Moruya Heads to the south. The road from this place wound for several miles sidling along the mountain. About five miles from Moruya, we met a blackfellow carrying a long straight stick. He recognized Mr. Flanagan with a grin, and pointed to the notches – about forty in number – quite triumphantly. On enquiry I discovered that the blackfellow is employed bark-stripping, and gets so much per sheet, for all he strips. The notched stick was his account of the number of sheets. He usually brings in this primitive document to Moruya, and then his employer sends out a team to the bush for the bark.

A local history of the Narooma area refers to the range of work that Aboriginal people were doing in the wider region:

Many worked on local properties at Tilba and Bodalla on a regular basis, including the women doing cooking or cleaning. Some local people travelled to Twofold Bay in the season to work in the shorebased whaling industry, from the early 1840s. Some did seasonal work such as picking beans, stripping bark or woodchopping, while others worked in the local timber industry. Some settled at Bodalla, Turlinjah, Kianga or on the reserve at Wallaga Lake established in 1891. Many of their descendants live in the area today.

Scattered amongst the documents are occasional glimpses of the working life of individual Aboriginal people and families in the Eurobodalla area. In the Aborigines Protection Board census of 1882 it was stated that at Nelligen:

Tom Brown and family, half-castes, employed in getting timber and wattle bark. Abraham and Donald, with their families, live principally by fishing and bark-stripping, with occasional odd jobs from settlers.

A local history of Tilba Tilba also provides more individual detail:

Many of the Wallaga men worked as farm labourers on local farms alongside Europeans. These included Bob Andy, young Bob Andy, Des Picalla and Andy Bond (veteran World War 1), and Ben Cruse at Corunna. Others were self-employed like William Thomas, a sharefarmer on “Little Farm” in the early 1900s, and Mr Walker who was a contractor. Some of the women were employed as domestics, such as Mary Andy (nee Piety) and her daughter-in-law Lizzie.

Mr Walker, the contractor, had a bullock team and “… was always referred to as “Mr Walker”. He was a contractor, doing everything from contract ploughing to land clearing. His bullock team was quite famous because of the two “beautiful white bullocks”.

In his overview of the history of Aboriginal people on the far south coast in the nineteenth century Cameron made the following observation regarding the local people’s capacity to adapt to the impact of European intrusion:

Far from retreating in bewilderment from the new society and its technologies Far South Coast Aborigines, like the Dhan-gadi people, showed astonishin
g resilience and adaptability. They swiftly acquired a vast range of new skills, including a new language, so that by the century’s end the majority were able to find employment with Whites or, in a few cases, run small farms on their own account.

Plate 6: Mr Walker with his famous bullock team, c.1900, photograph from W.H. Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of Australia.
Plate 6: Mr Walker with his famous bullock team, c.1900, photograph from W.H. Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of Australia.

This statement could equally be applied to the central south coast area of Eurobodalla. As elsewhere throughout the state the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw the increasing control of the lives of Aboriginal people through the Aborigines Protection Board. The development of economic self-sufficiency, and undermined and people were increasingly pushed onto Board managed stations such as Wallaga Lake.

Nonetheless throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Aboriginal people on the south coast continued to work in the fishing and timber industries and in a wide variety of general labouring jobs throughout the Eurobodalla area. Fishing was an important industry for many Aboriginal families and communities all along the south coast:

During the 1870s and 1880s, fishing boats were provided by the government to Aboriginal families on the south coast and fishing seems to have been a widespread activity…. Living memory extends back to shortly before World War II when the Brierly family had a ’22 foot’ vessel and at first used hand-lines and then employed nets. Initially Walter Brierly worked for a British family in order to get enough money to buy a net…. An arrangement was made with a Sydney firm who supplied the Brierly family with a ’45 foot’ launch, the Jean, with the payment for the boat being taken out of the catches… The boat was lost in the big flood which swept away the Moruya Bridge in 1945 to 1946…

After the Jean was lost, Ernie Brierly bought a ’16 foot’ boat… By and large throughout his life, Ernie’s livelihood has come from fishing… The Brierly crew regularly fished from Durras to Bermagui, down to the Victorian boarder (sic) and occasionally up to Jervis Bay… [Other Aboriginal fishing families were the]… Squires at Eden, Brierlys at Moruya, Nyes at Mogo, Butlers at Bawley Point, Ardlers at Wreck Bay and Connollys at Orient Point.

However, the major area of employment for Aboriginal people in the area for most of the twentieth century was seasonal crop-picking. The two major centres for south coast crop-picking in the mid twentieth century were Bodalla and Bega:

At the height of the crop-picking season, extending from January till the end of March or April, Bodalla and Bega receive several hundred Aboriginal crop-pickers. These come not only from different parts of the South Coast and New South Wales (e.g. La Perouse, Riverina), but also from Victoria some 200 miles away. A number of Aboriginal people from Wallaga Lack Aboriginal Station temporarily move to nearby Bodalla during the crop-picking season.

Aboriginal people’s involvement in the seasonal picking work, so central for many decades to the rural industries of the south coast, constitutes a major economic contribution to the region. The freedom of movement associated with the availability of seasonal work also played an important role in allowing for the maintenance of wide ranging networks of kinship amongst the Aboriginal people of the south coast and connected regions.

Taken from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales. View the full study.

Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.