When the English came to Australia in January 1788 they were led by an admiral called Arthur Phillip who was, by the standards of his day, both competent and philanthropic. In regards to the local people his instructions were to treat them with goodwill and kindness.

The raw material of Arthur Phillip’s settlement in this unknown land were largely petty criminals from the decaying slums of Georgian England who had been sent to Australia in the hope that they would never be seen again. Like any group of people that have spent most of their lives being kicked around they were quick to identify the one group in the vicinity who were potentially even lower than them on the pecking order, and could thus be victimised- the Aboriginals of the local Iora tribe.

In 1789, in an attempt to quell the cycle of killings and reprisals that soon erupted between the two groups, Arthur Phillip had a pair of young men from the Iora kidnapped in the hope he could use them to learn something about their tribe's language and customs.

This wasn’t the last time in Australian history that this sort of thing would be tried. Many of the poor victims died of shock and disease, while on other occasions they wisely took the first opportunity to make a run for it- what makes this story different is that one of these young Aboriginals, history records his name as Bennelong, went on to live among the whites for the next fourteen years.

Some modern day sources seem to underplay the sadness of Bennelong’s story and see him as some kind of dynamic early day activist for reconciliation between the races. The unvarnished truth, as you might expect, seems a little grimmer.

During his first years in Sydney, it is true, things went not so badly for him. He learnt English, was dressed in western clothes and recognised by all as the governor’s pet project. But Bennelong, bewildered though perhaps not completely displeased by what he saw among the English, had no way of telling that a lot of what must have seemed like friendliness from them was just curiosity.

In 1792, when Phillip was recalled to England, Bennelong went with him. There he was presented to the king and paraded around as a colonial freak.

It was after he returned to Australia, from what must have been a deeply strange and life changing experience, that Bennelong’s troubles began. Finding himself alienated from his own people in the bush he had begun to discover that the whites with whom he had taken up didn’t really accept him either.

Not fully understanding the society in which he had been forced to live, and believing he had some kind of special status in the eyes of the governor, he played, for a while, at being something of a snob, but only managed to get on the wrong side of just about everyone.

As the years went by his drinking became progressively heavier and he ceased to trouble himself with dressing in the gentlemanly finery he had been so fond of earlier, instead becoming contented with slinking about in dishevelled rags. When he finally died in 1813 the Sydney Gazette summarised the lesson of his life as being that the native people of Australia were savages and regardless of the efforts the colonisers might make, always would be.

If you ever go to Sydney and see the famous Opera house on the harbour there it's worth remembering that 200 years ago it was on that exact site that the cottage Arthur Phillip had built for Bennelong used to be.




years of living in Australia and listening to the stories that people tell about the past

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