Anthony Roberts, Minister for Planning and Housing, announced on Sunday 18 November 2018 that the New South Wales Government has purchased the property thought to be the burial place of Woollarawaree Bennelong.
In time it will become a public memorial site dedicated to the Wangal leader.
Desmond Lee Madden from the Bennelong Putney committee said a new committee will now be set up to determine the next step for the site, at 25 Watson Street, Putney, a Sydney suburb fronting the Parramatta River. ‘Once finished the memorial will be open to the public’, he added.
Flanked by Gadigal elders Allan and Charles Madden, Mr. Roberts made his announcement at Bennelong Point, where Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales built Bennelong a brick hut. He told reporters:
Two hundred years it’s taken for a government and the community to say, we need to recognise where Bennelong the great leader and indeed ambassador was laid to rest.
Two Indigenous men were captured at Gayimay (Manly Cove) on the north side of Sydney Harbour in late November 1789. One was Colebee, a Gadigal, and the other Woollarawarre Bennelong, a Wangal from the Parramatta River near Homebush Bay.
Bennelong (c1764-1813) had spent the first 25 years of life in his own culture but quickly learned to speak simple English and happily divulged information about his people and their language.
He formed a close attachment to Governor Arthur Phillip, who had ordered his capture and who, after his escape, persuaded him to ‘come in’ peacefully to the English Colony at Sydney in October 1790. Bennelong exchanged his favourite name Woollarawarre with Phillip and called him biyanga (‘father’) and himself durung (‘son’).
Governor Phillip built Bennelong a brick hut at Dubuwagulye on the eastern point of Warrane (Sydney Cove), now Bennelong Point.
Today on the point of land named for Bennelong the vaulted roof shells of Sydney’s Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, float up like billowing sails against the blue sky, with the glittering waters on three sides and the green Botanic Gardens on the fourth. It is the most famous landmark of the city that grew up around Sydney Harbour.
When Phillip returned to England on the transport ship Atlantic in December 1792, he took with him Bennelong and his young kinsman Yemmerrawanne, who sadly died and was buried at Eltham, Kent, in 1794.
Bennelong returned to Sydney with Governor John Hunter on HMS Reliance in 1795 but often left the settlement and from about1800 was the leader of a 100-strong clan on the Parramatta River west of Ryde. He resumed his active role in Aboriginal life, taking part in payback battles and officiating at an initiation ceremony.
A photograph of James Squire’s property taken about 1900, now in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, is said to show ‘The known grave site of Bennelong’. A librarian noted on the reverse of a copy of this photograph: ‘Very near the right hand corner was the “black man’s grave” a slightly raised mound covered with old bricks made in Squire’s time, in which were the bodies of White [Nanbarry], Bennelong and his wife.’
Bennelong died on Sunday, 3 January 1813 in the Country of the Wallumedegal (Snapper clan). He was buried in the orchard of his friend, the brewer and innkeeper James Squire, at Walumetta, afterwards called Kissing Point and now Putney.
Two more First Australians lie buried in the same grave as Bennelong: Nanbarry, nephew of the Gadigal leader Colebee, who died on 12 August 1821 and Bennelong’s last wife, thought to be Boorong, a young girl brought into Sydney in 1789 suffering from smallpox, who was cured by Surgeon John White.
In his review of Peter Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales (1827), in The Australian Quarterly Journal of Theology, Literature and Science (Sydney 1828, page 137), the Reverend Charles Wilton, minister of the Parish of the Field of Mars, wrote:
He [Bennelong, the Native Chief] lies interred, between his wife and another Chief [Nanbarry] amidst the orange trees of the garden.
I wrote in Wallumedegal: An Aboriginal history of Ryde, published by the City of Ryde in 2005;
The site of Bennelong’s grave was found again in 1927, but its position was not properly marked or recorded. Charles Watson, a descendant of James Squire, was told by his mother about a ‘black man’s grave’ underneath a tennis court behind Squire’s house, which in 1947 adjoined Lars Halvorsen & Sons boatsheds, covering five acres of the former Squire property, including the brewery and the old wharf.
John Earnshaw, who visited the site with Watson and historian T. D. Much in 1927, recalled in 1970 that the grave was ‘part of a suburban allotment on the north-west corner of the intersection of Watson and Hordern Streets, Putney’.
[Earnshaw was quoted by Eric Russell in Lane Cove 1790, page 34]
This spot ‘in the vicinity of the old Watson Home’ was accepted as the burial place by A.W. Stacey, editor of A Basic History of Ryde (1981, page 3).
In March 2011 Dr Peter Mitchell’s identification of Bennelong’s likely gravesite (the house at Putney) sparked a series of newspaper and Internet articles. Interest was sharpened on the 200th anniversary of Bennelong’s death on 3 January 2013.
The name of Bennelong, his life story and the legends about him seem just as powerful as they were two centuries ago.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018