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‘The ultimate magical figure of resistance’, Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy


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‘The ultimate magical figure of resistance’, Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy

This past week marked 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific, a pioneering expedition marked by the “discovery” of Australia.As reflection on the impact of first contact and subsequent colonisation continues, there have been renewed calls to recognise those at the forefront of Aboriginal resistance.Historians have often argued about its true…

‘The ultimate magical figure of resistance’, Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy

This past week marked 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific, a pioneering expedition marked by the “discovery” of Australia.

As reflection on the impact of first contact and subsequent colonisation continues, there have been renewed calls to recognise those at the forefront of Aboriginal resistance.

Historians have often argued about its true nature and extent but one person who is clearly linked to that resistance is Pemulwuy.

Considered a “clever man” — with supernatural powers — he is a revered figure within the Indigenous community.

An Aboriginal Warrior

Pemulwuy (a Dharug word meaning earth or clay), also known as Pimbloy, was born in about 1750 north of the Georges River, not far from Botany Bay.

Historians have identified Pemulwuy as being part of the Bidjigal clan and Dharug language speaking group.

Pemulwuy was said to be well-built and muscular and he had two distinctive physical features: his left eye had a “speck” or blemish, and one foot was clubbed.

Some believed his clubbed foot indicated his status as a carradhy or “clever man”.

Pemulwuy’s War

Pemulwuy began a valiant campaign against colonisation shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, starting a 12-year guerilla war against the British in 1790.

An artist's impression of Captain Cook's landing at Kurnell in 1770.

An artist’s impression of Captain Cook’s landing at Kurnell on April 29, 1770.(Supplied)

In December 1790, Pemulwuy speared convict and gamekeeper, John McIntyre.

McIntyre was known for killing Aboriginal people and was feared and hated by the Eora.

As a result, Governor Philip King ordered the killing of six Indigenous men from Pemulwuy’s tribe and the capture of two for execution.

Dr Ian Coates, head of the Shared Histories Curatorial Centre at the National Museum of Australia, says from 1792, settlers reported Pemulwuy as leading a series of Aboriginal raids on colonists, mainly to the west of Sydney at Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River.

David Collins, the head of the colony’s system at the time, described him as “a most active enemy to the settlers, plundering them of their property and endangering their personal safety”.

“Raids were made for food, particularly corn, or as ‘payback’ for atrocities: Collins suggested that most of the attacks were the result of the settlers’ ‘own misconduct’, including the kidnapping of Aboriginal children,” Dr Coates said.

A measure of Pemulwuy’s success in raiding settlers can be seen in the Governor’s proclamation outlawing Pemulwuy and offering a reward for his capture or death.

In March 1797, Pemulwuy led a raid of 100 Aboriginal warriors on the Toongabbie government farm.

It’s known as “the battle of Parramatta”.

“A punitive party was formed by soldiers and settlers and they followed Pemulwuy’s group to Parramatta. There they fired on them, killing some and seriously wounding Pemulwuy,” Dr Coates said.

“As a sign of respect for him, the settlers took him to the hospital, where he recovered.”

An untimely death

In May 1801, Governor King issued an order that Aborigines near Parramatta, Georges River and Prospect could be shot on sight.

Later that year, he issued a proclamation outlawing Pemulwuy and offering a reward for his capture or death.

On June 2, 1802, Pemulwuy was shot dead.

Often dubbed “Australia’s oldest murder mystery”, it’s not known who shot the fatal blow.

Pemulwuy’s head was removed from his body and sent to Joseph Banks in London, accompanied by a letter from Governor King, who wrote: “Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.”

“It was placed in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. The whereabouts of Pemulwuy’s head remains unknown, but it is likely that it was disposed of in the 1830s,” Dr Coates said.

Dr Coates said, “for many years Aboriginal people were absent or on the periphery of history of the Sydney colony.”

As Bidjigal elder Vic Simms has said: “It means a lot to us, and me in particular, that at last there’s a true recognition of a true hero in Aboriginal folklore and history.”

Storytelling as resistance

Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival Wesley Enoch is one of Australia’s most respected playwrights.

Wesley Enoch stands smiling in a park with the Sydney Opera House and harbour in the background.

Indigenous director and playwright Wesley Enoch.(ABC News: Antonette Collins)

He admits he has often struggled with the narratives around Captain Cook, British settlement and Aboriginal Australia and how best to communicate these stories to an audience.

He believes they [the stories] have too often been told from the perspective of the coloniser and remains baffled by the angst which is often placed upon highlighting Aboriginal resistance.

“The conversation about us being in this landscape for thousands of years is always seen as a political act and first contact is seen to be the beginning of history, because that’s the colonisers’ view of what history is,” Enoch said.

In 2012, Enoch directed a production titled I AM EORA.

A combination of performance, film, literature and music, the large-scale piece focussed on three central figures in the history of Aboriginal Sydney: the warrior Pemulwuy, the resilient nurturer Barangaroo and the reconciler Bennelong.

Mr Enoch recalls it was the story of Pemulwuy which he was drawn to the most.

Mr Enoch said continuing to tell stories like Pemulwuy’s can be seen as its own form of modern-day resistance.

“Every act of storytelling is resistance because we’re saying that the colonial process did not win, we’re still here.”

Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey and where we’ve been and asks the question: where do we go next?

Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth-telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.

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