National treasure located in local bush cave

Images from the past: Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino and curator Megan Monte with an 1820s print by Joseph Lycett.
Images from the past: Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino and curator Megan Monte with an 1820s print by Joseph Lycett.

IT could have been as early as 1788 that an unknown Dharawal artist, charcoal in hand, drew a picture of a bull on the wall of a bush cave near Campbelltown.

Not that Campbelltown existed in 1788; Sydney itself barely existed.

But that drawing, on a sandstone rock shelter in what is now Kentlyn, near Peter Meadows Creek, survives as the oldest-known indigenous record of European colonisation.

In July 1788, two bulls and four cows — which had arrived on board the First Fleet — strayed into the bush while their convict overseer had lunch.

They simply vanished.

Several search parties could find no trace of them, and it was presumed they had been speared by Aborigines.

It was years later, in 1795, that an exploration party led by John Hunter crossed the Nepean River, near modern Menangle and Camden, and found large herds of "wild cattle" grazing.

Those escaped cattle from 1788 had wandered south and their progeny in 1795 numbered in their hundreds.

The Dharawal people had never seen anything like these strange creatures, and recorded their characteristics in charcoal on the bushland cave wall.

Today we can make out the head and tail — but most telling are the scrotum/penis and cloven hooves that do not apply to any marsupial. This was a bull.

But how do we know this rock drawing was made shortly after 1788?

Well, the drawing of the bull is missing horns . . . as were the escaped bulls.

Historian Carol Liston explained in her 1988 Campbelltown — The Bicentennial History: "The animals had no horns, having been polled to prevent injury during their long sea voyage."

But, of course, their offspring were born with horns.

Dr Liston added: "From accounts of other tribes, the Aborigines' first encounter with cattle was a terrifying experience, and this fear is tangible in the size of the Campbelltown drawings where the bulls dominate the walls of the rock shelter.

"It is unlikely they hunted the cattle. Governor King commented that the Aborigines climbed trees until the animals had passed, a wise precaution in view of their tendency to charge at intruders."

More recently, Grace Karskens from the University of NSW wrote about the Bull Cave in her 2009 book, The Colony.

Last week, Associate Professor Karskens told the Advertiser: "I ended [my book] with the Bull Cave because it is such a such a poignant, telling site.

The "real" bull cave: As photographed in the early 1980s and featured in the research paper, Bull Cave: Its relevance to the prehistory of the Sydney Region by R.D. Miller (held at Campbelltown Library).

The "real" bull cave: As photographed in the early 1980s and featured in the research paper, Bull Cave: Its relevance to the prehistory of the Sydney Region by R.D. Miller (held at Campbelltown Library).

"It says so much about that early contact period, about encounters between people and animals, about art and culture - and about the appalling, ongoing politics of vandalism on sites like this."

And that has been a major problem.

Though a steel mesh fence was erected around the cave by Campbelltown Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in June 1982 — funded by the Heritage Commission — vandals have still been able to get in.

This has been heartbreaking to not only the local Aboriginal people, but to historians, environmentalists and anyone with a hint of intelligence.

As Jens Korff of the Creative Spirits website noted: "We went down there to film [the bull cave artwork] and of course, someone has spray painted across it in red letters: 'This is bullshit' and painted a big penis across it, so of course we can't film there."

Dr Liston added: "From accounts of other tribes, the Aborigines' first encounter with cattle was a terrifying experience, and this fear is tangible in the size of the Campbelltown drawings where the bulls dominate the walls of the rock shelter.

"It is unlikely they hunted the cattle. Governor King commented that the Aborigines climbed trees until the animals had passed, a wise precaution in view of their tendency to charge at intruders."

More recently, Grace Karskens from the University of NSW wrote about the Bull Cave in her 2009 book, The Colony.

Last week, Associate Professor Karskens told the Advertiser: "I ended [my book] with the Bull Cave because it is such a such a poignant, telling site.

"It says so much about that early contact period, about encounters between people and animals, about art and culture - and about the appalling, ongoing politics of vandalism on sites like this."

And that has been a major problem.

Though a steel mesh fence was erected around the cave by Campbelltown Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in June 1982 — funded by the Heritage Commission — vandals have still been able to get in.

This has been heartbreaking to not only the local Aboriginal people, but to historians, environmentalists and anyone with a hint of intelligence.

As Jens Korff of the Creative Spirits website noted: "We went down there to film [the bull cave artwork] and of course, someone has spray painted across it in red letters: 'This is bullshit' and painted a big penis across it, so of course we can't film there."

This is not only a national heritage tragedy, but also a local one.

In an effort to showcase the importance of the Bull Cave, a respectful replica has been created at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre, The Oaks.

The discovery of the "wild cattle" on the Nepean in 1795 changed everything in a local historical sense.

Seen as an emergency food supply for the colony, the local area was quarantined as a sort of game reserve and anyone interfering with the cattle would be severely punished.

This forbidden zone was called "The Cow Pastures" and, by consequence, it meant the Dharawal people were initially not as exposed to the violence and dispossession suffered by other Sydney tribal groups.

Indeed, an ex-convict named John Warby — now remembered by a public school in Airds — was appointed the government herdsman and he built a close friendship with the Dharawal.

(And parts of the path that Warby blazed between his family's hut at Prospect, and the Cow Pastures hut on the Nepean River, are still known today as Cowpasture Road.)

But this Cow Pastures world vanished soon enough.

Firstly, in 1805, John Macarthur — a ruthless but charming villain — won the favour of Lord Camden, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and was allowed to take up a 5000-acre grant in the middle of the Cow Pastures, which he duly named Camden Park.

Camden township would later evolve on this estate, the first lots sold in 1840.

At the southern end of the Cow Pastures, a village called Stonequarry was established, renamed Picton in 1845.

But the first land grants were issued on the modern site of Campbelltown in 1809, after floods had yet again swept away the colony's wheat crops along the Hawkesbury River.

The world of the Dharawal was turned upside down, their ancient hunting grounds were converted to farms, and the clash of cultures eventually resulted in the infamous Appin Massacre of 1816.

The fact that Macarthur still has such a vibrant and proud Aboriginal identity today is a testament to a strong people.

Their culture remains in the surviving songs, stories and descendants.

We also have a Dharawal National Park at Wedderburn.

But historic sites — such as the Bull Cave, which also includes almost 50 hand and feet markings — also deserve to be highlighted, and protected.