Aboriginal experiences of the Great Flood - a gap in the record

Next to nothing is known of how Aboriginal people fared during the Great Flood as there is no record. Picture by Joseph Lycett, 1820 of Aboriginal people at Pitt Town. Courtesy John Miller
Next to nothing is known of how Aboriginal people fared during the Great Flood as there is no record. Picture by Joseph Lycett, 1820 of Aboriginal people at Pitt Town. Courtesy John Miller

As part of the Great Flood of 1867 commemoration on Friday, June 23 at Windsor, Aboriginal Elder Uncle Wes told stories around a campfire in the courtyard of Hawkesbury Museum. 

Uncle Wes isn’t of the local Darug people, though he’s lived here most of his life, but his presence and that of the Aboriginal people sitting on hay bales listening to him, threw up the question – how did the Great Flood affect the local Aboriginal people?

Erin Wilkins of the Muru Mittigar Aboriginal Cultural and Education Centre was there listening to Uncle Wes, and she said while no stories have been handed down, the Aboriginal people were attuned to the movements of animals and could read the signs which indicated impending flood and so would have moved to higher ground. 

Erin Wilkins of the Muru Mittigar Centre at Rouse Hill performs the Welcome to Country at the Great Flood commemoration at Thompson Square on June 23. Picture: Suzie Vlaming

Erin Wilkins of the Muru Mittigar Centre at Rouse Hill performs the Welcome to Country at the Great Flood commemoration at Thompson Square on June 23. Picture: Suzie Vlaming

(This is borne out by Warragamba Dam workers who told the Gazette a few years ago that they knew when a flood was coming as huge numbers of eels gather against the dam wall).

She said their movements to higher ground could have been hampered however by white landowners policing their land grants. 

Local history librarian at Hawkesbury Library Michelle Nichols said while she had never seen mention of any Aboriginal flood experiences in newspaper reports of 1867, there were records of Darug people warning the earliest white Hawkesbury settlers many decades before of impending flood. 

Local historian John Miller corroborated this, saying in the 1790s the Darug people warned white people who were building a granary near Windsor wharf that water had reached the treetops at that site only six months before. He hadn’t ever heard anything either though of how the Darug people had fared in 1867.

Aboriginal historian Barry Corr said that by 1867 there were probably only about 100 clearly identified Aboriginal people in the Hawkesbury.

“There are records of Aboriginal people being on the Commons at Richmond, at Highlands on Freemans Reach, around Sackville Reach and the Lock property at the old Blacktown,” he said.

“There are no records of how they fared. I suspect that those at Sackville would have fared worst and would have been dependent upon the generosity of local farmers.

Aboriginal historian Barry Corr.

Aboriginal historian Barry Corr.

“There are no records of Aboriginal drownings; this of course does not mean that they didn’t happen. I don’t think most settlers or authorities would have spared much thought for them.”

Ms Nichols feels however that if Aboriginal people had been found drowned, it would have been reported. She said part of the problem was that there was no newspaper in the Hawkesbury in 1867 – there had been some in the 1840s but then there was a gap until the 1870s when another started up (The Gazette started in 1888). All reports of the Great Flood we have were published in Sydney newspapers.

  • Do you know more? If you are of Aboriginal heritage and have family tales handed down of flood experiences, please contact this reporter on 4588 0806.