Bennelong and his hitman

The Sydney Morning Herald Date: 05/04/2001

By Tony Stephens

Bennelong is best remembered for having given his name to the point on Sydney Harbour where the Opera House stands, and for the fact that Governor Arthur Phillip had him kidnapped, dressed him up in the fancy clothes worn by privileged people of the time and presented him to King George III.

Some Aboriginal people recall him as a collaborator, in the pejorative sense. He was probably the first indigenous Australian alcoholic and, in a sense, the first of the stolen generations, although he was 25 when taken away from his people.

Keith Vincent Smith's new book, Bennelong, claims there was much more to Bennelong. Smith questions "the persistent notion that he was a willing collaborator with the invaders of his country" and shows him as "a clever politician" of complex character.

Smith says Bennelong helped lead a determined resistance movement against white settlement, culminating in an unwritten peace "treaty" in 1790. His closeness to Phillip - the governor had a brick hut built for him and had him to dinner at Government House - is explained by Bennelong's playing a complex double game between his people and his abductor. Smith builds a good case.

Whatever the truth, the book demonstrates just how long is the road to reconciliation. Bennelong had tried it with Phillip more than 210 years ago.

H.C. Coombs wrote in a foreword to John Kenny's 1973 book, Bennelong, First Notable Australian, that Bennelong's association with Phillip and the first colonists was "a sombre episode which, with minor variations, has been replayed countless times throughout Australia".

Now Reconciliation Australia is calling for a structured process of national discussion, including a round table forum, to map out the next steps for reconciliation. Reconciliation Australia took up the unfinished business of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation when that body ended its 10-year term in December. Its call came after indigenous leaders voiced disappointment over lack of progress.

Dr Bill Jonas, the Social Justice Commissioner, reported that the Government's practical reconciliation policy had failed. Senator Aden Ridgeway told the UN Human Rights Commission that non-indigenous Australians were keen to embrace reconciliation rhetoric, as long as it didn't require effective action to share resources and political power. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairman ,Geoff Clark, said: "We've had the walks, now we're ready to talk - about a treaty, about real advances."

Arthur Phillip had meant well. He was a product of the Age of Reason, touched by Rousseau and notions about the noble savage. He wanted to learn Bennelong's language and customs and use his knowledge. Settlers had stolen Aboriginal canoes, weapons and fishing spears. Aborigines had retaliated by killing white stragglers, and stealing food and equipment. Phillip thought that Bennelong and another kidnapped man, Colbee, could act as peaceful conciliators.

Much of Smith's case rests on his analysis of Phillip's spearing, by Willemering, at Manly in 1790. Isadore Brodsky's 1973 biography said that "Bennelong can be seen to have had no culpable part in this sensational incident". The usual interpretation is that Willemering threw the spear from fear that he might be abducted.

Smith argues, however, that Willemering was a "hitman" and Bennelong the mastermind of an avenging action for his own abduction. He says that "this crucial event in cross-cultural relations" led to the Eora "coming in" to live peacefully in the Sydney settlement.

Smith says this was a triumph for the diplomatic skills of Phillip, who guaranteed that the Eora could come and go without restraint, and for Bennelong, a resistance leader who now promoted reconciliation and co-existence.

Smith wanted to concentrate on Bennelong's positive early life. His book ends with the Aborigine's departure for England, before his tragic decline.

The Sydney Gazette patronisingly reported his death, aged about 49, at Kissing Point in 1813: "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."

  Bennelong, by Keith Vincent Smith, Kangaroo Press, $24.95.


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