Keith Vincent Smith 2020
Mr Waterhouse endeavouring to break the spear after Govr Phillips was wounded by Wil-le-me-ring where the Whale was cast on shore at Manly Cove, 1790
‘Port Jackson Painter’
Watling Drawing – no 24
Natural History Museum, London
7 September 1790.
As Bennelong began to introduce him to the governor, Willemering, the Garigal garadji (clever man) from Broken Bay, north of Sydney, stepped back suddenly and hurled a spear with great force. The wooden barb struck the governor’s right shoulder near the collarbone and came out 8 centimetres lower, close to his backbone.
Lured by the gift of garuma (blubber) sent by his former captive Bennelong, Governor Arthur Phillip was rowed from South Head to meet him at Kayeemy (Manly Cove), where some 200 Aboriginal people were feasting on the carcass of a stranded whale.
In retrospect this seems appropriate, because, following orders from Phillip, Lieutenant William Bradley and his boat crew from HMS Sirius had lured Bennelong (a Wangal from the Parramatta River) and Colebee, (a Gadigal from eastern Sydney Harbour) by holding up two large fish when they seized and captured them at Manly on 25 November 1789.
In Dancing with Strangers (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2003), Inga Clendinnen characterised the spearing as ‘an iconic moment in Australian history’, referring to the ‘slim wooden spearhead which pierced the governor’s flesh’. Adam Hochschild in his review of her book in The New York Times (4 July 2005), put it bluntly as ‘throwing a wooden spear right through his body.
In ‘Notes on Sources’, (Dancing with Strangers, 2003:303), Clendinnen writes:
‘Consider also Keith Vincent Smith’s interesting hypothesis in his Bennelong: The Coming In of the Eora … While Smith constructs his narrative of the spearing from discordant sources, he recognises that the spearing was masterminded by Baneelon [Bennelong], arguing that the motive was a personal payback.’
James Boyce in Inga Clendinnen Selected Writings, La Trobe University Press, 2021, has a different reading, claiming that:
‘A celebrated example of Clendinnen’s unrivalled ethnographic skill was the new interpretation she gave to one of the best-known incidents of this period, the spearing of Governor Arthur Phillip at Manly Cove. The paradoxical fact that violence led to a degree of rapprochement is explained by the possibility that it was intended to be a ritual punishment of the governor, in which he would endure “a single spear-throw in penance for his and his people’s many offences’. I covered these two points in Bennelong (2001).
In his acclaimed biography Governor Arthur Phillip: Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy (hardie grant Melbourne 2013) Michael Pembroke interrogates the spearing of Phillip and what he characterises as Bennelong’s ‘pre-mediated act of retribution’. Pembroke, a writer, historian, naturalist and former Supreme Court judge , writes:
‘The shaft of the spear was not less than twelve feet long. Its head was a single wooden barb without any jagged bone or broken oyster shell fixed to it. Bennelong was in the throng and may have been responsible for what occurred. For it was he who laid the spear in front of the assailant, pointing to him and calling his name. The assailant was between twenty and 30 yards from where Phillip stood. With considerable dexterity, he flicked the spear upwards with his foot, fixed it to his throwing stick and threw it violently towards Phillip.’
Dr. Grace Karskens in The Colony: A history of early Sydney (Allen & Unwin, 2009) observed:
‘Reading ethnographically, W.E.H. Stanner, Keith Vincent Smith and Inga Clendinnen make sense of the spearing from the Eora perspective. They argue that what Phillip underwent was ritual punishment for his crime—as the Eora saw them—and perhaps also for the crimes of his people.’
W.E.H. Stanner, author of the classic analysis ‘White Man got no Dreaming: The history of Indifference Thus Begins’ ( ABC Radio Boyer Lectures, 1979:184), was the first to question the deeper motives for the attack, which early historians had regarded as ‘simply the act of a frightened man’, which he considered improbable. One possible grievance that might have been expressed, Stanner suggested, was ‘by Bennelong, his relatives and friends’.
‘Perhaps, Stanner continued, ‘Phillip’s worst mistake was to shout words intended to mean ‘bad! bad!’, which was more an accusation than an appeal or warning. And had he stood still, instead of advancing, Wileemarin might not have thrown. To his credit, he allowed no retaliation, and harboured no resentment.’
Writing in 1989 anthropologist Isabel McBryde in Guests of the Governor (1989:15) suspected power plays ‘within the local Aboriginal society involving interaction with the European community’. A closer anthropological analysis, she thought, ‘could well be rewarding’.
‘What really happened at the whale feast?’ I asked – and replied (Chapter 8 in Bennelong, 2001:58) :
Looking at the historical evidence, it becomes clear from a close reading of [Henry] Waterhouse’s eyewitness account that Bennelong was the mastermind behind this violation. Bennelong chose the time and place by asking Phillip to come to see him at Manly Cove. Bennelong and Colby [Colebee] directed the movements of the armed men who encircled Phillip. Bennelong handled the unusually long barbed wooden spear (which he refused to give to Phillip) and put it on the ground. This was the spear that Willemering picked up and threw at Phillip.
… A spear wound would be sufficient to satisfy Bennelong’s grievances. Atonement was necessary before he could resume a friendly dialogue once more with Phillip.
After many years of studying historical ritual revenge combats in the Sydney area after its occupation I have come to realise that the outcome of such paybacks was to ‘restore the order of the Aboriginal world’.
In hindsight there is no puzzle that Bennelong and Phillip together brought about the peaceful ‘coming in’ of the Eora to mingle with the new occupants of their Country.
A RUSTY KNIFE
Nobody would have known better than Arthur Phillip that the spearhead that pierced through his body was barbed and made of wood. He is quoted in the third person narrative of his section in John Hunter’s An historical journal of the transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island … London, 1793:462 as saying:
‘In the course of this interview, they had stopped near a spear which was lying on the grass, and which Bannelong took up; it was longer than common, and appeared to be a very curious one, being barbed and pointed with hard wood …’
In 1998, Christies, the London auction house, offered for sale a metal blade, 7 cm long and 0.6 cm wide, with an accompanying label (‘in late nineteenth-century hand’) reading: ‘Spearhead – taken out of Govr. Phillips shoulder by Captain Henry Waterhouse – NSW’
In the same lot was a 14-page notebook, which included Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse’s description of the incident in which Governor Arthur Phillip was speared at Manly Cove in September 1790. The Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, purchased the notebook, while the spearhead was sold to a private collector, or collectors. Its custodians are now Louise and Rob Waterhouse of the Waterhouse horse racing family.
The item, described as a ‘Metal blade used as a spear head’, was displayed in 2006 in the State Library of New South Wales exhibition Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney, 1790-1850. As co-curator, with Anthony Bourke, I wrote the following caption:
This was diplomatic. I knew that this metal blade could not have been removed from Phillip’s shoulder because it was never there. The spear that struck the governor had a wooden shaft and a barbed wooden point, as Henry Waterhouse and other eyewitnesses stated, which was removed from Phillip’s shoulder by Surgeon William Balmain. Principal surgeon John White had left Manly that morning in a hunting party bound for Broken Bay.
The auctioned blade is consistent with the description of a ‘short spear that had been pointed with a knife’ which Phillip exchanged with the Burramattagal (Parramatta clan) elder Maugoran in return for an iron hatchet and some fish at Kirribilli on 17 September 1790.
‘Governor Phillip was so well recovered of his wound, as to be able to go on a boat on the 17th, to the place where Bannelong and his wife then resided: he found nine natives on the spot, who informed him that Bannelong was out fishing; the native girl [Boorong] was in the boat, and her father being among the natives, a hatchet and some fish were given him; in return for which he gave the governor a short spear that had been pointed with a knife, which the natives now used when they could procure one, in preference to the shell.’
[Arthur Phillip in John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island … John Stockdale, London, 1793:467]
By using a knife blade as the point of a spear, Maugoran had incorporated an English artefact into an Eora one, which he now returned. There were other similar spears, because Phillip said that Aboriginal men liked to use a knife to point their spears ‘when they could procure one, in preference to the shell’.
Both Bennelong and Colebee had been given English knives at the Manly Cove whale feast in September 1790. As the Eora often exchanged weapons and other goods among themselves, it is likely that one of these knives was used by Maugoran to make the hybrid spear.
In his prize-winning work Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers (Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 2007:43), South Australian curator and historian Philip Jones writes: ‘The historian Keith Smith has interpreted the spearing as ‘a ritual punishment against Governor Arthur Phillip, instigated and organised by Bennelong as a payback for his abduction and capture in 1789.’
At the whale feast Bennelong constantly asked to be given English metal hatchets. Jones makes a case that the spearing was caused by the fact that Phillip did not have any hatchets with him.
Maugoran’s metal spearhead, writes Jones, ‘had the form of a European bone-handled dinner-knife blade, with a narrow tang providing an ideal means of hafting into a wooden spear-shaft. ‘ He notes that ‘a Waterhouse descendant’ paid ‘more than $AU170,000 (greatly exceeding the estimate of $AU20-30,000) to acquire the relic.’ [Source: Christies Exploration and Travel Catalogue, 8 April 1998, lot 132, p.117-119, Christie’s, London]
In What Are The Odds: The Bill Waterhouse Story (Knopf-Random House, North Sydney, 2009:473), the late William Stanley (‘Bill’) Waterhouse, a former barrister and controversal racing bookmaker, who claimed descent from Henry Waterhouse, stated that he and his family had ‘ … tracked down and acquired Henry’s [‘Henry Waterhouse’s] journal, featuring his description of Captain Phillip’s spearing, along with the original spearhead, which turned out to be a simple penknife blade.’ Bill Waterhouse died in November 2019 aged 97.
So Maugoran’s ‘simple penknife blade’ – which did not wound Governor Arthur Phillip – made its return journey to Sydney.
When Christie’s auctioned a handwritten letter from Henry Waterhouse to Lord Sydney, dated 20 August 1797, Bill Waterhouse’s daughter Louise and her husband Guenther Raedler flew to London to obtain the manuscript at a cost of £23,000 [‘Odds’ 474].
Between 2011 and 2013, the metal blade was exhibited in the Landmarks Gallery at the National Museum of Australia and featured on the internet in a link to the Museum Game with the misleading caption ‘Spearhead – taken out of Govr. Phillips shoulder by Capt. Henry Waterhouse – NSW’. The image had been removed from the Internet by 1 October 2013.
Tracing the provenance of these and several other images and manuscripts now in Australian libraries has been interesting – even leading to a connection with the President of the Royal Society in London, Sir Joseph Banks.
The vendors who put these historical items up for sale at Christie’s were members of the Pownall family, whose connection to William and Henry Waterhouse dates to 13 June 1816, when John George Henry Pownall (1792-1880) married Amelia Sophia Waterhouse in Bloomsbury.
Spring Grove House, Isleworth
JG Pownall, usually called Henry, was a magistrate and later chairman of the Middlesex Quarter Sessions. Amelia was the daughter and ultimate heir of William Waterhouse, a page to Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland. Amelia’s wealthy cousin Mrs. Anne Fish owned the two homes in which the Pownalls lived, at 63 Russell Square, Bloomsbury and Spring Grove House, Isleworth near Heston in the Borough of Hounslow, which she bequeathed to Henry Pownall on her death in 1834.
Henry Waterhouse’s sister Amelia, third daughter of William Waterhouse, died in 1860 and was buried in Heston. In 1861 Henry was living at 63 Russell Square. He died there on 8 April 1880 and was buried in Heston with his wife.
Spring Grove, not far from Kew Gardens, had been the country estate of Sir Joseph Banks, who leased it from 1779 from Elisha Biscoe Jnr, before obtaining the freehold for £6000 in 1806. In March 1779 Banks, aged 36, married Dorothea Hugessen, a wealthy heiress aged 21. He developed a splendid garden over 49 acres (19.8 hectares) and raised Spanish merino sheep at Spring Grove, where he died in June 1820 and was buried at St. Leonard’s Church, Heston.
Lady Banks inherited the property, which she left on her death in 1828 to her nephew Sir Edward Knatchbull, who sold it to Mrs. Fish, also a widow.
Though obviously drawn by an amateur, the tiny portrait of ‘Banalong’ deftly captures Bennelong’s rather serious likeness in simple ink and wash. He is clean-shaven and wearing his new tailored frock coat, ruffled shirt, neck stock (a kind of cravat) and spotted waistcoat. It can therefore be dated to May 1793 when he first received these clothes in London. It was acquired by the State Library of New South Wales in 1964 from JGG Pownall.
The sketch, drawn from life, is the prototype of the familiar engraving of Ben-nil-long [Bennelong] by James Neagle, first published in David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798), from which some following images of him were derived.
Under the drawing, in the bottom right-hand corner, we see the slightly smudged signature ‘WW’, confirming that the artist was William Waterhouse. A handwritten note on the reverse states (wrongly) that Bennelong was brought from New South Wales by Henry Waterhouse and Governor John Hunter, when, in fact, these two naval officers took Bennelong back to Sydney from England aboard HMS Reliance in 1795.
The little drawing of ‘Banalong’ and the unsigned profile silhouette of ‘Yuremany’ (Yemmerrawanne) were preserved by the Pownall family for more than a century with Henry Waterhouse’s letters to his father William. It is fascinating to think that these treasures might have been stored at some period in Banks’s former country retreat.
I mention the spearing of Governor Phillip while talking about Bennelong’s life with Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio in 2017. Catch it online at
Henry Waterhouse was a witness when his eldest sister Elizabeth Waterhouse married his shipmate on HMS Reliance, surgeon and navigator George Bass, on 8 October 1800 at St. James’s Piccadilly. Bass became the owner of the 140-ton brig Venus, which sailed from Portsmouth on 9 January 1801.
After a trading voyage to Tahiti, the ship returned to Port Jackson with a cargo of pork and salt. Bass sailed again from Sydney on 5 February 1803, this time bound for Chile, then a Spanish possession, for salt meat and live cattle for the New South Wales colony.
Neither Bass, nor the Venus, were ever seen again.
Henry Pownall, who had married Henry Waterhouse’s sister Amelia, took an active part in the search for his missing brother-in-law, aged 32 when he disappeared.
Among a number of papers in the possession of Mr. Pownall, solicitor, of Russell Square, London, is the following statement, also printed in Historical Records of New South Wales, Volume 111, Hunter 1796-1799, F.M. Bladen (ed.), Charles Potter, Government Printer, Sydney, 1895:312-333 from a manuscript ‘in possession of the Honourable P. G. King’.
“London, May 10th, 1811.
In or about the year 1803, a brig named the Harrington, Captain William Campbell, master, arrived at Port Jackson from the coast of Peru, and brought intelligence that the Venus had been taken by the Spaniards that Mr. G. Bass and Mr. Scott, mate, had, together with the crew, been sent either to the mines or further inland. A Spanish gentleman with whom Captain Campbell was trading told him that Mr. Bass was taken when landing in his boat, and that the vessel was seized afterwards. Captain Campbell had been to Quito, to Valparaiso, and to Valdivia; but it is uncertain at which of those places the affair happened.”
Endorsed upon the back of the foregoing statement is the following memorandum in another hand:—
“Lieut’t Fitzmaurice was at Valparaiso and St. Jago de Chili in the months of September and October, 1808, and at Lima from November following till April of the next year. The whole of the British prisoners remaining in the Vice-Royalties of Peru and Chili, and the Provinces of Conception, were released, and sent to Europe.
“If such a person had been taken at Valdivia, he would have been sent to one of the abovementioned places.
“A person of the name of Bass, as well as I can recollect, I heard of being in Lima, five or six years before I went there.
The following letter, the original of which is in the Record Office in London, throws some light on the probable fate of this unfortunate navigator:—
“Liverpool, New South Wales, 10th December, 1817.
“I have just heard a report that Mr. Bass is alive yet in South America. A captn. of a vessel belonging to this port, trading among the islands to the east, fell in with a whaler, and the captn. informed he had seen such a person, and described the person of Mr. Bass. The captn. of a vessel out of this port knowing Mr. Bass well, he is of a belief, the description that the master of the whaler gives of him, it’s certainly Mr. Bass—being a doctor too—which is still a stronger reason.
I am, &c., THOS. MOORE.
See K.M. Bowden, Bass, George (1771-1803) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Ernest Scott, ‘The fate of George Bass’ in The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N., Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1914: 145-156.
Keith Vincent Smith, ‘A few words from William Dawes and Charles Bass’, National Library of Australia News No. 9, June 2008, reprinted in Language on this blog.
In The Letters of George & Elizabeth Bass (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2009), Miriam Estensen lays bare through their personal letters the heartbreaking agony Elizabeth Bass (nee Waterhouse) suffers when her husband of three months disappears.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2022