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Portrait (signed "W.W.") thought to depict Bennelong
Born c. 1764
Died January 1813
Kissing Point, New South Wales
Nationality Aboriginal
Other names Baneelon
Spouse(s) Barangaroo (d. 1791)

Woollarawarre Bennelong (c. 1764 – 3 January 1813) (also: "Baneelon") was a senior man of the Eora, an Aboriginal (Koori) people of the Port Jackson area, at the time of the first British settlement in Australia, in 1788. Bennelong served as an interlocutor between the Eora and the British, both in Sydney and in the United Kingdom.

Personal details

Woollarawarre Bennelong, the son of Goorah-Goorah and his wife Gagolh, [1] was a member of the Wangal clan, connected with the south side of Parramatta River, having close ties with the Wallumedegal clan, on the west side of the river, and the Burramattagal clan near today's Parramatta. He had several sisters, Wariwéar, Karangarang, Wûrrgan, and Munânguri, who married important men from nearby clans, thereby creating political links for their brother. [1]

He had five names, depending on name given over a lifetime during the various ritual inductions he underwent. Despite spelling variations, the other four are given as Wolarrebarre, Wogultrowe, Boinba, and Bundabunda.[2] The island of Memel in Port Jackson was part of his personal property, inherited through his father.[3] He had several wives: the first, whose name is not known, died, probably from smallpox, before he was captured. He then married the Cammeray clanswoman,with Barangaroo, who died shortly after in 1791. He then took up with a Gweagal woman, Kurubarabüla, after kidnapping her, and they stayed together a year until his departure for England. On his return, he had a son, Dicky, by another woman. His last wife, who was buried with him, was Boorong.[4]

Capture and life in the British settlement

Bennelong was brought to the settlement at Sydney Cove in November 1789 by order of the governor, Arthur Phillip, who was under instructions from King George III to establish relationships with the indigenous populations. At that time the Eora conscientiously avoided contact with the newcomers, and in desperation Phillip resorted to kidnap. A man named Arabanoo was captured, but he, like many other Aboriginal people near the settlement, died in a smallpox epidemic a few months later in May 1789.[5][6] Bennelong (married at the time to Barangaroo) was captured with Colbee (married to Daringa) in December 1789 as part of Phillip's plan to learn the language and customs of the local people. His age, at the time of his capture, was estimated at 25, and he was described as being 'of good stature, stoutly made', with a 'bold, intrepid countenance'. His appetite was such that 'the ration of a week was insufficient to have kept him for a day', and 'love and war seemed his favourite pursuits'.[7][8]

Colbee soon escaped, but Bennelong stayed in the settlement for several months, then slipped away. Four month later, he was sighted by officers in Manly Cove, and Phillips was notified. One account has it that on the day Phillip had organized a whale feast in order to reestablish relations with the Eora.[9] The Governor hurried over and approached Bennelong, who was with a group of roughly 20 warriors. Phillip took a gesture by Bennelong towards another Aboriginal person, Willemering, as an invitation for an introduction, and extended his hand to the latter, who responded by spearing Phillip in the shoulder. A scuffle broke out, but the officers managed to spirit the Governor away to safety.

Willemering was a 'clever man' (koradgee) a Gurugal (Karegal) from Broken Bay, and some readings have it that he had been enlisted by Bennelong to carry out payback for the latter's sense of injury on having been kidnapped. In this view, some form of atonement was necessary as a prelude to any further arrangements with the intrusive colonial power.[10] Phillip ordered that no retaliation take place and Bennelong, some days later, turned up to visit him as he was recovering from the wound, and their relationship was renewed. [11]

He maintained ongoing good relations with the colony and in a gesture of kinship, gave Phillip the Aboriginal name Wolawaree.[12] He learned to speak English. In 1790, the governor built him a hut on what became known as Bennelong Point (now occupied by the Sydney Opera House).

Visit to England

Bennelong and another Aboriginal man named Yemmerrawanne (or Imeerawanyee) travelled with Phillip on Atlantic to England in 1792. Many historians have claimed that they were presented to King George III, but there is no direct evidence that this occurred.[13] Soon after their arrival in England they were hurriedly made clothes that would have been suitable for their presentation to the King. [14]

Jack Brook reconstructs some of their activities from the expense claims lodged with the government. They visited St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London. A boat was hired, and they went bathing. They went to the theatre. While in London they resided with Henry Waterhouse, and when Yemmerrawanne became sick, they moved to Eltham and resided at the house of Edward Kent where they were tended by Mr and Mrs Phillips, and met Lord Sydney.[14]

Yemmerrawanne died while in Britain after a serious chest infection,[a] and Bennelong's health deteriorated. He returned to Sydney in February 1795 on HMS Reliance, the ship that took surgeon George Bass to the colony for the first time. Bass nursed him back to health and in exchange Bennelong taught him a sufficient amount of Dharuk to enable the former to communicate with the indigenous Eora on arriving in Sydney.[15] Of the 2 years and 10 months he spent abroad, 18 months had been passed either at sea or on board ships in a dock.[16]

Return to New South Wales

Bennelong arrived back in Sydney on 7 September 1795. A letter he had drafted in 1796 to Mr and Mrs Phillips is the first known text written in English by an Indigenous Australian, thanking Mrs Phillips for caring for him in England, and asking for stockings and a handkerchief. [14] Within a short time took to the bush, reappearing only occasionally to dine at the servants' table in Governor King's residence. Many colonial reports complain of his refusal to rejoining 'polished society'.[17] He frequently participated in payback battles, and officiated at ceremonies, including the last recorded initiation ceremony in Port Jackson in 1797. By the early 18th century, he was the leader of a 100-strong clan living on the north side of the river to the west of Kissing Point in Wallumedagal country.[18]


He died on 3 January 1813 at Kissing Point on the Parramatta River in Sydney, and was buried in the orchard of the brewer James Squire, a great friend to Bennelong and his clan.[19]

His death notice in the Sydney Gazette was contemptuously condescending and dismissive[b] insisting that "...he was a thorough savage, not to be warped from the form and character that nature gave him...", which reflected the feelings of some in Sydney's white society that Bennelong had abandoned his role as ambassador in his last years, and also reflects the deteriorating relations between the two groups as more and more land was cleared and fenced for farming, and the hardening attitudes of many colonists towards 'savages' who were not willing to give up their country and become labourers and servants useful to the colonists.[21][22]

Bennelong's people mourned his death with a traditional highly ritualized battle for which about two hundred people gathered.[23] As a profound mark of respect, Colebee's nephew Nanberry, who died in 1821, asked to be buried with Bennelong at his request.[24] Bidgee Bidgee, who led the Kissing Point clan for twenty years after Bennelong's death, also asked to be buried with Bennelong, but there is no record of his death or where he is buried.[24]

On 20 March 2011 Dr Peter Mitchell of Macquarie University announced that he had located the actual grave site in the garden of a private house in present-day Putney. A 'FOR SALE' sign went on the house in December 2017, causing some concern. Peter Mitchell in 2011 stated that local Aboriginal authorities would be consulted about possible further exploration of the site but little further ever transpired.[25]


Bennelong's legacy was long contested. Aamong many others, Manning Clark wrote:'Bennelong disgusted his civilizers and became an exile from his own people'.[26] In recent decades, he has been defended, as someone who saw the best and worst of Western civilization and, having done so, rejected it. Bennelong's friendship with British colonists brought other Indigenous people into contact with the Sydney Cove colony. In contributing to some of the first cross cultural communication between the groups he helped establish a short period of relative peace between the two peoples.

See also


  1. ^ Medical science in the late 18th century was poorly advanced. 'Chest infection' could have meant any number of conditions.
  2. ^ 'Bennelong died on Sunday morning last at Kissing Point. Of this veteran champion of the native tribe little favourable can be said. His voyage to, and benevolent treatment in Great Britain produced no change whatever in his manners and inclinations, which were naturally barbarous and ferocious. The principal Officers of Government had for many years endeavoured, by the kindest of usage to wean him from his original habits, and draw him into a relish for civilized life ; but every effort was in vain exerted, and for the last few has been little noticed. His propensity to drunkenness was inordinate ; and when in that state he was insolent, menacing and overbearing. In fact, he was a thorough savage, not to be warped from the form and character that nature gave him, by all the efforts that mankind could use.'[20]


  1. ^ a b Smith 2009, p. 12.
  2. ^ Smith 2009, p. 9.
  3. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 10-11.
  4. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 16-18.
  5. ^ Smith 2009, p. 11.
  6. ^ Fullagar 2011, p. 32-33.
  7. ^ Park 1966.
  8. ^ Tench 1793, p. 44.
  9. ^ Van Toorn 2006, p. 60.
  10. ^ Van Toorn 2006, pp. 60-61.
  11. ^ Fullagar 2015, p. 36.
  12. ^ Fullagar 2011, p. 34.
  13. ^ Fullagar 2011, p. 40.
  14. ^ a b c Brook 2001, pp. 36-47.
  15. ^ Shakespeare 2010, p. 37.
  16. ^ Smith 2009, p. 18.
  17. ^ Smith 2009, p. 19.
  18. ^ Smith 2009, p. 22.
  19. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 23-24.
  20. ^ Gazette 1813, p. 2.
  21. ^ Fullagar 2011, p. 46.
  22. ^ Karskens 2009, pp. 83-91,422.
  23. ^ Fulligar 2015, p. 37.
  24. ^ a b Smith 2009, p. 24.
  25. ^ Duff 2011.
  26. ^ Smith 2009, p. 21.
  27. ^ de Deckker & McKenzie 1981, pp. 53-56.


  • Brook, Jack (2001). "The Forlorn Hope: Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie Go to England". Australian Aboriginal Studies: 36–47.
  • Dark, Eleanor (1966). "Bennelong (1764–1813)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 1. Melbourne University Press.
  • de Deckker, Patrick; McKenzie, Kenneth G (1981). "Bennelongia, A new Cyprididid Ostracod Genus from Australasia" (PDF). 105. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia: 53–56.
  • Duff, Eamonn (20 March 2011). "Bennelong's grave found under a front yard in Sydney's suburbs". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 20 March 2011.
  • Fullagar, Kate (2009). "Bennelong in Britain". 33. Aboriginal History: 31–51.
  • Fullagar, Kate (2015). "From Pawns to Players:Rewriting the Lives of Three Indigenous Go-Betweens". In Jackson, Will; Manktelow, Emily. Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British Colonial World. Springer. pp. 22–42. ISBN 978-1-137-46587-0.
  • Karskens, Grace (2010). The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-742-69058-2.
  • "Bennelong". The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. 9 January 1813. p. 2.
  • Shakespeare, Nicholas (2010). In Tasmania: Adventures at the End of the World. Random House. ISBN 978-1-407-07415-3.
  • Smith, Keith Vincent (2009). "Bennelong among his people". 33. Aboriginal History: 7–30.
  • Tench, Watkin (1793), 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
  • Van Toorn, Penny (2006). Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0-855-75544-7.

External links

  • Article in January 2008, Issue 11 of Time Out Sydney giving Bennelong's life story Retrieved 22 March 2008
  • Keith Vincent Smith (2013). "Woollarawarre Bennelong". Dictionary of Sydney. Retrieved 8 October 2015. [CC-By-SA]
  • Maher, Louise (8 August 2013). "Treasure Trove: Bennelong's letter". 666 ABC Canberra. Retrieved 20 October 2018.
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