For the last two years, the Sydney Festival has offered a different approach to contemplating the birth of the nation. The Vigil creates a space in which to turn our hearts and our imaginations to ‘the night before’ – the 25th January, 1788 – as a necessary inclusion in any formulation of our national becoming. Held on the headland now named after Cammeraygal fisherwoman Barangaroo, The Vigil holds the possibility of summoning the site, sound, and smell of that night before: that time when Eora exercised uncontested and understood sovereignties for themselves with their lands, waters and sky.
On the 25th of January 1788, Warrane was yet to be named Sydney Cove, the flag of Great Britain was yet to be raised to claim a military harbour garrison. To the south, against unhelpful winds, 9 of the 11 First Fleet ships fumbled and collided their way into and out of Kamay, to follow the two sent in forward despatch a few days earlier in search of a more favourable settlement site. Two French crews looked on from the decks of ships more recently arrived, exchanging greetings between captains on the open waters. Such maritime operations could not be missed by those on the shore. Just as British and French voices echoed across the waters, reports of the shore-hugging passing parade were relayed from clan to clan along the coast. Did these floating islands carry descendants of the men who scattered small objects around the Gweagal camps some 18 years prior? Were they returning to repatriate or compensate for the shields and spears carried away on the single ship that visited so briefly in 1770?
On the evening of the 25th January 1788, the night before, there was strong wind gusting from the land to the water. Light rain fell overnight. The full moon that had risen on January 23rd had begun to wane but still shed bright illumination over land and water. While the big morning summer tides left the Harbour brimming, on its turn the ebb tide waters drained quickly from the two rivers through the narrow waist of the harbour, and out through the heads to the sea. Women fished from the rock ledges along the harbour shore; some wearing body paint, just as some men wore ochre applied as if a mask. Columns of sweet smoke wafting up between the trees were always present during the day; the glow of the fires below illuminated the contours of the Harbour by night.
We are at Barangaroo, quietly contemplating this place ‘the night before’. We are trying to be neither melancholy or romantic, nor to become trapped in an ever-accelerating competitive ball game between tradition and modernity. We had settled on a plan to each bring food to a picnic that might replicate the local menu on January 25th 1788 – oysters, salmon, warragal greens, pig face, samphire and damper, are our best efforts. We have harvested some of this from where we live, growing wild or in recent plantings that revive local vegetation.
In 2019, at the inaugural Vigil, we gathered behind the deep blue glow emanating towards the harbour from Jacob Nash’s ALWAYS. Large and small groups of people were scattered across the Star Gazer Lawn, between fires lit to punctuate place and occasion. Attending again on January 25th 2020, Nash’s Proclamation encircled Barangaroo point with rings of flag poles bearing 250 expressions of who we are and who we might yet become. A sea of people filled the spaces between the fires for the second Vigil. The Harbour below was garishly ornamented: one boat motoring by festooned with Australian flag bunting, another appearing as a floating glasshouse packed with revellers belting out a song about a tin roof. Beyond the ring of flags the Sydney Harbour Bridge clanged and swooshed with incessant train and car crossings.
On January 25th 1788, families gathered by the beaches and on grassy rises, tired from a day swimming under the summer sun. Sleep would come easy with a full belly of oysters and crab. On soft ground surrounded by small fires, children drifted away from the day, grandmothers singing quietly, stroking their babies’ hair to slumber. Brown limbs and faces glowed warmly in the firelight, oiled to protect from insect bites. Perhaps a baby was birthed, the cries of mother and newborn ringing out into the night. Under the waning gibbous moon, Eora women paddled nawi around the harbour, their night fishing easily traced from the shore by the glow of fires carried on small clay pads aboard the slender bark vessels. Their singing and laughter drifted up from the water to mingle with the voices of kin on the shore.
26th January is a difficult date and options for public or private expression limited: shield or shout? There is no room for celebration, yet. To move into The Vigil’s space for deeper contemplation, it is necessary to unhitch some burdens of history. How else can you freely submerge into the sound, smell and feel of another era at this site, consider who has moved over this Country and how, and engage with the enduring sovereignty of this place?.
26th January marks the day when the British ships anchored at Warrane, raised their flag and toasted their monarch in 1788. In the following days they commenced disembarkation of the 11 ships of goods, animals and convicts and at a furious pace, began clearing trees and land and hunting for food, as they established the military garrison. From this day, nothing was to be the same for Eora and every First Nation they encountered. Loss of loved ones on an unimaginable scale, destruction of land and resources in an unrelenting assault, the overturn of power and protocol was matched by a determination to survive and thrive.
In 2038 we will mark the 250th anniversary of 26 January 1788. We have 17 years to make that date more than a celebration of British imperialism. The First Fleet charter, British claim to territory and establishment of a military garrison delivered immeasurable, relentless destruction on the lands and people of the harbour, and everywhere beyond, forever.
Purposefully and collectively envisioning the night before, we conjure a deeper sense of our nation today – comprised as it is of antiquity, the institutions of democracy and rule, and adorned by peoples of many cultures – by connecting the present to all that existed prior to the events of a single day in a long sequence of colonising events.
From dusk on January 25th, that night in 1788 stretches above the time when Eora sovereignties were secure to dawn on January 26th when Britain disgorged its colonial disruption. Holding vigil overnight, in sequence these dates combine to offer something of a canopy, an overlap, woven from a vigilant embroidering of sovereignties and thus a more adequate account of our present.
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