A true Australian hero who should never be forgotten.


In The Last Gundir novel, Akama tells his nephew Bunji about a tale he heard in his younger years about The Man Who Couldn’t Be Killed. A nearby crow lets out a sorrowful cry when Akama mentions the name of the man, Pemulwuy. It is a hint to the reader that Pemulwuy is a real character in the history of Australia (and that the crow was his totem)…

Chapter 33 of The Last Gundir novel

When the First Fleet emerged on the horizon, a group of Bidjigal (present day Sydney area) watched from the shore. Amongst them was a 38 year-old warrior with a blemish in his left eye and a clubbed left foot. His name was Pemulwuy (bimul meaning “earth” or “clay” in the local language). He was much respected amongst the tribe for his strength and courage. His skill with the spear and nulla nulla (fighting stick) was unmatched.

Unlike Bennelong, Pemulwuy did not make friends with the British settlers. Nor did he bother them as they went about building the colony in Port Jackson over the next 2 years.

The First Colony was moved from Botany Bay to Port Jackson

Whilst Arthur Phillip was befriending Bennelong (refer earlier blog) and wanting to learn more about the Eora nation, his gamekeeper John McIntyre adopted a radically different attitude towards the Bidjigal people. He kidnapped their women and killed a number of their men. His crimes went unpunished in the colony. One night in December 1790, Pemulwuy led a covert operation to deliver justice. Bennelong was actually rather afraid of Pemulwuy but he helped him to plan the attack though he himself refused to join the hunt. Pemulwuy speared McIntyre to death.

Phillip was furious and ordered his troops to hunt down Pemulwuy. Twice, the redcoats chased and tried to capture Pemulwuy in the bush. Twice, he got away easily, making fools of them in the process. 

Pemulwuy now began to mobilise other tribes within the Eora nation to fight back against the invaders. The Tharawal, Dharug and other language groups of the Eora heeded his call and sent their best fighters. 

War had finally been declared by the Aboriginal people of the region. 

They began to attack settlements around Sydney. Pemulwuy led raids in Parramatta, Georges River and along the Hawkesbury River. The warriors mostly burned crops and killed cattle. In May 1795, a convict was speared and a group of workers in Botany Bay attacked. Alas, one of the workers (named John Caesar) hit Pemulwuy in the head and the big man fell. 

Caesar reported his death to the colony and the governor believed that the spate of attacks would now subside.

A few days later, much to the alarm of the colony, Pemulwuy was spotted walking out and abouts. The conflict continued. In March 1797, Pemulwuy led an army of 100 warriors in an attack on a government farm at Toongabbie. The following day, the soldiers tracked him down at Parramatta and a great battle ensued. Five warriors were killed and Pemulwuy was shot 7 times. Seriously wounded, he was placed in leg irons and taken to hospital. The colony believed his death was imminent. A few days later, still wearing the leg irons, he escaped. Rumours circulated that this man couldn’t be killed and fear gripped the colony.

The fictional Baron Samedi (The Man Who Cannot Die) in the 007 film Live and Let Die

The settlers were genuinely terrified of him but they also admired his strength and bravery. In 1799, he took up the war once more. The new governor Philip King believed The Man Who Couldn’t Die was extremely dangerous to the colony and offered a reward for Pemulwuy –dead or alive. So desperate was the governor that 20 gallons of rum and two pairs of clothes were offered just for any information.

On 2 June 1802, a British sailor or settler (different versions exist) shot and killed Pemulwuy. His head was cut off and sent to Joseph Banks in London.

The Bidjigal people have tried to get the head back so that he may be given a proper burial. Sadly, no one knows where it is now. In 2010, Prince William announced that he would try to find Pemulwuy’s skull and return it the Bidjigal people. So far, its whereabouts has proven elusive to search efforts in the UK and in Australia.

“He was wounded in battle but he didn’t give up.
He was shot and captured but he didn’t give up.
He was shackled in chains but he didn’t give up.
With shackles still on his legs, he rejoined the fight for freedom.
Pemulwuy never gave up.” – Masha Marjanovich

Pemulwuy was a great hero, standing up and defending his homeland against the foreigners. The National Library of Australia in Canberra has a plaque honouring the great warrior.

Let us not forget him.

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