In the Beginning-
Aboriginal Occupation, Lifefstyles, Post-contact History
When white settlement began in what is now the Litchfield Municipality, the area was occupied by three groups of Aboriginal people. The Larrakia (this is now the preferred spelling, but there are many variants) occupied the Darwin area, extending eastward to Koolpinyah and almost to Humpty Doo, and south to just beyond Manton Dam and the Finniss River.
To the east of the Larrakia was the domain of the Djerimanga (also Wulna or Woolner) people, whose country extended east to just beyond the Adelaide River. A third group, the Djowei, possessed a rectangular shaped area, easterly from the Larrakia boundary, below the Djerimanga country, and running east along the Adelaide and Mary Rivers.
We cannot now be certain, but it is likely that each main group comprised somewhat less than 400 people.
These groups are sometimes loosely called "tribes", but this term implies a kind of cohesion and political organization which the people did not possess. Anthropologists have suggested that it is better to think in terms of a "language group, within which there are a number of extended family groups or hordes, in turn made up of a number of individual families.
Regardless of land boundaries and language differences, the Aborigines who were in the landscapes of the Litchfield Municipality before white settlers arrived all shared a fundamental set of beliefs about the land and how they came to inhabit it. For them, the earth was given its present form and all of the life within it during the "Dreamtime", the creative time before human memory.
Before the Dreamtime there was nothing. The earth was a flat and featureless place, without life. Then the creative ancestors stirred and came onto the surface of the earth. They passed over the surface of the world and as they did so they shaped the landscapes we see today. Their tracks gave form to the earth and during their adventures they shaped landscape features we now recognize. From a formerly shapeless, colourless and lifeless mass they created the air, the sky, the rivers, the mountains, the plains and all the other things we can now see. Then they put the animal life on the earth.
The final creative act of the spirit ancestors was to bring into being the first groups of people. The people were given their language and the lore which strictly commanded how they should live together and defined boundaries of their land. The lore also defined how the land should be cared for by proper performance of rituals and used according to a fixed pattern. Above all, the lore prescribed that the land should be handed on to future generations, in the same condition as it was received.
When the creative ancestors had completed their creative work they rested in the landscape. They are sleeping, perhaps ready to awake if they are offended or if some cataclysmic event occurs or fi the prescribed ritual is not properly performed.
The relatively small area occupied by each group within what is now the Litchfield Municipality indicates that the region was "good country" for Aborigines living traditional lifestyles, capable of supporting a relatively high population density all year round.
It is clear that the traditional occupation and use of the country was radically altered by the impacts of white settlement. It is perhaps ironic that of all those impacts the most far-reaching consequences resulted from the fact that the white settlers brought goods and created places which were very attractive to the Aborigines. This very attractiveness lured Aborigines from their country to come in close to the white settlement at Port Darwin and they quickly began to permanently encroach on Larrakia country to achieve this.
There was also physical conflict between white settlers and Aborigines. Violent conflict began at Escape Cliffs, but the "troublesome" Aborigines were usually said to be "Alligators" from the east. At least one Aborigine was shot dead, and several of the survey party suffered spear and other wounds inflicted by Aborigines. Livestock were also speared on occasion. The surveyors noted that the Aborigines from the eastern side of the Adelaide River "presented a totally different appearance to those on the western side and the majority of them had a most forbidding appearance neither do they speak the same language".
In 1869 there was one fatal incident when John Bennett, a member do Goyder's survey party, was speared while he was working near Fred's Pass. Goyder was pressed to take punitive measures, but he declined to do so. However, he did reiterate strict orders that the surveyors should not become "familiar" with the Aborigines.
Whether the surveyors wished to become "familiar" or not, they were closely observed by Aboriginal people. Just how close this observation was became apparent in 1869 when Goyder's men were entertained by Larrakia people singing word perfect renditions of songs which the earlier white men has sung at Escape Cliffs- such songs as "John Browns Body." It appeared that the Woolner people had memorized the songs and then passed them on to the Larrakia.
On the whole, the early phases of settlement around Darwin and its immediate hinterland were peaceful and amicable. In 1870 the Government Resident wrote "The tribe in this district are decidedly peaceable and disposed to do such work as they are fitted for - I have them using the axe and have hopes they will in the course of time be most useful to the settlement". Before long, some Larrakia people were working diligently in the government garden in Darwin.
However, the Government Resident was concerned about conflict between the Port Darwin tribe (Larrakia) and the Escape Cliffs tribe (Woolner). "It will evidently be now the duty of the Government Resident to afford protection to the peaceful tribe living close to the camp...Immediately I can get away I shall visit Escape Cliffs and impress upon the Woolners the necessity for peaceable conduct toward the Larrakeyahs".
Much the same amicable arrangements still prevailed in 1875, when the Northern Territory Times newspaper reported "On the holiday in commemoration of the Queens accession the inhabitants amused themselves in various ways. Some native sports were enjoyed by a few; others went out boating; and others again went to the lagoon and Fannie Bay. The neighboring Aborigines, accompanied by a number of guests- Woolners- in all about 150, were supplied by the Government Resident with flour and tobacco, blankets being given to old people."
However, on 8 July 1876 the newspaper reported that there was frequent conflict between the Larrakias and the Woolners. "The Larrakias gathered at the Woolners' camp a little after daylight and commenced the usual growl, which ended in the Woolners spearing several men before they had time to defend themselves. The casualties amongst the Larakias are one killed and four wounded- one very seriously."
By 1882 there was real concern that Aborigines around Darwin might be "dying out". The protector of Aborigines reported "As to the question whether the Aborigines are increasing, I have no doubt that the Larrakias and Woolners, the natives who are most influenced by the settlers, are diminishing in number. As a rule they have good health, a fair proportion die at a considerable age, and a good many are killed in private quarrels or private fights. A few of the women die in childbirth or soon after. Consumption is a very rare complaint".
"The great mortality is amongst infants and children under seven years old. A large proportion die almost immediately after birth, if the child lives it is suckled till it is three or four years old, as that period generally intervenes between the birth of the children. If the second child should die soon after birth the older child be again put to the breast and suckled a year or two longer...if the mother has not a husband at the time of birth the child is killed. The great number of children above the age of eight or nine show that a few years ago the mortality was not as great, so it may reasonably be attributed to the pressure of Europeans."
"Now as yet there has been very little syphilis amongst the natives, so that the only way to account for it is the theory that European clothing, European food and the excessive use of tobacco is injuring the health of the parents. Many of the natives are marked with smallpox; some are blind from the effects of the same disease. They say it is about twenty years or more since they had the disease".
Scientist TA Parkhouse reported on the Larrakia and Woolner people to a scientific conference in 1895-
"At Port Darwin, on the Lammerru (beach), it has been for generations, the camp of the family in whom that part is vested, among them being also descendants of black trackers introduced by the police from the Macarthur or other districts. A half mile distant, at the head of Smith and Cavenagh Streets, is the main camp of the Larrakia, comprising several circles of whirlies (at one time four circles, with from three to seven forming the point of a circle or segment), and another quarter of a mile on, towards Point Emery, was at the same period the camp of the Daly family. About 150 yards removed from the Larrakia main camp north is a second camp, containing three circles of whirlies, in which resides Woolners, related to the Larrakia by alliance or descent,....another Woolner camp has been formed in the scrub on the north east side of Cavenagh Street, which is frequented by natives of that tribe coming in from the bush who are not related to the Larrakia."
In the meantime, Aboriginal people from outlying areas came into the country which had been, at least temporarily, vacated by the Woolner people. In particular, the Kuungarakan people from the Finniss River area came into the Humpty Doo area where they eventually came to comprise the dominant group, "mixed up" with the Woolner people.
In that locality they, the Woolner people, found work at which they excelled, with the buffalo shooters and cattle men.
Today, within Litchfield Municipality are camps and "living areas" where Aborigines are living post-traditional lives.