Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Does Technology Make a Difference? Aboriginal and Colonial Fishing in Port Jackson, New South Wales

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Does Technology Make a Difference? Aboriginal and Colonial Fishing in Port Jackson, New South Wales

Article excerpt


Over 580 fish species are known for Port Jackson, site of the first British colony of New South Wales. When the British arrived in January 1788 they encountered Aboriginal people who gained a substantial part of their diet from fish. Aboriginal fishing technologies (e.g. spears, shell fishhooks and small canoes) were documented by colonial writers. The British brought metal fishhooks, seine nets and larger boats, and after AD1788 fishing was important to both Aboriginal people and colonists. Given the diversity of fish in Port Jackson, and differences between Aboriginal and colonial fishing technologies, our paper discusses archaeological and documentary evidence for the impact of technology on the types of fish caught by Aboriginal people and colonists before and after AD1788. We compare archaeological fish bones from Aboriginal sites in coastal Sydney with those from the Quadrant historical site in Broadway, Sydney, and discuss methodological challenges raised by these kinds of analyses for Sydney regional archaeology. Technology explains some fish bone assemblage variability but colonisation, cultural attitudes, commercialisation and urbanism are also important.

Keywords: Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour, fishing technology, fish remains, Aboriginal, historical archaeology, colonialism


Port Jackson is one of several large estuaries that flow to the ocean through spectacular sandstone clifflines up to 80m high that form the Sydney coastline. The estuaries are drowned river valleys (rias) and estuarine conditions generally extend about 30km inland (Figure 1). Port Jackson, also known as Sydney Harbour, has an area of 45[km.sup.2] and a shoreline of approximately 240km (Stockton 1977:25). Its foreshores and the estuarine reaches of its tributaries are a complex of alternating cliffs, small bays and inlets with sandy beaches, tidal mudflats with mangroves, intertidal rock platforms, and rocky/bouldery areas. The area provides a wide range and abundance of marine resources.

When the British arrived in 1788, they described Port Jackson as being well stocked with a variety of fish. Bradley (1786-92 [1969]:132) listed 'Jewfish, Snapper, Mullet, Mackrel [sic], Whiting, Dory, Rock Cod, leather jackets [sic] and various others'. Tench described the range of fish as being 'from a whale to a gudgeon', mentioning 'sharks of monstrous size, skait [sic], rock-cod, grey-mullet, bream, horse-mackarel [sic], now and then a sole and john-dory and innumerable others unknown in Europe' as well as bass, leatherjacket and snapper (Tench 1789:128-29, 1793:176 [1979:69, 272]). Despite this variety, Tench (1793:176 [1979:272]) described fishing as 'precarious and uncertain'. The variable availability (abundance/scarcity) of fish was noted by most First Fleet journalists (e.g. Phillip 1788 in HRNSW 1892:126-27, 180, 190-91; Bradley 1786-92 [1969]:125; White 1790 [1962:147-48]; Hunter 1793 [1968]:65; Collins 1798 [1975:31, 86]; Tench 1789: 106-107, 128-29 [1979:59, 69]). Fish were reported as 'tolerably plentiful' in summer (Tench 1789:128-29 [1979:69]); though quantities usually caught by the colonists were only enough to supply about 200 persons (Collins 1798 [1975:31]). However gluts could enter the harbour and for a few days fish would be abundant. For example, in January-March 1788 French visitors anchored in Botany Bay caught nearly 2000 snapper in one day (Tench 1789:128-29, 1793:176 [1979:69, 272]), and on another occasion in September 1790, the colonists caught 4000 Australian Salmon (Collins 1798 [1975:112]).


Conversely, fish could be scarce at any time of the year, but particularly during winter and periods of cold weather. Sometimes the amount taken 'was not much more than equal to supplying the people employed in the boats with one pound of fish per man ...' (Collins 1798 [1975:86]), or a full night's fishing in different parts of the harbor would gain only twenty to thirty hauls, with seldom more than a hundred pounds of fish taken (Tench 1793:176 [1979:272]). …

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