The First Indigenous Author to be in Print


For Australia Day features, my son Nathan came up with this brilliant suggestion, and something from Australia’s history. It is a story of a man who became a mediator and later described as a traitor for his relationship with the first settlers. He lived a fascinating life between his own people and the colonials and this life took him on an adventure to England in 1792. Bennelong was said to be the first Indigenous Australian Author to have his words printed. Here are two versions of his story with a song from Bennelong. Long live his spirit!

From ABC Radio, here is a brief story about his trip to England with an audio recording of Bennelong singing.

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It has been more than two hundred years since the death of Bennelong – that great Wanggal leader and ambassador to the Sydney colony.

Bennelong has long been cast as a tragic figure, a traitor to his people, a damaged character from countless Australian histories, novels and narratives. But as more information about him and his contemporaries comes to light, Bennelong is being recast as an adventurer, a politician, a diplomat … and it seems he is still speaking to us across the centuries, in words and song.

Bennelong was 29 and his companion Yemmerawanne was just 19 when they agreed to sail to England with Governor Phillip.

When Bennelong finally returned to Sydney Cove, he’d been away for almost three years … Yemmerawanne died in England and is buried there.

Back at the Governor’s house in Sydney Cove, Bennelong wrote a letter to Lord Sydney. We’re not sure if Bennelong dictated it to another person, or wrote it in his own hand, because the original letter can’t be found. Only a copy survives.

Historian and curator, Keith Vincent Smith, has been investigating Bennelong’s life and his long, traumatic voyage to Britain in 1792. He found the copy of the letter we have today, in an obscure German astronomy journal published in the early 19th century.

Performed in London in 1792, as notated and published by musician Edward Jones in 1811. This version is performed by Clarence Slockee and Matthew Doyle at the State Library of NSW, August 2010.
(02’01”, 1.85MB)

Bennelong Sings

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National Library of Australia Picture and caption: Portrait of Bennilong, a native of New Holland, who after experiencing for two years the luxuries of England, returned to his own country and resumed all his savage habits [picture].
 Bennelong (1764–1813)

by Eleanor Dark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Bennelong (1764?-1813), Aboriginal, was captured in November 1789 and brought to the settlement at Sydney Cove by order of Governor Arthur Phillip, who hoped to learn from him more of the natives’ customs and language. Bennelong took readily to life among the white men, relished their food, acquired a taste for liquor, learned to speak English and became particularly attached to the governor, in whose house he lodged. In May he escaped, and no more was seen of him until September when he was among a large assembly of natives at Manly, one of whom wounded Phillip with a spear. The attack seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding, and Bennelong took no part in it; indeed, he expressed concern and frequently appeared near Sydney Cove to inquire after the governor’s health. The incident was thus the means of re-establishing contact between them and, when assured that he would not be detained, Bennelong began to frequent the settlement with many of his compatriots, who made the Government House yard their headquarters. In 1791 a brick hut, 12 feet sq. (1.1 m²), was built for him on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, now called Bennelong Point.

In December 1792 he sailed with Phillip for England where he was presented to King George III. August 1794 found him on board the Reliance in Plymouth Sound, waiting to return to the colony with Governor John Hunter, but the ship did not sail until early in 1795, and on 25 January Hunter wrote that Bennelong’s health was precarious because of cold, homesickness and disappointment at the long delay which had ‘much broken his spirit’. He reached Sydney in September, and thereafter references to him are scanty, though it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance either among his countrymen or the white men. Two years later he had become ‘so fond of drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and violent as to be capable of any mischief’. In 1798 he was twice dangerously wounded in tribal battles. A censorious paragraph in the Sydney Gazette records his death at Kissing Point on 3 January 1813.

His wife, Barangaroo, bore him a daughter named Dilboong who died in infancy. Later he took a second wife, Gooroobaroobooloo, but during his absence in England she found another mate, and disdained Bennelong when he returned.

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’. Contemporary accounts reveal him as courageous, intelligent, vain, quick-tempered, ‘tender with children’ and something of a comedian.

Bennelong also had a son who was adopted by Rev. William Walker and christened Thomas Walker Coke. He died after a short illness aged about 20.

28 thoughts on “The First Indigenous Author to be in Print”

  1. You are so right, though. If our only ties to the past are kept by the grandparents, they may be gone forever soon. That’s why your sons interest is so important.

    Maybe the treasures of the past can be brought into the light before it’s too late to learn the true history of the indiginous peoples of both our contries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing Nomadic Adventurer. I too learnt of this fascinating man (Bennelong) from my son only this week, because I was writing Australian stories to celebrate the week leading up to Australia Day on January 26. I’m sure you will enjoy the research just as much as I did. I am going back to read more. 🙂

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  2. This is so interesting. What an amazing young man your son must be. Thank you for sharing this. I am writing a series of books about colonial America and find it so frustrating that there are virtually no original sources from the natural people of North America. The did record their stories in beautiful bead work, pottery, tattoos, and other art work. But the Europeans discounted these words that they could not understand. Now much of that history has been lost. All you can find are the limited writings of the European settlers.

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    1. mgill627 – Thank you so much for visiting, commenting and following. I imagine it would not be easy to find such a record. Many indigenous people pass their history through storytelling and art or through songs. It was not easy to capture many of these intangible cultures and ways of keeping stories. Some objects such as the ones you have mentioned (and through inheritance and landmarks); carried history or stories with them. These (objects and places) were opened to interpretation and meanings from clan to clan or place to place. The written word was not one of the ways to keep history. Those limited writings by early settlers are often so biased that you may as well discount them as well. 🙂
      I had once challenged a very well-known curator in a conference (in Brisbane) about large collections of objects held in storage, in the dark and collecting dust, as to what meaning these collections had for anyone if they were not used or seen? In my view, the only way for these objects to ‘live again’ and find its story and meaning is to re-connect the objects with its people and re-trace stories that are lost. The stories could be re-covered, perhaps not fully, but, some of it. It is one way to give meaning (or explain some history) and educate, not only future generations of the indigenous owners, but all of us. Some museums are taking this action, but, it may be too late. Two people died in the last five years in our village, and I knew, a large chunk of knowledge and our history went with them. My grandmother was one and another great uncle. They were both nearly 90. I was deeply sad and alarmed at how much we lost – forever! There are many issues you have raised just by making one point, but my response is turning into a post. Hahaha. Thank you again.

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