Bungaree is one of the most significant Aboriginal figures in the colonial story of Sydney.

Born somewhere in the mid-1770s, probably around the Broken Bay or lower Central Coast area, Bungaree came to European notice in 1798 when he was taken on board HMS Reliance with Matthew Flinders as one of three Aboriginal men heading to Norfolk Island, including a man Wingal from Port Stephens.   In 1799 he accompanied Flinders again this time to Hervey Bay on a survey mission.  This time Bungaree acted as an interpreter and intermediary for the Europeans, a role he was to repeat many times.  Flinders wrote late that Bungaree’s  ‘good disposition and open and manly conduct had attracted my esteem’.

In 1801 he went on the board the Lady Nelson on the first survey of the Hunter River and Newcastle.  Again he acted as an interpreter with Aboriginal people encountered on the voyage.  Curiously, at the hunter he left the expedition, going into the bush and not returning.  He turned up again in Sydney later, having crossed overland from Newcastle and hinting at a connection to that part of the world.

In 1802-03 Bungaree again went with Flinders, this time having volunteered to join the crew as the interpreter.  The voyage to survey the entire coastline of the continent saw Bungaree become the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent.  Although his language skills were not always useful with peoples on the other edge of the country, his understanding of protocol and ceremony helped avoid conflict on numerous (though not all) occasions.

When Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810, Bungaree was already well known, but in Macquarie he found a patron.  Macquarie, in his nineteenth century way, decided first to bestow the title King Bungaree on him and thought that allocating some land to Bungaree and his family at George’s Head on the north shore might encourage them to give up their wandering ways and settle into the role as productive farmer types.  The land was duly set aside and huts built.  However, while Bungaree and family did use it as a base, they never settled there, nor did they take up the farming option.  They did however utilise the boat that came with the package to get to and fro from Sydney.

The boat also came in handy for Bungaree to row out and meet incoming ships.  He was often reported as coming aboard ships for a tote of rum, to welcome the Captains and with a sweep of his arm to let them know that this was his country.  As is so often the case, it is the drinking that has been seized on by historians, an example of Bungaree’s slide into drunken irrelevance.  But the claim of country is the significant point here.  Bungaree appears to be well aware of what is going on as more European’s arrive and is keen to remind them of the Aboriginal claim to country.

Bungaree as seen by Augustus Earle.  The most famous of 18 known portraits
Bungaree as seen by Augustus Earle. The most famous of 18 known portraits

So too with his portraits;  18 known painted works exist from the colonial period of Bungaree, more than of any other colonial person, Aboriginal or European.  However, as many of them show him in offcast European military uniform, they are again interpreted as a sad reflection on his demise.   Yet reports of Bungaree away from Sydney don’t mention the uniforms.  Is it that he puts them on in town to play the power games of colonial society?  Red Coats are the symbol of colonial power and status.  Bungaree (and other Aboriginal men who wore them) no doubt understood the significance.

Bungaree slipped back and forth between the European world of Sydney, with its hierarchies and symbols of power, while remaining a leader of his own people.