In the earliest days of the settlement at Sydney Cove, the colonists were reliant on food supplies and animals they had brought with them. Among the livestock were cows, a bull and a bull calf acquired at Cape Town during the voyage. The cattle were Black Cape Cattle, a long-horned African breed originating in Botswana, and had been dehorned for safety during their transport. Around five months after they arrived in Sydney, the cattle escaped from their enclosure and disappeared.
On 23 June 1788, surgeon George Worgan wrote in a letter to his brother:
We are just now under great Tribulation about our Bulls and Cows, for they have been missing for some time & there is One of the Convicts who committed a Robbery some time ago, for which if taken, he will certainly be hung, who is supposed to have driven off the Cattle, as they were missed about the same time that he was, Many Parties have been out in different directions, some said they thought they saw the Print of the Catties Feet, and a Man’s near it, however We have Reason to fear they have strayed so far, that they will never be brought back again, if they would but turn wild they might still, perhaps, be of Use to the Country, but we fear that the Natives will kill them, if they fall in with them.
The cattle had been valued for the production of butter and cheese, as well as for the potential to breed meat animals and their loss was deemed an “absolute disaster” for the young colony. It was two years before the second fleet brought more African cattle to Sydney. Then, seven years after their escape, the original cattle and their many descendants were discovered living happily on native pastures some 65km southeast of Sydney in an area that became known as the Cowpastures.
The cattle had moved into the hunting grounds of the Dharawal and Gundungurra peoples, following the river systems. The local Aboriginal people were aware of them, even depicting them in cave paintings, but it wasn’t until 1795 that word was passed along to government officials via convict hunters. A search party sent by Governor Hunter crossed the Nepean River in November of that year, finding a herd of 40 cattle. Over subsequent years, other herds were discovered and, by 1801, the wild cattle living in the Cowpastures area numbered more than 500.
The animals became instruments of colonisation and displacement of the local Aboriginal people. In 1803, Governor King passed the first regulations claiming ownership of the wild cattle and declaring the Cowpastures area to be Crown land. Government permission was required to enter the area. Further regulations by Governor Macquarie imposed penalties for anyone stealing or killing cattle from the Cowpastures herds.
The Public are further hereby informed, that the whole of the Wild Cattle grazing to the Westward of the River Nepean, being the Property of the Crown, are to be distinctly and clearly understood as such; and any Person or Persons who shall be detected hunting, stealing or killing of them will be prosecuted for Felony, and punished in the most exemplary Manner. (1812)
In 1817, a further decree made the death penalty explicit for anyone interfering with the government cattle. Meanwhile, John Macarthur, keen to take advantage of the good pastures, had been granted 5000 acres in the area to develop his merino wool venture at a property he called Camden. In the early 1820s, the government reserve was dissolved and the land sold. The wild cattle were progressively removed from Cowpastures, allowing Macarthur to expand his holding to a maximum of 27,698 acres.
The area was still being referred to as Cowpastures as late as the second half of the 19th century but is now known as Camden.