Fishing in Port Jackson, New South Wales - More Than Met the Eye

By Attenbrow, Val; Steele, Dominic | Antiquity, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Fishing in Port Jackson, New South Wales - More Than Met the Eye


Attenbrow, Val, Steele, Dominic, Antiquity


Contemporary diaries and the water-colours of artists such as the 'Port Jackson Painter' vividly tell of Aboriginal life when the first Fleet in 1788 settled its cargo of convicts in Australia. Fishing was important around the waters of Port Jackson, whose Aboriginal inhabitants are recorded to have used the techniques of spear-fishing and angling. Were other methods also used? Fish remains from a shell midden provide an opportunity to investigate.

In prehistoric studies historical descriptions are often used to interpret the archaeological record of an area; usually those of the area in which the archaeological site or sites occur are used, but sometimes those of another environmentally similar region (Binford 1983: 25-6; Lampert 1971a: 62-4; 1971b: 116-18; 1988: 43; Meehan & Jones 1988; Poiner 1976: 197; Spaulding 1968:37-9). Historical descriptions are also seen as portraying the most recent 'traditional' phase in the cultural succession of the original inhabitants of a colonized region, i.e. how the people lived before their culture was impacted upon by the colonizers. Some researchers have been critical of the use of ethnographic and ethno-historical sources to extrapolate back into the distant past to interpret archaeological evidence (Meehan & Jones 1988).

This article focuses on fishing methods used in Port Jackson, and assesses the documentary and archaeological evidence for the type of equipment that Aboriginal people used to catch fish. This issue arose as part of a larger project about the role of marine and land resources in the diet and material culture of the Aboriginal people of Port Jackson (Attenbrow 1991).

This article questions the reliability of the First Fleet historical records, but at the same time indicates that both documentary and archaeological sources provide essential evidence and both may be necessary to produce a valid picture of what happened at contact and what changes may have occurred in the past.

Port Jackson historical descriptions

In the earliest historical records for Port Jackson (those of the First Fleet diarists and artists), fishing is the most frequently mentioned subsistence activity of the local Aboriginal people. Only two methods are described and illustrated: spear-fishing and angling. First Fleet documents state that spear-fishing was undertaken by men using multi-pronged spears (often called 'fizz-gigs' or 'gigs') from the rocky shores as well as from bark canoes and in shallow waters. Angling (or line-fishing) was carried out by women who fished from canoes using shell hooks and lines in deep water (Bradley 1786-1793 [1969]: 133; Collins 1798 [1975]: 461; HR.NSW 1893 [1978]: 309; Hunter 1793 [1968: 63]; Tench 1979: 210,285-7 [1793: 96, 193-6]; Worgan 1788 [1978]: 16, 37; see also Lawrence 1968: 143-7, 195-6). The gender division in fishing was not absolute and Tench (1979: 287 [1793: 195]), for example, noted that: 'women sometimes use the gig, and always carry one in each canoe, to strike large fish which may be hooked, and thereby facilitate the capture'. The only reference to men using hooks and lines is Govett's (1837: 7-8) some 50 years after contact; as Bowdler (1976: 253) points out, by that time European fishing tackle was being given to the Aborigines and Govett's description is of an Aboriginal person using European fishing tackle.

The few references to nets in Port Jackson suggest they were not used to catch fish: Stockdale (1789 [1950]: 136-7) describes a 'small net' which 'appears to have been used either as a landing net, or for the purpose of carrying the fish when taken' and 'small hoop nets in which they catch lobsters, and sea crayfish' (see also HR.NSW 1893 [1978]: 132). Tench (1979: 47 [1789: 79]) refers to 'small nets, in which they put the fish they catch'. The dimensions of these 'small' nets are not given. Seine-fishing with large nets and other methods of fishing (e.g. weirs and fish traps), as far as the historical records are concerned, do not appear to have been used in the Sydney region at contact (Lawrence 1968: 144-7).

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