This week is NAIDOC week and so it is appropriate to have a bit of a look at two of Colonial Australia’s major figures, Bennelong and Pemulwuy and a bit of an explore into their shared experience.

Both men lived in the Sydney region before Europeans came, before Cook and before Phillip.  Bennelong was a Wangal man, hailing from the south side of the Parramatta River (around the area near Homebush and Rhodes), Pemulwuy was a Bidjigal man from the Georges River.  Both men were leaders in their communities.

Bennelong appears in the colonial story first.  He was likely within a party encountered on the Paramatta River in February 1788, when Governor Phillip and Captain Hunter were exploring the new land.  Amongst the group of men they encountered a particularly inquisitive individual approached and inspected them, their boats and equipment thoroughly.  It has been speculated since that this was Bennelong.  His inquisitive nature and assuredness marked him out in later encounters.

In 1790 Bennelong enters the picture in a dramatic and typically brutal (on the European side of things) manner.  Needing a translator, Governor Phillip orders two Aboriginal men to be abducted and returned to the town.  Bennelong and another man, Colebee were siezed at Manly Cove in November 1789.  Colebee soon escaped, but Bennelong remained with the Governor until May 1790 (for at least part of it against his will) when he also jumped the fence at Government House.

Bennelong’s return to the colonial town came in a dramatic fashion. 

Invited to meet with the locals, Governor Phillip sailed to Manly, where after a misunderstanding he was speared.  Bennelong, who was there, was concerned and later came to the town to enquire about Phillip’s health, after which he moved to town.  Phillip had a small hut built for him on the eastern side of the Cove and the site became known as Bennelong Point. 

In time Bennelong and Phillip developed a closer bond, and in 1792 Bennelong travelled , with a companion, to England with Phillip, meeting the King.  But it was not for him and he eventually returned to Sydney and his home country in 1795.  After this period he is seen less and less in the town.  His protector Phillip, now gone, Bennelong is discarded by the Europeans and lambasted as a drunk. 

But this was not entirely the case.  Reports from Ryde in 1802-03 record Bennelong as the leader of the people living there, with 100 men and women with him.  He developed a strong friendship with the colonial brewer James Squire and was buried on his property amongst the orange trees in 1813.

Pemulwuy approached the colonialists in a entirely different manner.  Already a warrior when the Fleet arrived, Pemulwuy is introduced to the colonists in December 1790 when the Governor’s convict game keeper, John McIntyre was speared by Pemulwuy.  McIntyre, who died from his wounds, was despised by the Indigenous population, Bennelong himself having told the Governor as much.  It is likely that it was no random attack but retaliation for something he had committed.  A party of soldiers were sent to find Pemulwuy, but with no success.

In 1792, Pemulwuy reappears as the leader of a warrior party, attacking outlying settlers and lonely huts at Prospect, Toongabbie, on the Georges River, the Hawkesbury, Parramatta and as close as Brickfield Hill (near the Capitol Theatre).  He was a feared and respected warrior figure in the colonial town, and a true resistence fighter.

Pemulwuy’s guerilla tactics kept the colony on edge for the first 13 years.  In 1797, following a series of skirmishes around Parramatta, he led an ‘army’ of 100 warriors into the town and engaged the soldiers there in a running street battle.  Here he was wounded and captured and clapped in irons in the hospital.

But he escaped again and returned to the Georges River area.  he was beginning to take on an almost mythical status; untouchable.

In 1801, Governor King placed a bounty on Pemulwuy and in June 1802 he was shot and killed.  His lifeless body was decapitated and his head sent back to England like some macabre trophy. 

Pemulwuy is remembered with a park name in Redfern and a suburb near Prospect where he had valiantly fought against insurmountable odds for his people.

Bennelong and Pemulwuy almost certainly knew each other and lived in the same time, but responded differently.  Both men were faced with a confronting new world and both bravely ventured into it and the unknown future it held.

They are important, strong men in Sydney.

If you want to read more check out Grace Karsken’s new book The Colony or Keith Vincent Smith’s Aboriginal History of Ryde

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