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Arabanoo (c. 1759–1789)

by Keith Vincent Smith

Arabanoo (1759?-1789), an Aboriginal man, was captured on 30 December 1788 at Manly Cove on the north shore of Port Jackson on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip. Hearing his cries, his companions ran to the beach, throwing stones, spears and firesticks at two ship’s boats, until musket shots were fired over their heads. As the boats pulled away a crewman tied a rope around the captive’s leg. He was given some cooked fish and ‘sullenly submitted to his destiny’.[1] ‘The terror this poor wretch suffered, can better be conceived than expressed; he believed he was to be immediately murdered,’ wrote Captain John Hunter.[2]

Phillip’s motive was to contact and conciliate the Indigenous people. He told Lord Sydney in London that he thought it was ‘absolutely necessary … that we should attain their language, or teach them ours’ to explain ‘the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’.[3]

At Sydney Cove, Marine Captain Watkin Tench was intrigued by the Aboriginal prisoner, who was about thirty years old, not tall, but strong, stocky and ‘tolerably well looked’. Tench scrubbed him with soapy water and found he was ‘as black as the lighter cast of the African negroes’. He was dressed in a shirt, jacket and ‘trowsers’. An iron handcuff attached to a rope was fastened to his left wrist. This pleased him and he called it ‘Ben-gàd-ee’ (bangada), meaning an ornament, but, wrote Tench, ‘his delight changed to rage and hatred when he discovered its use’.[4]

The prisoner did not reveal his name, so Phillip called him ‘Manly’ after the cove where he was seized, and later Arabanoo. Perhaps Phillip and his officers never knew his real name. Jeremy Steele, a scholar of the Sydney Language, suggests that, when asked, he replied “Ngarabanu”, close to “Ngarabóoni”, given by William Dawes as “I do not, or did not hear”, or, idiomatically, “I don’t understand you.”[5] Although captured in the territory of the Cameragal or Gamaragal, Arabanoo’s clan is not known. At that time Manly was a centre of Aboriginal resistance, where ship’s fishing boats were often pelted with rocks.

Tench, the First Fleet storyteller, recorded much about Arabanoo’s short, tragic time among the British colonists. New Year’s Day 1789, one day after his capture, must have been strange for Arabanoo. As he entered Governor Phillip’s new brick house he ‘started with horror and astonishment’ when someone touched a small bell hanging over the door and ‘exclaimed aloud, and testified the most extravagant surprise’ when he saw some officers leaning from a window on the top floor. After his first meal Arabanoo turned his back to the fire, and was terrified when his shirt caught alight. He was stopped from throwing his plate out the window after eating, then stretched out on his wooden chest by the window, put his hat over his face and fell asleep, oblivious of the military band playing loudly in the next room.

At first Arabanoo would eat eight large fish for breakfast and three kangaroo rats and more fish for dinner (the midday meal). He dined with the governor, but at a side table, heartily eating fish and duck. He would not touch wine and smelled bread and salt meat suspiciously before putting it aside. He later relished bread and tea, always rejecting strong liquor.[6]

Arabanoo learned a few words of English and divulged some of his language. When shown a ‘handsome print’ of the Duchess of Cumberland he cried out ‘woman’, a name he had just been taught to call the female convicts. From William Dawes’s observatory on the western point of Sydney Cove, he looked across the water at smoke from a campfire and sighed ‘guwiyang’ (fire). Meeting some friends at Manly he was heard to repeat the word Weerong, the name of Sydney Cove, doubtless, said Tench, ‘to inform his countrymen of the place of his captivity’.[7]

Lieutenant William Bradley said Arabanoo had become ‘quite familiarised & very happy quite one of the Governors family & and had got some of our language as well as communicating much of theirs’,[8] though Tench was disappointed at his progress in learning. Arabanoo was courteous to women, shared his food with children and played with the foreign cats and dogs. He was disgusted in March 1789 when forced to watch runaway convicts punished with 150 lashes of the cat o’ nine tails.[9]

Arabanoo was shackled, guarded and locked up at night in a timber and bark hut, but was freed from his manacles in April 1789. Returning to Sydney after a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope on HMS Sirius, Captain John Hunter found Governor Phillip, ‘sitting by the fire drinking tea with a few friends; among whom I observed a native man of this country, who was decently cloathed, and seemed to be much at ease at the tea table as any person there … This man was taken from his friends by force.’[10] Hunter had been horrified to see Aboriginal bodies floating in the water or lying dead on the beaches and caves around Port Jackson. They were the victims of the smallpox outbreak in April-May 1789, in which, the Wangal leader Bennelong told Phillip, ‘one half of those who inhabit this part of the country died.’[11] No white settlers were infected.

On 15 April 1789 Arabanoo helped bury a smallpox victim and nursed two children, Nanbarry and Boorong (at first wrongly called Abaroo) who recovered from the disease. When Arabanoo went by boat to search for his friends, not one living Aboriginal person could be found. Appalled by the sight of decaying bodies he cried out ‘All dead! All dead’, then hung his head and was silent.[12]

Arabanoo contracted smallpox himself and, despite medical help, died on 18 May 1789. Phillip was present at Arabanoo’s burial in the garden of Government House (Circular Quay precinct) ‘to the great regret of every one who had witnessed how little of the savage was found in his manner,’ wrote David Collins.[13]

Select Bibliography

  • Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales, including an accurate description of the situation of the Colony; of the Natives; and of its natural productions, London: G. Nicol and J. Sewell, 1793.
  • John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island … London: John Stockdale, 1793.
  • David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, from its first settlement in January 1788, to August 1801, London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, in The Strand, 1798. 

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 13 November 2019

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Keith Vincent Smith, 'Arabanoo (c. 1759–1789)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/arabanoo-1711/text37157, accessed 30 September 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012