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1 September 2020

What the Colonists Never Knew reveals 200 years of hidden history

National Museum of Australia Press has recently published What the Colonists Never Knew: A History of Aboriginal Sydney, written by Dennis Foley and Peter Read.

The book paints a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up Aboriginal in Sydney alongside the colonists, from 1788 to the present, through the emotional personal journey of a stolen child, Dennis Foley, and the dispassionate eyes of historian Peter Read.

Peter Read’s exploration of the history of Aboriginal Sydney is interwoven with Dennis Foley’s memories of his own Gai-mariagal Country, taking readers on a journey through the region’s past.

National Museum Director Dr Mathew Trinca said, ‘This book offers an honest account of the disappointment, pain and terror experienced by Sydney’s First Peoples, and celebrates the survival of their spirit and their culture.

‘The National Museum is privileged to have been able to deliver this extraordinary work, particularly during a time of reflection on our national identity and complex history. I hope it will go some way to inform all Australians and help us to better understand ourselves.’

Dennis Foley said after experiencing a loving early childhood he was ‘stolen, placed in gaol, and fostered out like a dog’. He recounts how in his teenage years he ‘went within his white skin and like a refugee in my own land I lay low’.

It was only in later years that Dr Foley reclaimed his Aboriginal identity and became determined to share his culture. ‘Our stories are close to extinction, history needs to be recorded, so this is that story,’ he said.

Peter Read said, ‘Dennis writes of the history of his own Gai-mariagal people, while my task is to place his story in a historical context, based on every kind of evidence, of what was happening among the other Sydney clans and language groups at the same time.’

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, said, ‘This is a mesmerising read. It flows from rich anecdotal remembrance loaded with song and lore to incisive commentary about legislation and then slips seamlessly into detailed evocation of pre-colonial life.

‘I have always loved Foley’s ability to bring a story to life and Read’s measured but uncompromising analysis.’

About the authors:

Dennis Foley is an Indigenous Australian scholar working in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. He is well known in the growing discipline of Indigenous entrepreneurship. His writings focus on social inclusion and cross-disciplines, such as Indigenous literature, Indigenous history, and Indigenous epistemology and pedagogy.

Foley is a Fulbright Scholar, a dual Endeavour Fellow and a published poet. His matrilineal links are with the Gai-mariagal people of north-eastern Sydney, and his patrilineal connections are with the Wiradjuri of the Turon River region in western New South Wales. He is active in the Indigenous community and Indigenous business associations, and has been appointed to several state and federal advisory committees.

Peter Read AM is a distinguished historian who has worked at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. For most of his career, his research has focused on Aboriginal history, with occasional forays into place studies and Latin American studies. This book is the culmination of research into Aboriginal Sydney that began with a grant from the Australian Research Council in 2009. Read co-founded Link-Up (NSW) Aboriginal Corporation in 1980 and is currently a director of that organisation.

What the Colonists Never Knew: A History of Aboriginal Sydney is available at the Museum Shop at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, or online at shop.nma.gov.au. RRP $35

Media contact: Diana Streak, 02 6208 5091 | 0422 536 064 or media@nma.gov.au

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