Imagine this valley back then. The bushland wasn’t a sliver – the colony was. Perched on the edge of the Eora nation, colonists wrestled with failing crops and unpredictable fishing hauls, as well as the news that their supply ship had crashed on route to Sydney.
When some of the colony’s precious cattle escape into the bush from their pen in June 1788, First Fleet officer Watkin Tench described the loss with a desperate sense of Sydney’s future: “An accident happened which I record with much regret”, he laments in his history of early Sydney.
“The whole of our black cattle, consisting of five cows and a bull, either from not being properly secured or from the negligence of those appointed to take care of them, strayed into the woods and in spite of all the search we have been able to make, are not yet found.”
The escaped cows leave the British teetering on the verge of starvation.
Australian history is far from pre-determined, and this escaped mob of cattle is a terrifying symbol of that initial precarity.
But the cows didn’t disappear. They marched off westwards and were watched the whole way. The black bull was drawn onto the wall of an overhang by this little creek near what’s now known as Campbelltown, proof of their escapade into Dharug and Dharawal country. Remnants of it are still visible – the cloved hoof, the huge pizzle.
But the layers of Sydney’s history and people’s attitudes to it are also visible on the cave wall. The bull is spray-painted in graffiti – “this is BULLshit” insists one crude tagger. It’s one of the most significant contact art sites in the whole of Sydney. It links all of us back to a time when what we have now was far from certain.
And yet here it sits, defaced, in a beautiful forest in western Sydney. It feels like such a waste.
If we took up historian Bruce Pascoe’s invitation to connect with Indigenous knowledges, Bull Cave could be a link for all of us to our country and its history. It could be a treasure, rather than an awful scar.
At one level, the vandalism is a reminder that some people simply don’t care. But at another, it shows us that history matters deeply – the erasure of Aboriginal history-making was the intent.
The past few weeks have demonstrated this paradox of history. Statues have been torn down and walled in. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have marched for rights and recognition.
Meanwhile, an Aboriginal site dating to antiquity was dynamited and a government told young Australians that history isn’t as important as dentistry or engineering because it’s not “job ready”.
But without understanding our past and its layers of history-making and erasure, what hope have we got?
Anna Clark in an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS. Her next book, on the history of Australian history, will be published by Penguin Random House.