BUNGAREE: The wrong skull?

Bungaree, late chief of the Broken Bay Tribe, NS Wales,
William Henry Fernyhough, c.1816
Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Sydney

Keith Vincent Smith

After extensive further research I believe that the remains of the famous Broken Bay Aboriginal voyager ‘King’ Bungaree still lie undisturbed in an unmarked wooden coffin at Rose Bay in Sydney, New South Wales, where he was interred in November 1830 next to his first wife Matora.

A notice in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 November 1857 titled ‘Donations to the Australian Museum, during November 1857’ included the ‘skull of “King Bungaree,”’ an aboriginal of New South Wales’.

When I first read this entry in 2010, I immediately assumed that the cranium must have been that of  Bungaree, the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent when he sailed with Matthew Flinders on HMS Investigator in 1802-3.

I was not aware of this ‘donation’ by the Honourable Randolph John Want, a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales and a Trustee of the Australian  Museum, when I wrote my biography ‘King Bungaree’, published in 1992 by Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, New South Wales.

In that book’s Epilogue I quoted the brief obituary from the Gazette of 27 November 1830, which said Bungaree had died at Garden Island and would be ‘interred at Rose Bay, beside the remains of his late Queen’. Bungaree and his first wife Matora were buried together in a wooden coffin from the Sydney Lumber Yard.

At that time a spokesman for the Australian Museum assured me that ‘the Museum has no record of receiving the skull and certainly does not have it in its collection’.

In 2011 I added this note to my contribution to ‘The Story of Bob Waterer and his Family (1803-2010)’, a book edited by Nan Bosler.

If Bungaree’s skull was lodged in the museum in 1857 it would mean that his body had been dug up from the grave in which he was buried 27 years earlier at Rose Bay and decapitated.

I suggested that it was possible that the skull might perhaps be that of Bungaree’s eldest son Bowen Bungaree, who had died in Sydney, aged 56 in 1853, or of his second son Toby (also Joe or  Tobin) who seems to have died in Sydney in 1842.

My story citing ‘King’ Bungaree was picked up in a long article in the Australian Daily Mail, published on 4 March 2019, titled ‘The untold story of King Bungaree’

See: <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6689845/The-untold-story-Aboriginal-explorer-King-Bungaree-mystery-missing-skull.html>

The clues for this reconsideration are in the SMH statement. A close reading of Want’s donation infers that the skull he gave to the Australian Museum was that of John Bungaree, an Aboriginal youth well known in Sydney, but not related to Bungaree.

I believe that John Bungaree’s skull was obtained by Want, who had recently returned to Sydney from the Burnett River area in north-west New South Wales (now in the state of Queensland).

As a child John Bungaree, born about 1829 into the Kamilaroi clan at the Namoi River, was taken from there and fostered by Stephen Coxen.

[See my profile of John Bungaree’s life online at The Dictionary of Sydney:


At the age of 23 John Bungaree joined the Native Police. In January 1854, the year of his death, John Bungaree and two other Native Police troopers were attacked by hostile local Aborigines at Port Curtis, now Gladstone, Queensland. He was severely wounded when hit on the head by nulla nulla.

When he died on 24 July 1854 John Bungaree was buried at Traylon, a police depot on the Burnett River, some six miles north of the present town of Eidsvold. While in the area Want had the opportunity to buy the skull of John Bungaree or to have it unearthed.


Woollahra (sic) House Gatekeepers Lodge, 1871
(Now Rose Bay Police Station)
Journal of the Royal Australian Historic Society, vol 37, part 4, page 220

Skull in a box

Two boys playing on the beach at Rose Bay in Sydney one Saturday afternoon in October 1919 stumbled upon a wooden box half buried in the sand. ‘Inside was a human skull lying face upwards quite discoloured and mouldy with age’, the Evening News (Monday 13 October 1919) reported under the heading ‘Skull in a Box’.

The boys quickly shut the box and ran with it to Rose Bay Police Station.

It was taken to the Morgue, where the Government Medical Officer, Dr. Arthur Palmer, examined the skull and said that in his opinion it was that of an Aboriginal adult.

Several exhibits were stolen from The Australian Museum in Sydney during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Evening News reporter stressed that ‘It is thought that the head may possibly be an old exhibit of some sort, as it appeared to have been packed neatly in the box and was very old and decayed’.

After a diligent search Adam Joseph, known for his active role in the Bennelong Putney Project, which influenced the New South Wales government to acquire Bennelong’s grave site at Kissing Point (now Putney), has obtained the original handwritten pencil report of the boys’ discovery, first lodged at Rose Bay Police Station, ‘Woollahra’ and now in the NSW State Archives.

State Archives Collection (NRS 1788 Registers of Bodies received [Sydney City Coroner] [3/2230]) obtained by Adam Joseph.


This human skull minus the lower jaw was found in a wooden box above high water mark on the beach Rose Bay Woolahra at the rear of D. Herrick Knowles residence about 4.30 PM on the 11th instant by two school boys named Alick Cunningham, “Mungo” Dover Street Rose Bay and Douglas Dunn “Glenora” Spencer Street Rose Bay they took it home and their parents told them to take it to the Police Station at Rose Bay which was done at about 10.30 AM this date 12 Oct.

Mathew O’Reilly, Constable, No. 10 Station.

Dr. Herrick Knowles was a Rose Bay and Macquarie Street medical doctor involved with the Red Cross.

Bungaree, the Broken Bay leader, was buried in 1830 near the present Rose Bay Police Station, originally built as the gatehouse of Daniel Cooper’s later mansion Woollahra House, demolished in 1929. In Smith’s Weekly ‘Bye the Way’ column headed ‘King Boongarie’ on 1 November 1909 a correspondent using the nom-de-plume ‘A.G.F’ wrote:

The finding at Rose Bay (Sydney) recently of the remains of an aborigine enclosed in a box reminds me that in this locality King Boongarie [Bungaree] was buried … The Sydney “Gazette” of 27/11/’30, noting the death of this famous aborigine, says: “He expired on Wednesday last, at Garden Island, and he will be interred at Rose Bay, beside the remains of his late Queen.” It would be singular if the remains recently found were those of Boongarie or his wife.—A.G.F.

As I wrote in King Bungaree (Kangaroo Press, 1992:167):

On the eastern side of Port Jackson below Bellevue Hill, there is a small bay with a narrow sandy beach fringed by a scrappy, untidy park running down a deep slope … The foreshores of Rose Bay are crowded with yachts and boats at anchor. The high bluff of Georges Head can be seen in the distance past Shark Island. Somewhere in this greenery next to the shimmering harbour is the unmarked final resting place of King Bungaree.


Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2022