Long before Europeans
arrived in what is now Kendall and district, it was the home of
the Birpai people who lived in settled villages along the river
banks and around the lakes.
The entire northern
coast of New South Wales supported a substantial number of Aboriginal
Australians. The rich strip from the Camden Haven to the Queensland
border and from the coast west to the Great Dividing Range –
30,000 square kilometres – might well have nourished 45,000
As everywhere else
in Australia, they farmed the country with fire. At the time of
the British settlement, the land was a wondrous mosaic of grassland
and open forest, occasional belts of thick eucalypt forest, rainforest
of varying width along the creeks and rivers, and coastal heath.
The many rivers, creeks, lakes, swamps and lagoons made it easy
to control the spread of fire. The entire coast and eastern slopes
were burnt in small patches at periods ranging from a few months
to several years.
The coastal people
had a much easier time of the drastic climate changes of between
thirty thousand and twelve thousand years ago than the inland people
did. But they had to make drastic changes seven thousand years ago
when the seas rose by about one hundred and fifty metres. The coastal
fringe where they had previously caught fish and gathered shellfish
is now about 250 kilometres out to sea. All the coastal middens
now known have been made in the last seven thousand years although
some older ones exist along waterways, away from the coast.
deep, boat-shaped water carriers out of the leaves of the Bangalow
Palms by bending the main rib of the long, pinnate leaf to the shape
they wanted, tying the ends together with a cord handle, then lacing
the pinules in such a tight weave that no water seeped through them.
These water carriers were traded. All over Australia people with
special foods and special tools or special plants like pituri traded
them for their own needs. Well used trade routes connected all areas
of Australia. Widespread trade took place with Papua New Guinea.
One route ran from Watam at the mouth of the Sepik River on the
north coast of Papua New Guinea south by canoe and walking tracks
through the centre of the island, then by boat and overland routes
through coastal districts as far south as present Sydney Harbour.
An important article
of trade from coastal heaths was glue made from the yellow resin
of Xanthorrhoea species, sometimes from natural exudations, usually
by beating the leaf bases on a sheet of bark or in a coolamon. The
resin, collected as a powder, was then heated, mixed with fine sand
or the carbonaceous structures made by Trigona bees, and rolled
into balls. This glue, traded west, met glue from various species
of Spinifex, Triodia, traded east.
The people indigenous
to what is now defined as the Hastings area (of which the Camden
Haven is part) are members of the Birpai or Biripi Nation. As in
other regions, they had names for each natural feature, each waterway,
perhaps each part of each waterway. Their names for their country
and its features were not recorded by the British who first came
into the area, instead they bestowed new names, often in honour
of some distant dignitary with no connection to the country.
The Birpai people
lived in settled villages along the river banks and around the lakes.
Fire was a valuable tool in restraining the rampant rainforest that
grew along the riverbanks and in deep gullies and ravines. It prevented
it from creeping across the open grasslands that were so valuable
for hunting. Large trees provided shelter for many species of animals
and birds, and vantage points for those hunting them for food.
When canoes for fishing, shields, woomeras and weapons were cut
from trees, great care was taken to cut from only one side: no tree
was ringbarked. The scars healed, often with an overgrowth of bark
around them, and the life of the tree was not diminished. In 1819,
explorer Phillip Parker King commented:
were merely sheets of bark, with the ends slightly gathered up
to form a shallow concavity, in which the natives stood and propelled
them by means of poles… The native huts were more substantially
built and contained 8 or 10 persons. They were arched over to
form a dome with the opening on the land side, enabling them to
be screened from the cold sea winds, which were generally accompanied
Their houses were
built of timber and bark, with special huts being built for particular
purposes. A birthing hut was prepared for the coming of each baby.
The hollow inside it in which the mother would lie to give birth
was lined with eucalyptus leaves and the hut smoked in preparation.
A new coolamon made from a nearby tree was lined with ti-tree bark
ready to receive the baby and more layers of the bark were placed
under the baby. It was replaced regularly and the soiled bark burnt.
The mother remained in the birthing hut until she healed.
The kino (a juice
or gum of some Australian trees) of the Red Bloodwood was applied
to cuts to assist with healing, it was also used as a remedy for
diarrhoea. For the latter treatment, the kino was carefully wrapped
inside a piece of food so that it did not come into contact with
the mouth. Gum resin from several species of Acacia was also used
to treat diarrhoea.
in this area experienced considerable loss of life from the early
waves of smallpox from which they had barely recovered when the
British arrived to establish the settlement at Port Macquarie.
The Birpai Nation’s
draft history, drawn from oral records passed down by Elders, records
that their people experienced loss of life very soon after European
‘settlement’ (1820s/30s). In c.1840 they endeavoured
to fight back, enlisting the help of the neighbouring Thungutti
Nation but, as a result of the superior weaponry of the new arrivals,
many were killed near a place subsequently known as Blackman’s
Point. Cedar getters, as obsessed by ‘red gold’ as those
who later suffered ‘gold fever’, brooked no interference
in their quest for the magnificent old trees. Cedar Creek is, for
Birpai people, a site of death.
Between 1840 and
1900 as the colony grew, the Birpai people were systematically dispossessed
of their land and placed on to local reserves under the control
of the Aboriginal Protection Board. Between 1900 and the 1940s they
were moved away from the Hastings area to reserves at Purfleet,
Taree and Burnt Bridge, Kempsey.
During the early
part of the twentieth century many were directed to land clearing
under instruction from the Aboriginal Protection Board. Others worked
for farmers from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. (8 pm in summer) for little
or no pay. They lived on the property and were given rations, if
they were lucky they got some meat when the farmer killed a beast.
When the railway
came to the district, several Koori men worked on the track, some
were able to secure a sleeper-cutters’ ticket and the necessary
quota. During later decades, life improved for some who cut timber
for the local mills and secured work in other rural enterprises.
It was, however,
many years before Birpai people were able to live without the fear
of authorities who would take their children away.
Birpai Nation History (draft typescript): Birpai Land Council,
Preece Pat: interview EvK 2002
Davis Lois: interview EvK 2002
King Phillip Parker: Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical
and Western Coasts of Australia, London 1826
McCarthy F.: ‘ “Trade” in Aboriginal Australia
and “Trade” Relationships with Torres Strait, New Guinea
and Malaya’ in Oceania vol. 1X, no.4, June 1939 and continued
in vol. X, no. 1, September 1939 & vol. X no. 2, December 1939.
Steele J..G.: Aboriginal Pathways, University of Queensland
Press, 1984 (p.17)
© Elaine van