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Bennelong (c. 1764–1813)

by Keith Vincent Smith

Bennelong (c.1764-1813), mediator, informant and cultural broker, was born into the Wangal clan on the south bank of the Parramatta River about 1764.[1] Governor Arthur Phillip had orders from King George III to live in ‘amity and kindness’ with the Indigenous people of the Sydney region.[2] After the death of Arabanoo, Phillip ordered Lieutenant William Bradley to capture ‘a Man or two’.[3] Bennelong and the Gadigal leader Colebee were abducted at Kayeemy (Manly Cove) on 25 November 1789. Colebee soon escaped but Bennelong resigned himself to his captivity.

Bennelong was an initiated man, about 170 centimetres (five feet six inches) tall, who had survived smallpox. Captain Watkin Tench said he was about 26 years old, ‘of good stature, and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke defiance and revenge … He acquired knowledge both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor [Arabanoo] had done.’[4] Just ten weeks after Bennelong’s capture, on 13 February 1790, Phillip was able to report to Lord Sydney at the Home Office in London the names and locations of his people and the principal Sydney ‘tribes’ or clans. The south side of the harbor, from Sydney Cove to Rose Hill, ‘which the natives call Parramatta, the District is called Wann, & the Tribe Wangal’.[5] Bennelong ‘lives with the Governor, & is a very intelligent Man, much information can be got from him when he can be better understood’, wrote Lieutenant Philip Gidley King.[6] He had five names, given by King as ‘“Bannelon, Wollarewarré Boinba, Bunde-bunda Wogé-trowey” he likes best to be called by the second [name].’[7] Tench said Bennelong called Phillip affectionately ‘Been-èn-a’ (father), while Phillip called him ‘Doorow’ (son).[8] Bennelong attempted by this exchange of names to bring the governor into his traditional kinship system. William Dawes listed the names of Bennelong’s sisters as ‘Warwéar. Karangarang. Wárrgan. Munáguri.’[9] His first wife had died before his capture, possibly from smallpox.

In April 1790 the shackle was struck from Bennelong’s leg, but on 3 May he jumped the paling fence to freedom. He took up again with his second wife Barangaroo, who, wrote David Collins, was ‘of the tribe of Cam-mer-ray’ on the north shore ‘and lived with him at the time he was seized’.[10] On 7 September 1790 Bennelong and Colebee were among 200 Aboriginal people feasting on a stranded whale at Manly Cove. Bennelong sent some blubber to Phillip at South Head, inviting him to join them. After shaking hands and talking with Bennelong, Phillip saw him place a long timber spear ‘barbed and pointed with hardwood’ on the ground. As Phillip was about to leave, a sturdy older man snatched the same spear from the ground and hurled it, striking Phillip’s right shoulder and protruding through his back. In pain, Philip shouted to his aide Henry Waterhouse ‘For God’s sake haul out the spear’. Waterhouse broke the shaft and Phillip reached the boat and was rowed to Sydney Cove, where Surgeon William Balmain extracted the point.

Collins saw the attacker lift ‘a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor.’ He named the spearman as Willemering, a carradhy (garadji) or ‘clever man’ from Broken Bay, north of Sydney.[11] This payback cleared the way for Bennelong and his friends to come in peacefully to the British settlement at Sydney Cove on 8 October 1790. Phillip gave Bennelong a red jacket, knives, metal hatchets, and a tin shield and built him a brick hut, 12 feet (3.5 metres) square, with a tiled roof at Tubowgulle, now Bennelong Point, site of the Sydney Opera House. In November 1790, Bennelong fought a duel with the Gweagal elder Mety, and abducted his daughter Go-roo-bar-roo-bool-lo or Kúrbarabúlu (‘Two Firesticks’), then about 17 years of age, who became his third wife.[12] Barangaroo died in late 1791 and their daughter Dilboong not long after.[13]

On 10 December 1792, Bennelong and his young kinsman Yemmerrawanne boarded the convict transport ship Atlantic with Governor Phillip ‘voluntarily and cheerfully’, Collins noted, withstanding ‘the united distress of their wives and the dismal lamentations of their friends, to accompany him to England, a place they knew was a great distance from them’.[14] The ship reached Falmouth on 19 May 1793. At 7 o’clock next morning, according to Marine Private John Easty, ‘His Excellency Arthur Phillip went on shore and the two Natives … to Proceed on their way to London.’[15] They were the first Australian Aborigines to visit England. In London Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne lodged with William Waterhouse, father of Phillip’s aide Henry Waterhouse, at 125 Mount Street, Mayfair. On their first day they were measured for Georgian frock coats, breeches and pepper-and-salt waistcoats at a cost of £15.00 each. Their expenses and activities were recorded in a series of handwritten bills in Treasury Board Papers, now in the National Archives at Kew.[16]

Phillip took Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne to the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket on Saturday 8 June 1793, where they watched the Opera from a private box.[17] Yemmerrawanne became ill in October 1793 and the Wangal men were taken by coach to the village of Eltham in Kent where they lodged at the home of Edward Kent, an employee of Lord Sydney. For six months Yemmerrawanne lay grievously ill, but regained his strength. On Wednesday 16 April 1794, the two men, described by The Oracle and Public Advertiser as ‘two sooty natives of New South Wales, brought over by Governor Phillips’ [sic] caused a stir when they visited the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Yemmerrawanne died from a lung ailment on 18 May 1794, aged 19, and was buried in St John’s churchyard, Eltham, where a granite headstone was erected at a cost of £6.16.0.[18] The London newspapers briefly noted Yemmerrawanne’s death, adding poignantly, ‘His companion pines much for his loss’.[19]

Bennelong boarded HMS Reliance at Chatham in Kent on 30 July 1794, the date shown on a bill of one guinea for the ‘Post Chaise to take Mr. Benalong on board the Reliance’.[20] In January 1795, after six months of confinement on the ship, Captain John Hunter feared that Bennelong might die, noting his ‘precarious state of health’ and ‘broken spirit’.[21] After many delays, HMS Reliance and HMS Supply left port on 2 March 1795. Dr George Bass treated Bennelong, who had recovered his health by the time they reached Rio de Janeiro on 5 April. The ship reached Sydney Cove on 7 September 1795. Bennelong immediately sought his wife Kurubarabula who had taken up with the Gadigal youth Caruey who Bennelong wounded in a fist fight.

Colonial accounts characterised Bennelong in later life as a tragic drunkard despised by his own people. Recent research has shown this to be untrue. Bennelong was respected as an elder, who in December 1797 officiated at an initiation ‘in the middle harbour’ in Gamaragal territory on the north shore in December 1797.[22] In 1802 Bennelong was the leader of a clan seen at Brush Farm on the north side of the Parramatta River. In his Memoirs, the Irish political prisoner ‘General’ Joseph Holt, who managed the farms of Captain William Cox, wrote; ‘The chief, or king of this tribe, was called Bunnelong [sic] … I have frequently had a hundred of both males and females in the farm-yard at a time, and it was my custom to take in the chief and his Gin, and give them their breakfast and a glass of grog’.[23] Bennelong had a son who was baptised Thomas Walker Coke by the Reverend William Walker, but died at Parramatta in 1823 aged 19.

Bennelong spent his last years by the Parramatta River in the orchard of the brewer James Squire at Kissing Point, now the suburb of Putney in the City of Ryde. He died there on 3 January 1813 and was buried with one of his wives. Colebee’s nephew Nanbarry was also buried in the grave when he died on 21 January 1821. Some 200 participants took part in the ritual revenge combat following Bennelong’s death. ‘The spears flew very thick, and about thirty men were wounded’.[24] Bennelong’s legacy is his gift of Indigenous knowledge from the past. It tells us about the social and spiritual life of his people and the words and meanings now helping to revive the language once spoken by the Eora in coastal Sydney.[25]

Portraits of Bennelong
*Native name Ben-nel-long, c.1792
As painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebee was wounded
‘Port Jackson Painter’
Watling Drawing - No. 41, Natural History Museum, London

*Banalong, c.1793
‘W.W.’ [William Waterhouse (c.1770-1812)]
Pen and ink wash
DGB 10 f13, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney 

*Ben-nil-long
James Neagle (1760-1822)
Engraving
From David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales … London: Printed for T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1798
Q79/60, p. 439, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney 

*BENNELONG: a Native of New Holland, 1804
Samuel John Neele (1758-1824)
Engraving
From James Grant, The Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery Performed in H.M. Vessel Lady Nelson … Whitehall, London, 1803-4 

*Portrait of Bennilong; a native of New Holland, who after experiencing for two years the Luxuries of England, returned to his own Country and resumed all his savage Habits, c.1817
Copper engraving
Possibly by George Cooke (1781-1834)
From George Alexander Cooke, A modern and authentic system of universal geography, London, 1817
P2 511, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney 

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.
  • 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.
  • Isadore Brodsky, Bennelong Profile: Dreamtime Reveries of a Native of Sydney Cove, University Co-Operative Bookshop, Broadway, Sydney, 1973.
  • Keith Vincent Smith, Bennelong: The coming in of the Eora, Sydney Cove 1788-1792, Kangaroo Press, East Roseville, 2001.
  • K. V. Smith, ‘Bennelong among his people’, Aboriginal History, Vol. 33, ANU E Press, 2009, pp 7-30.
  • K. V. Smith, Woollarawarre Bennelong, Dictionary of Sydney, 2013. <http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/woollarawarre_bennelong (accessed 13 November 2019)
  • Finding Bennelong, City of Ryde, 2013. findingbennelong.com (accessed 13 November 2019).

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 13 November 2019

Additional Resources

Citation details

Keith Vincent Smith, 'Bennelong (c. 1764–1813)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bennelong-1769/text37158, accessed 2 October 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012