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Bennelong & Boongaree

Sadly we have no direct Aboriginal account of early European settlement; no first-hand impressions and reactions to the clothed white people, their boats and customs. Without a written language all first-hand memories, observations, and personal recollections are lost to us, only being handed down to us by word of mouth, certainly unreliable in the hands of Europeans if not those of Aborigines themselves. We cannot know, only imagine.

Though not directly related to the core topics of this web site I thought it would be of interest to include just one piece outlining, albeit from a distinctly European perspective, the lives of two Aboriginals from these early times: that of Bennelong, who spent time in England, is especially poignant as he clearly struggled with loyalties and the cultural divide before deciding to return to his own people.

Aboriginals though often treated with disdain were nevertheless respected as trackers, collectors, guides, interpreters, and go-betweens. For these reasons they soon became essential members of expeditions both on land and sea although their important role in early exploration has been largely unacknowledged. Europeans taking an interest in their culture, language, and extensive knowledge of the Australian environment were few. Today the synthesis of past knowledge has been the dedicated task of people like Philip Clarke (see references below).

These accounts of Bennelong and Boongaree are drawn largely from material available in greater detail in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Philip Clarke’s Aboriginal Plant Collectors. They are included here to at least give a vague impression of interpersonal relationships in these times. The very few European accounts of individual Aboriginals is, in itself, a sad record. The apparent assumption that Aboriginals would be greatly honoured by introduction to the English king, along with polite English society and its entertainments seems, from today, to have been a gross miscalculation and lack of insight.

Boongaree (Bungaree)

Bungaree Painted by Augustus Earle in 1826 Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Painted by Augustus Earle in 1826
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Boongaree (Bungaree) (? 1765-1830) a leader of the Guringai people lived in the Broken Bay area north of Sydney and was used as a guide and interpreter by Flinders on a trip in the Norfolk to the Hervey Bay area north of Brisbane in 1799 and then during his circumnavigation of the continent from 1801 to 1803 when Flinders was accompanied by Robert Brown and Peter Good.

Also on this trip was Aboriginal Nanbaree. Nursed from smallpox when six or seven Nanbaree had learned English very quickly and was valuable as an interpreter: he lived with the family of surgeon-naturalist of the First Fleet John White and when he died in 1821 was buried in the same grave as Bennelong at Kissing Point (Ryde).[2]

On both trips Boongaree served as an effective negotiator with the local people, managing to forestall any potential for conflict. Returning to Sydney in 1815 Macquarie set up 15 members of Bungaree’s tribe with a farm at George’s Head which included huts, implements, livestock and convict instructors then, at a feast, decorated him with a brass plate inscribed “Boongaree chief of the Broken-Bay-Tribe 1815”. Breastplates like this were often inaccurate and could be used in ridicule; Boonagaree’s wife Matora, for example, was known as ‘Queen Gooseberry’.[3] The invitation by Macquarie to take up a civilized white lifestyle was not taken up.[1]

In 1817 Boongaree joined Lt Phillip Parker King expedition to the ?north-west coast in the Mermaid charting those parts of the coast that had not been covered by Flinders but also with botanist-explorer Allan Cunningham on board. King described Boongaree as sharp, intelligent and unassuming.

However, he had been given a discarded British uniform with a cocked hat and to everyone’s amusement impersonated the mannerisms of local personalities including Governors Hunter to Brisbane, making a rather pathetic figure entertaining the settlers and begging for money, cash, drink and tobacco.[1]

When Russian explorer Capt Thaddeus Bellinghausen visited Sydney on a trip to Antarctica where he was befriended by Boongaree. Bellinghausen was joined Cunningham on a botanical collecting trip across the Blue Mountains.

As a rider mention should be made of Pemulway (probably a member of the Bidjigal clan of the Eora people, the original inhabitants of Toongabbie and Parramatta in Sydney) who resisted European settlement of Australia from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. In November 1801 Govr Gidley-King, after numerous confrontations, ordered that he be brought in dead or alive. On 2 June 1802 Pemulwuy was shot and killed, his head was preserved in spirits and sent to Joseph Banks in England as a trophy.

Bennelong & Yemmerramanee


Bennelong (?1764-1813)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

An elder of the Eora people in Port Jackson, Bennelong (?1764-1813) was one of two Aboriginals to first experience life in Europe. On Governor Phillip’s orders he was captured and brought to Sydney Cove so that Phillip could gain some insight into native customs and language. When captured he was described as ‘of good stature, stoutly made‘, with a ‘bold, intrepid countenance‘ and accounts of him say he was courageous, intelligent, vain, quick-tempered, ‘tender with children’ and something of a comedian, entertaining the English with his undignified antics.

Bennelong lived for a while in the Governor’s house enjoying the food and white hospitality, and learning English, but he escaped in May and was not seen again until September when he was noticed in a gathering of natives at Manly. Here Governor Phillip, called to the site, was speared as the result of a misunderstanding. Bennelong, concerned for the Governor, often came to Sydney Cove to enquire after his health and when convinced that he would not be recaptured and punished would return to the settlement with friends, meeting in the Government House yard.

A small brick hut was built for him in 1791 on the eastern point of Sydney Cove (now called Bennelong Point).

Acompanying Bennelong on HMS Atlantic when it left New South Wales for England on 11 December 1792 was a young companion Yemmerramanee who had ‘voluntarily and cheerfully‘ joined his close friend Bennelong and Governor Phillip on the voyage. He was described by Captain Watkin Tench as ‘a slender fine looking youth … about sixteen years old‘ who had been given clothes and trained as a waiter to the Governor’s table.[5] Together they were the first Aborigines to see England. On arrival the periodicals London Packet and New Lloyd’s Evening Post stated that the natives of Port Jackson appeared ‘totally incapable of civilization‘ and ‘… form a lower order of the human race‘. Clothes were quickly made as the pair were to be presented to King George III at St James Palace – including waistcoats, breeches, ruffled shirts, frock coats with plated buttons, and buckled shoes appropriate for polite society. They were entertained colonial-style by being taken in horse and carriage to experience the sigts and sounds of London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, as well as trips to the theatre including Sadler’s Wells.[6] Both were now becoming homesick and dejected, Yemmerramanee especially was emaciated and seven months later on 18 May 1794 succumbed to pneumonia and was buried at Eltham Parish Church in Kent, buried as a Christian among the graves of local residents, the gravestone subsequently moved to the perimeter wall.[6]

Bennelong sailed back to the colony in 1795 with Governor John Hunter who notes that Bennelong had caught a cold and that a deep homesickness, combined with the long delay before departure, had ‘… much broken his spirit‘.

On return to Sydney on 7 September 1795 Bennelong found it difficult to settle with either the English or his own people and was frequently drunk and violent, being seriously wounded in 1798 during one of many tribal confrontations. He had two wives, the second finding another partner while he was away in England. The Sydney Gazette unsympathetically recording his death at Kissing Point on 3 January 1813 saying ‘Of this veteran champion of the native tribe little favourable can be said. His voyage to and benevolent treatment in Great Britain produced no change whatever in his manners and inclinations, which were naturally barbarous and ferocious‘ he was an ‘… irreconcilable savage… ‘[1][5]

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