Bennelong must have been a very adaptable man. Captured by the British in November 1789 he stayed in captivity, learning the English language and customs and teaching some of his own to the British – an act that seems voluntary as the man captured with him, Colbee, was able to escape almost immediately. In May 1790 Bennelong went back to his people, but returned to the settlement after Governor Phillip was speared at Manly in September – an event that Inga Clendinnen convincingly argues was a ritual spearing, designed to redress the many wrongs that the colonists had committed since settling the area.[i]
Not only was Bennelong willing to change from a life within the only framework that he and his relations had ever known – he was then willing to sail, with Phillip, and Yemmerrawannie, to England. They left Sydney in December 1792. Bennelong was presented to King George III in 1793, and didn’t return to Sydney until 1795, with Governor Hunter. Yemmerrawannie succumbed to respiratory disease in the damp British climate, but Bennelong survived, adopting the new clothes and customs that he found.
It’s hard to imagine a more courageous act than the steps taken by Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie onto the Atlantic, sailing with strangers, on a strange vessel, to a completely unknown land, when only five years earlier their physical world had been defined by what could be walked or travelled in a canoe.
Bennelong was from the Wangal people – most sources say that their territory extended from Goat Island to Auburn and Silverwater, although other sources say it starts further west at Leichhardt. He told the colonists that Goat Island (more tunefully called Me-mel) belonged to him and his family. Judge-Advocate David Collins noted:
… Bennillong, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father’s, and that he should give it to By-gone, his particular friend and companion. To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo feasting and enjoying themselves on it. He told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property, which they retained undisturbed.[ii]
Bennelong’s understanding of ownership would have been very different to ours. Heather Goodall explains it as:
In Aboriginal societies, individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conception and birth sites … Yet despite the specificity of these relationships, they do not allow automatic rights. Instead they confer obligations and responsibilities … It is the fulfilment of one’s obligations, the active embracing of responsibility, which allows a custodian to be accorded the fullest benefits of their landholding role …[iii]
So if you were barred from carrying out your responsibilities, by a fence or a gun, you would lose your whole heritage.
[ii]An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins, Appendix 1X. http://gutenberg.net.au/first-fleet.html