Bennelong’s Contested History

My first foray into the mainstream press was both stimulating and disconcerting.  A version of the article appeared here in The Guardian on 8 July. But my original is pasted below…

Bangarra’s current production Bennelong opened last week, and tells the first contact story of the Aboriginal warrior. It is exquisite, captivating, quick-paced and deeply moving. But it continues the popular vision of Bennelong as a tragic figure in Australian history – a vision that is now contested.

Bennelong served as the main bridge between the Eora and the British during the tumultuous early years of the colony in Sydney, but according to the popular understanding of him, he fell short of either world, ending his days a displaced and ridiculed loner.

The potency of such a vision is undeniable. As it has for various activists over the decades, this perspective provides a way for Bangarra to evoke the immensely difficult position of so many Aboriginal people in Australia over the last 230 years. The performance manages to raise the tragedy of Indigenous objectification into the 19th century – particularly in how Europeans collected their bodies for museum pieces — as well as the disgrace of increased Indigenous incarceration into the 20th century. The great advocate for Indigenous lives, Nugget Coombs, once summarised this vision as a “sombre” one that enabled him and likeminded scholars to see, and to decry, how Bennelong’s “fate … has been replayed countless times throughout Australia”.

But the tragic vision of Bennelong that Bangarra have highlighted emerged from a much harsher interpretation, which started during Bennelong’s own lifetime. After he returned from his two-year stay in Britain in 1795, the Wangal adventurer continued to frequent Government House as he had, on and off, since declaring a truce with Arthur Phillip five years earlier. After another year or two, though, he began to withdraw – a decision that amazed some British officers.

The judge David Collins asserted that to prefer the “rude and dangerous society of his own countrymen” over the bounties of “civilisation” proved that Bennelong was an “insolent and troublesome savage”. That Collins did not connect this choice with what the judge himself admitted was the colony’s descent into “open war” is perhaps more amazing. In its 1813 obituary of Bennelong, the Sydney Gazette nonetheless agreed with Collins that despite the governor’s “kindest of usage”, the former diplomat had remained “barbarous and ferocious”.

Into the modern era, the tone for narrating Bennelong’s life switched from contempt to pity, starting with Eleanor Dark’s influential fictional depiction in her 1941 book The Timeless Land. The pitying version turned the finger of blame away from Bennelong’s character and towards the British intruders. But significantly it did not question the central plot-line handed down from Collins and Co.

As such, Manning Clark wrote in his authoritative History of Australia that Bennelong “disgusted his civilisers and became an exile from his own people … he rushed headlong to his own dissolution as a man without the eye of pity from the former or of affection from the latter.” In 2003, Inga Clendinnen lamented similarly that “at fifty, he fumed his way to an outcast’s grave”.

But did he?

Lately, some historians have questioned the enduring touchstones of Bennelong’s life. Keith Smith, Emma Dortins and I have wondered if some evidence from Bennelong’s later and posthumous years does not reveal a different story. When Bennelong rejected the British colony, he did not wander hopelessly around the harbour heads. He went back to his home region, near today’s Ryde in Sydney. There he lived on land claimed by the brewer James Squire, who personally thought Bennelong was a “king” of about 100 men.

Former colonial friends commented that his body showed ever more scars over the years, believing them signs of increasing decrepitude. They could not see that only the most esteemed men in a community were chosen to withstand the barrage of spears let loose during a ritual grieving ceremony, and therefore that his scars probably indicated respect rather than ruin. Certainly after Bennelong’s own death, a passing-by ship’s captain noted that the funereal ritual for him involved more than 200 spears “flying thick and fast”

Years after his death, the noted Gadigal man Nanbarry requested burial alongside Bennelong at today’s Kissing Point, despite belonging to a different Aboriginal group. As Keith Smith has written, “there could be no greater mark of respect”. In 1821, the minister Samuel Leigh showed a portrait of Bennelong to the remaining Wangal around Ryde. Their response was poignant. “IT IS BENNELONG!” they cried. “He it is! Bennelong! He was our brother and our friend.”

These pieces of evidence have been harder for historians to access, especially against the towering authority of the First Fleeters’ journals, neatly edited and bound in all good libraries. They do, however, offer some alternatives to the questions posed so painfully in the middle of Bangarra’s recent show. “Resistor? Or Collaborator?” the voiceover asks, as Bennelong’s descendants dance their contemporary dilemma. The choice seems impossible, and never-ending.

But what other futures might appear for indigenous people if we could see and utilise a different or additional Bennelong? A Thanks-but-no-thanker? A returned-but-versatile-adapter? An Insister on the complete revision of indigenous history from the sources up?

A complicated, distinguished, and beloved leader?


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