Keith Vincent Smith 2017
Mystery surrounds the visit to London in 1814 by an Aboriginal mariner who saw the leading European commanders of the Napoleonic Wars.
He claimed to have talked to ‘King Biukher’, the Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher (1742-1819), who asked him if he was an American. This man often came to the tents pitched by the Russian expedition commanded by Captain Fabian von Bellingshausen at Kirribilli, opposite Sydney Cove, in 1820.
The Broken Bay leader Bungaree introduced him to the Russian astronomer Ivan Mikhailovich Simonov, who recorded the encounter in detail but did not give his name. Professor Glynn Barratt translated the interview with Simonov in The Russians at Port Jackson 1814-1822, published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra in 1981.
This individual spoke English better than the others for he had been in London with Captain Flinders and had lived there for some time. In London, he told me, he had seen the Russian Emperor, the Austrian Emperor, the King of Prussia, King Blücher, and King Platov.
‘Did you talk to them too?’, I asked him.
‘I talked to King Biukher.’
‘What did he say to you?’
‘He said, “Are you an American?” And I said, “Yes, American.” ’
‘And why didn’t you stay there? After all, it’s a lot better there than it is here.’
‘Oh, incomparable better! But I started to miss my people and came back to see them.’
‘So will you go back to London?’
‘They wanted to take me off there, and I was all ready; but just before the ship sailed, I ran into the bush. I suddenly wanted to stay around here some more.’
There is no corroborating account of an Australian Aborigine in England at this period, but it is unlikely that the Sydney voyager could have given these specific names and details of events if he had not been on the spot. This makes Simonov’s story an intriguing puzzle.
In June and July 1814, von Blücher was in London with the Russian Czar Alexander 1 and ‘King Platov’, or Matvei Ivanovich, Count Platov, Atman of the Don Cossacks, at the invitation of the Prince Regent. The Austrian Emperor had sent Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich as his representative. Their captured enemy Napoleon, they all thought, was safely detained on the island of Elba.
The European commanders were feted in London by the Prince Regent (later George 1V). They often appeared to the cheering British public in open carriages and took part in a procession of boats on the Thames and a grand review of troops, to which they were welcomed on 20 June 1814 by Lord Sydney, the appointed ‘Ranger’ of Hyde Park.
Blücher sailed to Dover from Paris on the ship Impregnable on 5 June 1814 and left Britain from Harwich on 11 July. Some of the Allied leaders attended the review of navy ships at Plymouth, the major destination of vessels from New South Wales, on 25 June 1814.
Who was this Aboriginal voyager?
Simonov’s account echoes the experiences of Bennelong in London during 1793-4, but Bennelong had died in 1813.
George Suttor, who looked after Daniel Moowattin, recalled the ‘Jubilee Days’ of 1810-11, when they were both in London. Suttor said that at that time the King of Prussia, Frederick William 111, offered to purchase the reptile collection of Sir Joseph Banks’s botanist George Caley, who took Moowattin to London, but Caley would not allow his collection to leave England. Moowattin returned to Sydney where he died in 1816.
Matthew Flinders, who had been detained by the French in Mauritius from 1803 until 1810, does not mention a visiting Aborigine in his personal journal. Flinders was gravely ill while the anti-Napoleon heroes were in London and died on 19 July 1814.
Nanbarry (c.1780-1821), nephew of the Gadigal headman Colebee, is a possible contender. He learned some English as a boy in Governor Phillip’s house and was treated for smallpox by Surgeon John White, who adopted him. When White returned to Europe, Nanbarry became a sailor on HMS Reliance. He made several trips to Norfolk Island, but his name does not appear on muster rolls of ships bound for Europe.
In 1802 Nanbarry sailed in HMS Investigator with Bungaree and Flinders as far as the Great Barrier Reef, but boarded the Lady Nelson to return to Sydney on 18 October 1802. Nanbarry died at Kissing Point in the City of Ryde on 12 August 1821 and was buried in James Squire’s orchard in the same grave as Bennelong and his wife.
See my entry on Nanbarry online at The Dictionary of Sydney and ‘Nanbarry becomes a sailor’ in my book MARI: NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys, published by Rosenberg Publishing in 2010.
TAKE THE CHALLENGE
To confirm the identity of this mysterious Aboriginal voyager we need to know the names of ships that left Port Jackson to arrive in Dover or Plymouth by early June 1814 and then search the appropriate ship’s musters, logs, and journals or newspaper ‘Claims and Demands’ advertisements for his name.
Let me know how you go – and watch this space.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2017