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Faces of Australia: Woollarawarre Bennelong

The First Fleet of convicts and soldiers with their families arrived in Sydney Harbor in January 1788 to construct the first colonial settlement in Australia.  The fleet of ships was commanded by the colony’s first designated Governor Captain Arthur Phillip who immediately set about establishing the colony of New South Wales.  The first years of establishing the colony was extremely difficult as the settlers tried to grow crops in a land the understood little about.  To make matters worse was the fact that the settlers were occasionally attacked by the black Aboriginal locals that did not look fondly at the white settlers suddenly appearing on their land.

First fleet landing in Sydney Harbor.

Despite the attacks on the settlers the Arthur Phillip issued strict orders to the colonists that no punitive action would be taken against the Aboriginals in return because he himself was under strict guidelines from England to establish friendly relations with the locals.  As the attacks continued Governor Phillip decided that something had to be done to bridge the language barrier in order to communicate what the settlers felt were their good intentions to be friends of the Aboriginals.  So in order to do this the governor authorized the capture of two Aboriginals in order to study their local Aboriginal dialect along with teaching the natives English.  In hindsight it would appear kidnapping is probably not the best way to show your good intentions but at the time Governor Phillip must have felt he had little choice.

Governor Arthur Phillip

Two Aboriginals were eventually captured in November 1789 on the Manly coastline on the north head of Sydney harbor.  The two captured Aboriginals were named Bennelong and Colbee and were treated well while in captivity.  Little has been written of Colbee but much was written about Bennelong in the settlers journals which seems to confirm the significance and impact he had on the colonists.  Bennelong whose full name is Woollarawarre Bennelong was a tall, strong, and handsome man in his mid-20’s when he was captured.  Bennelong had an extroverted personality and love to talk and laugh.  The personality caused Bennelong quickly begin to learn the European customs and grasp English.  He was then able to teach some of the early settlers such George Bass how to speak the Aboriginal dialect.  He was soon even wearing English clothes and became good friends with Governor Arthur.  In 1790 Bennelong did much to bring understanding between the locals and the settlers which almost ended in disaster when Governor Phillip was speared through the shoulder while trying to communicate with a local tribe.  Governor Phillip survived the attack and with the help of Bennelong stop the settlers from retaliating.

Portriat of Bennelong

Eventually with the help of Bennelong Governor Phillip was able to establish a peace agreement with the surrounding Aboriginals and peace and trade flourished between the two alien cultures.  In recognition of Bennelong’s help to the colony Governor Phillip built a house for Bennelong and his wife along the shores of Sydney Harbor.

Governor Phillip would eventually return to England in 1792 and asked Bennelong to come with him.  Bennelong agreed and traveled to England with Phillip and a 12 year old Aboriginal boy by the name of Yemmerrawanne.  Upon arrival in England Bennelong became a minor celebrity as he dined with the elites of England and even met King George III.  However, while in England Bennelong took up a habit that continues to be the bane of Aboriginal society today, he became a drunk.  Bennelong is reported to have drank alcohol before while mingling with the colonists but his time in England is what made him a drunk probably because of the homesickness he felt especially after his companion Yemmerrawanne died of pneumonia.

Wollarawarre Bennelong in European dress.

Bennelong asked to return to Australia which he did when he accompanied the new governor of New South Wales, John Hunter back to Australia in 1795.  The ships landed in Sydney Harbor in August 1796 and Bennelong quickly found himself a man stuck between two cultures who no longer really felt excepted by either.  Bennelong drank his worries away and became well known for engaging in fights and was even speared in the back in one quarrel with an Aboriginal rival.

He would die in a drunken stupor on January 3rd, 1813 at James Squire’s orchard at Kissing Point on the shores of the Parramatta River at the approximate age of 50.  Bennelong was the first of many Aboriginals that continues to this day to die because of alcoholism.  Despite Bennelong’s tragic ending to his life he is remembered as the First Fleet’s first friend who made early contact and friendship between the locals and the colonists possible.  From American perspective Bennelong can be viewed in the same context as Squanto who was the American Indian that helped the early Pilgrims from Europe to survive their first winter in the New World in 1620, but Bennelong has no national holiday in his honor like America’s has with Thanksgiving; not that most Americans even know who Squanto is though.

Squanto aids the early Pilgrims.

However, many of Bennelong’s settler friends would go on not to have holidays in their honor but many important Australian landmarks named after them instead.  George Bass for example has the Bass Strait named after him, Arthur Phillip has Port Phillip Bay named after him, and John Hunter has the Hunter Valley named in his honor.  What a lot people in Australia don’t realize is that the First Fleet’s first friend has a landmark named after him as well.  Sydney’s top tourist attraction, its beautiful Opera House sits on the very spot that Bennelong’s house once stood and if you look on the map you will see the peninsula the Sydney Opera House stands on is named Bennelong Point.