Aboriginal society pre-contact

What were the social constructs of power like in the Eora clans pre-contact? Aboriginal society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century within the Eora and Gai-mariagal people are discussed in the following section.

The English described the Eora as a stubborn and proud people that were unwilling to conform to habits that the Europeans wished to enforce, such as the wearing of clothes and adopting a settled life.[19] We were proud and stubborn, we still are. What was considered a ‘settled life’ pre-1788 and how did this relate to Indigenous social construction? In British eyes a ‘settled life’ was a rural economy with surplus production. They had no understanding of the already existing structured ‘settled life’ of the Eora pre-1788. They failed to see the existing demographic patterns or land-use management practices and social constructs. Geoffrey Blainey reminds us of the contrasts that could be made regarding British concepts of civility:

If an Aborigine in the seventeenth century had been captured as a curiosity and taken in a Dutch ship to Europe, and if he had traveled all the way from Scotland to the Caucasus and had seen how the average European struggled to make a living, he might have said to himself that he had seen the third world and all its poverty and hardship.[20]

Blainey shows Europe interpreted as a possible land of ‘savages’. In contrast, prior to European invasion, the Eora lifestyle was complex, based within a matrilineal society.[21] Senior men sat in ceremony (both within Gai-mariagal Guringah and other east coast clans) to decide important issues. Due to their age and status they enjoyed a level of power and prestige.[22] Not all men were in this body that is generally called ‘Elders’. Admittance was restricted to the most intelligent, diligent and, some would suggest, conformist over the long period of learning the ceremony and sacred knowledge of the clan. Kinship and tradition were the strengths that bound senior men who enforced a strict system of law. Likewise women also gained power, knowledge and prestige. Those of strong character were never outmatched by their gender equivalents as women also had a key role in the application of Indigenous law and resultant leadership functions within the clan.[23]

In contrast to the invading settler society, the Eora had an intimate relationship with nature and a non-materialistic philosophy. This is reinforced in oral history, through which we were instructed on the management of the wetlands, the abundance of foodstuffs in seasonal periods at what is now Queenscliff, Curl Curl and the Dee Why lagoons. We learnt how the oyster was harvested, the mullet caught in nets, the fat fish taken on line, the larger fish taken on burley and speared off the rocks, how the turtle was a feast in late summer, and similar stories of winter of the fat possum, the echidna, the fruit bat, the wallaby and kangaroo. Our calendar was based on the development of the family, when a child could be born, when food was available, when it was time to live on the coast, to eat shellfish, or when it was cooler and time to move inland. Pre-1788 this was a civil, settled culture that was ‘admirable’.[24]