The Sydney Opera House is located on Bennelong Point, named after the first Indigenous Australian to have intimate contact with Europeans. However, the story of Bennelong is also the story of a true statesman, diplomat and bush politician.
The 25th of November 1789, almost two years after the landing of the First Fleet, was a remarkable day for Australia, just as it was equally remarkable for a certain individual who went by the name of Woollarawarre Bennelong. It was on this day that two Aborigines, Bennelong and Colby, were lured by some fish down to Manly Bay and, once close enough, the two men were bundled into a waiting long boat and taken to the settlement of Sydney. Governor Phillip had ordered the kidnapping of some Aborigines because he was under strict instructions from King George III to ‘endeavour, by every possible mean, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them’.
However, Governor Phillip couldn’t carry out these orders while there was no contact with the native inhabitants, who had kept their distance from Sydney Cove and all white people since settlement. Left with no other option, Governor Phillip felt that capturing an Aborigine and bringing him into Sydney Cove would start a relationship in which the differences of language, culture and society could be learnt. This would then allow both peoples to converse and trade, and it would gradually lead to a peaceful and prosperous society for both peoples to live in.
Although there were a few before him, Bennelong was one of the first Aborigines to learn to speak and understand English and to learn European customs and lifestyle and to enjoy their benefits. As he was one of the first Aborigines to come into the white settlement and visit it regularly, Bennelong was very instrumental in bridging the many gaps that existed between the white settlers and the indigenous people of the Sydney area, the Eora.
Kidnapping a person may seem a strange way to begin a relationship, but there is no doubt that a close relationship developed between Bennelong and Captain Arthur Phillip. Like the few Aborigines who had briefly stayed at Sydney Cove, Bennelong soon adopted European dress and ways, and learned English. He gave Governor Phillip the Aboriginal name Woollarawarre and adopted for himself the name of Governor. This was done as a mark of respect and affection for the Governor and was extremely important as the interchanging of names was ‘found as a constant symbol of friendship among them’, as said Captain Watkin Tench.
Bennelong feasted daily with the Governor and resided in his house where he shared a room and was watched by the Governor’s steward. Bennelong spent the next couple of months willingly communicating information and explaining the customs of his country and his people. He wore English attire and displayed good manners at meals and even developed a taste for wine, which was regarded as a fiery potion of some sort by the other Aborigines. It is important to note that during this period (1789-92) Bennelong is generally regarded to have not been an alcoholic as he was upon his return from England (1795), but as a person who drank socially and held his liquor well.
Five months after his capture, Bennelong escaped from the Governor’s house early one morning. This was especially frustrating for Phillip as he had put a lot of effort into trying to appease and learn from Bennelong, who was easily the most intelligent and helpful of the Aborigines that had come into Sydney Cove.
The next time Governor Phillip saw Bennelong was at Manly Cove where, under a storm of confusion, Governor Phillip was speared by Willemering. There is evidence to suggest that Willemering, who was a friend of Bennelong, was carrying out orders of retribution on behalf of Bennelong to pay Governor Phillip back for kidnapping him. There could easily have been all-out war if it weren’t for Bennelong’s cool head, and he convinced Governor Phillip that it was a grave misunderstanding.
The peaceful coming-in of the Eora to Sydney in October 1790 was both skilfully and equally devised by two men, Arthur Phillip and Woollarawarre Bennelong and is testament to Governor Phillip’s and Bennelong’s great diplomatic skills. Here it was agreed that the Eora would put an end to active resistance and live on friendly terms, and in return they wouldn’t be forcibly captured, manacled or held against their will and could come and go from Sydney Cove as they pleased. Bennelong demonstrated throughout these talks his talent as a skilful negotiator and a master of adaptation and improvisation in the face of a more powerful, alien culture.
In a brainwave in February 1791, Lieutenant David Collins realised that the settlers had been cleverly influenced by Bennelong and his people, who had ‘shielded the market’ by preventing other tribes from trading with the white settlement. This basically created a monopoly for the Eora and significantly strengthened the clan, as well as strengthening Bennelong’s position within the hierarchy of the clan. It is not improbable that the English would have been represented in a quite unfavourable light by the Eora so as to scare and deter the other clans from making contact with them at Sydney Cove. Unfortunately, this retarded Governor Phillip’s effort to appease and set up trade with all the clans inhabiting the area around Sydney, not just Bennelong’s clan. However, it displays great insight and intelligence on the part of Bennelong and the Eora who used the gift exchange system with the English completely to their advantage.
Another example of Bennelong’s foresight was his insistence that his wife Barangaroo give birth in Governor Phillip’s house, even though Governor Phillip tried at length to persuade Bennelong to go to the hospital. This illustrates Bennelong’s initiative and can be seen as an attempt to bring Phillip into his family kinship circle and also to reconcile Phillip as his ‘beanga’, or father, which he often used to call him. Furthermore, in Aboriginal society one’s birthplace is of great importance and the act of giving birth in Governor Phillip’s house, which lay in Cadigal territory (a neighbouring clan to the Eora), demonstrates that Bennelong’s clan was forging new land associations. This once again highlights Bennelong’s quick wit and his ability to take advantage of a given situation.
In December 1792, Governor Phillip, who had been governor for nearly five years, decided to return to England. Bennelong had expressed interest in long sea voyages, so Governor Phillip invited him and another Aborigine named Yemmerrawanne to join the governor on his return trip and visit England, which they both gladly accepted. Unfortunately, Yemmerrawanne died in England two years later due to a lung disease, but Bennelong enjoyed his stay in London and was soon accustomed to wearing a ruffled lace shirt and a fancy waistcoat typical of the times. He also learned to box, skate, smoke and drink. Such was his eagerness and ability to learn that people have said the he ‘ate as elegantly as the Englishmen, bowed, toasted, paid the ladies compliments and loved wine.’ He even met King George III and heard debates in parliament and was delighted with everything he saw. Bennelong was long applauded as a success of both cultures because of his dynamic ability to blend into English high society or the traditional Aboriginal way of living, both very different settings. However, things in England took a turn for the worse for Bennelong as he found his fondness for wine greatly increasing. In September 1795, Bennelong, fast becoming ill and longing to come home, returned to Sydney with the colony’s new governor, Governor Hunter. This second stage of Bennelong’s life would prove to be disastrous for him as he took to the bottle with great resolve. He was often in drunken scuffles or payback battles and soon his own people began to shun him. Woollarawarre Bennelong died on the 3rd of January 1813 at James Squire’s orchard at Kissing Point (Meadowbank) on the Parramatta River at the approximate age of 50.
Time and time again, Bennelong exhibited skills of determination, diplomacy and resolve that could be likened to that of an astute and seasoned politician. He was considered a vital link between the white settlers and the Aborigines because of his ability to speak both languages and behave accordingly in both cultures. His closeness to Governor Phillip and influential Aborigines such as Colby guaranteed his position within both societies as he was the intermediary between the two different peoples. Through his own actions, Bennelong cemented his image and position as an important and influential part of the establishment of Sydney Cove during the 1790s.