Keith Vincent Smith
Whaling began in Australia in 1791 when ships of the ‘Third Fleet’ landed their stores and convict cargo in Sydney and set out for the ‘fisheries’. They were seeking toothed sperm whales for spermaceti and whale oil, used to fuel the world’s lamps and make candles and soap, and toothless baleen whales for whalebone.
Whaling ships battled stormy seas, howling winds and extremes of temperature. Their crews endured long periods away from their families. The work was hard and dirty.
In the 1820s two adventurous Aboriginal brothers (babana) from a group living at Gunamatta Bay in Port Hacking (Deeban or Jiboon) south of Sydney enlisted in English ships sailing from Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) searching for whales, the largest sea mammals.
The older brother, variously named as Balkabra, Bulgabra or Bolgobrough, was recognised as the ‘chief’ or headman of Botany Bay. His name might be derived from Bulgo or Bulga, a large hill near Otford, south of Wattamolla, New South Wales. George Thornton (Sydney Mail, 4 April 1896) said Bulga was the Aboriginal word for ‘mountain’.
‘Bulgabraa’ first went to sea with Boatswain (Boatswain Maroot), Jem and Tommy on the brig Mercury which sailed on 1 March 1822 to ‘the sperm whale fishery’. The four Aboriginal crewmen were described as ‘Black Natives inserted in Ship at an [1/120] share’.
Bolgobrough’s young brother, Bugerygoory, adopted the name of the whaling ship, William and Ann. Over time his name was corrupted to Willamannan, Willhamannan, William and finally William Menan or Munnan.
The 156-ton capacity Mercury, built at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and registered in London, sailed again for the whaling grounds off New Zealand in late October 1822. The Aboriginal men in the crew were Boatswain Maroot, Tommy, Bulgabra and his younger brother ‘William’ .
This is the first record of Aboriginal brothers as shipmates.
The Sydney Gazette of 11 October 1822 reported:
On Friday last arrived, the brig Mercury, Captain John Edwards. She left this port on 22nd of February, and has procured 30 tons of oil. In a heavy gale, on the Sunday previous, her main-tops mast was carried away.
On 6 August 1823 ‘Bulgabra’ and Boatswain, described as ‘Aborigines’, were again mustered for a whaling voyage aboard the Mercury.
Bolgobrough was noted as ‘Chief of Botany Bay’ in Colonial Secretary Return of Aboriginal Natives blanket lists held in State Archives and Records New South Wales. Bugerygoory or Willamannan, told George Augustus Robinson that Bolgobrough had been chief of the Koonamatta (Gunamatta) tribe at Port Hacking in 1827.
John Connell, a Sydney merchant, farmed the site at Kurnell on the south shore of Botany Bay near where James Cook landed from HM Bark Endeavour in 1770. From 1821 his town house was located on the corner of what is now Pitt Street and Martin Place, Sydney. Connell’s 520-acre grant included an extensive shoreline to Gunamatta and Burraneer Bays at Port Hacking.
Connell sent a request to Captain William Dumaresq, brother-in-law of Captain Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales from December 1825 until October 1831. The text read:
To Cap.t Dumaresq
The Bearer Bolgobrough is Chief of Botany Bay. Williamanann is his Brother and Generally Reside at the South Side of Botany bay, They & their tribe are Come to Sydney for his Excellency General Darlings Benevolent Donation of Blankets &c. for the Ensuing Winter——
I know them for Many Years
Connell wrote the date on his letter as 30 April, but omitted the year. It might have been 1829, when the following Colonial Secretary Return of Aboriginal Natives (Blanket lists) document was recorded in the name of Bolgobrough.
Note re the issue of blankets to Aborigines at Illawarra and Botany Bay
8 April 
The undermentioned Blacks are now here [Sydney] and say they do not belong to the Sydney Tribe. The number of Blankets which they appear to have had last year is noted.
Thomas Tamara 4 men 3 women 1 child
Bolgobrough Chief of Botany Bay 3 men 2 women 1 child
Charcoal Will Chief of Bulli 3 men 2 women 1 child
On 21 April 1829 Bolgobrough ‘Chief of Botany Bay’ (and his family) received blankets at Illawarra (Wollongong).
Bolgobrough probably camped in the Government Domain when in Sydney, where he received blankets from 1833 to 1836. The artist Charles Rodius placed ‘Balkabra Chief of Botany’ in his composite watercolour with ‘Biddy Salamander of the Broken Bay Tribe’ and ‘Gooseberry Queen of Bungaree’, painted about 1834.
A portrait of ‘Bulkabra Chief of Botane’ [sic] in the British Museum, London is dated 1834. That year the members of Bolgobrough’s ‘tribe’, then in Sydney, were listed as Maria (his wife), ‘Nanga (old), Mary, Johnny and Bobby’. In 1835 Bolgobrough’s age was estimated at 40.
Charles Rodius sketched Bulkabra’s wife Maria or ‘Mrs. Bulkabra’ in 1834, probably at the Sydney Domain. She received blankets at Botany Bay in 1833 and in Sydney from 1833-36 and is called ‘Queen Maria’ in the 1836 blanket issue. An Aboriginal woman named Maria died in Sydney on 1 August 1852 from natural causes.
On Thursday 16 April 1835, the Sydney Herald reported the death of ‘Bulgabru’.
An Aboriginal chief named Bulgabru, well known amongst the old hands in all parts of the colony, paid the debt of nature on the banks of the Hunter a few days ago.
There is a disturbing sequel to Bolgobrough’s life in an article titled ‘Relics of Aboriginals’, printed in the Sydney Morning Herald of Wednesday 10 February 1904 when a workman at Gunamatta Bay ‘unearthed a large quantity of human bones’.
Upon proceeding to the locality the Senior constable found jaw bones, skulls, etc, and is of opinion that the spot is an old aboriginal camp, as there are carvings on the rock, and other indications of an early settlement of blacks.
Bolgobrough or Balkabra’s brother, the adventurous Willamannan, later called William and William Minam, Menan or Munnan, went to sea on several sealing and whaling voyages on English ships.
In 1832 ‘William’, whose Aboriginal name was Bugerygoory, gave some details of his life story to the ‘Aboriginal Protector’ George Augustus Robinson. This is a remarkable document and a rare example of a first person statement from the lips of an Aboriginal man or woman.
I am a Native of New Holland near to Botany Bay (called Port Egan) Native Name Bugerygoory alias William – Name of the Tribe “Koonametta Chiefs Name “Boolgobra” in 1827 – I was young when I left my Tribe, I am now about 25 years old. I had been employed in a Whaling Ship, on my return I joined the blacks, after some time I joined a Sealing vessel out of Sydney and remained sealing about 5 Years, during which time I could not get any money, but was supplied occasionally with Spirits in lieu thereof – At the expiration of the first twelvemonth I wished to return but had not the means, the vessel never having returned – The greater part of the time we lived on Kangaroo – In March 1832 we were taken off Saddle Island near to Kangaroo Island by a vessel from Launceston belonging to Mr. [Jonathan] Griffiths we were quite destitute of Clothing – There were three White Men & one New Zealander beside myself – the latter named Thomas – the Whitemen named – Bill Dutton, Tom Stack, a native of Sydney – and Hugh Scott also a native of Sydney.
George Augustus Robinson Papers, 22 June 1832
Vol. 35, MS A7056/CY Reel 1470, p. 205,
Mitchell Library, Sydney
Courtesy State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
You can hear some of the words spoken by ‘William’ in the State Library of New South Wales video recorded for the MARI NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys exhibition in 2010, online at
The convict transport William and Ann, a ship chartered for the Third Fleet and owned by Samuel Enderby & Sons, put into Port Jackson on Sunday 28 August 1791, bringing 180 male convicts, some soldiers and provisions. The ship’s master was Eber Bunker, an American from Plymouth, Massachussets, who later settled at The Rocks in Sydney.
After unloading her unwilling cargo, William and Ann left Sydney in December 1791, becoming the first English ship to hunt for whales in New Zealand waters. Bunker returned to Sydney after capturing one whale. The Aboriginal youth adopted the name Willimannan from the ship. Governor John Hunter (in David Collins vol. 11 1802: 41) said the name had been ‘corrupted by their pronunciation’.
Willamannan was involved in an extraordinary round of ritual revenge battles, often standing against volleys of spears armed only with a narrow parrying shield. These battles were recorded by Judge Advocate David Collins in his Account of the Convict Colony in NSW, published in London in 1798 and later items in the official government journal The Sydney Gazette.
In 1797 Willamannan was treated by a surgeon after a fight outside the Military Barracks in George Street (Wynyard Station) in which he was speared in the back. His brother Bolgobrough stood to defend him and was wounded.
As he lay upon the ground, several of his opponents treacherously rushed in upon him, and stabbed him repeatedly with a pointed stick, which they call a Doo-ul. In this situation he endeavoured to cover himself with his shield, on which, having risen from the ground, and being again attacked, he received their spears for some time with great dexterity, until some one, less brave and more treacherous than the rest, took a station unobserved on one side, and launched a spear, which went into his back and there remained. Seeing this, they were proceeding a second time to rush in upon him, when he had just strength enough left to make his escape into an adjoining house, where he received shelter, and from the severity of his wounds immediately fainted.
The spear was withdrawn, and his wounds dressed, by one of the surgeons who happened to be present; and in a few days he was able to walk about again. His brother, who had accompanied him to the field of battle, stood up in his defence, and was wounded in the leg and thigh.
The principal sufferer in this affair was well known in the settlement by the name of William and Ann (corrupted by their pronunciation to Wil-lam-an-nan) which he had adopted from a ship of the same name that arrived here in the year 1791.
Several of their women attended upon this occasion, and, as is common with them, howled and cried alternately during the most of the time; but when they were enraged, which often happened, they danced, and beat their sides with their arms; a certain proof of their passions being wrought up to the highest pitch.
[John Hunter in David Collins vol.II, 1802]
In October 1804 ‘the lady of the celebrated Wilhamanan’ (his wife) was abducted and hidden. His reaction when he found her was to thrust a spear though her body. The false report of her death triggered a fierce payback combat which began on the new stone bridge over the Tank Stream (now Bridge Street) and progressed to the shores of Warrane (Sydney Cove) at Dubuwagulye (Bennelong Point), where it continued for several hours.
[Sydney Gazette 21 October 1804]
In another payback in late December 1804 Aboriginal men ‘assembled at Farm Cove for the purpose of inflicting punishment on the heroic Wilhamannnan; who after avoiding an immense number of spears, received one at length in the hand, through his shield…’
[Sydney Gazette 23 December 1804]
‘… the ship was very little,
and the sea grew so very big’
The Raven, a 14 ton sloop, usually carried grain from the Hawkesbury River and cedar and coal from Newcastle to Sydney, but put to sea seeking seals for fur and oil in September 1805. One crew member, ‘the well known Wilhamanan offered himself a Native Volunteer’ and signed an indenture, but ‘found means to get on shore, and was with extreme difficulty persuaded to re-embark’.
[Sydney Gazette 15 September 1805]
Taking his name from the whaling ship William and Ann had not made Willamannan a good sailor. A few weeks later, on 4 October 1805, he paid an unexpected visit to the Sydney owners of the Raven, Captain Thomas Reibey and Edward Wills. When asked ‘Is the vessel lost?’ he replied ‘Yes! And every body gone!’ After a while, Willamannan confessed that he had deserted the vessel at Jervis Bay, because ‘the ship was very little, and the sea grew so very big’.
[Sydney Gazette 6 October 1805]
Back in Sydney, a ‘desperate conflict’ took place near the Military Barracks between warriors from Broken Bay and those ‘living between Sydney and Botany Bay’, in other words the Gameygal. Spears flew and a New South Wales Corpsman in the crowd of European spectators was speared in the foot ‘which penetrated to some depth’. The Sydney Gazette reported in its inimitable style:
The conflict which was truly spirited while it lasted, was provoked by the conduct of Wilhamanan, no less remarkable to his countrymen for his manly courage and prowess than for his perfidious manners; who attempted to force away the wife of a native from Broken Bay; in which attempt he eventually succeeded …
[Sydney Gazette 2 February 1806]
Due to a lack of interest in these Aboriginal battles, which they dubbed ‘Native Amusements’, plus a severe shortage of paper, the Sydney Gazette was reduced to two or three pages per issue and the ritual combats in the streets of Sydney were not reported for some years after 1806.
When the Russian voyagers under Captain Fabian Bellingshausen made their camp at Kirribilli on Sydney’s north shore in 1820, they met a ‘New Hollander’ who they though was called Burra Burra. He took them to see his shelter where his family was gathered around a fire. This was Willamannan, whose name they recorded as Burra burra vilam miny when sketched by the Russian artist Pavel Mikhailov. In Russian ‘v’ is pronounced as ‘w’, making the literal translation ‘William Miny’. Burra Burra complained that the sketch did not show him in his ‘full attire’. Picking up a small stick, he thrust it through the slit in his nose, so that it would be included in the portrait. After that, he asked the Russians for clothing.
[Keith Vincent Smith, King Bungaree, 1992, page 106]
In 1802 the French naturalist François Péron tested the strength of an Aboriginal man in Sydney on a device called a Dynamometer. Péron wrote his name as Bourra-Bourra and remarked:
Age 27-30. Observations. Short, stocky, many hairs on his body.
If Burra Burra was indeed another name for Willamannan, this is an indication that he was born about 1775. If so, he would have been about 16 years old in 1791 when the William and Ann berthed in Sydney Cove and might have taken the ship’s name at his initiation.
By 1828 Willamannan was known as William Munnan or Munan and about 37 years old. That year he was named by the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld as the brutal killer of an Aboriginal woman from Broken Bay in the Government Domain. A copy of the evidence Threlkeld sent to the London Missionary Society is in the Bonwick Transcripts, BT Box 53, page 1789, in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Threlkeld wrote:
The Blacks have much and speedy communication one with another from different parts of the Colony, even when the dialects are supposed so much to differ as to prevent conversation, and their messengers, always armed, painted red adorned often with down in their hair, communicate with speed to the different tribes. Some whales having lately been cast on the beach induced our tribe to visit them, a day’s journey, and partake with others of the bountiful feast. Here they met a Black messenger from Sydney, to collect the Blacks to punish a Murderer; his tale was this. A black woman, the messenger’s own wife, was intoxicated, and close to the bathing house on the Government Domain, Sydney; a black named William Munnan, cut her mouth, from ear to ear, split her head with a tomahawk, and then, with other blacks, jumped upon her body, until they supposed she was dead; her husband took her, in the black’s boat, to Broken Bay, where she expired, and buried her at Pitt Water.
Boongaree, the chief of the Sydney Tribe, ordered him to collect all the Blacks he could, and come and punish the man. The dead woman’s daughter, a little girl, urged revenge, and some of every tribe will, at some favourable opportunity, have blood for blood. —
According to the Sydney Gazette (25 July 1828) ‘Williminan’, described as ‘an intelligent black’, helped police to track down the bushranger John Haydon, alias Dublin Jack, at Port Hacking, in his own Country. The Gazette continued:
Yesterday at 4 o’clock, John Haydon, alias Big, or Dublin Jack, was conveyed prisoner into Sydney, by the overseer at Mr. Connell’s farm, at Botany, to whom he gave himself up on the same morning. He had been in the bush upwards of ten months. A few days since he had a serious contest with the native black, Williminan, who fell in alone with him in the bush, and inflicted some severe wounds in his head, in the attempt to capture him.
After this ‘Williminan’ continued as a tracker and an honorary police constable. The Sydney Gazette (6 August 1828) reported:
The native black, “Williminan,” whose intelligent and peculiar tact at tracking in the bush, has been found so serviceable to the constables in seeking out the haunts of bushrangers, has become a sort of honorary member of the police establishment. A suit of slops, of the best description have been served out to him, of his appearance in which he is not a little proud.
VAN DIEMEN’S LAND
William or Willamannan, by his own account – his testimony to George Augustus Robinson above – went to sea again, sailing to Launceston in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where he worked as a whaler and then as a sealer for five years on Kangaroo Island for William Dutton, owner of the schooner Henry, which berthed at Launceston on 26 November 1833.
The painstaking historian and editor NJB (‘Noel’) Plomley wrote in Friendly Mission : the Tasmanian journals and papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834, (1966, page 472) that early in 1832 William was brought by [Jonathan] Griffiths’ schooner to Launceston, where he joined Batman’s ‘Sydney natives’. Two pages later Plomley states bluntly: ‘William was dumped in Launceston in March 1832.’
While not employed by the government, William joined Robinson’s ‘roving parties’ in his ‘Friendly Mission’, aimed at rounding up the remaining Palawa (Tasmanian Aborigines) on the island. He was given food and clothes but no pay. Robinson left Launceston for Cape Grimm on 4 April 1832, accompanied by his son George and Owyhee or Black Joe, his Polynesian servant from Hawaii, with three of the so-called ‘Sydney natives’ employed by John Batman. By 22 April they were in the Hampshire Hills and went on with Robinson to Cape Grim.
We know that William or Willamannan’s feet were larger than average. He attached himself to Anthony Cotterell, a special constable, who wrote in an undated letter to Robinson from the ‘Depot for the Aborigines, West Hunter Island’:
I send two pairs of the largest shoes I have, which I am afraid will be too small for William.
William was ‘roving’ with Robinson, Truganini and her husband Woorraddy for nine months . He was apparently sent back to Sydney from Hobart about January 1833. Robinson had written to Governor Charles Arthur on 1 December 1832, asking that ‘a Sydney native’ (William) be given £7. ‘This individual is far superior to any of the other New Hollanders and has on several occasions been very useful.’
[Plomley 1966, page 801, note 3]
Back in Sydney ‘William Manen’, said to be from Broken Bay, received blankets in 1836.
The portrait of William Minam by an unknown artist shows a well-built Indigenous man wearing European ‘slop’ (government issue) clothing, who has lost his right arm. Surgeons Robertson, Neilson and Stuart amputated the arm of ‘William Annam’ at the Colonial Hospital in Sydney in June 1838.
In May 1838 William Roberts of Hunter Street, Sydney, ‘called a medical gentleman… to attend a poor aboriginal native labouring under extensive disease of the arm and fore-arm, which in all probability require to be amputated’. Roberts offered to pay for the operation, which was done by Mr. Surgeon James Stewart, a surgeon based on the ship Minerva at the Quarantine Station near Manly and John Neilson. Neilson was a surgeon and druggist in Lower George Street at The Rocks. Charles Smith, a butcher in George Street, Sydney, paid for the operation.
The weekly journal The Colonist (6 June 1838) noted that William had ‘so far recovered since his operation as to be able to call on Surgeon Neilson and thank him for his kind and assiduous attendance on him during his suffering and confinement’. The Reverend Ralph Mansfield, previously a Wesleyan missionary and later editor, publisher and printer of the Sydney Gazette was at that time editor of The Colonist.
George Augustus Robinson met Mansfield in Sydney and wrote in his journal for 31 October 1838 [Plomley, Weep in Silence, 1987, page 600]:
Whilst with Mr. Mansfield the black with one arm came to me and conversed in so rational and sensible a manner that Mr. Mansfield was astonished and said that he was in every respect an Englishman in his manner and language.
William Annam, Menan, Minam, Munnen or Manen, previously called Bugeerygrory or Willamannan (after adopting the name of the ship William and Ann), died from exposure at the racecourse at Hyde Park on Wednesday 29 May 1844. His death certificate V1844315 146/1844 records his given name simply as ‘William’ and his surname as ‘Unknown’.
Hearing of the death of an Indigenous man, a reporter from the The Australian newspaper (1 June 1844) asked a group of Aboriginal people outside the Market buildings in George Street for his name, ‘but although they willingly supplied every circumstance attending the melancholy event, they … evaded the decided question’. They would not say his name, in keeping with the Aboriginal tradition that the name of a recently dead person should not be spoken, adding that they were ‘afraid to mention the name of a dead black-fellow’.
The Sydney Morning Herald (3 June 1844) reported the inquest into his death.
Inquests—On Friday evening last, two inquests were held in Le Burns public-house, one on the body of an aborigine named William Menam, who had been found dead in Hyde Park on Wednesday Morning. It appeared from the medical testimony of Mr. Surgeon Russell that death had been the consequence of exposure to cold while in a state of intoxication. Verdict—Death from natural causes, accelerated by intemperance.
A writer in the Sydney Dispatch newspaper blamed the death of ‘Menan’ on bad handling by the police.
We cannot make mention of this circumstance, without expressing a severe censure on the conduct of Inspector Higgins, and Constable McKone, who took Menan from the door of a public house in Elizabeth or Castlereagh Street, helplessly drunk, and contented themselves with putting him inside the palings of the Race Course, there to die from cold and intemperance.
In a life of about 53 years Bugerygrory, who became Willamannan and William Menan, was a sailor, sealer, whaler, tracker, alleged murderer, ‘native constable’ and a rover in Van Diemen’s Land for the inaptly named ‘Conciliator’ George Augustus Robinson.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020