Ku-ring-gai Historical Society Inc
incorporating the
Ku-ring-gai Family History Centre

The Ku-Ring-Gai Tribe

From Port Jackson north across Broken Bay and beyond Brisbane Water lived a group of Aboriginal people who spoke a common language.  That language is known as Kuringgai (sometimes spelt Guringai), derived from the name which Aboriginal people in south eastern Australia still use to describe themselves - kuri (koori).

The termination -nggai identifies the possessive form of the word, which is probably the element that led to the hyphenated form Ku-ring-gai, used since about the 1880s.  Kuringgai can be loosely translated as ‘belonging to the Aborigines’.

The fact that these people shared a common language identifies them as a tribe, although there were almost certainly several dialects of that language spoken.

When Europeans first arrived in Port Jackson in 1788, they elected to settle on the south side of the harbour.  In doing so, they chose the territory of the Darug-speaking people.  The coastal sub-tribe referred to themselves as Eora (literally ‘this place’).

Port Jackson and the Lane Cove River marked the boundary between the two tribes, although they shared a common economy and attended each other’s ceremonies.  On many of the Hawkesbury sandstone outcrops throughout the Ku-ring-gai area, rock engravings can still be seen which reflect the traditional spiritual and totemic beliefs of the local Aborigines.

Amongst the Kuringgai, there were many smaller units called clans, which early European settlers referred to as ‘tribes’.  There are many accounts of the Cammeraigal ‘tribe’, but it is now recognised that the Cammeraigal were a clan of the Kuringgai.  Several other clan names are recorded in the journals of the First Fleet officers.

To the north of the Cammeraigal were the Terramerragal (Turramurragal), whose names are perpetuated as place names in the area, while to the east were the Gayimai from Manly.  In the vicinity of Broken Bay and Pittwater were the Carigal (karee-gal), while on the north side of Broken Bay were the Erina, Narara, Terrigal and Wyong clans, who have also been perpetuated in place names.  Later blanket lists also record the people at Brisbane Water as belonging to the Walkeloa ‘tribe’.

In April 1789, a disease believed to be smallpox was observed amongst the Aboriginal people in the Sydney area.  It was apparent that the local population had no resistance, and that this disease was having a dramatic impact.  Bodies were observed floating in the harbour and left to decay in the rock shelters along the shores of both Port Jackson and Broken Bay.

The Darug and Kuringgai tribes both suffered, with the death rate estimated at somewhere between 50% and 90%.  Conservatively, between 500 and 1000 Aboriginal people died on the coastal strip bounded by Botany Bay and Broken Bay.  A significant proportion of these were Kuringgai.

At least some Kuringgai clans remained intact.  Men from the Cammeraigal clan attended initiation ceremonies at Farm Cove in 1795, and their karadjis (clever men) supervised the tooth evulsion, a ceremony where one or two upper front teeth were bashed out with a mallet and rock, thus testing the applicant’s resistance to fear and to pain.

The Gayimai clan in the Manly area was severely affected, and the last references to the Terramerragal clan date to the 1790s.  It must be assumed that their numbers had declined to the point where the remaining members joined with other clans, probably the Carigal at Pittwater and West Head.

Because the traditional territory of the Kuringgai extended across the mouth of Broken Bay as far north as Tuggerah Lake and possibly to the southern shores of Lake Macquarie, the remaining Kuringgai population tended to congregate around two major centres, Sydney and Gosford.

© Ku-ring-gai Historical Society.

NOTE: This material is extracted from article by Dr James Kohen of the Macquarie University in Focus on Ku-ring-gai.