Woollarawarre Bennelong was one of the most important figures in the early history of Australia. He was an important point of communication between the colonisers in Australia and indigenous people. Why did Bennelong affiliate himself with the colonisers before rejecting Western culture?
Here are 10 facts you should know about Woollarawarre Bennelong!
1. He was a part of the Wangal clan
The clan were the first to encounter the British colonists when they arrived in Australia in 1788. When they arrived, Australia consisted of more than 250 aboriginal tribes; there was no one name for ‘Australia’, this was the name given to the land by British sailors. Nevertheless, Aboriginal Australians have a profound spiritual connection with the idea of their native land as “Country”, the health of which is central to the community.
Bennelong’s clan, the Wangal people, lived along the Parramatta River, which is now the Inner West of Sydney, New South Wales. Evidence of humans living in this region in Australia dates back over 20,000 years!
2. Governor Arthur Phillip had orders from King George III to use “every possible means” to start dialogue with natives
When the British colonists arrived at Sydney Cove in 1789, they were under instructions from King George III to create relationships with indigenous populations there. The indigenous group in this area – the Eora – however, avoided contact with the colonists for as long as they could. General Arthur Phillip had been told to use “every possible means”, so he resorted to kidnapping.
3. He was kidnapped by colonists
Bennelong was kidnapped in November 1789. Phillip wanted to learn about the customs of the local Eora people, and he believed that Bennelong was the key to understanding them. Bennelong was held captive in the British settlement for several months, but he eventually escaped.
Four months after his escape, Bennelong was spotted by General Phillip while he was out with a group of Aboriginal people. Phillip wanted to keep good relations with the Eora people, despite having kidnapped them, so he approached Bennelong and his companions with the intention of shaking Bennelong’s hand. Bennelong’s companion responded by throwing a spear through Phillip’s shoulder.
4. He was the first Aboriginal man to visit Europe and return
Despite this incident, Bennelong maintained good relations with General Phillip, and even bestowed him with an Aboriginal name of his own, Wolawaree, as a sign of kinship to enable communications. In 1792, Bennelong and another Aboriginal man named Yemmerrawanne travelled to England with Phillip. Some historians believe that they were even presented to the King.
5. Bennelong became an interpreter for the Governor
While he was with the British colonists, Bennelong acted as a translator and interpreter, as well as teaching the colonists about Aboriginal customs and traditions. As he learnt English, he acted as a go-between for the Governor and mediated for Australia while in London.
6. Bennelong got homesick in London
In London, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne visited classic London tourist spots like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the theatre. While they were in London, Yemmerrawanne died of a chest infection. Bennelong also suffered with his health, and was nursed by surgeon George Bass. On his journey home, he was described as ‘broken in Spirit’, after being away for two years and ten months. In a letter written in 1796, he stated ‘Not me go to England no more. I am at home now.’
7. He taught the Sydney Aboriginal language to George Bass
In return for George Bass nursing Bennelong to health, Bennelong taught the surgeon some of the Sydney Aboriginal language, Dharuk. With this, Bass was able to communicate with the indigenous Eora when they arrived in Sydney.
8. He did not maintain European customs in Australia
Bennelong adopted European ways of life and dress while he was in London. When he returned to Australia, he kept some of these customs for a short time. Soon, however, he returned back to his own culture’s traditional ways of life. He fought tribal battles and eventually became a respected elder within his clan. Colonists looked down on this, believing he was unable to maintain ‘civility’.
9. His house is now the site of the Sydney Opera House
Bennelong’s conciliatory nature towards General Phillip led the General to build a house for him on what became later known as Bennelong Point. This site later became the site of today’s Sydney Opera House, where there is now a restaurant named after him.
10. Bennelong’s wife did not approve of his amiability with the Governor
Bennelong married several times. His second wife, Barrangaroo, refused to engage with the British invaders. She did not agree with Bennelong’s willingness to be cordial with the General and adopt Western ways and rejected European customs, such as dress.
When Barrangaroo gave birth, she wished to do it at home to maintain links with the land. General Phillip, however, convinced her to go to hospital, which was against her customs. She sadly died in childbirth.
Woollarawarre Bennelong died at Kissing Point in 1813, where he was buried. He was remembered in Australia as courageous and having helped maintain a period of peace between the Aboriginal people and the colonisers.