Red letter days

Celebrations, rituals and ceremonies have always been important parts of life in this place, even before it was called Sydney.

The many carvings, clearings, and ceremonial sites in the Sydney basin show that the Aboriginal people had a full calendar of celebrations and ceremonies , but little detailed knowledge survived the invasion.

Colebee applying grilled fish to Nanbarry's gum after having his tooth struck out, c1798, Detail of 'Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang 8'. From An account of the English colony in New South Wales... by David Collins, 1798

In 1795, after the disastrous smallpox epidemic and large-scale dispossession had caused death and dislocation among the clans of the Eora and Dharug people, those who were left attempted to keep their rituals going with an initiation ceremony for young men, held at Woccanmagully, which the settlers called Farm Cove. There was much singing, dancing and ceremony, and preparing a large clear oval ground for the ceremony took some days. Among the participants were Nanbarry, an initiate, and Pemulwuy and Colebee, who were sponsors. Another initiate, Caruey, will be included in the Dictionary with a biography in May.

Described by David Collins, the ceremony involved knocking out a front tooth. An illustration from Collins’s 1798 book showed Nanbarry’s uncle Colebee soothing his sore mouth with a grilled fish.

Ceremonies such as this were still held in areas close to Sydney, such as Lake Macquarie, well into the nineteenth century and possibly later. Val Attenbrow’s book Sydney’s Aboriginal Past: Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records, published in a second edition in 2010 by University of New South Wales Press, is  a good source of information.

The settlers developed celebrations of their own as the colony grew, and one of the first was Anniversary Day, 26 January. Anne Coote has written for us about the ways in which the settlers remembered the foundation of the colony, and how the celebrations changed over the nineteenth century.

Picnic at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, Sydney c1855 by State Library of NSW (a1528104 / DG 265)

Governor Macquarie celebrated Anniversary Day with extravagance on the thirtieth anniversary in 1818, with a dinner, ball and a holiday for government employed convicts. Elite free settlers continued to note the Anniversary with dinners and speeches, but it did not become a popular holiday until mid-century, when regattas, picnics and entertainment were chosen recreations for government and private employees who were given a holiday. Evening entertainments included Anniversary Day concerts, plays and tableaux.

The other colonies celebrated their foundations on different days and it was not until well into the twentieth century that Australia Day, as it came to be called, was a national celebration.

Stay tuned for more on Sydney’s big celebrations in posts to come.


About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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