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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

Woollarawarre Bennelong was the first Aboriginal man to visit Europe and return. He was born on the south shore of the Parramatta River around 1764. In late November 1789, Governor Arthur Phillip had orders from King George III to use “every possible means” to open dialogue with the natives. Since none had ventured into Sydney Cove, he resorted to abduction. Bennelong was about 25 years old when he was taken from Manly Cove and rowed across to Sydney Cove.

At the time, Bennelong was described as strongly made, with a “bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke of defiance and revenge”. Within three months he was communicating well with the Governor, but in May he escaped.

Woollarawarre Bennelong

Portrait of Bennelong from A modern and authentic system of universal geography: containing an accurate and entertaining description of Europe, Asia, Africa and America by George Alexander Cooke, 1798.

Image: unknown
© National Library of Australia

In September he was spotted among a group of Aboriginal people at Manly, and one of them wounded Governor Phillip with a spear. The attack was either a misunderstanding or ‘payback’ for Bennelong’s earlier incarceration. But not long after, he appeared in Sydney Cove asking after the governor’s health. Once assured he wouldn’t be detained, he began spending more time there as did other Indigenous people. As Bennelong learned English, he became a go-between and interpreter for the governor, and Phillip had a small house built for him on what is now Bennelong Point.

In December 1792, Bennelong sailed for England with his young friend Yemmerrawanne and Governor Phillip. They were presented to King George III and visited attractions like the Tower of London and museums, and went to the theatre. After a year, Yemerrawanne died of a chest infection and Bennelong became homesick. It wasn’t until September 1795 that he was back in his beloved country after being away for nearly three years.

He maintained his ‘European’ ways for a while but in time returned to traditional life. This didn’t sit well with some, who wrote harshly of his inability to maintain the ‘civilised’ ways. Instead Bennelong chose to live within his own culture, fighting tribal battles and becoming a respected Elder. He died at Kissing Point on 3 January 1813 and was buried there with his last wife, Boorong. Bennelong was remembered as courageous, intelligent, vain and quick-tempered but was said to be good with children and something of a comedian.

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