Chapter Twenty-One


IN LATE JULY 1790, the Lady Juliana was due to sail for China and home via Norfolk Island, and ship's steward Nicol faced being immediately separated from Sarah Whitelam, his convict woman, and the child they shared. Amidst his grief at separation, Nicol had time to observe impressionistically the high fertility of New South Wales's convict women and attribute it to the sweet tea herb Smilax glyciphylla. “There was an old female convict, her hair quite grey with age, her face shrivelled, who was suckling a child she had borne in the colony…. Her fecundity was ascribed to the sweet tea.” It had been a busy time for Nicol: “I saw but little of the colony, as my time was fully occupied in my duties as steward, and any moments I could spare I gave them to Sarah. The days flew on eagles' wings, for we dreaded the hour of separation which at length arrived.” Marines and soldiers were sent around Sydney Cove to bring the love-struck crew of the Lady Juliana from the township on board. “I offered to lose my wages, but we were short of hands … the captain could not spare a man and requested the aid of the governor. I thus was forced to leave Sarah, but we exchanged faith. She promised to remain true, and I promised to return when her time expired and bring her to England.” He wanted to stow her away, but the convicts were strictly guarded by the marines, and repeated searches were made of departing ships.

As Lady Juliana made ready to leave, a leviathan came to Port Jackson, a huge sperm whale which entered and became embayed within the harbour on its yearly migration from Antarctica to Hawaii. Some boat crews from the various transports went trying to hunt it, and threw harpoons its way without success. Then on a July morning it rose from the harbour deeps to smash a punt occupied by three marines and a midship-man from the look-out station on South Head. “In vain they thro' out their hats, the bags of our provisions, and the fish they had caught, in hopes to satisfy him or turn his attention. Twice the whale rose out of the deep buffeting the punt with its back.” Only one marine survived, swimming ashore to Rose Bay.

By late August, however, the whale, still trapped in the harbour, ran itself aground at Manly. The beaching of a whale was a significant event for the Eora, who gathered together on the beach from various clan areas to participate in the great meat and blubber feast. They used the sharpened shell on their woomeras, spear-throwers, to cut the whale flesh.

In the middle of the Eora whale-meat feast at Manly, an expeditionary party from Sydney Cove landed there. It included Surgeon John White; Captain Nicholas Nepean; the governor's shooter, John McEntire; and White's young native companion, Nanbaree. They planned to head north overland for Broken Bay to hunt. The feasters, cooking blubber and flesh at their fires, scattered at the first sight of the party, but Nanbaree got up in the boat and reassured them. Bennelong and Colby stepped down the beach to meet the group. Other natives followed. The Europeans thought Bennelong was much changed, was “so greatly emaciated, and so far disfigured by a long beard.” Colby proudly showed them that he had got rid of the iron shackle from his leg. Bennelong asked whether the visitors could provide a hatchet, which would be very helpful in speeding up the butchering of the dead whale, but Surgeon White said there were no hatchets. He gave him a shirt, and when Bennelong seemed awkward in putting it on, Surgeon White directed McEntire, the Irish huntsman, to help him. But Bennelong forbade McEntire to come near, “eyeing him ferociously and with every mark of horror and resentment.” To the Aboriginals, McEntire was one of Phillip's chief avatars of malice.

Nonetheless, Bennelong kept enquiring after Phillip, and expressing a desire to see the governor, with whom, after all, he had exchanged names. At Bennelong's request, White fetched him a pair of clippers, and Bennelong began to trim himself. Looking at the women who would not come any closer, White asked Bennelong which was his old favourite, Barangaroo, “of whom you used to speak so often? ”

“Oh,” said he, as later set down in elevated English by Tench, “she has become the wife of Colby! But I've got Bul-la Mur-ee Dinnin (two large women) to compensate for her loss.” White observed Bennelong bore two new wounds, one in the arm from a spear and the other a large scar over his left eye.

As the boat that was carrying the expeditioners was leaving to land them in another inlet, the natives crowded up with lumps of blubber for the governor, but by the standards of the Europeans, the meat was already putrescent. Bennelong insisted just the same on putting in a specially large piece as a gift to Phillip. The gift was not ironic. It was intended to get Phillip there, to Manly, to the great festival of the whale.

On the return to Sydney Cove with the lump of putrid whale meat, the party told the coxswain to let the governor know Bennelong was looking for him. Phillip was engaged in discussing with Bloodworth and Harry Brewer the building of a pillar on South Head to serve as a direction-finder for ships at sea. The governor could be impetuous in rearranging his affairs to accommodate the natives, but then their relationship to him was high on his agenda. Now he gathered together all the weaponry immediately available—four muskets and a pistol—and set out in his boat to meet Bennelong. He was accompanied by Captain Collins and Lieutenant Waterhouse of the navy.

On landing, Phillip found the natives “still busily employed around the whale.” He advanced alone, with just one unarmed seaman for support, and called for Bennelong, who was mysteriously slow in approaching. Collins and Waterhouse also landed, and given that Bennelong had a special liking for Collins, the native along with Colby now came forward. Bennelong was delighted to see his old acquaintances “and asked after every person he'd known in Sydney, among others the French cook and servant from whom he'd escaped, whom he'd constantly made the butt of his ridicule, by mimicking his voice, gait, and other peculiarities, all of which he again went through with his wanted exactness and drollery.” He asked particularly after a lady of the colony, surely Mrs. Deborah Brooks, Phillip's housekeeper, from whom he had once ventured to snatch a kiss. When he was told she was well, he kissed the fresh-faced Lieutenant Waterhouse, who he obviously thought had a complexion like that of the lady, and laughed uproariously. But when the governor pointed to Bennelong's new wounds, the native became more sombre. He had received them down in the southern bay, Botany Bay, he announced, and he solemnly pointed out their contours to Phillip.

The governor promised to come back in two days with hatchets and tomahawks. He had brought a bottle of wine with him—the servant was carrying it, and on Phillip's order uncorked it and poured a glass, at which Bennelong uttered the toast “The King!” and drank off the wine. During this conference, “the Indians filing off to right and left, so as in some measure to surround them,” Phillip remained calm. Bennelong, wearing by now two jackets, one brought by Phillip and the other by Collins, introduced the governor to a number of the people on the beach, including a “stout, corpulent native,” Willemering. On the ground was a very fine barbed spear “of uncommon size.” The governor asked if he could have it. But Bennelong picked it up and took it away and dropped it near a place where Willemering stood rather separate from the rest. Bennelong brought back another gift for the governor instead, a throwing stick.

Willemering was a wise man, a carradhy, amongst other things a ritual punishment man invited in from the Broken Bay area. He struck the watching Europeans as a frightened man, and he may have been, but he was probably more a tense and intent man, coiled for his task.

For it was time for the governor, who had had the grace to present himself, to be punished for all of it—the fish and game stolen, the presumption of the Britons in camping permanently without permission, the stolen weaponry and nets, the stove-in canoes, the random shooting of natives, the curse of smallpox, the mysterious genital infections of women and then of their men. Phillip was about to pay for all the damage which had befallen the Eora people. There was no malice on anyone's part in this punishment, which explained why Willemering showed all the nervousness and then unexpected decisiveness of a bridegroom. But the scales needed to be adjusted by august blood, and the most august of all was Phillip's. To Bennelong, Colby, and to the visiting punishment man from Broken Bay, Willemering, Phillip needed to pay for his unruly children.

Thinking Willemering was nervous, Phillip gamely advanced towards him, as if begging the spear. Captain Collins and Lieutenant Waterhouse followed close by. Phillip removed his own single weapon, a dirk in his belt, and threw it on the ground. Willemering reacted by lifting the spear upright from the grass with his toes and fitting it in one movement into his throwing stick, and “in an instant darted it at the governor.” In the last moment before the spear was thrown, Phillip thought it was more dangerous to retreat than to advance and cried out to the man, “Werre, Werre!”

Given the force with which the spear was projected, Phillip would later describe the shock of the wound to Tench as similar to a violent blow. The barb went into the governor's right shoulder, just above the collar bone, and ran downwards through his body, coming out his back. Willemering looked at his handiwork long enough to ensure the spear had penetrated, and then he dashed into the woods, with miles to travel to his home ground in the Pittwater–Broken Bay region.

There was instant confusion on both sides. Bennelong and Colby both disappeared, and the party of Europeans retreated as fast as they could, but Phillip's escape was hindered by the fact that he carried in his body, pointing skyward when he was upright, a lance twelve feet long, the butt of it frequently striking the ground as he reeled and further lacerating the wound. “For God's sake, haul out the spear,” Phillip begged Waterhouse, who knew it was potentially fatal to try to draw out the barb and instead tried to break off the spear shaft. Waterhouse, wrongly expecting a massacre, one eye on the advancing natives, struggled to break the thing off close to the wound and at last managed to do so. Another thrown spear from an enthusiastic native struck Waterhouse in the hand as he worked on the shaft. Now spears were flying thickly, as the laity joined in the ritual event.

Phillip was lifted with the point of the spear protruding from his back into his boat and brought across the harbour, bleeding a considerable amount on the way. “The boat had five miles to row before it reached the settlement,” wrote Collins. Indeed it had longer, for the distance was seven miles. “But the people exerting themselves to the utmost, the governor was landed and in his house in something less than two hours.” It was feared in the boat that “the sub-clavian artery” might have been punctured. Since Surgeon White was away from Sydney, his Scots assistant, William Balmain, a quarrelsome man in his mid-twenties, took on the task of extracting the spearhead from Phillip. There, at Government House, on a cot, his blue coat sodden with blood, lay the settlement's pole of stability and awesome reasonableness, without whom all was lost. As Balmain prepared his instruments, the young surgeon earned the joy of Phillip's disciples by declaring the wound non-mortal and by safely extracting the barbed point of the spear. “The governor remains in great agonies, but it is thought he will recover, though at the same time His Excellency is highly scorbutic.” The wound would heal slowly, but it would heal.

This result would not have surprised the blubber-feasting natives of Manly Cove. They knew it was not intended to be a fatal wound: they knew the barb was meant to be extractable, they knew Willemering was an expert at placement, they knew there were no infectious, magic-laden, glued-in fragments of bone and stone designed to stay in the wound and cause ultimate death. But to the Europeans, Phillip's recovery was a matter of rejoicing, at least for those who knew how much the settlement depended upon him. Phillip, no doubt given laudanum for the pain, had time to order that no natives were to be fired on, unless they first were “the aggressors, by throwing spears.” White's hunting party was fetched back by marines with the news of Governor Phillip's wounding. The boat crew sent to retrieve them told the party that Colby and Bennelong had been talking to them and had “pretended highly to disapprove the conduct of the man who had thrown the spear, vowing to execute vengeance upon him.” Was this a token offered to the wounded Phillip? Were the two natives striking attitudes just to please him?

David Collins was sure that the only reason the spear was thrown was fear on the part of the native Willemering that he was about to be seized and taken away. Indeed, Collins thought the spearing would not have happened if only a musket had been taken ashore with Phillip. “The governor has always placed too great a confidence in these people … he had now, however, been taught a lesson which it might be presumed he would never forget.”

In general, no one blamed Bennelong directly for Willemering's gesture. It was accepted that Willemering acted out of personal panic, though the people from Sydney Cove found Bennelong's behaviour typically mystifying. But if the accounts of witnesses, including Lieutenant Waterhouse, are looked at, one sees that Bennelong very clearly showed his new scars, which his adventures and sins had merited, to Phillip as a sign and a reassurance, and that in refusing to give Phillip the spear he asked for, and taking it away and putting it within reach of Willemering's foot, he had shown it possessed another ordained purpose. The forming-up of warriors in a half-circle creates an impression of a conclave of witnesses to a ritual penalty. And with considerable perception, in the end Phillip thought that it was a cultural manifestation, that though Bennelong probably was glad his friend and name-exchanger, the Governor, had survived, there was no doubt that the natives “throw their spears, and take a life in their quarrels, which are very frequent, as readily as the lower class of people in England stripped to box.”

The ritual spearing of Phillip seemed to be a new direction in Eora policy, though to put it in those terms is callous to the reality of the bewilderment of the Eora soul. There had been hope for a time that the visitors would vanish, but the ships had multiplied in number. Some ships had departed, but now a number had taken their place, and the ghosts multiplied both by new shiploads and by human generation. Though on the day of the spearing one convict amongst the victims of the Second Fleet, a man of twenty-four named Samuel Allen, former buckle-maker, former gentleman's gentleman, former drummer to an Irish brigade in the French army, and now a declared silverware thief, was brought from the morgue at the hospital and buried in Sydney's earth, this decrease by death did nothing in numbers to produce a visible crisis in the camp of the whites, or provide a sign that they would be finally borne away and return the coast to its normal state.

Phillip's wound took six weeks to heal, and throughout that time, hoping to use Abaroo and Nanbaree as intermediaries, Phillip still had his men out looking for Bennelong, hoping there would be reconciliation. Several officers went to visit the Eora on the Manly side. Surgeon White and the new commissary, John Palmer, were the ones who at last found Bennelong, for whom a momentous change had come about. He had been joined by his beloved Barangaroo, a spirited woman who had left or been divorced by Colby. Barangaroo already knew that she needed to watch Bennelong very closely, and did so. She did not seem as noticeably pleased as he to know that the governor was well. Bennelong claimed, through the interpretation of the two children, Abaroo and Nanbaree, to have beaten Willemering as a punishment. It might have been the truth, another adjustment of universal order.

The party asked Bennelong to help them arrange a husband for Abaroo, someone who could go to and from the settlement without causing trouble. At once, Bennelong suggested Yemmerrawanne, a slender and handsome youth about sixteen years old. He called the lad out of the people milling nearby. For Yemmerrawanne, this would prove a fatal nomination in the end, but he came forward on being invited, went immediately up to Abaroo, and offered “many brandishments which proved that he had assumed the toga virilis. But Abaroo disclaimed his advances, repeating the name of another person, who we knew was her favourite.” On a return visit later in the day though, Yemmerrawanne pressed his suit “with such warmth and solicitation, as to cause an evident alteration in the sentiments of the lady.”

There was a contest between Abaroo and the older woman Barangaroo, Barangaroo trying to talk Abaroo into rejoining her people, and Abaroo, as a means of validating her choice to live amongst the Europeans, offering Barangaroo a petticoat to wear, which Barangaroo put on but was then mocked out of. “This was the prudery of the wilderness, which her husband joined us to ridicule, and we soon laughed her out of it. The petticoat was dropped with hesitation, and Barangaroo stood ‘armed cap-a-pee in nakedness.’”

Now that the wounding of Arthur Phillip had established the principles of responsibility, Bennelong complained to Tench that his countrymen had lately been plundered of fizgigs, spears, the gift of a sword, and many other articles by some of the convicts and others, and said he would hand back a dirk the governor had dropped during the attack by Willemering. The next day, after a search of the settlement, a party of officers, sailors, and soldiers went down-harbour again with the collected stolen property. Bennelong was not there—he had gone fishing with Barangaroo. Yemmerrawanne came forward and grabbed the sword, which had been an earlier gift to Bennelong, and fought a mock battle with a yellow gum tree, engaging in all the “gestures and vociferations which they use in battle.” He now laid aside the sword and joined the party, “with a countenance which carried in it every mark of youth and good nature.”

Tench saw an old man come forward and claim one of the fizgigs, “singling it from the bundle and taking only his own, and this honesty, within the circle of their society, seemed to characterise them all.” Chancing upon Bennelong, they found he was grateful for the return of the materials, though they still possessed some unclaimed items, one of which was a net of fishing lines, which Barangaroo now took possession of and flung defiantly around her neck. Bennelong did not return the governor's dirk, however, and pretended not to know much about it. Perhaps it was kept for some chant to be sung into it, something to bring wisdom to Phillip, to end the calamity. Watching him imbibe wine they had brought, the officers pressed him to name a day when he would come to Sydney. Bennelong said that the governor must first come and see him, “which we promised should be done.”

When the governor was well, he travelled by boat down-harbour to visit Bennelong, opening his wound-inhibited arms. His apparent willingness to forgive created not always approving comment. But Bennelong was not ready to visit Sydney Cove yet. It was arranged that the natives would light a fire on the north shore of the harbour as a signal for the Europeans to visit them further.

Again Phillip accepted these terms. Certainly Bennelong was the sort of wilful man who delighted in setting tests, but even so he might have still been trying in a way to educate Phillip, who asked to be notified as soon as look-outs saw the signal fire. When it was seen, Phillip and some others set off immediately in their cutters. “We found assembled Baneelon [Bennelong], Barangaroo, and another young woman, and six men, all of whom received us with welcome. They had equipment with them—spears, fish gigs and lines, which they were willing to barter.” Bennelong and his party thus attempted to create the principle on which they would make friends with the settlement. Implements and items in general should be bartered, not plundered. “I had brought with me an old blunted spear, which wanted repair,” wrote Tench. A native took it, carried it to the fire, tore a piece of bone with his teeth from a fizgig and attached it to the spear to be repaired with yellow eucalyptus gum, which had been “rendered flexible by heat.” The meeting was probably considered a success by both parties, but there were major lessons on both sides which remained unlearned.

Another day, when Surgeon White, Watkin Tench, the Reverend Johnson, the native girl Abaroo or Boorong, and a young, educated convict, John Stockdale, ran into Bennelong and Barangaroo on the north side of Port Jackson, they tried to persuade him and three other natives to visit Phillip in Sydney Cove. Barangaroo, more suspicious than the impetuous, vulnerable Bennelong, did not want her husband to go to Sydney with Tench and White. She snatched up one of Bennelong's fishing spears and broke it against rocks in protest at her lover's gullibility.

In the end, the Reverend Johnson, Abaroo, and Stockdale remained with Barangaroo as hostages against a safe return of Bennelong and the other men. The boats and the native canoe tied up on the east side of Sydney Cove at the governor's wharf, and then everyone set off for Phillip's residence. There was a reunion at which Bennelong told Phillip that Willemering was at Broken Bay. Bennelong was delighted to see the governor's orderly sergeant, whom he kissed, and a woman who attended in the kitchen, probably Mrs. Deborah Brooks. But again he snubbed the gamekeeper McEntire. He showed his friends around Government House, explaining what various implements were for. Since the Aboriginals could not pronounce the letter s, Bennelong amused Tench by pointing to a candle-snuffer and saying, “Nuffer for candle.” He demonstrated its use, employing his forefinger in the role of the candle. “Finding that even this sagacious interpretation failed, he threw down the snuffers in a rage, and reproaching their [the other Aboriginals'] stupidity, walked away.” He was more tender-voiced with the children of the settlement who came to see him. At last, he departed and was rowed back to Barangaroo, whom they found sitting by a fire with the Reverend Johnson, making fishhooks.

“From this time our intercourse with the natives,” wrote Tench, “though partially interrupted, was never broken off. We gradually continued, henceforth, to gain knowledge of their customs and policy; the only knowledge that can lead to a just estimate of national character.” But that Bennelong might have been involved in a study of him was something not even generous and perceptive Watkin mentioned.

ASIDE FROM TRIBAL CONFLICTS, it seemed that a sort of compact now existed between the Eora, in the person of Bennelong, and Phillip's invading culture. Bennelong seemed well aware of his status as chief peacemaker, the one with whom above all Phillip wanted reconciliation, and he was not above asking for material rewards for fulfilling that role. He requested a tin shield—he rightly thought it might save him many a wound—and a brick house in Sydney Cove. The mutual gifts of hatchets and spears, and the intermittent arrival and departure of Eora people in Sydney, sealed the deal. Bennelong read the gifts he received from Phillip and others as personal, but also more than that—as acknowledgements of Eora rights in this country and in these waters. The officers failed to see them as equivalent exchanges, and remained half-amused by Bennelong's demands for hatchets. They thought they were giving appeasing gifts to troublesome Aborigines, rather than sealing an informal but important treaty.

A visible sign of the compact was in the making. A brick house was built for Bennelong, as requested, on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, Tubowgulle. Bennelong had chosen the place himself, according to Tench. “Rather to please him, a brick house of twelve feet square was built for his use, and for that of his countrymen as might choose to reside in it, on a point of land fixed upon by himself.” He had got his shield too—it had been double-cased with tin and represented an exponential leap for Eora weaponry. Of Bennelong's new stature with both whites and Eora, Tench observed, “He had lately become a man of so much dignity and consequence, that it was not always easy to obtain his company.” The point chosen by him for his residence had significance—given its position at the head of the cove (where the Sydney Opera House now stands), it could be seen as a symbol of Eora title to the place. It was almost certainly seen that way by Bennelong, and all Barangaroo's warnings went for nothing.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!