26 Jun 2023

Tides of Time: The Rich Tapestry of Cockle Bay’s First Nations Heritage

Discover the history of Cockle Bay, once a bountiful treasure trove for the Gadigal people, and how it weaves into the modern-day Darling Harbour
Tides of Time: The Rich Tapestry of Cockle Bay’s First Nations Heritage

As we celebrate NAIDOC Week, let’s embark on a journey through time, embracing the gentle waves of history that have shaped Darling Harbour’s breathtaking Cockle Bay.

Nestled in the heart of Sydney, Cockle Bay is more than just a scenic harbour. It’s a sacred place teeming with stories, culture, and heritage. The Gadigal people, as part of the Eora Nation, have been the custodians of this land for thousands of years. They knew this area as Tumbalong, an inviting haven that translates to 'a place where seafood is found'. This is a tale that ebbs and flows through the ages, where ancient traditions intertwine with the modern vibrancy of Darling Harbour.

Delve deeper, and you’ll discover that the name ‘Cockle Bay’ has a story of its own. When the colonists first arrived, they were in awe of the shell middens that adorned the shoreline. These were the creation of the Gadigal people, who, with their profound connection to the land and sea, gathered shellfish and other seafood from the bay’s rich waters. The middens, deposits of shells, were not merely refuse; they were a testament to the community, a tapestry that weaved stories of the seasons, the catch, and the sustenance provided by the ocean.

Interestingly, Cockle Bay was initially called ‘Long Cove’ by the colonists. It was Charles Grimes, the first deputy surveyor-general of New South Wales, who intricately charted the shoreline in his Plan of Sydney in 1800. The early settlers, both convicts and lime-burners, gravitated towards this bay for its bountiful mussels and shell middens, which had been used for thousands of years by First Nations people. These shells, rich in lime, became a became a critical construction resource in the early colony. While the middens were a great solution to poorly fired bricks and a scarcity of construction materials, the downside was significant overfishing by the colonists, which led to a decline in marine life that continues to today.

In contrast, the Gadigal people lived in harmony with nature. Their daily life and seasonal activities were guided by an intricate understanding of the environment. They expertly read the signs of changing seasons and tides, ensuring that their fishing practices were sustainable. They nurtured the land and the waters, and in return, the bounteous Cockle Bay provided them with sustenance. The shell middens were an eco-conscious practice that not only honoured the harvest but also signalled to others what was available and in season. This was conservation at its finest – a practice honed over millennia.

In 1826, the name ‘Darling Harbour’ was coined in honour of Governor Ralph Darling. Though the names changed, the deep-rooted connection of the First Nations people to this land remained unwavering. Their ancient wisdom, traditions, and stories are the lifeblood of this place, and these echoes of the past still resonate with the rhythm of the waves.

Fast forward to today, and Cockle Bay is a vibrant precinct that celebrates diversity, history, and community. It’s heart-warming to witness the enduring significance of this place for First Nations people. This sacred place, Tumbalong, continues to be a meeting point, a sanctuary for connection and celebration. It’s not just about looking back, but also forging ahead with mutual respect, understanding, and inclusivity.

As you stroll along the shimmering waters of Cockle Bay, embrace the beauty that surrounds you. Let your heart be touched by the whispers of ancient wisdom. Reflect on the stories, the culture, and the enduring spirit of the Gadigal people. Let us celebrate, learn, and walk together on this journey through time. May the tides of time continue to weave stories of unity, respect, and heritage.

National NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia in the first week of July each year (Sunday to Sunday), to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and this year’s theme is ‘For Our Elders’ is an appeal to pay our respects and pay homage to the Elders we’ve lost and to those who continue fighting across all Nations.