Caley and Moowat’tin

After arriving in the colony in 1800, George Caley realised that the local Aboriginal people had a wealth of knowledge and skills that would be invaluable to his scientific research.

Asked by Banks to find out how ‘the duck bill animal’ (i.e. the platypus) bred, Caley was eventually able to report that ... ‘I asked several natives and ... at length learned that they went a long way underground and laid eggs. They call them by two distinct names – Bat’ang Malangsing.’

Caley’s pioneering work in collecting and cataloguing birdlife in the colony also benefited from local Aboriginal knowledge. In his descriptions of the various birds he always recorded the Aboriginal name and often included information given to him about their habits. For the magpie he notes ...’the natives call the species Ca’ruck and they tell me it builds its nest of sticks lined with grass in Iron-bark and Apple-trees.’ (‘Apple-trees’ are native Australian trees of the genus Angophora).

One problem Caley faced was that while it was fairly easy to climb up the smaller eucalypts common in the coastal areas to obtain the flowers and fruit he needed to classify them, the upper branches of the taller forest trees found inland on the better soils of the Hawkesbury Valley were beyond his reach. In this he relied on the climbing skills of the ‘inland, or bush natives’ for as he notes: ‘the water natives are more confined to one place of abode. They know nothing of climbing trees ... which the inland natives do dexterously’.

By 1805, Caley had established a close friendship with Moowat’tin (Daniel), a Darug teenager raised from the age of five in a white family. Caley relied on his young guide’s language and other skills to obtain Aboriginal information and to collect botanical samples. Many of Caley’s plant specimens include his hand-written note: ‘Got by Dan’.

Caley even took Moowat’tin with him when he returned to England in 1810. For some time he accompanied Caley on his business, but when difficulties arose Joseph Banks sent Moowat’tin home. His life ended tragically in 1816, when he was found guilty of a violent crime and hanged.

Caley’s work on eucalypts

Mr Caley has observed within the limits of the colony at Port Jackson nearly 50 species of Eucalyptus, most of which are distinguished and have proper names applied to them by the native inhabitants who ... more readily distinguish them than botanists have yet been able to do’.

Robert Brown, legendary pioneer Australian botanist - General Remarks, Geographical and Systematical, on the Botany of Terra Australis, 1814.

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