The Awabakal clan lived around Merewether and the city foreshore area and harbour entrance, in close proximity to the clans of Lake Macquarie and the Hunter River, and other groups around Honeysuckle, Wickham, Carrington and Port Waratah (Coal River Working Party, 2008)
When Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia in 1770 he noted what is now called Nobbys Head at the mouth of the Hunter River but did not investigate any further. In 1797, while pursuing a group of convict escapees, Lieutenant John Shortland landed in the vicinity. He reported the coal deposits he found and named the river after Governor Hunter, though it was known as Coal River for some time.
Two years later, Newcastle recorded its first export of coal when 50 tonnes was shipped to Bengal on The Hunter. In 1801 the first coal mine was established under the present site of Fort Scratchley using convict labour. Between 1799 and 1829 the Port of Newcastle shipped 50,000 tonnes of coal, loaded into ships using wheelbarrows from a pile of coal near the dock (Newcastle Port Corporation, 2008).
According to a story published as part of the Aboriginal Hunter Supplement to the Newcastle Herald Tuesday, May 11 1993:4 by Greg Ray, the Awabakal are the only Aboriginal Tribe known to discuss coal in their Dreaming Stories and were aware of its combustibility, and used it in fires. The following is the Dreaming Story of the Awabakal people:
A very long time ago, when the earth and sea were different from today, a great darkness fell on the land. This darkness, which seemed to come from a hole in a mountain and block out the sun, was so deep and sudden that the people were very frightened. Even birds and insects fell silent. Messengers were sent in all directions, bringing all people together to decide how light could be brought back to the world. The wise men of the tribes decided that the only way to bring the world back to normality was to cover up the darkness that was scattered deeply on the ground. Men, women and children dug up rocks and sand and broke down foliage from trees and bushes to cover up the thick darkness. People from miles around came together to stop the darkness breaking through the surface of the earth. The people feared that the ever-burning fires deep in the ground would release the darkness again. After the darkness was covered over, generations passed in which people walked on the ground, pressing the darkness and the flames together under the earth to become nikkin, or coal. Now, whenever coal is burned, the spirit of the ancient earth fire is again released.
Note: this story is also featured in the Awabakal Word Finder and Dreaming Stories Companion, details of which can be found on the reference list.
The landform at the mouth of Newcastle Harbour, named Nobby's Island by the European settlers, holds great significance to the Awabakal people.
In this painting by Joseph Lycett Aborigines resting by camp fire, near the mouth of the Hunter River, Newcastle, Nobby's Island can be clearly seen in the background as it was around the time of European settlement.
In a letter from the Colonial Secretary to the Superintendent of the Breakwater, Newcastle on 31 January 1853, plans were proposed to blow the top off Nobby's Island so as to make way for the construction of a lighthouse.
"With reference to your letter of the 28th ultimo, with copy of letter from the Visiting Magistrate and Superintendent of the Breakwater at Newcastle, reporting upon the amount of labour required in performing the proposed work of cutting down Nobby's lsland to the level of 65 feet above high-water mark, with a view to the erection thereon of a Light House, in accordance with the recommendation of a Select Committee of the Legislative Council, and requesting us to take an early opportunity of proceeding to Newcastle, to examine the work proposed to be done, and to report whether it might not be considerably expedited by blasting the rock in order to reduce it to the proper level - we have the honor to state, that with the knowledge we possess of what is required to be done at Nobby's Island, we have no hesitation in expressing our opinion that the work may be most materially expedited by the application of gunpowder;"
A copy of the original letter at http://www.newcastle.edu.au/service/archives
The missionary Reverend L.E. Threkheld recorded the following about Nobby's Island:
"At the entrance of Newcastle there is a small high island, called by the English Nobby's Island. The blacks have a tradition that it is the abode of an immensely large Kangaroo which resides within the centre of the high rock, that occasionally he shakes himself which causes the Island to tremble and large pieces to fall down, as any one can perceive has been, and still continues to be the case, on the eastern side of the Island. It is evident on the slightest inspection, that at some early period the Island formed part of the main land, the strata correspond with the similar ones of coal, sand, and other stone to those on the opposite shore, nothing but a general convulsion of nature could have affected such a change. Manual labour is now employed to fill up the space betwixt the Island and the main land so as to form a breakwater for the protection of the harbour at Newcastle, and a great part of the top of Nobby's Island has been taken down without reaching the monster kangaroo said to dwell within the rock!"
(Sourced and transcribed by Gionni Di Gravio, University of Newcastle)