Portrait of Bennelong, signed "W.W."

Portrait of Bennelong, signed "W.W." , courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW a1256013 / DGB 10, f13

Corroboree, a new Sydney Indigenous cultural festival kicks off on the 14th November (this Thursday) so this morning on 2SER Breakfast with Tim Higgins, Lisa and Tim talked about the life of Bennelong, one of Sydney’s most famous men.

So what do we really know about Bennelong? For years, Bennelong’s story has been plagued by myths: for example, that he ‘collaborated’ with the British, was ‘taken to London to meet the king’, was ‘despised by his own people’ and ‘died in a street brawl’. These claims can be laid to rest from new research by Keith Vincent Smith published in the Dictionary of Sydney.

By nature, Bennelong was mercurial: a joker and a mimic, quick to laughter or anger. He was also a canny politician who played a complex double game between his people and the governor. No collaborator, he was active in the resistance against the colonists before he agreed to ‘come in’ peacefully to the Sydney settlement in October 1790.

Initiated as a Wangal man, Bennelong was about 24 yrs old when the First Fleet arrived. After being kidnapped by Governor Phillip so he could learn Aboriginal customs, Bennelong became an interpreter and cultural mediator. It was Bennelong who taught Governor Phillip the names of various points and coves around the harbour, which led Phillip to change the name Rose Hill back to Parramatta. With Yemmerrawann, he accompanied Governor Phillip to England in 1792 and was there for many months. On his return, he retreated back to the company of his own people, living among them as a respected elder.

Bennelong died on 3 January, 1813 –  200 years ago. He is buried on the estate of James Squire at Kissing Point. Bennelong Point, where the Sydney Opera House stands, is named after him. He is to be remembered alongside Pemulwuy in a public art installation by Aboriginal curator Djon Mundine at Circular Quay. Titled The Song of Bennelong and Pemulwuy, the artwork will to act as a permanent acknowledgement of Sydney’s Aboriginal heritage.

Tune in again next week to hear Lisa share another tantalising tale from Sydney’s history.

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