Figures carved upon the rocks
S. Sharp after W. G.
From Arthur Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay … printed by T. Maiden for Ann Lemoine and J. Roe London, 1807

In all these excursions of Governor Phillip, and in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, the figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men, have been seen carved upon the rocks, roughly indeed, but sufficiently well to ascertain very fully what was the object intended. Fish were often represented.

Arthur Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay … 1789


Keith Vincent Smith 2018

The Indigenous people of Port Jackson and coastal Sydney, who called themselves Eora (‘people’) did not read or write, but they left an eloquent witness to their artistic expression, culture and spiritual beliefs in hundreds of galleries of figures outlined and engraved on the flat sandstone rocks. They  included ancestral heroes, shields, whales, sharks, fish, eels, kangaroos, echidnas and lizards, that were often clan or personal totems.

A totem is an emblem or image from nature, and the Eora regarded these as part of their identity. In Aboriginal society totems link the human, natural and supernatural worlds.

Captain Arthur Phillip, governor of the convict colony established at Warrane (Sydney Cove) in January 1788, was one of the first Europeans to see this artwork.  Phillip  named the settlement at Sydney Cove in honour of his powerful mentor Lord Sydney at the Home Office in London. He told Sydney in a long letter dated 15 May 1788:

In Botany Bay, Port Jackson, and Broken Bay we frequently saw the figures of men, shields, and fish roughly cut on the rocks; and on the top of a mountain I saw the figure of a man in the attitude they put themselves in when they are going to dance, which was much better done than I had seen before, and the figure of a large lizard was sufficiently well executed to satisfy every one what animal was meant.

On 17 April 1788 the British officers made another discovery, in which, wrote Surgeon John White in Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (London 1790, page 139)

We saw, however, some proofs of their  [Aboriginal] ingenuity in various figures cut on the smooth surface of some large stones. They consisted chiefly of representations of themselves in different attitudes, of their canoes, of several sorts of fish and animals; and, considering the rudeness of the instruments with which the figures must have been executed, they seemed to exhibit tolerably strong likenesses.

In his first book, A narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay’, published  by J. Debrett in Piccadilly, London in 1789, Marine Captain Watkin Tench observed (page 79): ‘On many of the rocks are also to be found deliniations of the figures of men and birds.’

None of these First Fleet narratives gave their readers in Britain a glimpse of these unique art works. The illustration above, from the second edition of Phillip’s book, printed in London in 1807, must be based on the imagination of the artist ‘W.G.’ and the engraver, identified only as S. Sharp.

Nouvelle-Hollande … Dessins exécutés par les naturels
François Martin Testard after Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778–1846) Engraving
François Péron, Voyage de découvertes aux terres Australes, Paris, Arthus Bertrand, Plate 33, 2e édn, 1824


The engraving Dessins exécuté par les naturels, from an original drawing by Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846), was included as Item 22 in the exhibition Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770-1850, curated by Ace Bourke and myself at the Mitchell Library, Sydney in 2006.

I first saw it in 1988 in an innovative exhibition, The Coming Of The Strangers, curated by Baiba Berzins, then Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. It was also included in  Berzin’s book of the same name, published by Collins Australia in that year. As Berzins wrote:

This is the first visual record of Aboriginal rock engravings in the Sydney region, which are frequently mentioned in the written accounts of early European settlers and visitors.

Lesueur’s drawings were published in Paris in 1824 in the Atlas of the second edition of François Péron, Voyage de découvertes aux terres Australes. He drew these unique Aboriginal figures in 1802 while in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with the French expedition commanded by Nicolas Baudin.

Lesueur was the first European to survey and record the vast stone art galleries around Sydney Harbour. Two images of figures at Willara (Point Piper) can be identified in the illustration ‘Aboriginal Carvings’, published by the artist George French Angas in 1847. Point Piper is a rocky sandstone headland on the western side of Rose Bay which today contains Sydney’s most expensive real estate.

Lesueur’s original sketch of the Point Piper kangaroo
From J. Bonnemans et al, Baudin in Australian Waters
Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1988
‘At Point Piper’, 1845
Signed by William Augustus Miles
Ink and wash,  Mitchell Library, Sydney

The kangaroo in right profile drawn by Lesueur, which appears as No. 6 in the group illustration (top of this page), seems to be the model for the Aboriginal engraving seen and recorded by William Augustus Miles, who accompanied  Angas to Point Piper in 1845. Two eels are carved into the sandstone at the foot of the drawing.  The kangaroo is No. 11 in Angas’s plate ‘Aboriginal Carvings’ but the image has been flipped horizontally by the engraver, a common practice at the time.

Lesueur’s No. 5, the bird-like figure at middle-right, which is supposed to represent the Dieu des Montagnes bleues (‘God of the Blue Mountains’), appears as No. 10 in Angas.

This is visual proof that Lesueur and (probably) other French voyagers visited Point Piper during their five months stay in Sydney. 

The ambiguous caption to the French engraving, which translates into English as ‘Drawings done by the natives’, has prompted the mistaken speculation that these figures were drawn on paper by Aboriginal artists. This is even assumed on the website of the Museum du Havre in France, which houses the drawings made in Australia by Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit.

See Image 2 on the Le Havre Museum website http://www.museum-lehavre.fr/en/objet/port-jackson 

Lesueur’s original pencil drawings include the profile of a seated Aboriginal person’s legs next to an engraved fish – another argument against this theory.

Click on the list at right for January 2018 to read more about the Point Piper engravings in my post Lawrence Hargrave and the Spanish ships.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018