Three lives: Part 1 – Bennelong time

bennelongHuman dignity has always played a key role in political action. It is a central tenet of Christianity yet both Protestant England and Catholic France established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. Aboriginal dignity was rated lowest yet is grounded in culture and religion. For two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”

The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.

There was no talk of treaties when James Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong on all three counts. Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and how they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ – Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788, networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left plenty of time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.

Britain’s conquest of Australia was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.

Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong who stayed for five months and became a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape after five months was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to eventually formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to British bewilderment. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.

Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting his wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.

On his return Bennelong fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.

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