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Opinion And World View: Bennelong, Barangaroo And Pemulwuy

"In these early editions of Opinion and Worldview, I will discuss issues related to our Indigenous heritage. They will be wide-ranging but each will play a part in painting a broad canvas of the Indigenous heritage basis for pride in belonging as Australian,'' writes Paul W Newbury.

The story of the founding of Australia is about brutal dispossession and every Indigenous man, woman and child bears the trauma of that violence. The appropriate response to acknowledgement of the British invasion is not an immobilising guilt but a state of mind born of a mature realisation that our past has created moral obligations we won’t ever escape.

I believe we limit our identity because we do not perceive that Indigenous heritage is a factor in being Australian. We should consider revitalising our subjective understanding of being Australian by embracing an identity that is commensurate with living in an Indigenous land; and Indigenous traditions, philosophy and spirituality should be a guiding theme for pride in belonging.

Bennelong, Barangaroo and Pemulwuy

Our heritage as Australian begins first of all with the Aboriginal men and women who were at the frontline when the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1788.

The Gadigal clan of the Eora nation knew the harbour as Warrane, Cook called it Port Jackson but Phillip renamed it Sydney Cove after the British Home Secretary. The British occupied Aboriginal lands without any consideration of their rights as sovereign peoples.

The history of the colony of Sydney comes principally from firsthand accounts written by David Collins, Judge Advocate of the colony and Watkin Tench, Marine Captain and Aide to Captain Arthur Phillip.

In Australians: Origins to Eureka (Allen & Unwin 2010), Tom Keneally writes that in the early days of the colony, a tit-for-tat war developed between the will-of-the-wisp Gadigal and British sailors where the sailors stole artifacts—boomerangs, spears and fishing nets that represented many hours of labour in the making by their owners while the natives retaliated by taking shovels and tomahawks.

Phillip decided to end the petty warfare by kidnapping a native to teach him English. He wanted to make Aboriginal ambassadors so he could open channels of communication to allow the Indigenous peoples to become ‘aware of the benefits’ of co-operating with the British.

He sent the marines to Manly Cove in December 1788 to abduct an Aborigine and they brought back Arabanoo. Arabanoo got on well with Phillip but he died of smallpox. Phillip sent the marines out again to capture two natives. They put two men in chains and brought them bristling with resistance to Phillip. They were Colby and Bennelong. Colby defied attempts to reconcile him but Bennelong was more sociable.

Later, Colby escaped but Bennelong formed a strong relationship with the governor. Bennelong was a Wangal man from west of Warrane and he was a passionate man, well liked by his people. He was in his mid-twenties and well advanced in ritual knowledge.

Bennelong quickly learned rudimentary English but after several months, he escaped. He wanted to take part in ceremonies; he felt the need to report his experience of the invaders to his people; and he wanted to be with his wife Barangaroo. From that time, he moved in and out of the settlement as he wished.

Pemulwuy was a young warrior of the Bidgigal clan southwest of Sydney and he was as hostile to the British as Bennelong was conciliatory. In 1790, Pemulwuy approached a group of Europeans hunting game and he speared one of them fatally in the chest. John McIntire was Phillip’s chief huntsman and he was guilty of many depredations against the Eora especially his wanton slaughter of animals.

Pemulwuy’s audacity outraged Phillip and his native policy changed immediately. He ordered a punitive expedition against Pemulwuy’s clan whom he said had killed or wounded seventeen British since 1788. He appointed Watkin Tench to lead a punitive party of marines to ‘bring in any six Bidjigal or their heads’.

To Phillip’s chagrin, the party returned without sighting a native. A second punitive party had a similar result. Phillip’s order was the precursor of countless such indiscriminate acts of reprisal against Indigenous people for the next 140 years.

In 1790, Barangaroo was about forty years old. She lost a husband and two children to the smallpox epidemic of 1789. It is estimated that the epidemic resulted in the deaths of half the Eora people. One can hardly imagine the horror of smallpox for them and the large number of deaths must have limited their ability to carry out their rituals for the dead.

Barangaroo was well versed in women’s law, lore and ritual. She was a self-assured woman who had authority. Governor Phillip wrote of her as ‘very straight and exceedingly well-made’. In The Colony: A history of early Sydney (Allen & Unwin 2010), Grace Karskens describes Barangaroo in modern parlance as a ‘woman with attitude’.

Bennelong and Barangaroo often dined at Government House with Phillip and while Bennelong attended in his red British army jacket with silver epaulets, Barangaroo came to the governor’s table defiantly naked.

Sometime in 1790, Barangaroo gave birth to a daughter, Dilboong, the name of a small brown bird. Despite Bennelong’s prediction it would be a boy and Governor Phillip’s offer for her to have the baby in the hospital, Barangaroo gave birth in a secluded place in the bush. Childbirth was women’s business and Barangaroo would have thought of the hospital as a place inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Barangaroo did not live long after the birth and a grieving Bennelong invited the Governor and David Collins to witness her cremation. He built a funeral pyre and placed Barangaroo’s body on it with her head facing north to the land of her birth.

Bennelong buried Barangaroo’s ashes in the garden of Government House. He asked Phillip to act as foster-father to Dilboong and Phillip found a convict woman to breast feed the baby. However, Dilboong died shortly after and Bennelong buried her beside her mother. In 1792, Bennelong accompanied Phillip to England where he met King George III. He returned to Australia in 1795.

Collins and Tench’s writings are eye-witness accounts that contain many references to Pemulwuy and to the Eora resistance to dispossession of their lands. They also reveal a fascination with the ‘rainbow warrior’, his implacable hostility to the British and his daring strategies of resistance.

In February 1797, Collins described a confrontation between a large body of natives, headed by Pemulwuy, whom he described as a ‘notorious and troublesome savage’, and a group of soldiers and armed settlers. In the battle, Pemulwuy was wounded and captured. Nonetheless, he managed to escape because his guards were affected by alcohol.

In 1798, Collins reported that bands of natives led by Pemulwuy had began to fire the maize grounds, as the best strategy in dissuading settlers from continuing their occupation. When Phillip set up settlements at Parramatta, Toongabbie and the Hawkesbury, he pushed Aboriginal clans off their land onto the territory of others. This led the Bidjigal to join the Dharug to raze corn fields and they killed a number of Europeans.

Collins commented that an idea began to prevail amongst the natives that because Pemulwuy had been frequently wounded, he could not be killed by firearms. Collins went on to say that because of this fancied security, Pemulwuy led every party that attacked the maize grounds.

Governor King declared Pemulwuy an outlaw in November 1801 and he offered a reward of 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon for his capture, dead or alive.

In October 1802, King reported that Aborigines, incited by ‘a daring leader named Pemulwuy’, had killed four white men and had plundered many farms in the districts of Parramatta and Toongabbie.

Shortly afterwards, Pemulwuy—resistance fighter and sovereign war hero of the Eora nation was shot and killed. He died whilst desperately fighting to defend his people and his heritage from the British invasion.

King has Pemulwuy’s head removed and he sent it to Sir Joseph Banks in London. After Pemulwuy’s death, Governor King wrote of him: “…Altho’ a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character …”

Dr Charles Perkins (1935-2000) campaigned throughout his life for equal rights for Indigenous Australians and he succeeded in bringing the plight of the First Australians into public consciousness. He was an exceptional Australian.

On 25 October 2000, I attended his state funeral at Sydney Town Hall and the ‘Order of Service document’ A Celebration of the Life of Charles Perkins contains the following quotation that I accept as a gift:

My expectation of a good Australia is when white people would be proud to speak an Aboriginal language, when they realise that Aboriginal culture and all that goes with it; philosophy, art, language, morality and kinship, are all part of our heritage. And that’s the most unbelievable thing of all; it’s all there waiting for us. White people can inherit 40,000 to 60,000 years of culture, and all they have to do is reach out and ask for it.

Today, Bennelong, Barangaroo and Pemulwuy are commemorated in Sydney landscapes.


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