06th September, 2022

Connect with Aboriginal history and culture on Sydney Harbour

Before the British settlement in 1788, the area now known as Sydney Harbour was inhabited by people of the Eora Nation, upon whose Country the penal settlement was built. Aboriginal people have lived in the region known as Sydney for up to 14,500 years. The clans that inhabited areas around the Harbour are the Gadigal in the south (in the Sydney city region), and the Cammeraygal in the north of the Harbour.

Australian society has struggled to establish respectful relationships with indigenous communities, from the first British settlers to current times although reconciliation is high on the agenda for the Australian government.

Evidence of pre-European life has been conserved in many ways and sites have been identified and can be explored on Sydney Harbour.

As you explore Sydney Harbour on a Captain Cook Cruise there are several points of interest that bear the significance of indigenous cultural life on the Harbour and islands.

Sydney / Warrane

Acknowledging more than 65,000 years of Indigenous custodianship, language, and knowledge into the mainstream consciousness of the land on which Australians live, work and travel, dual naming is being introduced more across Australian cities and landmarks, led by government agencies at a national, state and local level.

As further acknowledgment of changing times, in December 2020, Olivia Fox sang a version of Australia's national anthem (advance Australia Fair) in Eora language at a Tri-Nations rugby match between Australia and Argentina.

Aerial shot of Opera House on Australia Day special event non-ccc dnsw

Bennelong Point

Bennelong Point, where the World Heritage-listed Sydney Opera House stands, is reclaimed land, named to honour indigenous elder and leader, Woollarawarre Bennelong. Bennelong was said to have been befriended (after initially being kidnapped) by Governor Phillip to help build relationships with the indigenous people.

Phillip wanted to learn the language and customs of the local people. As a result, Bennelong became a go-between or interpreter of messages between the Eora clans and British settlers. Governor Phillip took Bennelong and his young friend Yemmerrawanne to England in 1792, reportedly to meet the King and government, returning to Sydney three years later.

Sydney 2000 boat cruising past Barangaroo during the day


This spectacular 22 hectare (54.5 acre) waterside precinct as a new Sydney city playground after 100 years as an industrial site, Barangaroo’s history goes much deeper. Named after a courageous powerful Cammeraygal woman of note in local Aboriginal culture at the time of European settlement, Barangaroo was the wife of Bennelong.

Fiercely proud and protective of her people, unlike Bennelong, Barangaroo stood up to the officers of the new settlement. The Gadigal people used the land for hunting, the Harbour for fishing and the foreshore for meeting. Darling Harbour was a source of cockles and oysters. The restaurant precinct on Darling Harbour is known as Cockle Bay Wharf.

Wugul Walk

While also being a Sydney lifestyle precinct extending from Sydney Harbour into Darling Harbour and home to the stunning Crown Towers Hotel, the Barangaroo precinct commemorates the traditional custodians and Barangaroo. The Wulugul Walk (named after the local indigenous name for Kingfish), is a spectacular foreshore promenade for pedestrians and cyclists in Barangaroo, which connects with the stunning 11km (6.8 mi) Sydney Harbour Foreshore Walk from Woolloomooloo to the Anzac Bridge. In fact, many of the placenames at Barangaroo are taken from local aboriginal culture.

Goat Island sightseeing aerial non-ccc dnsw

Goat Island

Known as Me-mel by the local Gadigal people, Goat Island was once inhabited by Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, and said to have been a site held by his father before him. Present day, the island has not been accessible by the general public except on guided tours.

There is rich history to explore on Goat Island, managed by the Sydney Harbour National Park. In April 2022, Goat Island was handed back to the traditional owners by the New South Wales state government in recognition of its importance to the decedents of Bennelong the local indigenous community.

Millers Point middens

In the 1970’s at Millers Point, on the end of the eastern shore of Cockle Bay (behind Barangaroo) excavations uncovered more than 400 indigenous artefacts – including discarded food waste (shellfish, fish and land animals), the remains of locally available shellfish including Sydney rock oyster, mud oyster, Sydney cockle, mud whelk and hairy mussel and four remnants of European crockery.

Sydney Harbour was a local food source and the hidden coves and islands were inhabited by local clans. It is estimated through carbon dating that people lived around Sydney Harbour as far back as 14,500 years ago.


The aboriginal communities lived on the islands and along the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. They were fishermen and fisherwomen. In small handmade canoes they would travel the waters of Sydney Harbour (and beyond the Sydney Heads into the ocean) fishing and eating their catch fresh from the water, cooked on clay flat beds on the canoe. Reportedly they would travel with children in this way, often in unison, sharing a sense of community.

Bangarra Dance Theatre

Housed on Sydney Harbour in the finger wharves at Walsh Bay, the home of Bangarra Dance Theatre looks out over the Harbour. Established for more than 32 years, Bangarra is one of Australia’s leading performing arts companies. Professional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers create powerful cultural performances for audiences across Australia and the world. Through contemporary dance, they tell the stories of their Elders, drawing on 65,000 years of culture. These moving performances create awareness and understanding of indigenous culture.

Circular Quay and Opera House Daytime

Cadmans Cottage – The Rocks

A short walk from the Circular Quay wharf where Captain Cook Cruises departs on sightseeing tours of Sydney Harbour is the historic Cadmans Cottage. Dreamtime Southern X start their leisurely walking tours here that uncover the Dreaming and explore the history of Indigenous Sydney. Discover how to experience contemporary Aboriginal society right in the heart of cosmopolitan Sydney today. Guests learn about ochre in sandstone, Aboriginal saltwater people, seasonal flora and witness significant sites.

Aboriginal Rock Art

You can view aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of NSW or the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sydney Harbour at Circular Quay. There are also places on the Harbour where you can view Aboriginal rock art in the Sydney Harbour National Park. Visit Grotto Point at Dobroyd Head on the North Harbour for historic rock art and scenic views. Close to the city at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, you can view more than 1,500 sites of historic rock art.

The Australian Museum

A short distance from Sydney Harbour, The Australian Museum is home to one of the world's most-significant First Nations collections representing Australia’s indigenous culture with collections of artworks, technologies and cultural significance. In 2020, 250 years after Captain James Cook discovered the continent that would become Australia, the Museum introduced Unsettled – an exhibition that recognises the disconnect in Australia’s past history and steps towards reconciliation by recognising the different perspectives and impacts of the development of Australia from first settlement to today.

Indigenous voices

There are a growing number of resources that tell the Eora journey from pre-settlement to current times. Sydney City Council offers insights on Aboriginal history of Sydney Harbour through indigenous voices. Barani (Yesterday) offers history from the perspective descendants of the first nation’s people. It will enrich your travels and your exploration of Sydney Harbour all the more.

Experiences mentioned in this article

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