‘Where eels lie down’: Parramatta’s history and heritage

Collared eel, prepared from an early settler recipe
By Jacqui Newling

Parramatta is the traditional home to the Burramatta People of the Darug nation, and the meeting place of fresh water and salt water (Eora) peoples. The Burramattagal’s careful management of the region’s rich alluvial soils, woodlands and waterways has provided them a varied diet of fresh fruits, greens, grains and tubers, kangaroos and smaller marsupials, wild birds and water fowl, and aquatic resources including oysters and eels for thousands of years.

The Burramattagal have a close connection with the Parramatta River, from which they caught fish, eels, and other food. Their stable, bark canoes often held a central small fire, built on a mound of soil, on which to cook their fresh catch. ‘Fire-stick farming’, employed to burn vegetation to facilitate hunting and to change the composition of plant and animal species in the area, was also practiced by the Burramattagal people. (City of Parramatta)

With a literal translation for Burramatta being ‘place where eels lie down’, eels are a totem for many Darug people, and remain a defining icon for Parramatta, perhaps best recognised in popular culture as the emblem for the National Rugby League team. You can get a taste of Parramatta’s Aboriginal heritage in a local district walk.


The region’s attributes made Parramatta, or Rose Hill as it was first named by British colonisers, highly attractive to settlers after early crop failures in Sydney, and they were desperate to find soils that might support European-style agriculture. With easy access from Sydney via the river, Parramatta soon became the colony’s food bowl. Parramatta is the place where ex-convict James Ruse validated founding Governor Arthur Phillip’s experiment that farming might be a viable prospect for convict settlers. During the food security crisis in 1790, Judge-advocate David Collins reported that at Parramatta “the convicts conducted themselves with much greater propriety” than those at Sydney, because “they had vegetables in great abundance”.

Australia’s earliest surviving homestead is located in Parramatta – Elizabeth Farm, home to the Macarthur family from 1793 – 1850s, on the grounds of which stands Australia’s oldest known olive tree, believed to have been planted in 1805. Parramatta became the preferred seat of government for many years; Old Government House built in 1799, and a c1800 cottage, converted into a dairy for Governor Macquarie in 1816, survives today. Parramatta was the central point of protection and ‘benevolence’ for minority groups, establishments such as the Female Orphan School (1813-1850) where the Symposium is being held, and Parramatta Female Factory (1821-1848) standing testament.

We celebrate these heritage icons of Australia’s colonial history despite them being symbols of a pervasive and destructive instrument of Imperial dominance and invasion over First Peoples across the nation, the legacy of which we still struggle with today. Parramatta is also the site of attempted government control – albeit ill-conceived – of Aboriginal nations in the early colony. The ‘Native Institution’ was established in 1815 to teach and train Aboriginal children according to English and Christian codes, and annual Feast Days, ‘Conferences’ and ‘blanket musters’ were conducted between 1814-1837 where articles clothing and blankets were distributed after a dinner of beef and plum pudding. More information about colonial settlement, Aboriginal resistance and cross cultural relations, can be found in resources in Parramatta Library and Parramatta Heritage Centre.

Today, there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who work, live and play in Parramatta. The Darug people still populate the areas of Parramatta, Greater Western Sydney, La Perouse and the Blue Mountains. There are a number of Darug organisations and advisory committees that include active Darug people, as well as prominent Darug artists. (City of Parramatta)

Parramatta is home to a vibrant and diverse community which is reflected in the city’s enticing mix of shops, markets and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, from family run corner stores and casual eateries to sophisticated restaurants.

Sources, links and further information

Visitors can explore a permanent exhibition called Parramatta: People & Place, which tells an inclusive story of the Burramatta Aboriginal people, early settlers, extended families and multicultural communities, and how Australia’s second colonial settlement developed into its contemporary role as the vibrant demographic centre of the metropolitan region.
(City of Parramatta)








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