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City of Sydney defer Aboriginal woman statue

A portrait of an Aboriginal woman believed to be Patyegarang who, in collaboration with First Fleet Lieutenant Dawes, created a Cadigal language dictionary that proved invaluable in communications between British colonists and Indigenous Australians.


On 2 July, City of Sydney Council voted 6 – 3 to amend and defer Councillor Dr Kerryn Phelps’ motion to commission a statue of Cadigal language teacher Patyegarang, what would have been the first publicly-funded statue in central Sydney to feature an Indigenous person.

Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully, who issued an amendment that was supported by the majority of councillors, dismissed Cr Phelps’ motion as a “knee-jerk, media moment.”

Patyegarang (pronounced Pat-che garang, meaning ‘Grey Kangaroo’) was a young Eora woman of the Cadigal (aka Gadigal) clan who was resident in southern Sydney upon the arrival of the earliest British colonists. With Lieutenant Dawes, she helped devise the first dictionary of an Aboriginal language that proved invaluable in early communications between Indigenous Australians and the British invaders.

Cr Phelps proposed Patyegarang as worthy of commemorating after the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC) approached her with their recommendation.

MLALC originally publicised Patyegarang as their preferred choice a year earlier during the 2019 annual NAIDOC week (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee).

Nathan Moran, Chief Executive of MLALC, told ABC News on 8 July 2019, “The narrative of only honouring colonial powers and authorities is a very narrow view of the colony itself. It’s breathtakingly hard trying to feel proud walking around seeing statues of people that my old people have told me have declared martial law on us.

“Patyegarang was able to sit down and have conversations that were able to be recorded so that we would have language that we can renew and revive.”

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge added “Justice for First Nations peoples requires us as a community to tell the truth about how First Nations peoples bravely resisted invasion, how they survived colonisation. That can’t be done if the only sanctioned historical figures are essentially white men with the occasional cat or queen thrown in.”

The cat he referred to is explorer Matthew Flinders’ cat ‘Trim’ (which he took with him on his 1802 maritime mission to circumnavigate Australia) that now sits on a window ledge at the Mitchell Library adjacent to the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Black statues matter
On Tues 30 June 2020, Cr Phelps posted on Facebook: “At tonight’s City of Sydney Council meeting, I will be proposing a new statue commemorating young Aboriginal woman Patyegarang, the first known interpreter of Gadigal language to English.” Due to time constraints, Phelps’ motion was postponed two days until 2 July.

Phelps told the City of Sydney Council meeting on 2 July, “I think that it is important that we see this notice of motion in context. It’s a response to Black Lives Matter protests in Australia and internationally… As part of those protests there were many of those statues.. that were destroyed or damaged because of what they represented.

“The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council in their discussions with me said they’d like to do something that was a positive response, that acknowledged some of the pain of the past but also acknowledged the positive issues of the past…”

Phelps recommended that a Patyegarang statue should be placed along the Eora Journey, a City of Sydney-commissioned series of artistic ventures. Eora Journey is described on the council’s webpage as “a visionary project that celebrates the living culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Sydney … which is made up of 4 projects … a curated series of interconnected stories and artworks along 9 km of Sydney Harbour foreshore, from Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour to Woolloomooloo.”

Phelps continued, “I think this is a statue that should stand with, but in addition to, the current plans. The current plans as they’re stated for the Eora Journey mention some kind of public artwork commemorating the site where the conversations between Lieutenant Dawes and Patyegarang were occurring. They don’t actually recommend commemorating her as an individual and as a leader in her community…

“I think it is very important to respect and consider the wishes of the representative body for the local Aboriginal community in Sydney [MLALC]. They would like to have a statue of Patyegarang to address the imbalance in statue representations of individuals … There is a room for certainly a lot more representations of important Indigenous individuals and stories…”

‘Knee-jerk.. media moment’
However, Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully circulated an amendment to Cr Phelps’ motion.

Whilst acknowledging “there is an imbalance of representation of the long Indigenous custodianship of Australia, versus the representation of the recent colonial history..” and the need for further discussion, she added: “The Eora Journey … is an over-arching ambition and it’s a process to work towards truth telling in the way we work with artists and communities, to correct the record. To tell the story of Australia that is honest and mature …

“This is too important an issue to be done in a knee-jerk way or to be done to take advantage of a media moment. This is work that has to done side by side with the community over the longest stretch of time…”

The Eora Journey has so far launched 3 out of 7 of its art projects, which are scheduled to take place over the course of a decade.

After Councillor Phelps reasserted that the request by MLALC to install an Indigenous statue – preferably Patyegarang – would send a message to Sydney’s Aboriginal community that the council was addressing historical perceptions of racism, Deputy Lord Mayor Scully countered that she was “mystified” that MLALC made a request through Cr Phelps instead of a “formal” request directly to council authorities.

Cr Phelps, revealing that the MLALC don’t enjoy a “happy” relationship with City of Sydney and “feel excluded”, asserted: “I think it’s really important that I don’t speak for the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, I’m simply passing along a request they made … it’s my impression that they’ve been trying for some years to engage productively with the council and are finding it very frustrating.”

Lord Mayor Clover Moore responded angrily “I think that is unfair and that it is such a misrepresentation of the relationship.”

The MLALC, who were listening to the live recording of the council debate, then texted a message to Cr Phelps, which the Lord Mayor refused to hear and ruled as inadmissible. Thereafter the meeting degenerated into partisan quarrelling and accusations of disrespectful behaviour.

Ultimately, Deputy Lord Mayor Scully amended her amendment to request that MLALC CEO Nathan Moran forward his request for a Patyegarang statue to the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council and report back to the council on their discussions. This was what the 6/9 councillors endorsed.


White male statues
In her 30 June Facebook post, Cr Phelps said, “This proposal by Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council is a positive response to the international BlackLivesMatter protests and some suggestions that statues representing Australia’s colonial past be removed.”

The statues Phelps referred to include navigator Captain James Cook, which is stood atop a granite plinth in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In April 1770 Cook found the until-then-rumoured great southern land ‘Terra Australis’ during his first Pacific maritime voyage and anchored in Botany Bay. There he received a hostile response from Indigenous people for not following protocol and awaiting an invitation to come ashore.

Cook’s statue in Sydney has long been criticised by Indigenous groups because the inscription on the base asserts the British explorer “discovered” Australia on his arrival in 1770.

In fact the first recorded European landing on Australian mainland was Dutch navigator Willem Janzoon at the Pennefather River in north Queensland in Feb 1606, although the first Aboriginal peoples arrived an estimated 60,000 years earlier.

On 13 June 2020 two women were arrested for spray-painting graffiti on the 1879 bronze, life-sized statue of Cook. Previously it was targeted in Aug 2017, when the words ‘No pride in genocide’ and ‘Change the date’ were spray-painted on its base.

The latter graffiti refers to a growing campaign to change Australia Day from 26 January – which commemorates the date the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Harbour (although the first ships of the flotilla made landfall a week earlier in Botany Bay on 18 Jan) – to a date acceptable to Australia’s Indigenous population.

Two Cook statues in Gisborne on the North Island of New Zealand were similarly graffitied in May and July 2019 by Maori activists, and moved to safekeeping.

The latest graffitiing of Cook’s Sydney statue came a week after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was hauled off its stand by Black Lives Matter protestors and rolled through the street before being pushed into the River Avon.

That incident inspired the removal of statues all over the world associated with European colonisation, some, like Italian naval explorer and slave-trader Christopher Columbus in St Pauls, USA, were taken down forcibly, others through negotiations with relevant authorities.

There are 25 publicly-funded statues in the City of Sydney catchment area, almost all featuring white men (apart from Queen Victoria) and celebrating the achievements of European colonists.

However, there are no statues commemorating Indigenous people.

Who was Patyegarang?
Descendents of the Sydney Aborigines who first encountered European invaders in 1788 regard the young Cadigal woman Patyegarang as highly important in their cultural history.

Patyegarang was the teacher, confidant and probably lover of William Dawes, a lieutenant under Australia’s inaugural Governor Arthur Phillip. Dawes arrived on HMS Sirius with the First Fleet and built an astronomical observatory at what is now Dawes Point.

Whilst sharing a hut together alongside the observatory, Dawes and the 15-year-old Patyegarang (‘Patt-ye’, as he called her), collaborated on what is now considered to be the first written account of the Aboriginal language of Sydney – the Cadigal people of the Eora nation.

The dictionary enabled the British to communicate with the region’s original occupants, including the distinguished Wangal clan leader Bennelong, who later travelled to England with Governor Phillip and likely met King George III.

Dawes became eloquent in the Cadigal language and Patyegarang reportedly praised him for his careful pronunciation of her native tongue.

The Cadigal (also spelt Gadigal and Caddiegal), who occupied the southern shores of Sydney Harbour from Port Jackson to Cooks River, were one of seven clans living in coastal Sydney that became collectively known as the Eora people who spoke a common dialect of the Dharug language.

The Dharug speakers’ traditional territory spread from Georges River in the south, to Pittwater at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River, and west along the Parramatta river to its source.

Writer Kate Grenville, author of international best-selling historical novel The Secret River, based the characters in her following novel, The Lieutenant, on the friendship between Patyegarang and Dawes.

And yet Patyegarang’s story and her integral role in fostering communications between the British colonisers and her people was almost lost to history.

This was primarily due to Dawes, an avowed anti-slavery campaigner and friend of abolitionist William Wilberforce, falling out with Governor Phillip. Dawes refused Phillip’s orders to take part in a punitive attack on Aborigines after British game-keeper John MacIntyre was murdered by Aboriginal resistance leader Pemulway as punishment for his shooting deaths of Aborigines.

Although Dawes eventually had no choice but to comply with Phillip’s murderous command – which was unsuccessful – Phillip never forgave Dawes for his act of insubordination. This was compounded further by Dawes’ public condemnation of Phillip’s killing party and a belief that MacIntyre brought about his own fate. Dawes was later dismissed and refused permission to remain in Australia.

Thereafter Dawes’ collaboration with Patyegarang was overlooked and her existence almost completely forgotten until the rediscovery of Dawes’ three language notebooks by an Australian librarian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1972.

Patyegarang deserves significant credit for the preservation of the Cadigal language, which enables scholars to study the translations she provided for Dawes. The words are kept alive today among native adherents, despite the fact that a large proportion of its original speakers were decimated via smallpox outbreaks and ethnic cleansing.

According to historian Ross Gibson, who wrote a biography of Lieutenant William Dawes, “There is no doubt Patyegarang was remarkable. Young as she was, she was Dawes’ intellectual equal and she was not averse to carrying complex political messages to the British, even as she also negotiated the intricacies of her friendship with Dawes.”


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