Bennelong the interlocutor

Bennelong is arguably the most important Aboriginal character in the events surrounding the colonising of this country. He is a truly inspiring figure, worthy of wider acknowledgement and recognition.

What is remarkable is that Bennelong was the first Aboriginal person who learned to use the English language and effectively served as an interlocutor (the unofficial spokesman for the Aboriginal culture) in the early days of the colony. Bennelong would have spoken a form of pidgin English, a hybrid mode of language with no mother tongue.

This is an engraving made by James Neagle in England in 1798. It features an oval portrait of Bennelong wearing a ruffled shirt, waistcoat and frockcoat. A number of Indigenous Australian weapons are depicted in a formal arrangement behind the portrait; these include two shields, a woomera (spear thrower), a hafted axe and various types of spears. 

This is an engraving made by James Neagle in England in 1798. It features an oval portrait of Bennelong wearing a ruffled shirt, waistcoat and frockcoat. A number of Indigenous Australian weapons are depicted in a formal arrangement behind the portrait; these include two shields, a woomera (spear thrower), a hafted axe and various types of spears. 

A member of the Wangal clan of the Eora nation, Woollarawarre Bennelong’s first contact with the British came when he was kidnapped in 1789. His kidnap was part of Arthur Philip’s plan to learn about Aboriginal language and customs. He spent six months as a prisoner before escaping.

Bennelong resided for a time on the point that bears his name where the Opera House now stands, in a 1.1 metre squared brick hut. History also records that he befriended Governor Philip and made the six month journey back to England with him in 1792, returning to his country in 1795 with Governor Hunter.

Re-united with his clan, but rejected by his wife, he was later wounded in tribal battles and became lost, a cultural outsider, his spirit broken. Bennelong died in 1813 aged 49.

 

The Sydney Thunderbird

Sydney’s Thunderbird totem

For over 50 years a five metre totem pole has stood in Sydney’s Victoria Park opposite the University of Sydney. The cedar pole was a gift from the people of Canada, carved by Salish First Nations people who live on Cowichan Bay in British Columbia.

This is a thunderbird totem depicting whale, bear and the Chieftan’s mask. A totem pole is essentially a vertical narrative, describing life stories, ceremonial events, family legends, spiritual symbols and the super-natural. The totem pole preserves culture as an enduring symbol of the past. This unique form of story- telling almost didn't survive the colonisation of Canada, as the process of assimilation discouraged the carving practices. There is an interesting parallel between totem poles and the posts that stand outside Marae (learning houses – social spaces) of the Maori in New Zealand. The totem pole delivers a message about culture, family values and history. This particular pole is a memorial symbol celebrating timber week in 1964.