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While Bennelong is a name well known – the truth of the man is still misunderstood by many.
In her presentation, Professor Kate Fullagar aims to explore the truth of his history by presenting neglected evidence about his latter life. She will also compare the work of Bennelong to that of some of his contemporary First Nations negotiators in other parts of the Pacific.
Professor Kate Fullagar is a 2021 National Library of Australia Fellow.
20210722 Kate Fullagar
*Speakers: Marcus Hughes (M), Kate Fullgar (K)
M: - which is great. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Marcus Hughes, Director of Indigenous Engagement here at the Library.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations people, the first Australians, as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Thank you all for attending this afternoon’s presentation by Professor Kat Fullagar, a National Library of Australia Fellow for 2021. Kate is a professor of history at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University. She studies the 18th century world, particularly the British empire and many indigenous societies it encountered. Her interest in comparative indigenous history focused on the eastern Pacific, the American southeast and the Eora of today’s Australia. Her latest publication, ‘The Warrior, The Voyager and the Artist, three lives in an age of empire’ won both the New South Wales General History Prize and the Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.
Kate’s fellowship research at the National Library has formed part of a major reconsideration of several key indigenous negotiators with European agents throughout the Pacific world in the period between 1750 and 1820. Taking a new approach to challenge common settler understandings of historic indigenous agency and contexts the situated central figure, Bennelong, among similarly iconic indigenous negotiators around the Pacific world including mediators from Tahiti, Hawaii and Nutga.
Today’s lecture will focus on Bennelong who despite having widespread renown is still misunderstood by many. Please join me in welcoming Kate Fullagar to tell us her story.
K: Thank you so much, Marcus, thank you, everyone, for coming and a particular thank you to the staff here at the Library. I’ve had a fantastic fellowship here, it’s a wonderful way to come back to Canberra after living in Sydney for 15 years and moved back to Canberra now via this fellowship so it’s been a fantastic experience.
I’ve also I have to say just tried to learn from the AV people that I should stay put rather than wander around. I’ve had 10 years of lecturing undergraduates which makes me wander around, keep everyone awake but I have to stay put here for the AV needs so you’ll have to keep ourselves awake and I will have to try and remember to use the mouse as a pointer if I want to show something on a screen. I do hope that I’m going to be loud enough. I’m going to rely on say Hancock, put your hand up if you can’t hear me properly. I’ll just – can project a bit more.
Alright I’d like to formally begin my paper by acknowledging that today we meet on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands. I’d also like to say that much of this research was undertaken while I was living on Wangal land where Bennelong was born and also while I was working on Wallumedegal land where Bennelong died.
I felt very acutely the sense of indigenous place and the history of land loss when thinking about Bennelong and if that’s the one thing I share with you today in this talk I will be pleased.
In addition, may I add an acknowledgment of all the indigenous people in the room today, I thank them for coming, thank them for having me. You will not be surprised to hear that this paper will discuss Aboriginal people who have passed, and the presentation will display images of Aboriginal people who have passed.
So, as you’ve heard from Marcus my fellowship at the Library has focused on the latter part of Bennelong’s life. It fits into a larger project, actually a second larger project of mine, which seeks to revise the history of the relationship between Bennelong and Arthur Phillip. This is going to entail writing a new account of Phillip’s full life which surveys his full 50 years of naval service and it’s also going to mean expanding our sense of the full life of Bennelong who lived roughly between 1764 and 1813.
Now Bennelong is a name known to most of us, to most Australians, I think, because of the five or six years he spent with the first colonists of New South Wales from 1789 to 1795. What most people know about him is that he formed a relationship with Governor Arthur Phillip, he was instrumental in brokering communications between the British and the Eora and that he went to England with Phillip.
Until a few years ago the consensus view of Bennelong also was that he returned from England in 1795 and became a drunken tragic figure. But those who followed recent work on Bennelong might sense that this last part is not quite right, but few know exactly how or why it’s not quite right.
Today I want to focus on that last part of Bennelong’s life and provide some texture or detail to the revised view. I know I said in my abstract that I was also going to discuss how this revised view of Bennelong accords with several Pacific contemporary counterparts and I know that’s partly as Marcus described my whole fellowship here but I don’t think I’m going to have time today to go into the Pacific comparisons we might want to make for which I apologise.
But I would like to note that my initial suspicion that there was more to say about Bennelong’s end story came about because I saw this so often in similar Pacifica stories. I am more usually a historian of the Pacific.
There are many indigenous heroes of colonial contact during the era of Pacific exploration that are seen at first as being canny and clever but then somehow always ending up tragic and hopeless. For example, this is the tale of Mai or Omai who sailed with Captain Cook and about whom I wrote in my last book. He was seen at first to be a feisty young man but then was often characterised as later turning into a, quote, “callow misfit” because of his interactions with the British.
It started to seem to me that there was something almost like a Bennelong trope in colonial history whereby indigenous negotiators are celebrated as vehicles for possibility but then always mourned in the end because those dreams of possibility rarely pan out. Colonialism always surpasses them or destroys them.
We may find if we reinvestigate our stories of these negotiators or if we apply new pressure to them that this recuring trope is in fact just a feature of our approach to colonial history. If we start to think beyond conceptions of either colonial achievement or colonial devastation, one or the other, then indigenous life can become once again a complex thing, its own thing. It can indeed become a new centre for the histories of empire that we might write.
So, starting with the precept that the colonial project was always incomplete Bennelong’s supposed colony life can help to illuminate the ongoing Aboriginal presence around Port Jackson. It was a harmed presence, to be sure, but one that was adapting and maintaining and surviving. It was a presence that should be understood in its own terms and not just for the way that it illuminates colonial past.
So my plan here today is to first go over the more common known story of Bennelong to make sure that we’re all on the same page and then secondly I’m going to turn to the lesser known last 18 years of Bennelong’s life, from 1795 to his death aged nearly 50 in 1813.
So, Bennelong was born around 1764, a member of the Wangal clan of the Eora whose land runs roughly from today’s Darling Harbour right over to Buramatta or Parramatta as we settlers like to call it. It’s not clear from the colonial records what the [wunay] of the Wangal means exactly but we do know that the Wangal were tied closely and united with two other main saltwater peoples of the Eora which is the Wallumettagal, north of the river, and the Burramattagal. The Wallumettagal, people of the snapper, Burramattagal, people of the eel. The Wangal were generally not as friendly with the Gadigal over here or the Cammeraygal up north, the more eastern end parts of Port Jackson.
Now Bennelong was known by many names. At one point he told Phillip that his preferred name was Wilaraworay but most people seemed to call him a variation of Bennelong.
We think that he had at least three sisters, possibly four. This is the only – it gets reiterated in some ways in other sources, but this is the founding source from William Dawes’ notebooks, the person on the first fleet who was most interested in linguistics. He writes as you can see Bennelong and then there’s three names after it, Wariwear, Karangarang and Wûrrgan who later sources confirm are his three sisters. Some scholars think that the name underneath it, Munânguri, is a fourth sister but it’s not clear to me and you can decide for yourself how William Dawes sets it out, it’s not clear to me that the person on the last line belongs to the group on the line before so he has three sisters at least.
Bennelong was an initiated man of around about 25 years of age by the time the first fleet sailed into Sydney Cove or Warrane. We know this place was called Warrane but there don’t seem to have been any Warrangal people. The historian, Grace Karskens, speculates that this was a sacred space deliberately left vacant by the nearby Gadigal so it’s really on Gadigal land but Warrane being a space possibly vacant because it was seen as sacred. This seems to me a key thing to keep in mind when we think about 11 huge ships of pale-skinned ruffians tipping into it.
Many of us I think, or I hope know that Bennelong was captured by Phillip’s men on Phillip’s orders in 1789, the next year after their arrival because Phillip couldn’t seem to broker any relationships with the hovering Eora any other way. Some of you may not know however that Bennelong was not the first person to be kidnapped as a forced interlocutor, Phillip’s first captive was Arabanoo of Gayema, the Gayema people which is the Manly Cove area and partly called Manly by Phillip because of what he thought Arabanoo was, manly.
Arabanoo survived his captivity for six months from mid ’88, for six months before he succumbed to the epidemic that ripped through the colony in April ’89. Now most people think that this epidemic was an epidemic of smallpox and it makes sense to me that it was as a nonexpert on histories of disease but some have questioned the exact disease because it seems that only one colonist through all this time contracted it.
Now in 2021 we know all about herd immunity so this doesn’t seem so very weird to me that the whites would have had immunity and the indigenous people did not however I should just say that disease historians are still debating what the hell it was that came through Sydney Cove in 1789. What I can suggest is that we have not given nearly enough attention to how unbelievably horrific and consequential this epidemic was for the Eora and who better than the global citizens of 2021 to fully appreciate the ramifications of an epidemic?
Bennelong later estimated that it had killed 50% of the people around the Harbour. Some later experts believe this might be an underestimation. It almost entirely wiped out the Gadigal. Clearly whatever it was was brought in by the newcomers at Warrane.
So, these facts I think should colour our understanding of why Bennelong behaved the way he did when he was taken as the next captive as a replacement of Arabanoo. So, his kidnapping takes place in November ’89 and occurs with actually another man, the Gadigal man, Colebee. Colebee soon escaped from his chains, Bennelong even after being released chose to remain.
Now some historians have thought that this means that Colebee was the dignified Aboriginal and Bennelong therefore must have been a suck-up. But I think that that background of epidemic should play here. As a Gadigal Colebee may well have known that he simply could not be spared from his clan, his male leaders were probably down to single digit numbers by this time. Bennelong was from a slightly less affected clan and may have thought that it was wiser to stick close to these people who had brought such extraordinary disease.
Bennelong stayed with Phillip for just over six months the first time ‘round. During this period, he forged a pretty workable relationship with Phillip. “A good-natured fellow”, said the officer, Gidley King, of Bennelong, “…very intelligent”. “A merry fellow”, said another officer. The literary Watkin Tench added, “his powers of mind were certainly above mediocrity, he acquired knowledge both of our manners and our language”.
Now what this cultural and linguistic skill produced was a lot of knowledge transfers, we might call it today. The colonists started to learn more about the country that they’d arrived in as well as the devastation that their diseases had so far brought. Bennelong started to learn about the newcomers’ methods of communication, their sense of hierarchy, how much Phillip loved being called Beanga, meaning father, and how little these folks seemed to know about how to feed themselves as was becoming evident into 1790.
In May 1790 all the same, despite this growing relationship, Bennelong suddenly took off. “Our native has left us”, wrote Phillip sadly to Joseph Banks. “I think that man’s leaving us proves that nothing will make these people amends for the loss of their liberty.”
When the British saw Bennelong again some four months later in Manly Cove he seemed to them to have fallen on hard times. His body seemed now disfigured with scars. What the colonists saw as hard luck however was probably the sign of Bennelong’s rising esteem. He was now in a position to be in the front line of the blows issued in ritualised clan battles. Either way what happened next may be the best-known thing about Bennelong which is that he was present at the momentous spearing of Phillip.
Interestingly, given how Aboriginal history is usually told or has been usually told, Bennelong was not at the time nor since really ever thought to have perpetrated this act but in reality, I think he probably did. He didn’t throw the spear, that was by a northern-based Eora man called Willemering, but he probably did arrange for Phillip to be in Manly Cove or Gayema, defenceless and eager for a reconciliation and for Philip to be completely then surrounded by different Eora warriors.
Bennelong was the one who first carried the spear, he was the one who put it down carefully on the ground before Phillip and he was the one who knew the kinds of hand gestures that Phillip would be making when he was advancing towards him. That Willemering undertook this deed, took the signals that he’d been told and then undertook it at the precise time that he did I think suggests to me another sign of deference to Bennelong. Bennelong didn’t do all this as an act of aggression but as a payback for his original kidnapping.
Phillip who was desperate by then for a connection to the Eora ordered no reprisals for this act. To Bennelong this meant that the slate was now well and truly wiped clean, he had publicly punished the man who had coerced him. At this point he then signalled to all the other Eora at Sydney Cove, could be a new meeting place. It’s certainly undeniable that from about October 1790 Aboriginals and colonists mixed much more frequently. Some early historians have called this time the coming in of the Eora. I think it’s perhaps wiser to call it a period of detente.
The fragile peace lasted two years. At the end of it a rather unwell Phillip finally received word that he could go home. He took Bennelong with him as well as another Wangal man called Yemmerrawanne. This was supposed to cement the fledgling relations between the two parties. The lot of them, all three, Phillip, Yemmerrawanne and Bennelong arrive in Britain in the spring of 1793 first of all to a round of London touring that lasted roughly six months. Then Bennelong spent nearly a year staying near Lord Sydney’s associates in rural Eltham with Yemmerrawanne but unfortunately Yemmerrawanne at Eltham dies of a virus around about May 1794. After that Bennelong lost most of his interest in his adventure and sought a passage home.
Bennelong finally got back in late 1795 with the incoming governor, John Hunter. After that date until just a few years ago the dominant story was that Bennelong loses his way. He couldn’t reconnect with his own people; he fell afoul of the colonists. He was adrift between two worlds. In the 1960s Manning Clark lamented that Bennelong quote, “…disgusted his civilisers and became an exile from his own people, rushing headlong to his own disillusion.” Even staunch advocates for Aboriginal people such as Bill Stanner and John Mulvaney misunderstood him. Stanner thought him a mercurial upstart and eventually a bit of a turncoat while Mulvaney doubted that Bennelong could possibly be much honoured by his people today.
Into the 21st century Inge Fendenning felt that after England Bennelong fumed his way to an outcast’s grave, he should have died earlier in the days of hope. Marcia Langton even agreed that he’d become bitter and alcoholic, quote, “…a weak, defeated man.”
As I’ve intimated, in the last decade I’ve been marginally involved with a group of people who have reconsidered the later life sources and tried to show a different view of Bennelong. This group’s been led by Aboriginal leaders at the Bennelong New Project, especially the Madden family and Jody Orcher. It’s been partly driven by the historian, Grace Karskens, the geographer, Peter Mitchell and the independent scholar, Keith Smith. This revised view is starting to make its way into the various websites on Bennelong just as one measure that I could give you. This is a changed view that you can see in the City of Sydney website, for example, or the City of Ryde website.
All the same, though, all the same it’s notable that the most gorgeous representation of Bennelong in the last few years has undoubtedly been that of the indigenous Bangarra dance troupe. Their 2017 production of Bennelong worked really hard to portray their hero as a much more dignified character than known and I think in many ways it’s a huge success, the way that they give this revised idea of Bennelong, of the place on stage. Yet even Bangarra chose to close the show with Bennelong literally trapped in a box, presumably doomed from his contact with British society. I don’t have any images from that because they were under copyright and I didn’t quite know how to get ‘round it but it’s quite easy to see aspects of that presentation on the web.
So, what is this revised view? So, for the remainder of the paper I want to take you through how else we might understand Bennelong’s later life and what the sources in this very Library could add to that new understanding. The first thing that we learn from a lieutenant on the 1795 return ship is that Bennelong went off around about October 1795 to quote, a farm not far from the settlement. This may well have been already James Squires’ property at Kissing Point that we know he lived on in later years.
James Squire, emancipated convict, had been granted 30 acres at Kissing Point just three months earlier in July 1795 and here’s the Library’s print of Squire’s farm which is today the suburb of Putney. The next year Bennelong dictated his famous letter to a Mr Phillips and the Library holds a manuscript copy of it, very famous item in their collection. There has been some debate about who this Mr Phillips was. The author, Bennelong, in it so clearly dictated the letter, the author, Bennelong, says that it's written to Mr Phillips, Steward to Lord Sydney which many have long thought to have been some kind of underling to Lord Sydney who was the Home Office Minister at the time. So, he was writing back to someone that he’d met while living of that year in rural Eltham which was around Lord Sydney’s estate.
Keith Smith, though, the scholar I mentioned earlier, believes, and I think rightly, that what Bennelong really meant was Arthur Phillip whom Bennelong understood to be a kind of steward of Lord Sydney which I think is fair enough. Additionally there doesn’t seem to have ever been a Mr Phillips in the employ of Lord Sydney and moreover Bennelong addresses in this letter to Mr Phillips, he mentions a Mrs Phillips and he says to Mrs Phillips, “you nursed me, Madam, when I was sick, you’re very good, Madam, thank you, Madam, I hope you remember me, Madam. I know you very well, Madam.”
So, the new Mrs Arthur Phillip is called Isabella Whitehead, likely did meet and indeed could have spent some time nursing both Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne when they were sick just before she married the ex-Governor in May 1794. The best bit of this letter in my view is this line, “not me go to England no more, I am at home now.”
It’s a clear line in the sand, a clear statement of reorientation by Bennelong back to his origins. That reorientation is best seen in two ways, I think. I think it’s apparent in the several large battles that he took part in after 1795 as an elder of the Wangal, picking up his duties and obligations and secondly I think it’s apparent in the many references to his leadership that are snuck into sometimes unlikely commentaries, the kind of things you can find here in the Library.
So, let’s look at the battles first. Within a year Bennelong seemed to be caught up again in the normal cycle of ritualised revenged battles. These were quellings of wrongdoing, elaborate theatres of semi-violence that puzzled colonists for years. An American voyager in 1798 was passing by – had briefly been in Sydney noted that, quote, “the Europeans in Sydney are almost as much in the dark now as they were 10 years ago with respect to the cause of these fights.” Colonists observed their frequency around the Harbour, but they really seemed to cotton on that only the esteemed leaders could stand in the front line to take the barrage of spears from enemy parties. They saw for instance that Bennelong was often there in the front line, but they assumed that this meant that he was little valued by his people. In fact, it indicated the opposite.
Bennelong’s first major battle upon return happened in 1798 with the Gweagal from Botany Bay. Sorry, I’ll just move here. This is just a range of some of the sources that I’ve been looking at. This battle in ’98 with the Gweagal was spurred by the fact that a Gadigal friend of Bennelong’s had been injured by the Gweagal and Bennelong became part of the force who sought revenge against them for fairly complex reasons because as I’ve already intimated he wasn’t always on the best terms with the Gadigal. We know about this particular battle from the lesser read second volume of David Collins’ History of New South Wales.
Two months later Bennelong was involved in a related battle against the Cammeraygal who neighboured lands with the Gweagal at Botany Bay. This time Bennelong suffered a spear in his side that came out through his belly. The same American onlooker, Benjamin Carter, noted the intensity of the screams of the women at this point, possibly a sign of their particular attachment to Bennelong.
In 1801 Bennelong faced another barrage of spears to revenge the death of a woman near Warrane or Sydney Cove, again recounted in Collins’. In 1805 Bennelong participated in no less than three battles, one to the north, one near Buramatta and one on Gadigal land, all of them reported in the Sydney Gazette.
In 1806 Bennelong was part of another battle against the Gweagal that some thought might actually kill him. The Sydney Gazette says, “his wounds now proved nearly fatal to him.”
They didn’t but it must be said that I’ve not turned up any evidence of Bennelong facing any battles after this date of 1806.
As to the references to Bennelong’s leadership there are more than at first suspected. There’s the comment from Henry Waterhouse who sailed on the first fleet and who was still there in the later 1790s. In 1797 Waterhouse writes to Lord Sydney back in Britain and says that Bennelong sometimes lives with Governor Phillip and sometimes with his own people. Sometimes he’s there, sometimes not. He notes that when he lives with his own people he lives in their style. With some chagrin, Waterhouse notes that Bennelong is still, quote, “subject to all their laws, Eora laws, and seems to throw the spear and wield the club with all his former dexterity.” Waterhouse himself, he thought this behaviour was a sign of backsliding but it’s a hint to us that Bennelong was in fact rebuilding his old life.
There’s also the comment from the convict, Joseph Holt, who wrote in 1802 in his memoir, that Bennelong was by then, quote, the chief or king of his tribe and that in fact by then he had been their king for a long time. Every tribe has its chief, Holt went on to explain, who make laws, hear trials and act as judge. It’s probably not quite true but it does appear to be the case that the tribe Bennelong now headed was not the old Wangal on whose land he was born because they really had been very disordered by colonialism but he probably headed a new conglomerate grouping situated at Kissing Point on Wallumedegal land.
In 1805 the voyager, John Turnbull, who was passing by Sydney met Bennelong a couple of times. He had not much good to say about him because he didn’t seem to like any Aboriginals at all, it seemed, however even amidst his dislike Turnbull had to concede that Bennelong was, I quote, again “a warrior of great repute.”
As mentioned, I’ve not come up with much information about the last seven years of his life. I am presuming at the moment that he was so badly injured in that last battle with the Gweagal that he was in fact incapacitated or at least forcibly retired from public activities. This would have been when he was about 42 or 43.
We do know that Bennelong had one surviving son called Digidigi born around 1803 to an unknown woman. Many websites and articles I’ve noticed recently like to state categorically that this woman was Boorong. Boorong had also come into Sydney Cove back in 1789 at the same time as Bennelong. Boorong in 1789 had just been a child, around about 12 or so when Bennelong was about 25. She had been a kind of refugee from the epidemic and like Bennelong had kind of lived in or around Sydney Cove for a few years in that early first fleet era.
Of course, it would provide a beautiful poetic neatness to the story if Bennelong did wind up with Boorong since it would loop back his life narrative to that very momentous year, ’89. In fact, though I don’t think there’s any clear evidence to say that the mother of his son was Boorong. I think there’s been a misinterpretation of a later document from Boorong’s brother who apparently claimed to be the uncle of Bennelong’s son. Because of this lovely fellowship I’ve been able to check that actual document in the Library and Boorong’s brother just said that he was an uncle period and not the uncle of Bennelong’s son.
Another source indeed from Lachlan Macquarie’s papers suggests that Digidigi’s mother was from a north-based tribe around today’s Richmond which frankly to me sounds more likely. Bennelong’s later years were all about a turn towards the Eora at large, not about being constantly tied to the people that he knew in 1789. Digidigi was an orphan by 1815, we know that much. This was when he was around about 12. Bennelong himself died in 1815. Another officer source declares that by 1815 Bennelong lay in a grave, quote, with his wife, so maybe this woman, his wife, Digidigi’s mother had died earlier and then Bennelong’s buried with her or the other way ‘round, we just don’t know but we do know that both the parents are deceased by 1815.
After Bennelong died the tributes continued, now just lurking in the sources. The first is found in a Scottish newspaper, which I have to say was ingeniously located by Smith, Keith Smith. It reports the account of a merchant who had stopped off at Sydney about three months after Bennelong’s death. This merchant had witnessed there the ritual battle that commemorated Bennelong’s life, a battle in which he says about 200 were engaged which is really a lot when you consider the thin dispersal really of Eora all around the harbour. The merchant goes on to say the spears flew very thick.
The second tribute involves his son, Digidigi, that I just mentioned. In the colonial records Digidigi is known as Dicky and we know a bit about him because when he was about 13 or so and had been an orphan for a year or two, he went to live in Lachlan Macquarie’s new Paramatta Native Institution. This was a school designed to inculcate young Aboriginal people with colonial values. Here is Dicky in the register of it in 1820.
Several times Macquarie remarked upon Bennelong’s son being a pupil in this institution, Bennelong’s son being a pupil in this institution. Macquarie, throughout his governorship, had been at great pains to promote this enterprise to Aboriginal people. It really was his real hobby horse that he wanted to push so it’s intriguing to me that he would do so by latching onto Digidigi’s proximity to Bennelong. This is not what a governor would do if Bennelong was a disgraced person, it’s what you do if you know that he was very well respected by his own kin.
Third, there’s this rather beautiful memory by the missionary, Samuel Lee, a missionary who never met Bennelong but who evidently knew how much the man meant to others. In 1821 so eight years after Bennelong’s death Lee met with members of the Kissing Point group, he showed a portrait of Bennelong to them that he'd had, a small little pocket portrait. When they looked upon his features, Lee recalled, they were astonished and wept aloud. It is Bennelong, they cried, he it is, he was our brother and our friend. The theme was so affecting, Lee added, that his wife and another missionary broke down and wept in sympathy with the Eora kin.
Fourth, we know that also in 1821, eight years after Bennelong’s death, the Gadigal man, Ngambri, died and was then buried with Bennelong and his wife so there are three people in the grave that we know of. This apparently was done according to his own explicit wishes. Like Boorong, Ngambri had been one of those first Eora who’d come in to live around Arthur Phillip, so he’d known Bennelong for more than 20 years. All the same it was pretty rare for Gadigal people to be so fond of a Wangal that they wanted to share eternity with them. Moreover, Ngambri was related to Colebee, the person who’d been kidnapped with Bennelong who definitely had a very mixed relationship with Bennelong. The fact that Ngambri wanted to be buried with Bennelong indicates to me a sign of reverence.
Finally, the last and also poignant proof of Bennelong’s status – sorry, I should keep up with my pictures – here is the picture of Ngambri when he was a child so 20 years later he's the one who requests as a Gadigal man to be buried with Bennelong.
But there’s one more piece of posthumous tribute and this comes from Bennelong’s successor as the leader of the new Kissing Point group. This was Bigibigi who like Bennelong had started life as a member of another clan, in his case the [Abaramadigal] 37:09 people. Also, like Bennelong he had lived through enough of the disordering effect of colonialism to have had to recentre through force of circumstance his concept of home in a new place.
In 1828, 15 years after Bennelong’s death, another missionary observed Bigibigi was quote, a frequent visitor to Bennelong’s grave, there amongst the orange trees in the orchard, I should add. He expresses a wish, this observer went on, to be buried by the side of his friend, Bennelong. He is another, I think, and it seems to me a momentous honour to a man who was supposed for so long to be an outcast.
By thinking again about Bennelong’s life in this perspective instead of from the perspective of later colonial kind of morality tales, a different story emerges about this key early negotiator. Yes, he is important in Australian history for how he interacted with the first colonists but the measure of his meaning in Australian history needs to go beyond these interactions to see his later absence from the colony as in fact of course being a presence elsewhere.
Bennelong’s presence as a leader of a group of Eora people took up close to three times as much energy in his life as did his experience with the first fleet. Bennelong’s biography shows in part how early Australia was coproduced by indigenous people, not just by the newcomers. Much more so, though, it shows in another sense that Australia always was and yet remains Aboriginal. I will close it there, thank you very much.
K: Now ‘cause I have been a lecturer corralling undergrads for the last decade I will just take questions myself but I am to remind you that a questioner needs to use the mic here because this whole thing’s being recorded and we all need to hear the questions properly so there’s a mic there and there’s a mic there, I believe.
A: Thank you so much, Kate, that was a wonderful talk, really fascinating. I think you’ve done a very good job of demolishing much of the usual story of Bennelong being an outcast, not being respected and I was intrigued, even though it was vague, the story about having a second wife which I had no idea about because the sadness supposedly of not having Barangaroo anymore is always part of the usual story.
I’m wondering if you’re willing to say anything about the alcoholism which – I mean in a way one thinks heavy drinking was so widespread at that time that to accuse anybody of alcoholism then is – you have to wonder about it but I’m just wondering if you would say anything about that now.
K: Yes, thank you very much. So, the questions about this ongoing detail that’s always thrown into the stories about Bennelong as a tragic figure, someone who ends up as a tragic figure and it’s always to do with alcohol. But I think, Angela, you’ve kind of said what I was – which is my usual stock answer to this question. This is a colony; this is a harbour awash with alcohol. Generally, I believe from some of the brief histories of drink that I’ve read that it’s probably not very strong alcohol, but we know it’s ubiquitous, we know it’s everywhere. So when you delve down to those sources that talk about Bennelong amongst his own people and the battles that he’s fighting, the leadership roles that he’s trying to take on, when you get down to that granular level there’s never any particular mention that he has more of a problem with alcohol than anybody else. In fact, all those quotes that I’ve just given are never surrounded by commentary about alcohol. In my view I think it’s just something that gets added on to any kind of dismissive gesture that is then made.
I should also clarify that a lot of those quotes that I read out, if they come from a colonial source they’re often almost always – the whole paragraph is almost always pejorative which I did not feel the need to go into all the pejorative ways that people understood Bennelong, I just wanted to bring out – actually despite all the pejorative meanings here what you're also telling me is that he’s leading a battle, he’s at the front line, he’s back with his people, he’s marrying away from the harbour, not towards the harbour. Those are the kind of facts that I wanted to bring out. When you burrow into those facts it’s quite easy, actually, to not see any emphasis on alcohol more than you might see for anyone else.
I should just say just to underscore – now I’m just going to be rabbiting but I’ve got a lot of time to do it – that in terms of alcohol and the persistence of the tragic view about Bennelong, I just saw yesterday in the Library’s own bookshop a brand new book of Australia which is about rum, the Distillation of Australian History I think it’s funnily called. Of course, there are anecdotes therefore about Bennelong because this seems to go hand-in-hand and they’re all dismissive, tragic stories of a drunken fool. That’s a book published in 2021.
I mean when I was writing this first I thought gosh, I’ve been talking about this story for ages and other people have been talking about it even more eloquently than me, I’ve got nothing new to say but actually I think that the Bennelong trope is still out there and I think it’s important for various reasons to try and confront it.
A: Yes, thank you very much, it’s really interesting. I’m really puzzled by his so-called captivity given that Bennelong is an indigenous person and wouldn’t have been held, would know the land so well. It seems to me that the stories of the little house on Bennelong Point as a bribe or as a sort of trick and all of this, it just doesn’t seem to wash with me every time I hear it. Then when I heard you speak today, again bringing up the fact that he’s later across over at Manly and he’s perhaps present at the spearing and clearly implicated in some way, that perhaps he is actually from the get-go trying to position himself into a later negotiating position that he could then exploit. Whether it unfolded the way he planned I guess not because who would have thought or understood how the white people were going to be operating. But I’m just puzzled with what kept him there, what kept Bennelong on Bennelong Point for so long when clearly, he could run rings around the locals or the local white people?
K: To my understanding of, and you’re referring to when Phillip builds him a hut on Bennelong Point which is now where Sydney Opera House is, quite a decent structure made of brick when a lot of the whites are not living in brick but my understanding of those years is that he barely ever lives there. This is really a stopping off point. The most poignant discussions about that building is when Bennelong’s there for a picnic for lunch or wants to take some of his relatives there for a bit of shelter.
Mostly when he’s around Sydney Cove in those early first fleet years he's living in Government House with Phillip, he’s not staying and sleeping in Bennelong’s hut, so I always think of it as a summer folly house. It’s not really his residence and it’s not something that should be understood as somewhere that he lives in like a white man lives in their house. So, if that’s the main question.
The other question was do you think that he was already trying to position himself as a negotiator by 1790? Very clearly, I think within weeks of being brought into Government House he sees Colebee take off, it’s clearly possible. You can tell that Arthur Phillip is not going to force someone like a prisoner to stay with him because it will go against the purpose of having a captive which is to try and make friends and understand what’s going on so I don’t think the restrictions are very severe and he sees Colebee take off. In his decision, within weeks of staying, I think is evidence of him saying I will also use this opportunity to be a go-between and figure out what’s going on with these people and if they’re going to go away or not.
A: Thank you, I'm Felicity, I’m an Awabaka woman and I really enjoyed your presentation. I especially like the way that you’re pointing to his diplomacy and his linguistic skills because for us, Biraban was incredible in being in that mode with dealing with the affront, for lack of a better word, of colonisation. Bennelong’s capacities in that way are so important to herald.
In terms of I think it was Holt, the colonial report that you gave where he made the comment that he was the one that made the law and he was a chief. Unfortunately, that’s not how we are structured traditionally. There is no chief or queen and our Awabakal women which I suspect would be similar for traditional life along the area, the women were the ones – it was matriarchal kind of structure in that way. So just to offer that the neighbouring countries can often give you that insight to check against those colonial accounts of caricatures.
K: Yeah, no, thank you so much and thank you for being here. Yes, I think that’s the paragraph where I said I don’t think that’s quite right, the detail that Holt goes into ‘cause he actually also suggests that a leader or king such as Bennelong that he thought he was, also administers law and is access to judge and jury and things like that is also not the way that people understand Aboriginal law or Eora law as existing. But I am intrigued that Holt makes his comments – it goes on for a couple of pages, actually, his description that this guy is leader, for me what’s resonant is that he’s identified as the most significant person to a male watcher anyway who may not be seeing female leadership at the time. The point for me is that it’s the opposite of the outcast figure. Thank you very much for your comment. Yes.
A: Thanks very much for such a sensitive presentation but I guess I’m thinking the challenge which you’ve clearly addressed is using colonial sources which are stacked against indigenous people and I'm wondering, it was so interesting to see the letter from Bennelong. Are there any other documents that he wrote or dictated that we could say my privilege that’s evidence, that was the first bit. The second bit, understandably his going to Britain was not part of your focus but was there anything significant in terms of his experiences there which he brought back which might have influenced his later life or dealings with the colonists?
K: Thank you, that’s two questions, about Bennelong’s other firsthand sources that we might have and about Bennelong in Britain. No, unfortunately there are no sources directly from Bennelong’s hand. I mean that is indirect as well, that’s a copy of a dictated letter. Well I mean you get used to it at this point never being able to have anything accessibly direct which is what everyone yearns to have as an historian but for instance recently, in the last decade or so it’s been recovered that a song that Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne clearly sang in Britain, the musical notes had been written down by someone in Britain. That has been transcribed back here. I mean in some ways we can think of this as an indirect hearing of Bennelong’s voice. It’s always this at least two levels of interference that we have to always face and that is the whole story of Eora 18th century history, unfortunately but I guess my argument through Bennelong is that there’s probably more there than we knew, there’s more to say. There’s more material to be able to revise some unhelpful histories than we knew.
The second question about Bennelong in Britain, thank you very much. I actually got into this whole story about Bennelong because I'm actually an historian of – well I began life as an historian of 18th century Britain and that was what I first wrote about, those two years, two-and-a-half years that Bennelong spent in Britain and from that middle point I then arrived at the history of my own country which I’d never really tarried in too long.
But in those two years I have to say on the whole that those two-and-a-half years were probably more significant for what they tell us about 18th century Britain than what they might tell us about Bennelong. I’m actually always really surprised that I think most of what Bennelong understands about the colony he gets from the settlement at Warrane rather than – I mean it’s always remarkable that he never really comes back and says much at all about Britain which I think is actually a nice little touch because people like David Collins are just agog, waiting to hear what an Aboriginal person will tell him back of his beloved homeland and that he will come back and say I’ve changed my habits, I’ve changed my clothing, I’ve now understood that all this is wrong about how we used to live and now we have to live this way.
He doesn’t do that and Bennelong says yeah, it was interesting and now I’m going home and that’s when David Collins is I think, in my opinion, the most influential colonial source to say - so annoyed at that and says this is backsliding, this is a return to savage life, these people aren’t changeable because he’s so disappointed that he doesn’t get nice fun news from home. Every time I’ve seen a trajectory through the 19th century to the 20th century of this tragic tale about Bennelong it almost always traces back to Collins, I believe.
A: Thanks, Kate, really great to meet you and to follow your work on Bennelong. I’m a huge Bennelong fan and been following your work and Keith Vincent Smith’s work for many years. Just got probably two questions, one’s a broader question about our history. How do you think that we change the default position of this nation into when work like yours and work like Keith Vincent Smith or other work of indigenous scholars and academics challenges the history of this country? The textbooks that I learnt growing up talked about Bennelong being a noble savage, a drunk, a wasted human being, your work is challenging that. How do you think that we change the default from this nation to automatically put up barriers in that narrative and dialogue? It’s even works like Margaret Cameron-Ash, Lying for the Admiralty where she challenges what we’ve learnt about Captain Cook actually landing on Possession Island and claiming the colony of New South Wales on Possession Island. That actually never happened.
So those works are challenging what we’ve all learnt for 200 years but yet the default of this nation is to go no, I just don’t accept that, that’s wrong, you’re reading the texts of our colonists the wrong way, what we’ve been taught is the right thing. So how do you think we challenge that to a position where we as a nation can actually go yeah, that might have happened, Bennelong actually was this great diplomat of the early colony. He was such an iconic figure that we should want a statue of Bennelong in this country and in fact there are no statues of Bennelong in this country. That we should want a statue of Boongaree and more should know of Boongaree, that more should know of Kimbrugin in Newcastle. How do we change the default to where we go actually, that is part of the story of us and the history of us? Thanks.
K: Thank you. Yes, that is a question that is of course at some level going to be too big for me. I agree that change is needed. I optimistically think that change is on the horizon. I’ve been particularly interested in the last few years with delving down particularly in the wider implications of the Uluru Statement just to move away from the constitutional and legal issues of that movement. We all know that the words, the distillation of the Uluru Statement is three words, voice, treaty, truth. The voice speaks to the politics that’s going to have to change, the treaty speaks to the law that’s going to have to change. But it’s interesting to me that truth is clearly there as an important third arm of this movement and as an historian I think that’s our business, this is – well anyone who’s interested in history-making’s business. It’s not just politics and the law, it’s politics and the law and history and all of those three will be changing, I think. It's very important to keep in mind that the Uluru Statement from the Heart very deliberately put that in that order.
On the belief I think that a voice to Parliament and then some legislative moves afterwards would need to be there first before we can really truly embrace a new form of history, a new truth-telling. I think the truth-telling – that new historical research should be carrying on, of course, alongside but for Aboriginal people to then be at the vanguard of how that truth-telling is rolled out might require some actual political and legal change first. So I’m quite mindful of that, that I don’t think that when it comes to indigenous history that settler historians are going to be there and they shouldn’t be there at the forefront but they can keep on doing the groundwork in fellowships and libraires and in dusty corridors so that it’s there when I think that we’re due for a new reckoning of a general history of Australia, not just burrowing down to a generation which I am mostly invested in. Thank you for your question.
Great, this might be time. Is there maybe one question? No, I think we’re out of time. Thank you very much, guys, for being here, I can talk with you later afterwards if you have any other questions, thanks.
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