While there is no surviving evidence of the historic Aboriginal presence on Cockatoo Island itself, there is ample evidence of Aboriginal inhabitation on the surrounding shores.
The people who lived in the areas of the Sydney Basin, spreading from Botany Bay and Georges River up to Pittwater, the Hawkesbury, and along the Parramatta River, were called the Eora (meaning ‘from this place’).
Within the Eora there are various groups whose ancestors inhabited different parts of the harbour. While there isn’t physical evidence of Aboriginal presence on Cockatoo Island itself, the evidence of First Nations people on surrounding shores is clear: Wallumedigal to the west, the Wangal to the east, and the Cameragal and Gadigal to the south.
Additionally, all these groups shared the Dharug language, and in Dharug, Cockatoo Island is known as Wareahmah - ‘war’ meaning women and ‘eahmah’ meaning land - suggesting that the island was a site for women’s ceremonies.
Traditionally, these cultures were nomadic, and they went where they needed to for food and water. Before Cockatoo Island was transformed by colonialism, it was lush and green, and would have been an excellent location for fishing and other food. Historians believe that Aboriginal inhabitants on neighbouring shores would have travelled in bark canoes to Cockatoo Island for hunting and ceremonial purposes.
The physical signs of the Eora's connection to Cockatoo Island began to vanish over time, likely commencing in 1839 when the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, chose Cockatoo Island as the site of a new penal establishment.
The natural balance of the island was disturbed by gunpowder blasting rocks and convicts manually excavating the site. Over time, industrial waste and the continual disturbance of the environment would have eroded any physical evidence of First Nations people.
Prior to 2007, Cockatoo Island wasn’t opened to the public, and in 2000, an Aboriginal rights group set up camp on the island. The group was a branch of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which has occupied land outside Old Parliament House in Canberra since 1972.
The Tent Embassy submitted a land claim under the Native Title Act 1993, and rejected the Commonwealth’s sovereignty over the island. The group stated that when Captain Cook claimed Australia he did not specify Cockatoo Island. Isabel Coe, the group’s leader, said that it was a meeting place for the Eora people prior to European settlement:
“This would have been a very sacred site. It is where the rivers join and is in the middle of where the sun rises and sets over the harbour. It is part of the milky way dreamtime stories ... “
The Commonwealth Government launched legal action to have the Tent Embassy removed. They argued the Embassy were trespassing, that the island was unsafe, and if anyone was hurt, the Government would be held liable.
After appeals through lower courts, the High Court refused the Tent Embassy’s application on March 13, 2001, and the group peacefully left the island after four months of settling there.
Physical evidence remains of the time the Tent Embassy spent on the island, and there are several murals near Biloela House the upper island painted with Aboriginal colours, including one depicting cockatoos.