Time Out Sydney

The Wangal tribesman captured by Arthur Phillip was the first to bridge the gap between indigenous and interloper

Although his home is now the site of the Sydney Opera House, Bennelong's legacy to Sydney is the shadow cast from that other harbour icon. Before JJ Bradfield spanned south and north with 39,000 tons of steel, Bennelong was the bridge between two civilizations, the flux capacitor of the fledgling nation Australia.

Born of the Wangal people who inhabited the beaches and bushland north of Sydney Cove, Bennelong was captured on a fishing forage with his friend Colby at Manly almost two years after the landing of the First Fleet. Bundled into a long boat at the behest of Arthur Phillip, who was under instructions from King George III to "endeavour by every possible mean, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness."

Bennelong, also known as Woollarawarre, Ogultroyee and Vogeltroya, was a cunning warrior. In Governor Phillip's keep, he became a diplomat and a vital conduit in an uneasy marriage between two wildly different tribes, both of whose survival depended on their ability to understand and respect each other's culture if peace were to reign.

That Phillip had to kidnap Bennelong says much both for his tough love of the new land and his adherence to Captain Cook's observation that the Eora may appear "to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans." An earlier kidnappee, Arabanoo, had been 'assimilated' only to succumb to smallpox caught from nursing sick native children to health. He lay buried in Phillip's garden (now the Museum of Sydney) where Bennelong found himself under watch.

Although the conditions of their meeting were under duress, a fast friendship formed between these two noble men. Bennelong taught the white settlers the language and customs of the Sydney tribes and Phillip entranced in return with tales of high sea adventures and cities of stone and glass. Bennelong enjoyed wearing European dress, learning Phillip's mother tongue and feasting with the Fleet's elite. The kinship was cemented when they exchanged names. Phillip became Woollarawarre, Bennelong was christened 'Governor'.

Bennelong's initiative and appetite to bond with settlers was evident in his insistence that his wife Barangaroo deliver their child in Phillip's house, not the colony hospital. Keenly aware the act of giving birth in the Governor's house (which lay in Gadigal territory, a neighbouring clan to the Eora), would forge new land associations and raise his station within the tribe, Bennelong hereafter called Phillip 'beanga' meaning 'father'.

An Eora warrior could have four spears in a soldier in the time it took to fire off one ball from a musket and reload. By December 1790, some 17 Englishmen had been killed or wounded in attacks by Aborigines, but none had been captured or killed in retribution on Phillip's orders, despite he himself being one of the speared when Willemering, in fear for his liberty (or revenging Bennelong's capture), loosed a spear at the Governor in Manly.

Only Bennelong's cool and rapid intervention, convincing Phillip of the attack being a misunderstanding and the Eora of his friend's wisdom and power, averted all-out war. Indeed, it paved the way for the peaceful convergence of the two peoples in October when Bennelong and Phillip brokered a deal whereby the Eora would cease their ambush attacks in return for no longer being captured, manacled or held against their will. From that day forth, Sydney Cove was shared between black and white. Phillip rewarded Bennelong by building him a hut at Tubowgulye, the jewel known to the world today as Bennelong Point.

After five years as governor, Phillip decided to return home and invited Bennelong to join him. They arrived in London to much fanfare, their friendship celebrated as proof that two tribes could become one in the new world. Dressed nattily in ruffled lace shirts and fancy waistcoats, Bennelong learned to box, skate, and smoke. He "ate as elegantly as the Englishmen, bowed, toasted, and paid ladies compliments", even meeting King George III and sitting in on debates in Parliament. Alas, he also took to drinking wine with gusto.

This fondness for firewater led to illness and a homesickness with only one remedy. Bidding Phillip and Europe adieu, Bennelong voyaged home in September 1795 alongside the colony's new governor, Captain Hunter. But at home, his alcoholism consumed him. The once great warrior fell to drunken scuffles and payback battles and was soon shunned by his own tribe and his adopted one. Exiled and desperate, wrestling in the flux between two cultures seemingly doomed never to blend, Bennelong fell into a brewing vat at James Squire's orchard on the Parramatta River and drowned on January 3, 1813.


1764 Born to the Wangal in Sydney

1788 Witnesses First fleet landing in Sydney Cove

1789 Captured at Manly by Governor Phillip's men

1790 Averts all-out war and brokers peace deal for shared custody of Sydney

1791 Gifted a brick hut for his family on Bennelong Point

1792 Journeys to London with Phillip as symbol of the free world

1795 Returns to Sydney, homesick and alcoholic

1813 Dies aged 50. Buried at Kissing Point (now Ryde)

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Updated on 8 Apr 2015.

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