A life between two worlds: Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal

Port Jackson Painter Native name Ben-ne-long, as painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebee was wounded c.1790, watercolour and ink. Image courtesy The Natural History Museum, London. 

Sir ... I am very well. I hope you are very well. I live at the Governor’s. I have dinner every day there. I have not my wife. We have had murry doings. He speared me in the back, but I better now. His name is now Carroway. All my friends alive and well. Not me go to England no more. I am at home now. I hope Sir you send me any thing you please Sir. Hope all are well in England ... Bannalong [1]

In late 2012 I took on the role of Researching Curator for Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal for the 2013 Message Sticks program at the Sydney Opera House. With Supervising Curator Tess Allas, I was asked to take part in organising a display to honour the bicentennial anniversary of Bennelong’s passing. The result was an exhibition that explored the life of Bennelong through historical paintings by early colonial artists and archival documents that were interpreted and contextualised from an Indigenous perspective. A large part of working on the exhibition consisted of researching and analysing the events of Bennelong’s life. Throughout this process I found that I began to absorb his experiences as my own. The more as a curator I learnt about his life, the more I began to identify with him as an Indigenous person.

For the past two centuries Bennelong has appeared throughout Australian history as a key figure in early Sydney. He was an Aboriginal informant, a cultural diplomat and a go-between for British colonists. A Wangal man of the Eora people, Bennelong was born in about 1764 on the south shore of Sydney’s Parramatta River. At the age of 25, he was captured at Manly Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip, who had received instructions from King George III to “endeavour, by every possible means, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them.”[2] After befriending Phillip, he became the first Aboriginal person to be involved in the brief period of fraternal relations that existed between Indigenous people and the people of the First Fleet, before extension of the first settlement at Sydney Cove caused conflict between them.[3]

Having been one of the first to face the difficulty of knowing two cultures — white and black, Bennelong was a greatly misunderstood person. In a colonial context, the assumption that Indigenous people belonged to an inferior race and were uncivilised was part of the dominant paradigm. As an Indigenous person, Bennelong was portrayed as a savage who was unable to conform to white society, and as an outsider to his own people. Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal was about re-examining history to overcome these myths; to honour Bennelong’s important role in the initial interactions between British colonists and Aboriginal people, his leadership in Eora society both before and after his journey to England, and his present legacy amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

As a curator, I found it important to highlight the resilience and strength of identity that Bennelong embodied in living between two worlds. In retrospect, for me one of the most potent documents displayed in the exhibition was a reproduction of the letter Bennelong had addressed to “Mr Phillips, Steward to Lord Sidney [sic]” on 29 August 1796, which shows the close affiliation Bennelong had to Governor Phillip. Having learnt a few words of English from his time with Phillip, it is believed that Bennelong dictated the words of the letter to a scribe. As a document that captures Bennelong’s voice, the letter sees him as an author rather than a subject of the colonial gaze; it portrays a personal side of his character and the remarkable ways in which he transcended a society and culture that did not understand his.

While working on the exhibition, I became aware of how inextricably connected the concepts of the personal, the cultural and the political are. My identity and experiences as an Indigenous person inform the need I have to educate and broaden an awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, culture, identity and histories. In a contemporary Australian context that still fosters anxieties around addressing colonial histories and its mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal was part of a necessary dialogue in re-examining and bringing forward obscured histories for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Letter [manuscript]: Sydney Cove, New South Wales, to Mr Phillips, 29 August 1796.
  2. ^ George III to Arthur Phillip, National Archives, London, CO21/1, 27 April 1787.
  3. ^ John Kenny, Bennelong: first notable aboriginal, Sydney, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1973, p. 5.

WW (William Waterhouse) Banalong (Bennelong) c. 1793. Image courtesy State Library of NSW.

Meriam/Barkindji/Malyangapa woman and emerging curator Tahjee Moar write about working with Tess Allas on the Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal exhibition held at the Sydney Opera House in 2013.

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