Keith Vincent Smith

The rocky island the Eora called Memel (Mel Mel or Memill), meaning ‘eye’, is located in Wangal territory, one kilometre from Sydney’s famous Harbour Bridge and just 200 metres from the Sydney suburb of Balmain.

The island is 180 metres long and 300 metres wide in a north-south direction, covering an area of  5.4 hectares. Take away the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Memel was truly the ‘eye’ of Sydney Harbour.

This little island is full of history.

In May 1790 Woollarawaree Bennelong, who had been captured at Kayeemy (Manly Cove) with the Gadigal leader Colebee in late November 1789 escaped from Governor Arthur Phillip’s house.

Towards the end of September 1790, as Phillip was going to Rose Hill (Parramatta) by boat he hailed an Aboriginal man on one of the harbour headlands. Asked where Bennelong was, the man replied ‘Memilla’ (‘at Memel’), referring to Memel, or Goat Island.

The boat crew rowed to the island and Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo came down to talk to Phillip, who gave them some bread to eat. ‘From the confidence Bannelong now placed in his visitors, there was no doubt but he would soon come to the settlement as usual,’ Phillip commented. When Phillip returned two days later, Bennelong had left the island.

Bennelong ‘came in’ to the English settlement not long after, on 8 October.


But, strange as it may appear, they have also their real estates. Ben-nil-long, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close to Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father’s … He told us of other people who possessed this hereditary property, which they retained undisturbed.
David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London 1798)

Aboriginal People today would say that Bennelong was the custodian of the island.

Bennelong said he would leave his island to his particular friend Bigon, who was probably a Wangal, like Bennelong. After he was caught with Bangai and others stealing potatoes from a garden at Dara (Dawes Point) in 1791, Bigon went to Rose Hill (Parramatta) to make peace with Governor Phillip at his hut. Phillip welcomed Bigon and called him ‘a daring fellow’. Marines had shot Bangai, another ally of Bennelong, who later died.

At left: William Dawes, Book A, Grammatical forms of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney, by – Dawes, in the year 1790, MS4165 Marsden Collection, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Marine Lieutenant William Dawes sketched a rough map of the inner western arm of Port Jackson on the inside cover of his first language notebook, probably begun in October 1790. On this outline he wrote the names of seven places, the first of its kind. The first dated entry is 15 November 1790. 

Bennelong was probably the informant of these Indigenous placenames.

West’s 1843 map of the same area gives today’s names for the features on Dawes’s map. At top right a headland marked Dara (Tar-ra), now Dawes Point, is joined by a curved line tracing the shoreline running west to Ilkan maladul, later Millers Point, the entry to East Darling Harbour, recently renamed Barangaroo after Bennelong’s second wife.

Above this is the island of Me-mil or Memel (‘eye’), now called Goat Island, with the name Wariwal (‘Elephant Fish’) at its western tip. At the left hand edge of the sketch is Kuwang or Cow-wan, site of a farm belonging to Major Robert Ross – now Peacocks Point, Balmain. The headland below is Kaneagáng, coinciding with the north-eastern point of today’s Pyrmont. A further placename at the foot of the page, possibly Koowarinang, is written upside down near Campbells Cove.

It is a measure of Dawes’s relationship with the Eora that he chose to record Indigenous placenames at a time when Captain John Hunter in particular was inscribing English names on his map of Port Jackson.

In 2002, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Debra Jopson was the first to tell the story of my realisation that  the sketchy lines drawn on the first page of William Dawe’s first language notebook constituted a map. At that stage, however, I wrongly identified Kameagang as Long Nose Point in Birchgrove and another Point as Balls Head. I soon realised my error.

I will write further about the suggestion that the Sydney Language might be called Biyal-Biyal in keeping with the names of several southeastern Australian languages. In the meantime also we have established that the Broken Bay language was called Garigal rather than Ku-ring-gai, a name coined by the Reverend John Fraser in 1892.

Nudged by a smudge to revisit indigenous Sydney

By Debra Jopson
Sydney Morning Herald
October 5 2002

 “Even though it seems so slight, it’s a significant part of our history” … Keith Smith on finding more Aboriginal place names. Photo: Edwina Pickles

They look like smudges. For years Keith Smith, like other researchers, had flipped past the faint lines and words scribbled on the inside cover of First Fleeter Lieutenant William Dawes’s 1790 book listing words from the original Sydney Aboriginal language.

Recently, it dawned on him that the smudges formed a sketch. He enlarged his photocopy. The lines became outlines of headlands and an island. The words became Aboriginal place names.

Mr Smith is a journalist and gardening author turned historian who is studying 18th-century Sydney Aboriginal language and life for his masters degree at Macquarie University. He believes the map is the earliest showing indigenous place names in Port Jackson, and probably Australia.

“I was pretty elated … Even though it seems so slight, it’s a significant part of our history,” he said.

But it presented a puzzle. Mr Smith recognised it as a map because he already knew the Aboriginal names “Memel” meaning “eye” for Goat Island, and “Dara” meaning “tooth” for Dawes Point, now under the Harbour Bridge’s southern pylon.

Bennelong, the Aborigine captured in 1789, informed colonist David Collins of these names. Under the NSW Government’s dual naming policy, Dawes Point officially became also known as Tar-ra (another version of “Dara”) early this year.

But there were five new names on the Dawes map: Wariwal, Kameagang, Lineagirnoor, Ilkan Maladul and one which is illegible on Mr Smith’s photocopy.

Mr Smith believes Wariwal, at Goat Island’s western tip, may mean “Spear Point”. Kameagang, at Long Nose Point, Birchgrove, is similar to the name of a fruiting plant. But the meanings of “Lineagirnoor” at Campbells Cove and “Ilkan Maladul” at Millers Point remain a mystery.

He has asked the University of London library, which holds the original Dawes manuscript, to help decipher the illegible name for Balls Head.

In a second controversial finding, Mr Smith has questioned the long-held view that at the time of British settlement Aborigines on the northern side of the harbour spoke a different language to their south-side cousins. He thinks there was a “pan-harbour” Sydney-wide language called Biyal Biyal, which was replaced on the North Shore by the Ku-ring-gai tongue, brought by Bungaree and his Broken Bay clan when they moved south about 1800. With many of the original North Shore people depleted by smallpox and invasion of their lands, he argues, many Aboriginal names of landmarks from the 1830s on were recorded in the Ku-ring-gai language.

Mr Smith has listed about 150 Aboriginal place names in Sydney using 18th- and 19th-century records. Author of books on Bennelong and Bungaree, he has compiled thumbnail biographies of about 100 other Aborigines whose lives can be glimpsed through the words of 18th- and 19th-century colonials.

The 1790s were the “golden days” of cross-cultural information gathering, he said, when individuals like Dawes were able to learn from teachers like Bennelong.

“I think I’d prefer to live in the 18th century,” said Mr Smith, who in February will teach a Workers’ Education Association course on the Sydney clans.

‘Ten pounds for each’
Wanted advertisement
Sydney Gazette 20 December 1834


Memel, Bennelong’s island, was to become a prison in which  Aboriginal ‘convicts’ were separated, chained and forced to work cutting stone.

In February 1835 five Aboriginal men went on trial charged with ‘stealing in a dwelling house and putting in fear’. It was alleged that they had taken tea, sugar, beef and clothing (one stole a pipe) from the house of Alfred Hill Jacques at Brisbane Water in October 1834.

The defendants brought to trial were named as Little Dick, Whip-em-up, Monkey, Charley Muscle, Little Freeman, Leggamy, Major, Currinbong Jemmy, and Tom Jones. Later Little Dick, Toby and Little Freeman were charged with robbery and Mickey Mickey and Charlie with rape.

The Supreme Court judges planned to transport these men to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where they would be assigned to settlers, but when the Lieutenant Governor of VDL objected, they were sent to Goat Island by New South Wales Governor Sir Richard Bourke.

The rewards went up from £10 for the Broken Bay men to £40 for offenders from the Hunter River area. Mickey Mickey was found guilty of rape and hanged at Goat Island in March 1835, with the other Aboriginal men forced to witness his death.

In April 1835 Governor Bourke appointed the Reverend George Langhorne of the Church Missionary Society as schoolmaster to teach the Broken Bay men the Christian religion, English language and reading. They were chained, separated from other prisoners and put to work cutting stone. In May they were joined by Long Dick, Jack Jones, Abraham and Gibber Paddy who had been convicted for robbery.

On 1 May 1835 Bourke sent a despatch to the Secretary of State Lord Glenelg in London by the ship Venus (Historical Records of Australia (HRA), Series 1, Vol. 19, page 718), formally seeking permission to appoint a schoolteacher  at Goat Island. He advised Glenelg:

I may add that for the present this appointment will answer the further purpose of teaching the elements  of the Christian religion and of English Education to eight Aboriginal blacks who have been placed on Goat Island under a sentence, commuted from that of death, passed by the Supreme Court for outrages committed on some of the Colonists of the district of Brisbane Water. It was intended to have sent them to Van Diemen’s Land to be there assigned to respectable Settlers; but the Lieutenant-Governor having represented the alarm with which the Settlers  of that Colony would be likely to regard the presence of these men, I have adopted the plan of placing them on Goat-Island, where they are employed in cutting stone, and kept separate from the other prisoners.

Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld

The Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, the missionary figure now well know for his work in recording the Indigenous language spoken at Lake Macquarie and Newcastle to the north of Sydney, wrote poignantly from ‘Ebenezer’ Lake Macquarie about  Mickey Mickey’s execution.

Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld
Extract from Annual Report of the Mission at Lake Macquarie 1835, Sydney Gazette 16 July 1836, page 2

Threlkeld added: ‘… When I visited Goat Island, where the Aboriginal culprits are confined under the superintendence of Mr. Langhorne, they were improving fast in their English reading.’

Reverend Richard Taylor

The Reverend Richard Taylor also visited the Aboriginal prisoners on the island and wrote in his journal on 26 June 1836:

It was a very rainy morning. Mr. Langhorne took breakfast … I went to Goat Island Arthur accompanying us, where we dined with Mr. Langhorne the Catechist … Afterwards I went to see some of the natives who are confined poor fellows. It grieved me to see them with chains on their legs. We were nearly swamped in landing.
[Taylor noted that it snowed that day in Parramatta].

Taylor made another diary entry on 8 July:

To Goat Island to call on Mr. Langhorne … Mr. Langhorne told me the natives there under his care cannot only read and write but likewise answer any questions in Watt’s Catechism, he says they are not without intellect but insufferably lazy, their greatest pleasure being to lay down and have a long nap by their fires, hence they say they love Sunday because it is a day of rest, no work but time for a long sleep.

more kvs

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020

Course of the Tank Stream
WV Aird, The Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage of Sydney,
The Metropolitan Sewerage and Drainage Board
Sydney 1961



Keith Vincent Smith

Water is vital. It made life possible for thousands of years for the Gadigal who inhabited the place they called Warrane and we now know as Sydney Cove or Circular Quay.

It was central to their canoe culture as hunter-fisher-gatherers in a saltwater environment where nature provided all their necessities: shelter, seafood, small game and edible plants.

All around the harbour Aboriginal women fished from stringybark canoes they called nawi while the men stalked the rocks and shallows to catch fish with their multi-pronged spears.

Fresh drinking water was obtained from the clear creek that ran through thick stands of gum trees and trickled over mudflats into the V-shaped cove and the shimmering harbour. This water source would later be called the Tank Stream. There’s no record of its Aboriginal name.

In ‘Jacob Nagle, His Book’, a memoir written in Ohio in 1829, Nagle, a sailor born in North America  who rowed Governor Phillip’s cutter, described the stream as ‘A Run of fresh Water Runing down into the  Center of the Cove’ (His spelling).

Excavations along the former banks of the stream at Angel Place in 1997 during the building of the City Recital Hall recovered 54 flaked stone tools chipped from water-worn pebbles. Archaeologists concluded that this Aboriginal ‘tool-making’ workshop existed some 5000 years ago in dense bush beside the watercourse.

Samples of the stone artefacts are on display in the Recital Hall foyer in Angel Place. There is also a Tank Stream exhibition on the lower ground floor of the former GPO in Martin Place.

In 1881 the skull of an Aboriginal man was found in the bed of the Tank Stream 5 metres under the surface by workmen digging the foundations of the General Post Office. A hole in the skull suggests it was pierced by a spear.


The Tank Stream rose in swamps and marshy ground around what is now Hyde Park, near the present Market and Park Streets, and flowed north through a filtering sandstone bed in the valley between the present Pitt and George Streets, falling 30 metres to what is now Bridge Street.

In 1789 and 1790 Governor Arthur Phillip ordered three storage tanks, each about five metres deep, to be cut into the sandstone next to the stream. Two were in the present Bond Street and another at Pitt and Spring Streets, named for its spring running into the Tank Stream. Captain John Hunter, who became governor in 1795, gave orders forbidding pollution of the Tank Stream.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020