Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Fig.1: Bennelong was voted the Best Dressed
Australian of 1791.
Moving to a new place is hard, especially when you don't know the customs and habits of your new neighbors (how was I supposed to know that jackhammering the walls at 3am was frowned upon in my apartment building?). It's always nice make a friend who will let you know the good places to eat and the cool things to see and the proper method for removing copperhead venom from an infected wound. This was exactly the role served by a man named Bennelong (fig.1), an Aboriginal Australian who lived on the eventual site of Sydney in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bennelong helped the British colonists better understand the ways of Australia and its inhabitants, allowing for their survival and the formation of a greater trust between the two peoples. He also got a free trip to England out of it as well, educating Europeans to Aboriginal Australian culture and getting a lesson himself as to what exactly is "bangers and mash." While inter-cooperation between the British and Australia's indigenous people did not last, Bennelong remains a revered figure among both cultures within Australian history for being a good friend and neighbor (unlike the old Russian lady in 3C who went at me with her rolling pin).

Born around 1764, Bennelong became a member of the Koori group of Aboriginal Australians, more specifically the Eora people, more specifically the Wangal Clan, more specifically the third hut on the right when you turn onto Parramatta Street. His group was centered on the east coast of the continent, making them lucky enough to not have to live in the Outback and have nothing but a giant rock to worship. Bennelong quickly became one of the more influential members of the clan, and married off his sisters to other clans as a form of networking (thank goodness we have LinkedIn today). He himself married several times, most notably to a woman named Barangaroo, who appears to have more of an influence on him than giving them their cute, alliterative names.

Bennelong might have settled down to live a not-so-original Aboriginal life, but things changed with the arrival of the British to the area in 1787, who soon created the new colony of New South Wales. Governor Arthur Phillip was ordered by King George III to make friends with the indigenous population, but was dismayed when their invitations for a fondue party were returned unanswered. So the British did the next best thing and decided to kidnap a couple of natives; this is what happened to Bennelong and a friend named Colbee after going for a stroll in November 1789. Colbee soon escaped, but Bennelong stuck around, presumably as curious about the British (who are wacky wig-wearing wackos) as they were of him. He and Phillip developed as much of a friendship that two people who have no idea what the other is saying can possibly form. While Bennelong did escape after being held in the British camp for six months, he soon renewed contact with Phillip, sending him texts that he would "ttyl."

Fig.2: Bennelong and Arthur Phillip had the kind of friendship that creepy children's books were written about.
Governor Phillip and Bennelong helped improve relations between the British and the Australian Aboriginals, but it was a little rocky at first. Many of the British colonists wanted to kick the Aboriginals out of their colony, effectively ignoring a 40,000-year "finders keepers" rule. Phillip proclaimed that all Aboriginals must be well-treated; anyone convicted of murdering a native could expect to be hanged, even if they were the ones who stuck their tongues out first. On the other side, Bennelong convinced those in and outside of his clan that the British weren't all bad, despite the reputation of Simon Cowell. It took some time for trust to develop, however; when Bennelong brought Phillip along to meet his folks, a fellow Eora man speared the British governor in the shoulder as payback for the kidnappings. Fortunately the situation was quickly defused, and it eventually became one of those things they could laugh about after a few drinks.

Fig.3: King George III wasn't just 
posing; he really gave this crazy 
stare at people all day.
In 1792, it was decided that Bennelong should be given a dose of English hospitality (although he didn't know what he did wrong to deserve it). Bringing representatives of the native population in English colonies to the motherland had been a long-standing tradition, and includes Pocahontas from Virginia, the lascars from India, Omai from Tahiti, and Hagrid from Giantland. Bennelong and another Aboriginal Australian named Yemmerawanne (whose name barely fit on the visa) arrived in England after a five-month journey on the HMS Atlantic (which still sounds less strenuous than a 22-hour flight). Bennelong took in the sights of London, such as the Tower and St. Paul's Cathedral, and met some influential members of English society, such as Lord Sydney (after whom the city that took over Bennelong's neighborhood would be named). Historians have argued about whether the Australians had a royal audience with King George III (fig.3), who was still going crazy about losing his North American colonies and might have needed a pick me up. The present research indicates that, unlike previous "New World" ambassadors, Bennelong did not meet the monarch, with George always cancelling with excuses like, "Sorry, I'm busy doing laundry," and "My wig doesn't curl itself!"

Yemmerawanne would unfortunately pass away in England due to a bad stomach infection (that food sure banged and mashed him), convincing Bennelong is was time to return home. When he did so in 1795, the Brits hoped his time in the "civilized" world would cultivate Bennelong's character, and gave him an official position in the colonial government, as well as the key to the special restroom. But Bennelong slowly began to retreat back to his old life with the Wangal Clan, and he eventually shunned the British completely as a chief outside of Sydney. The colonists looked down on Bennelong for this decision; when he died in 1813, the New South Wales Advertiser wrote in his obituary:
Bennelong died on Sunday morning last at Kissing Point. Of this veteran champion of the native tribe little favourable can be said. His voyage to, and benevolent treatment in Great Britain produced no change whatever in his manners and inclinations, which were naturally barbarous and ferocious. The principal Officers of Government had for many years endeavoured, by the kindest of usage to wean him from his original habits, and draw him into a relish for civilized life; but every effort was in vain exerted, and for the last few has been little noticed. His propensity to drunkenness was inordinate; and when in that state he was insolent, menacing and overbearing. In fact, he was a thorough savage, not to be warped from the form and character that nature gave him, by all the efforts that mankind could use.
They left out his tenacity to litter and take candy from babies, but I suppose you shouldn't hit a dead man too low. Nonetheless, one really can't fault Bennelong in returning to his previous way of life. After experiencing what Europe and its culture had to offer, he decided that it was best if he went back to what he was comfortable with, and become a leading figure within his own people. Plus the fact that Aboriginal Australians all along the east coast were dying of smallpox and seeing their land slowly ebb away from their control might have convinced him that the British weren't exactly the nicest of blokes (he should have connected with other indigenous populations about his concerns).

Fig.4: It is unclear whether Bennelong would have 
tolerated the racket known as "opera" on his point.
Despite the sourness on display towards the end of his life, Bennelong soon became a renowned figure in Australia. He is arguably the most famous indigenous Australian in history, despite the fact that little outside of Australia have even heard of him (other people have their own native figures to begrudgingly remember, I suppose). But Bennelong's legacy is seen in one of Australia's most famous landmarks, the Sydney Opera House (fig.4), which was built on Bennelong Point, so named for the location of the house in which Bennelong lived as an ambassador. Over two hundred years later, the cooperation exhibited by Bennelong and Governor Arthur Phillip (sans the kidnapping and stabbing thing) continues as Australia's aboriginals and white settlers try to patch up their differences and past oopsie-daisies. It's a story to remember the next time your poor, forgetful neighbor accidentally leaves the bathtub running and floods the entire floor (I still haven't recovered from Mrs. Seleznyov nearly choking me to death with her babushka).

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