Aboriginal people in Sydney in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were no strangers to travel by water. Canoes or nawi’s were common on the water ways of Sydney. But in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived, the huge canoes of the Europeans or the mari nawi in the local dialect were like nothing they had seen before. But they soon came to be very familiar with these new vessels and within 3 years of the arrival, Aboriginal people were sailing on them.
In March 1791 the first Aboriginal Australian sailed out through the heads of the harbour on a sea voyage aboard HM Supply. Incredibly this first adventurer was a ten year old boy known as Bundle (Bondel). Bundle was an orphan who had been adopted by Capt William Hill of the NSW Corps. When Hill was transferred to Norfolk Island, Bundle went with him returning in September the same year. When Bundle returned safely, his stories of the voyage must have transfixed his countrymen and soon others were eager to explore this new world. Bennelong went next to Norfolk Island in October 1791 and from 1795 Nanbarry signed on as a sailor on HMS Reliance to make regular trips to Norfolk.
Soon enough longer journeys were being undertaken. Bennelong and his companion Yemmerrawanne sailed to England with Governor Phillip in December 1792. Both men were shown the sights of London including St Pauls and the London Zoo. But they also began to pine for their homeland. Illness followed, and while Bennelong recovered, Yemmerrawanne did not. He died in 1794 a long way from home. Bennelong returned to Sydney.
Between 1790 and 1850 at least 80 Aboriginal men from Sydney, the South Coast and Newcastle are recorded as having gone to sea on exploratory voyages, on sealing and whaling ships, as guides and translators or even banished as semi-convicts to Norfolk Island and Tasmania.
In the late 1820s thirteen Port Jackson natives went to Tasmania as adventurers to join John Batman. Led by a Shoalhaven man, Pigeon and Janenbaya from the Illawarra they assisted George Augustus Robinson to ‘bring –in’ the Aboriginal groups in Tasmania before crossing Bass Strait with Batman when he selected the site for Melbourne, helping to translate and negotiate with the Kulin people.
Possibly the most amazing of these men was a Sydney man, Gnung-a Gnung-a Murremurgan. In July 1793 aboard HMS Daedalus, Gnung-a Gnung-a heading west through French Polynesia to Hawaii onto to the west coast of Canada and back down the west coast of California (then still a Spanish territory) before heading back to Hawaii. Gnung-a Gnung-a, on arriving back was then involved in a ritual fight and was speared in the back by Pemulway. Incredibly, although the spear was loded in his back, he survived and walked about for several weeks with the spear protruding until his wife, gripping the spear in her teeth, removed it.
The story of Aboriginal seafarers is one not often heard in the traditional narratives of colonial Sydney. It changes the dynamics of Aboriginal and European relationships and reveals how adventurous, curious and brave Aboriginal people were.
Their stories are currently being displayed in a brilliant exhibition at the Mitchell Library called Mari Nawi. Make sure you see it.