Four thousand fish: Our language of memory

As people walk down that little wharf towards the canoe, I hope they remember how it was back in the day and how our old ancestors used to live and survive. And I want them to think back and imagine if they can, the women out in the canoes, and what it would have looked like and how beautiful it would have looked like with the fires going and we must not forget them, our ancestors. They were some special people. Because all the thousands of years they lived here says it all. It just says it all, how powerful and strong they were. And survivors… still survivors today. 

Phyllis Stewart

Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams

In early 2018 I curated Four Thousand Fish, a large-scale participatory art project for the Sydney Festival that told the story of British colonists hauling an excessive four thousand fish from Warrane (Sydney Harbour) in one day in 1790. The colonists’ action disrupted the delicate ecosystem that the accomplished Eora fisherwomen of Warrane had preserved for millennia, and undermined the status of women as the main food providers for family and community.

Visitors were invited to participate by creating frozen fish using seawater and a cast mould, then returning them to an interpretation of a nawi (bark canoe) with a fire lit inside, where the heat and the setting sun slowly melted them away, symbolically returning the fish to the harbour. Over the duration of the project in January 2018, 23,420 visitors attended the installation and 13,852 participated in the symbolic act of creating and returning the frozen fish to Warrane.

The project was dedicated to a woman named Barangaroo, and the subsequent generations of Aboriginal women that have protected, fished and cared for Sydney Harbour. It was the result of collaboration with artist Dharawal and Yuin artist Phyllis Stewart, Biigal artist Steven Russell, Yuwaalaraay designer and artist Lucy Simpson and Lille Madden, a Gadigal woman who is also from the Bundjalung, Arrernte and Kalkadoon clans and grew up in Sydney. Four Thousand Fish allowed me to deeply consider and define the language of our memory. How do we resurface First Peoples’ experience of this ancient place?

In 2015 I curated the first public work of art in the precinct. shellwall was the result of a long collaboration and friendship between senior Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery and Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones. Three years later, Four Thousand Fish presented the opportunity to collaborate with Esme’s son Steven Russell reinforcing the recurrent narrative and deep engagement with site Barangaroo through bringing together family dynasties that demonstrate the continuity of their cultural knowledge and practices.

Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams

For Four Thousand Fish, Lille Madden composed a sea song in the language of her ancestors, which recalled her matrilineal descendants—grandmothers, mothers and daughters singing songs that kept time with their rowing. Eora fisherwomen dominated the waters of Warrane and its connecting coastlines, as they skimmed across the water in their nawi. They were illuminated at night by a small fire on a clay pad for warmth and cooking, often using a banksia to hold the flame.

British officers observed scars and marks on the smalls of women’s backs, caused by the onboard flames. Senior women would teach the young girls to line fish using a burra—a crescent fishing hook carved from a turban shell, with handmade bark fibre lines, weighted with stone and occasionally a feather lure. Pulling in each fish one by one, they would cook it them over the flame in their nawi or surf onto the shore to share the catch with the family.

Too often history misinterprets the role of women, and the context for their actions, characterising strong women like Barangaroo as unruly, disruptive or hysterical. The British found Barangaroo intimidating and demanding, particularly in comparison to other Eora women whom they perceived to be agreeable and submissive. Watkin Tench described her as a vixen and a scold whom no one felt sorry for.[1] She strongly opposed her husband’s interactions with the British, and when he first visited Sydney she broke his fishing spear in protest. Even when invited to the Governors house, she still refused to be clothed, preferring just a small bone through her nose septum.

Barangaroo stood up for the rights of women and for the protection of her country. As Phyllis Stewart commends, “I can understand why Barangaroo would have been so angry when the colonists went out and caught four thousand fish. When all the years those women fished the waters and knew how to sustain fish stocks, and just take enough for themselves … What did they do with all the fish?... No wonder she was so angry at the colonists. … I don’t blame her one bit.”[2]

Barangaroo was a notable fisherwoman from the Cammeraygal, a large and prominent group from present day Manly and North Head. When the British Officers first met her in 1790, they estimated her age to be forty years old. During this time, smallpox had rapidly travelled through Sydney, decimating large populations of the Eora, women and senior people were particularly susceptible. This may have positioned Barangaroo as a senior woman within her group. She endured the loss of a husband and two children to the disease. Alongside her new and younger husband, the ambitious and influential Bennelong, she witnessed her world change drastically.

In 1790, British Lieutenant David Collins recorded a group of colonists hauling in four thousand fish in one day off the shore of Kirribilli. They sent forty fish to the influential and ambitious Bennelong’s camp. This was an extravagant act as it was far more than a small group could eat. Barangaroo also noticed that the British approached the Eora men, not the women. This was a direct challenge to the position and importance of women. There was determination behind her every action; her actions were not without reason. She was holding her place in a rapidly changing landscape. This is a story about our past, but it’s also about our future.

Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Fish hook carved from shell. Courtesy the Australian Museum.
Fish hook carved from shell. Courtesy the Australian Museum

In response, Four Thousand Fish invited participants to take an active role in the project. It was a project that made you wet when you collected the bucket of seawater, cold when you stepped inside the refrigerator to freeze the water in the mould, off‑balance as you stepped on the wharf and hot as you place the frozen ice fish on the coolamon’s flame. I wanted participants to physically feel part of the history they inherited in that place, to impart a bodily memory. This was about taking responsibility for the historical actions that we have inherited. This is a story about our past, but it’s also about our future as symbolic gestures towards considering what it means to give something back that never should have been taken in the first place.

One evening I sat quietly at the end of the wharf, as the western sun set, with the constant narratives from Phyllis and Steven in the background I observed the reverence and ceremony of the participants as they placed the fish upon the nawi canoe’s flame. I spoke to a woman who declared her incredulity over the ignorant and selfish attitude of the European settlers, and the importance of renegotiating our colonial past and relationship to the Warrane. She admitted she had never heard this story before and asked how we could have forgotten such an important incident in our history, and if it was possible to forget such an important moment, what else have we forgotten about this place?

Acknowledging the loss of culture as integrated life cycles and relationships, Steven Russell mused “When the certain plants bloom there are certain fish that run, such as when the coastal wattle or the soap tree blooms round about March and April the mullet, the deep‑sea mullet is doing a run up the coast of New South Wales. And in the old days that would have been a time for ceremony.”[3] Timing is everything, ceremony indicated time and in turn time indicated ceremony.

Steven Russell placing the first fish upon the nawi in Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Steven Russell placing the first fish upon the nawi in Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams 

The Sydney Festival marks a new beginning in a new year, it enlivens the city for a month as people are brought together through music, performance art and culture. Four Thousand Fish also considered the role that seasonality and temporality play in our collective memory and the importance of coming together for ceremony. Standing on the shoreline of Warrane, as the harsh harbour winds coming in from all directions seem to intersect at Barangaroo, I am reminded of the fixation of Europeans on permanent plaques and memorials, without consideration of temporal life cycles and consideration of time and season.

Barangaroo presents an undeniable challenge. How do we honour and commemorate a woman who fiercely opposed the expansion of a colony, in one of the largest urban developments to have taken place in Sydney in the past decade? I believe the solution lies in the representation of a resilient and resistant cultural knowledge that has been passed down by generations of ancestors—a deep knowing of seasons, tides, migration routes of fish and material culture. It resides in the shell work that is still being practised by Esme Timbery, or the way Lucy Simpson intuitively reads a landscape and the ancestral Sydney language that Lille Madden reinstates.

After the Four Thousand Fish project concluded I had a conversation with Wiradjuri Sydney‑based academic Jennifer Newman, regarding the current trend of naming suburbs and locations after Indigenous historic figures, such as Bennelong Point, and the suburbs of Pemulwuy and Barangaroo. She reflected that in the past these places were named after the resources that were associated or located within them such as Cabramatta, Parramatta, Yagoona etc. As we rethink how we remember place, we have a new responsibility, to reinstate the significance of these historical figures, reminding people that before they became a suburb or destination, they were people whose bold actions, decisions and values challenged and influenced the course of the establishment of Australia.

Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams.
Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams 


  1. ^ Watkin Tench, Complete Account, pp. 188, 190, 291; Phillip (in Hunter), Journal, pp. 313, 319, 323.
  2. ^ Phyliss Stewart in conversation with Emily McDaniel, 8 December 2018.
  3. ^ Steven Russell in conversation with Emily McDaniel, 8 December 2018.

Emily McDaniel is an independent curator, writer and educator from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri nation in central New South Wales. She currently holds the position of Coordinator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Learning Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia.

The creative team for Four Thousand Fish (5–28 January 2018), Sydney Festival, Barangaroo Reserve, included Emily McDaniel (concept and curation), Nawi (canoe) by Steven Russell, Coolamon by Phyllis Stewart, sea song by Lille Madden, visual storytelling by Lucy Simpson, sound design by Luke Mynott, lighting design by Mark Hammer, sculptures and fabrication by Pink Cactus props, landscape photography by David Boon, music collaboration by Sonia Tsai.

Photo: Emily McDaniel
Four Thousand Fish, Sydney Festival, 2018. Photo: Jamie Williams