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Image: Sam Doust


The history of performance at Bennelong Point stretches back thousands of years

The land on which the Sydney Opera House stands was known to its traditional custodians, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, as Tubowgule, meaning "where the knowledge waters meet." A stream carried fresh water down from what is now Pitt Street to the cove near Tubowgule, a rock promontory that at high tide became an island. The mixing of fresh and salt waters formed a perfect fishing ground. Middens of shells were a testament to Tubowgule's long history as a place where the Gadigal gathered, feasted, sung, danced and told stories. 

British colonisers and convicts who arrived in 1788 used the area to confine the cattle and horses that they had brought from Cape Town, and renamed Tubowgule as Cattle Point. In need of lime to bind together bricks and stones into buildings, the colonisers crushed the shell middens and mixed the remnants with water to make a lime slurry. The promontory thus became known as Limeburners’ Point.

“It’s extraordinary that we placed Australia's most iconic performing arts venue on this gathering point.”

Rhoda Roberts, Head of First Nations Programming, Sydney Opera House

Bennelong Point from Dawes Point 1804
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Where the Knowledge Waters Meet

Google Cultural Institute
A portrait of senior man of the Eora Peoples, Woollarawarre Bennelong
A portrait of senior man of the Eora Peoples, Woollarawarre Bennelong. Image: State Library of NSW

Tubowgule’s current name of Bennelong Point honours Woollarawarre Bennelong, a senior Eora man at the time of the arrival of British colonisers in Australia in 1788. Kidnapped by the first Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, Bennelong served as an interlocutor between the Eora and the British, telling Governor Phillip the names of the clans around Sydney as well as the Aboriginal name for Parramatta which Phillip had initially called Rose Hill. At his request, Governor Phillip built him a hut on the point that now bears his name. Bennelong later became the first Aboriginal Australia to travel to London. He spent more than a year in the British capital and attended museums, the theatre at Covent Garden, and Houses of Parliament before returning to his home at Sydney Cove. 

In 1817 the British Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, ordered a fort be built upon Bennelong Point under the direction of former convict and architect Francis Greenway. Fort Macquarie was a square construction with circular bastions at each corner and a castellated square tower. The channel that at high tide separated the tidal island from the mainland was filled with rocks and the fort was completed in 1821.

In 1879 a precursor to the Sydney Opera House – a 900 seat theatre for comic opera and vaudeville – opened in a warehouse on the corner of King and York Streets. It was condemned in 1900. Two years later Fort Macquarie on Bennelong Point was also demolished and replaced by a militaristic tram shed.

In 2011, works commenced on building a new loading dock and tunnel beneath the Sydney Opera House. Archaeologists uncovered seawalls, retaining walls, cuts, pick marks and drill marks – evidence of how this rocky outcrop has been shaped to meet the changing needs of the people who inhabit Sydney Cove. Tubowgule has always reflected the society tucked in around Sydney Cove; as a place for ceremony, gathering and celebration in Aboriginal Australia, as a site to graze cattle and source building materials as the colony took shape, as a fort and bulwark against invasion as the colony grew and then as a tramshed and terminus as the city became a state capital in a newly federated Australia. The site’s most momentous use would come as the nation emerged from the Second World War with a sense of optimism and a desire to define itself.

Read ‘The Competition’

An international competition to design a National Opera House for Sydney

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Competition drawing by Jørn Utzon, 1956. Image: State Archives NSW