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Portrait of Bennilong, a Native of New Holland

Unknownc.1810

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery

Woollarawarre Bennelong (c. 1764–1813) was a senior man of the Wangal people, whose lands flanked the southern side of the Parramatta River between present-day Darling Harbour and Homebush Bay. In November 1789, he and another man, Colebee, were captured on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, who was under official instruction to establish amicable relations with Aboriginal people and who had resorted to kidnapping when less drastic methods of fostering interaction failed. Colebee soon escaped, but Bennelong – described as ‘of good stature, and stoutly made, with a bold, intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’ – chose to remain with his captors for several months, readily learning English, adopting European ways and exchanging names with Phillip in order to establish a form of kinship with him. Bennelong became a canny intermediary between the two cultures and often successfully manipulated the governor’s favour to his own advantage. The two remained on good terms after the spearing of Phillip at Manly in September 1790 – an incident which some historians believe was a ritual punishment of Phillip for Bennelong’s imprisonment, along with other wrongs. Phillip, for his part, saw much value in the relationship and on his return to England in 1792 took Bennelong and his kinsman, Yemmerrawanne, with him in observance of the curious tradition of introducing Indigenous people into London society. Bennelong returned to Sydney in 1795. After some years, he left the Sydney Cove settlement and became the leader of a group of Aboriginal people living near Kissing Point on the Parramatta River, but was scorned by some members of the white community for choosing to return to his traditional lifestyle. In 1802, when a member of Nicolas Baudin’s expedition suggested that he travel to France, Bennelong asserted that ‘there was no better country than his own and that he did not wish to leave it’. Bennelong spent the latter years of his life at the riverside farm belonging to his friend, the ex-convict brewer, James Squire, and was buried in the garden there on his death in 1813.

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