10 Things You Didn't Know About Woollarawarre Bennelong - History Bombs
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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Woollarawarre Bennelong

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!

Woollarawarre Bennelong by William Waterhouse (National Library of Australia)

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.’

The Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang ceremony at Wogganmagully in 1795, where boys graduated to men (National Library of Australia)

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.

The Sydney Opera House (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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. 

Learn more about Woollarawarre Bennelong and many other key figures of the British Empire in our video ‘British Empire (In One Take)’, and remember to start your membership to access all History Bombs video lessons and teaching materials!

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