The world’s most famous Aboriginal man

Bennelong (National Library of Australia nla.obj-136020945)

Chapter 36 of The Last Gundir novel briefly mentions a character called Bennelong during the (fictional) conversation between the Governor and his private secretary. Despite having less prominence in the novel than Pemulwuy and Bungaree, Bennelong was arguably the most famous Aboriginal man in the world in the 18th century.

Chapter 36 – A New Governor from The Last Gundir novel

When the First Fleet arrived, settling in Sydney Cove in 1788, relations between the Eora people and the British were tense. Wanting peaceful relations, Governor Arthur Phillip sought to find out everything about the Eora people. In November 1789, Phillip ordered his soldiers to capture a couple of Aboriginal men. They caught two men by the names of Bennelong and Colebee. The latter was a Macgyver of sorts and managed to break free from his leg rope and escape back to his people. Bennelong however, was locked up in the governor’s house where he learnt to read and write English. Phillip in turn learnt a great deal about the Eora way of life. Six months later, Bennelong managed to escape and return to his people.

A few months later, Bennelong sent a message to Phillip that he would consider coming back to the colony if the governor met him at Manly Cove. Phillip went gladly not fully understanding or appreciating the Eora laws of retribution. Bennelong greeted Phillip and his men happily. All was going well for the governor. Then, an elder ran up and speared Phillip through the shoulder. Bennelong had set a trap for the man he held responsible for the treatment of himself and of Colebee. It was punishment for the act of kidnapping the two of them.

The governor’s injuries healed with time. The soldiers wanted to punish the Eora people for such an act on their leader but Phillip forbade it. Perhaps, he finally understood the judicial system of the Eora nation. Perhaps, he wanted to maintain his friendship with Bennelong. Ten days later, he returned to Bennelong’s camp with gifts and asked him to return. Bennelong accepted, made peace and brought his people into Sydney.

In 1790, Bennelong asked the governor to build him a brick hut on one side of Sydney Cove. It thus became known by the colony as Bennelong Point. Today, the Sydney Opera House stands there.

Bennelong Point

In 1792, Phillip’s health deteriorated and he returned to England to recover, taking Bennelong and a Wangal boy called Yemmerrawanne with him. In London, the two Aboriginal men became world famous, meeting many important people. Bear in mind, that 22 years earlier, England had seen the Tahitian man Tupia who had accompanied the crew of HMB Endeavour (chapter 22 of The Last Gundir) but nobody yet from Australia. Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne stayed in Mayfair and once gave a recital of a native song using clapsticks. A member of the fascinated audience wrote it down and published the words and music in Musical Curiosities, London 1811 which became the oldest known published music from Australia…! There’s a good one for trivia night.

Alas, Yemmerrawanne got sick and despite lengthy treatments, he died aged 19. After 3 years in England, Bennelong missed his homeland and returned. Phillip’s health improved but under medical advice, the governor was advised to resign and remain in England.

Bennelong lived with the next governor John Hunter for a while before returning to his people. By then, smallpox had decimated much of the Eora nation. An ex-convict called James Squire…

…yes, Australia’s first beer brewer, James Squire let Bennelong and his people stay on his property at Kissing Point. Bennelong died in January 1813 and was buried in the orchard.

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