Pemulwuy, scourge of Sydney

White Australia has a hard time dealing with heroes of the Aboriginal resistance. With no treaty and no way of properly commemorating a century of frontier wars we prefer to forget them. America is far from perfect dealing with its history but at least the likes of Cochise, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Sitting Bull have made it into popular consciousness. But Australian equivalents such as Yagan, Jandamarra, Windradyne and Bussamarai, who fought to save their way of life, remain steadfastly unknown. Most famous of all should be the Sydney warrior Pemulwuy who almost cast the new colony back into the sea. He too remains in the shadows, a fate he has endured since his own lifetime over two hundred years ago. One of his biographers, Eric Willmot, calls it a “conspiracy of silence”.

1803 engraving by Samuel John Neele of James Grant’s image of ‘Pimbloy’, the only known depiction of Pemulwuy (Grant’s original image has been lost).

The more famous way of dealing with the foreign invasion of the First Fleet was that of Bennelong, arguably the first ambassador to colonial Australia. Like all his people Bennelong was concerned by the uninvited newcomers but he tried to act as a bridge between his people and the whites. In the time of first governor Arthur Phillip he had some success. But illness and disease took many of Bennelong’s comrades and when a ship took Phillip and Bennelong to England, the new colonial leaders dished out farms as favours leading to inevitable confrontation with prior owners of the land.

With diplomacy failing, it was time to turn to war and that was the job of Pemulwuy and his supporters. The name Pemulwuy, means “earth” and he was the man of the earth. Pemulwuy lived in the last generation of Indigenous Australians who owned the Sydney area. Born around 1756 he lived for 46 tumultuous years, the last 12 in rebellion, dying at the hands of the British invaders in 1802. Pemulwuy led a rebellion that almost ended the infant colony. Pemulwuy terrorised the colony from 1790 until his death and the war he inspired did not end until his son Tedbury was captured by governor in 1805, three years after his father’s death.

Pemulwuy was a mythical figure to the people of Sydney, black and white. David Collins wrote in 1798 that they believed he had been so frequently wounded in attacks, firearms could not kill him and he led the attack at every turn. But Collins noted too this myth would likely prove fatal in the end. When it did, Governor King sent his head in a jar to England in 1802. King called him a pest to the colony, but also a “brave and independent character”.

Pemulwuy was from the Bidjigal subgroup of either Eora or Dharug and lived further away from the penal colony, so he did not immediately come in contact with the new Sydney experiment in 1788. Though Phillip tried to kidnap Eora and Dharug, first Arabanu then Bennelong and Colby, Pemulwuy remains elusive until 1790. The first mention that year is when Bennelong, then living with the governor, accuses Pemulwuy of killing a missing convict. The British called him a woodsman who ranged from Parramatta to Botany Bay. He was tall and athletic and had a pronounced cast in one eye.

He also hunted meat and provided it to the newly established white colony in exchange for goods. He developed a relationship with Phillip’s gamekeeper John MacIntyre though Pemulwuy eventually fatally speared him after a confrontation between soldiers and Pemulway’s warriors in December 1790.

MacIntyre was a complicated man who also tried to bridge the divide between black and white. He had been well known for his recurrent wounding and killing of natives while competing with them for food. When trespassing on tribal land he also frequently shot and ate totem animals revered as spirit ancestors which was forbidden by Governor Arthur Phillips’ new law. While the Eora may have accepted gifts from him, they were all too aware of the ways he had broken their old laws too.

According to Watkin Tench the 1790 confrontation began when soldiers were surprised by two natives who they thought were about to ambush them. MacIntyre calmed the soldiers down saying he knew the two men. He put his gun down and spoke to them in their language. He walked with them a while before “one of them jumped on a fallen tree and without giving the least warning launched his spear at MacIntyre and lodged it in his left side.” Tench said the attacker was a young man with a blemish in his left eye.

The spear was barbed with small pieces of red stone and MacIntyre suffered a perforated lung and several broken bones taking several agonising weeks to die. Although MacIntyre confessed to depradations against the natives on his deathbed, Phillip was furious at the loss of so valuable a convict, and believing that Pemulwuy had killed or captured 16 others he ordered the reluctant Tench to form a large revenge party to capture and kill Pemulwuy and five of his associates. The posse turned out to be a hopeless failure. Pemulwuy had disappeared into the bush.

Pemulwuy was a “carradhy” or a “clever man” as noted by Colby, another who mediated between the Eora and Phillip. Colby said Pemulwuy’s left foot, which was bruised and dislocated by a club, which indicated his status in the tribe. He was likely seen as a leader who could dispense justice. On adulthood he acquired the name Bembul Wuyan, meaning “the Earth and the Crow” sometimes shortened to Butu Wargun, just “Crow”. They believed that he had the spiritual ability to transform into a crow in an incident later in his life where he was locked up and was able to escape.

After MacIntyre’s death Pemulwuy stepped up his resistance against the British, especially as they began to develop their system of European agriculture. Over the next five years he coordinated attacks against farms and crop fields to weaken the newly established colony almost entirely dependent on maize and wheat and their limited livestock. His hit-and-run tactics quickly diminished the settlers’ supplies and stores.

Pemulwuy sought alliances with other clans of the area including the Dharug and Tharawal people and even accepted two runaway convicts William Knight and Thomas Thrush. It was another convict that almost killed Pemulwuy. John “Black” Caesar was one of 12 prisoners of African origin on the First Fleet, and Australia’s first bushranger. Caesar was part of a work group at Botany Bay in December 1795, when it was attacked by Pemulwuy’s band. Caesar cracked Pemulwuy’s skull in a fight, leading many to think he died, however Pemulwuy managed to escape with a critical injury.

Two years later in 1797, he led a frontal attack of several tribes against the government settlement at Toongabbie. Settlers tracked him to Parramatta, where he was heavily injured with seven pieces of buckshot in his head and body. He was taken to a prison hospital and was unconscious for days while chained to the bed. Nevertheless “the crow” escaped one night adding to his magical unkillable reputation. He defended the lands of Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River, raiding settlers ’ farms and pillaging food and supplies.

Pemulwuy was responsible for the death of 30 colonists and in 1801 a fed up Governor Phillip King issued a reward of 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon for his capture, dead or alive. Despite this incentive, most were too afraid to consider it. Pemulwuy had an unrivalled aura around him that bullets could not harm him, and chains could no longer keep him tied down. John Washington Price marvelled he had now lodged in him “in shots, sluggs (sic) and bullets, about eight or ten ounces of lead.”

While the colonists held a healthy of fear of Pemulwuy, London had no idea of his existence. Those leaders that followed Phillip – Grose, Patterson, Hunter and King – excised his name from all correspondence for fear the colonial office would investigate why there was an insurrection at all. The Rum Corps wanted no interference with their activities. He appears only a handful of times in public records.

As English firepower increased, Pemulwuy’s luck finally ran out on 2 June 1802 and he was killed in one ambush too many. It was likely Henry Hacking, quartermaster of First Fleet flagship the Sirius, who fired the fatal salvo but his death was coming. King had his head cut off and preserved in alcohol and sent it to 1770 hero Sir Joseph Banks who continued his abiding interest in all matters flora and fauna in Australia. Indigenous skulls were very highly prized for research and scientists took samples and attempted to test them.

The whereabouts of Pemulwuy’s skull is unknown today. Prince William pledged in 2010 to help Bidjigal elders return Pemulwuy’s remains as did former minister Christopher Pyne. There were rumours of Pemulwuy’s head being kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. From there, the remains are said to have been moved to the Natural History Museum, however the museum denies this. After his death, he became known as the “Rainbow Warrior” for his ability to unite tribes. His son Tedbury was brave too and continued the war, but he lacked his father’s magical reputation and was imprisoned in 1805 and killed in 1810.

In 2015 an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia honoured Pemulwuy for his impact on Australian history with a plaque was permanently erected bearing his name. NMA director Mathew Trinca said Pemulwuy was a hero to Aboriginal people. “Pemulwuy’s daring leadership impressed enemies and comrades alike and the story of his concerted campaign of resistance against British colonists should be more widely known,” he said. Bidjigal elder Uncle Vic Simms said the exhibition was helping get history right. “Pemulwuy as a Bidjigal man, resisted and rebelled against the settlers and stood up against them when they were giving blackfellas such a hard time,” Simms said.

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