A brisk westerly whips up salty whitecaps as the ferry rises and plunges, churns and slices, through a lazy emerald swell, upriver towards Parramatta. It’s midday on a Monday. Two international tourists in sensible hats with day-packs and selfie-sticks have been agitated since I responded that, ‘No, sorry, you’re going the wrong way’ for the harbour bridge and opera house. Otherwise I’ve got the front of the ferry to myself as we cruise under that less famous monument to modernity, Gladesville bridge, the world’s longest single-span concrete arch when it opened in 1964.
The tourists disembark at Chiswick. The young Sydney Ferries bloke says, ‘I told them when they got on—people don’t listen, they just think exactly what they want.’ I gaze across to the bank beyond Cabarita where the biosphere changes from what once would’ve been waterside woodland to extant mangrove.
Silver streaks—leaping fish—are a reminder that the shoals around here were once so abundant the local Wallumdegal even named themselves after the snapper (wallumai) that fed off the long shelves of rock that run into the depths from water’s edge. There’s still plenty of fish—including bull sharks with a taste, it’s said (I think apocryphally), for dog flesh.
I alight at Kissing Point, named, depending on who you believe, because it’s where in the river, at low tide, the keels of the early, heavily laden boats would first kiss the bottom or where the second colonial governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, kissed his wife. I’m headed for the approximate place not far from the ferry pontoon where Bennelong, for more than two decades the most famous Aboriginal man in the colony and England, is supposedly buried.
There is a plaque, a monument to a black man whose true story is still emerging. In a city remarkable for plaques, grand buildings, public spaces and statues dedicated to white European explorers and pioneers who supposedly ‘discovered’ elements of the continental coast and interior, the ‘civilising’ colonial governors and those most of our history books call the ‘settlers’, this is unusual enough to propel me here. Set at the head of a cutting that abuts two anodyne suburban streets that are enlivened by the jacarandas and their blankets of mauve on the clipped lawns beneath, Bennelong’s memorial is as modest as its language now seems dated.
Dedicated by the bicentennial authority in 1988—when First Australians protested in their thousands against the ostentatious 200th birthday celebration of British colonisation—the plaque reads: ‘Bennelong was an Aborigine who befriended the first colonists, lived for a while as Governor Phillip’s guest and visited England where he became the toast of society. Following his death, he was buried hereabouts beside his wife and Nanbaree another Aborigine.’
Notwithstanding its assumptions about guest and host, this defines Woollarawarre Bennelong (his first name derived from the snapper of the Wallumdegal even though his own people, the Wangal, had traditionally lived on the opposite side of the river) by his relationship only to the first colonial governor and his imperial mother. This trope dogged Bennelong in life and has, in death, reverberated through literary, dramatic—and supposedly historical—representations of his time from about 1764 to 1813.
He is cast in the colonisers’ journals, especially towards the end of his life—when he lived at the Kissing Point orchard of convict and brewer James Squire, after his return from England in 1795—as something of an obstreperous drunk, fitting in with neither the whites nor the First People of Sydney Cove (caught between two worlds, as it were). In truth he was the leader of a 100-strong group on traditional Wallumdegal country (most of the original members of that tribe died in the 1789 smallpox epidemic) and was heavily involved in traditional lore—and law—until his death.
Kate Fullagar is one of a number of contemporary historians to afford Bennelong greater complexity and agency than had earlier important Australian historians and writers, not least Manning Clark and Eleanor Dark. Bennelong has become something of a metaphor for the tensions between nature and artifice, instinctive tradition and modernity, divergent Aboriginal and non-Indigenous approaches to nature and cosmology, at the junction of black and white Australia. His purported experiences, his supposed existential dilemma, have been freighted with a corresponding metaphorical prescience for black lives in Australia today. As Fullagar writes:
But what other futures might appear for Indigenous people if we could see and utilise a different or additional version of Bennelong? A ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’-er, perhaps. A returned, but versatile adapter. A complicated, distinguished and beloved leader. An example that insists on the complete revision of Indigenous history, from the sources up.1
Like many monuments dedicated to individuals, this one reflects a moment in time—a pervading cultural view about its subject rather than some intrinsic historical ‘truth’. It was paying lip-service to a complex, familiar Aboriginal identity (his name resounds in a federal electorate and the harbourside point that is plinth for Jørn Utzon’s landmark white-tile sails) in a bicentenary year that trampled on the sensibilities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people challenging the celebration of some fallacious benign ‘settlement’.
Like many statues relating to significant figures who lived in our colonial times, it tells neither a full nor true story about its subject. Its arguable value rests not in the questionable veracity of the words it bestows upon its subject, but in the enquiry, the search for more, it might inspire.
Challenging the accuracy and the value of this particular suburban monument is important to me and to others. But it will never polarise historians, academics, politicians and cultural warriors in quite the same way as has the questioning—and suggested removal of—statues and plaques dedicated to supposedly enlightened colonial figures. Rarely has this been more clearly illustrated than through the experience of Macquarie University academic Bronwyn Carlson.
• • •
To set the scene for what happened to Bronwyn Carlson, it helps to remember that Australian cities, suburbs, regional centres and towns are replete with memorials to (mostly) European men responsible for the murders of countless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the colonial frontier. Some take the form of statues, sculpted in the likeness of their subjects. But they also come as plaques, buildings, streets and public parks. In north Queensland there is even a town called 1770,2 so named to commemorate the second continental landing of James Cook’s Endeavour in May 1770. The previous month Cook landed at Kurnell at the entrance to Botany Bay, and, in the first moment of east coast British contact, had his redcoats shoot at several Gweagal men, wounding at least one, from whom he stole an elaborate shield (it bears a telling hole from a musket round) and several spears that are still held by the British Museum.3
The bad deeds of some leading frontier politicians, administrators and military men have been almost overlooked; many history books—even more modern online popular resources such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography—diminish, attempt to justify or overlook completely their proven excesses against this continent’s Indigenes.
I’ve long argued for an official rethink of some colonial-era and modern statues that make no mention of their subjects’ cruelty to Aboriginal people. I’ve also argued that such people should not have federal or state electorates named in their honour and that roads, parks and other public spaces ought not bear their names unless their misdeeds are also pointed out.4 So, for example, statues and plaques honouring the purported founder of Melbourne, John Batman (a syphilitic fantasist who huckstered a meaningless treaty with the Wurundjeri after participating in Van Diemen’s Land roving party massacres), really ought to point out what he did, while his name should be stripped from the federal electorate that bears it. I’ve argued the same regarding the federal Western Australian electorate of Canning (it was Alfred Canning who chained and fed salt to Aboriginal people so they’d lead him to their wells and oversaw murders while surveying his 1850-kilometre livestock track across the continent’s western deserts), and the Victorian electorate of McMillan, named after pioneering Scot, Angus, who oversaw massacres of the Gippsland custodians such that his descendant, Scottish writer Cal Flyn, was inspired to publish the unpalatable truth about her ancestor in her book Thicker than Water.5 Add to this list the electorates of Forrest and Stirling in Western Australia, for reasons that will become apparent.
Leading Indigenous activists including historian Gary Foley and Tony Birch have for decades been blazing the trail on this nomenclature question, successfully taking on major conservative institutions, not least the University of Melbourne, over its dedication of bricks and mortar to eugenicists, radical assimilationists, the thieves of ancestral remains and other assorted bastards of Australian history. Other bolshie black fellas had, since the early twentieth century, taken great exception to a bronze statue of Cook with his telescope in Sydney’s Hyde Park that bears the inscription ‘Discovered this territory 1770’, on the basis that it denied their existence—as evidenced from that moment of first contact and the shield and spears in the BM—before the captain’s arrival. They were right to object, of course, though so doing in 1874 when the statue was dedicated would have fallen on deaf ears given the colonists believed they were witnessing the extinction of the last Eora and that the continent was (given the absence of ‘civilised’ agriculture and archaeological evidence of monumental buildings) already effectively unsettled in 1770. The Cook statue is a product of its moment 133 years ago. This does not mitigate in favour of its historical value. But it does help to understand it.6
This cannot be said for the statue of Lachlan Macquarie, fifth governor of New South Wales, also in Hyde Park and dedicated on 31 January 2013.7 An inscription associated with the statue reads, ‘He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.’ He was also a murderer—a calculating killer of Aboriginal men, women and children, and an early proponent of the tactic of ‘terror’ against the blacks around Appin, at the foot of the central highlands, whom he regarded as the enemy of his expanding civilisation.
Ordered by Macquarie, the ‘Appin massacre’ happened in April 1816, under the command of Captain James Wallis (remember his name). It was the culmination of violence that began with raids by the local Dharawal people on the crops and livestock of settler farmers who had taken their land. Reprisal attacks from farmers and militias followed.
Many men, women and children, black and white, died. Macquarie’s men, accompanied by Aboriginal trackers, killed many and hung two men and one woman in trees to terrorise the other Indigenous people, before trophying their heads for Edinburgh University. Macquarie instructed Wallis:
On any occasion of seeing or falling in with the Natives, either in Bodies or Singly, they are to be called upon, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compel them to surrender, breaking and destroying the Spears, Clubs and Waddies of all those you take Prisoners. Such natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on Trees in Conspicuous Situations, to Strike the Survivors with the greater terror.
Wallis later recounted:
I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek, the dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs. A smart firing now ensued—it was moonlight the grey dawn of morn appearing, so dark as to be only to discover their figures bounding from rock to rock. I had ordered my men to take as many prisoners as possible and to be careful in sparing and saving the women and children … I regret to say some had been shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. Twas a melancholy but necessary duty I was employed upon. Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions … I detached Lieut Parker with the bodies of Durelle and Kumnabaygal to be hanged on a conspicuous part of a range of hills.
The supposedly enlightened, gentlemanly Macquarie was also the first colonial leader to order the theft of Aboriginal children. He did so to supply his so-called Native Institution in Parramatta, which opened in January 1815—the first practical measure in an enduring assimilationist Australia, whereby black children were often removed from their families so they might be ‘civilised’ in Macquarie’s very image. There are so many chilling postscripts to Macquarie’s reprisal massacre at Appin, of which the calculated theft of children (a precursor to the stolen generations) is but one. He ordered one of his commanders at Appin:
Select and secure that number [12 Aboriginal boys and six girls, aged four to six] of fine healthy good-looking children from the whole of the Native Prisoners of war taken in the course of your operations and direct them to be delivered to … the Native Institution at Parramatta.
At the statue’s dedication, Sydney mayor Clover Moore spoke, according to a press release issued in her name, of Macquarie as a visionary planner (which he was), calling him a hero to her and then NSW governor Marie Bashir. ‘He also was concerned for the welfare of Sydney’s Aboriginal population, establishing the Native Institution and setting aside a “native village” at Elizabeth Bay.’8
This is not a colonial statue. Its dramatic misrepresentation of Macquarie, given all that was already known about his humanitarian failings at the time of its casting, cannot easily be dismissed with claims that it merely reflects the prevailing sentiment of a bygone era. This statue and the words that accompany it could not be justified in 1816, let alone in 2013 or today. It is, arguably, of negligible historical or cultural value.
While Aboriginal people have been challenging the efficacy (privately or otherwise) of various monuments, not least the one in Hyde Park dedicated to Cook, for more than a century, it is testimony to the enduring potency of American cultural imperialism that the issue only caught tabloid-fire in mid 2017 when broadcaster Stan Grant wrote something about the Cook statue that coincided with an unrelated controversy in the United States about Donald Trump’s defence of Confederate statues. Various politicians and commentators said the removal of any statues would be ‘Stalinist’ and an attack on ‘history’. In a long Radio National interview Professor Bronwyn Carlson, head of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, a Dharawal woman from Wollongong, said:
Indigenous people have been calling for the removal of colonial statues that celebrate and remember the genocide and massacres of Indigenous people for a long time. So it’s not a new debate … just something that’s hit the airwaves because of what’s happened in the US.
Most Indigenous people will call for the statues to be removed. I mean it just seems a little odd in a country that … claims to be quite progressive and claims to consider reconciliation with Indigenous people something that’s on the agenda, to have statues that continue to represent those people who are part of genocide in this country.9
• • •
Carlson teaches Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. She urges her students to consider Australian nomenclature and monumental dedication. Specifically, she wants them to examine how an Indigenous person might respond emotionally to experiencing streets, public spaces, buildings, universities (including the one that employs her), statues and plaques, federal and state electorates, that have been dedicated to the mass killers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She has had blowback before, of course. But coming in the middle of this supposedly ‘new’ debate over the ‘statue wars’, her radio interview attracted considerable direct vituperation. This email (unedited) arrived soon after from a student:
I see you are talking shit in the press just like you do in your classes. The way I see it the more capt cook statues we have the better to celebrate the founding of this great nation. And capt cook did discover Aust for the Brit empire. The indigenous peoples didnt discover Aust they just happened to be here. They lived here for 40,000 years as one of the most technologically backward races there ever was, so were incapable of discovering anything. It took a modern advanced nation being the British empire at the height of world exploration to discover Aust which just happened to be inhabited by one of the most backward, technologically illiterate races there ever has been, aboriginals. So please stop trying to ‘black wash’ Australias great history, with this politically correct BS. It does your cause no good what so ever. Captain Cook I salute you, may many more your statues appear hopefully on campus.
Carlson says, with admirable understatement, ‘Teaching Indigenous studies has its perils. Students can be openly aggressive and resistant to being taught by Aboriginal people. We have seen this often. It is interesting that they often prefer a non-Indigenous person.’
There is a live, though still somewhat subterranean, discussion at Carlson’s university, especially in her department, about Macquarie’s name being attached to the institution. There are many Aboriginal students from the tribes around New South Wales who, along with some non-Indigenous people, have difficulty with the university’s name. The more obstreperous critics might, predictably, dismiss these people as politically correct ‘snowflakes’ (the preferred pejorative these days of the identity politics bullyboy enforcers). But Carlson wants her students, black and white, and more Australians generally, to think about the Aboriginal experience of living in a landscape that honours so many killers of their ancestors. She remarked that:
My first instruction that Captain Cook discovered Australia was in 1970 when I was six years old. Throughout my education, I was constantly reminded of Cook’s prowess, as a navigator and as saviour of sorts who brought civilisation. I was also taught that Aboriginal people were the remnants of a prehistorical culture. The implication was that Aboriginal people would not be around in a modern Australia or that we should be grateful to Cook and those who came afterwards for bringing a more ‘superior’ culture to our lands and ‘saving’ us.
Most [Australians] don’t give this a second thought because of the fact [they think] we do not exist (or should not). Wollongong, where I live, has three plaques dedicated to the first attempted landing of Cook. Such is the dedication to the arrival of the British that the second landing town is literally called Seventeen Seventy! Every aspect of our environment is littered with admiration for the ‘founding fathers’ … One of the ongoing problems is that Australians are taught that colonial violence is somewhere in the past—hundreds of years ago—and they cannot stomach the fact that it is recent and ongoing.
Carlson says she believes in the power of education and argument to counter discrimination and ignorance. But it must be a difficult faith to maintain sometimes, given the tenor of some of the other responses to her Radio National interview.
There was this: ‘The Aborigines treated women as possessions, they indulged in cannibalism and other disgusting practices … Nothing [on the ABC] is screened about the kindness shown by the white man. It’s easy to fabricate black history because it is oral and can be twisted to give any version you like. Agree?’ And this (again unedited):
Pull your head in woman … there has not been one thankyou. Thankyou for saving us from the Dutch and French. If they had landed first … there would have been Genocide. Thanks for saving you mob from the Japanese. Thanks for decades of welfare dependency that I work my ass off for in blue collar. Yeah so easily you forget. I am 1/64th … and darker than you. I don’t identify by choice. Because I am ashamed of what you lot have become. A winging crowd that won’t get off their ass. Until Aboriginal people renounce welfare, get out and do what every other hard working Ozzie does, then you will be forever the way you are now. Im sure you all love the freebies you get from the government. If you truely identify then go back to living in a bark humpy and renounce the society you now enjoy so voluptuously nah didn’t think so. I am Australian and part of the greater human race. Grow up from the past. Its in the past. Grow together for the future … best you do a hell of a lot more research on Cook, Macquarie and co before shooting your mouth off.
And this, apparently from another student:
Sick and tired and the nonsense you peddle and try and teach. While there are those dumb enough to fall for what you say, I’m not one of them. Sieg Heil Captain Cook. May you be erected on campus with a big thank you for discovering this great nation and saving this nation from 40 000 years of nothingness.
As the ferryman said, people don’t listen, ‘just think exactly what they want’.
Recent archaeological dating of artefacts from Kakadu suggests Aboriginal occupation of this continent stretches 65,000 to 80,000 years.10 Much is also known about complex Indigenous land management systems, agricultural and aquacultural practice and belief systems that characterise people with extraordinary earthly and solar affinities that date beyond time’s meaning. The discoveries of the modern Indigenous humans known as Mungo Lady and Mungo Man11 in 1968 and 1974 respectively, put paid to the Darwinist characterisation of Australian primitiveness (that is, the fallacy that Aboriginal people were merely an extant early link in the chain of human evolution), and points instead to deep spiritual and cultural sophistication. The Mungos also carried profound implications for the dating of global humanity. As evidenced, however, by some of the comments sent to Carlson, stereotypes born of ignorance (Where is the Australian architectural equivalent of the 4000-year-old pyramids of Giza that would testify to civilised occupation?) still flourish.
In November 2017 Mungo Man, who lived at least 36,000 years before Abraham, was finally returned to country after being kept in a cardboard box, first at the Australian National University and more recently at the National Museum of Australia, for 43 years. It is said he’s now been secreted in the basement of an administration building attached to the Lake Mungo National Park. But as yet, despite pleas from, among others, Jim Bowler, the 89-year-old archaeologist who found the bones, there is no memorial dedicated to, or special keeping place for, the remains of the man whom it is not too hard to view as Australia’s own prophet.
• • •
From Bennelong’s place at Kissing Point I take the ferry back downriver and into the wind towards the point, now adorned with the opera house, that bears his name. It’s where the first governor, Arthur Phillip, built Bennelong a small hut in which he lived, periodically, before opting in later years for a more traditional life.
In 1788 Phillip’s fleet entered the harbour that would become the gateway to Sydney. But it was already a primordial city, replete with monuments testifying to the timeless occupation of the Gadigal and others. Peter Myers, a member of the design team for Sydney Opera House, has written of how, with the arrival of subsequent fleets, the new settlement was built atop the ancient.12 There was a shortage of mortar lime in the colony. The solution seemed obvious to the invaders: as glue for the new buildings of hewn timber and stone, for the seawalls and jetties, the remnants of which still abound, they used the massive oyster shell mounds that stood around the edges of the harbour. Myers has no hesitation calling these middens ‘shell monuments’:
There are recorded sightings of shell monuments 12 metres high along the water’s edge (… equivalent to the height of the southern podium of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House). Can you imagine how many thousands of years of gathering and accumulation went into their making?
These, not the colonial and postcolonial statues of European explorers, were Sydney’s first monuments. They belonged to the landscape of Bennelong long before they were hacked down to make way for statuary in the images—or buildings erected in the name—of the colony’s first five governors, all known to him. No monument, it seems, is permanent. And as the landscape changed, as the first monuments crumbled, so, correspondingly, did many placenames alter.
Long, long before the arrival of the Macassan trepangers, the Dutch or the British, the landscape—north, south, east, west, resounded with stories that charted the sky—and landmarks, the beasts and fish and all of the humans. The land and waters had names that came from the stories. Some—Wollongong and Werribee, Nambucca and Naremburn, Barangaroo and Bomaderry—have remained.
But elsewhere the nomenclature whites bestowed upon the landscape honours murderous white pioneers and their violent acts. So there are unresolved suggestions Mount Wheeler in Queensland, for example, was named after a ‘cruel and merciless’ native police officer, Frederick Wheeler, who killed many Aboriginal people. It is not far from Mount Jim Crow, the origins of the name remaining unclear despite the clarity of its racist intent (I recently went looking for a Jim Crow Creek just outside Daylesford in central Victoria; the identifying sign had been removed from the narrow road bridge that crosses it). Streets in Darwin and Alice Springs are, respectively, named after William Willshire and Paul Foelsche. Both were murderous policemen who felt Indigenous people were akin to animals. Willshire wrote books about his maltreatment (including killing) of Aboriginal men and sexual abuse of Indigenous women who were, he maintained, put on earth to satisfy the needs of white pioneering males.
As you drive around this continent, stop and think about some of the names you’ll see on creeks, roads and beaches. It’s no coincidence there are so many places named Skeleton Creek in Queensland and Skull Creek in Gippsland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. There is a Murdering Gully in Victoria, a Skull Hole in Queensland and a Massacre Waterfall in central-west New South Wales. I’ve walked the length of a lichen-lined furrow through a field of gold on the Atherton Tableland, wondering if the howling wind might not be the spirits crying. For the place, Boonjie—which was renamed Butchers Creek with the massacre of its custodians in 1887—is alive with distressed spirits, a descendant of the dead has assured me. The continent, seeded with Indigenous names and stories, has been progressively renamed in places not to commemorate the deaths of First Nations people, but the very act of murdering them.
The wild Australian west, meanwhile, was the scene of frontier violence that stretched well into the twentieth century. The pioneering families and figures involved in extreme acts of violence against the Aboriginal people and who ‘opened’ (a euphemism like ‘dispersal’ when it came to dealing with the hostile Indigenes) that country, are honoured with statues, plaques and public spaces. They are people such as the Duracks and the Forrests, Canning and Stirling.
Stirling Gardens is named after colony founder and architect of the 1834 Pinjarra massacre, James Stirling.13 Nearby on the corner of Barrack Street and St George’s Terrace stands an imposing bronze of Alexander Forrest (complete with slung rifle), surveyor, explorer of the Kimberley, Perth mayor and parliamentarian. Alexander accompanied his brother John (first premier of Western Australia and explorer, whose sculpture is in Kings Park, Perth) on his early expeditions into the Kimberley and elsewhere. As WA historian Chris Owen wrote in his history of Kimberley policing, Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty,14 John Forrest
had significant personal experience in coming into contact with Aboriginal groups hostile to his group’s presence during his three expeditions between 1869 and 1874.
In June 1874 at Weld Springs Forrest had shot Aboriginal people himself when about ‘forty to sixty natives came’ running towards the camp, all plumed up and armed with shields and spears. These experiences would inform Forrest’s later judgments.
Not too far away, on the banks of the Swan River, is a statue of the resistance fighter Yagan. His body (including his head, which was hacked off upon his death in 1833 and dispatched to England where it remained until 1997) is buried nearby. The statue had been in place since 1984. A week after Yagan’s head was repatriated from Liverpool to Perth an anonymous vandal who claimed to be a ‘British loyalist’ cut off and stole the statue’s. The restored statue was again beheaded in 2002—an act that did not elicit a tenth of the media outrage that accompanied the vandalisation of the Macquarie and Cook statues in Hyde Park at the height of the ‘statue wars’ in 2017.
Still, Yagan—like Bennelong—has an official memorial. Which is more than can be said of so many remarkable Indigenous Australians, including Burigon, an Awabakal elder (from the Hunter region) whom the colonisers regarded as a bridge between the blacks and the whites around the secondary settlement of Newcastle in the second decade of the nineteenth century.
The 46th Regiment’s Captain James Wallis (of April 1816 Appin massacre infamy) won the thanks of governor Macquarie for his ‘zealous exertions and strict attention to fulfilling of the instructions’ in that bloody military operation. His reward was the command of Newcastle, where ‘Buriejoe’, as Wallis called Burigon, helped maintain peace between the redcoats and the tribes, and was instrumental in tracking the convict prisoners who frequently escaped.
Wallis, a writer and artist, detailed his relations with Burigon in his An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements (1821),15 a copy of which is held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It includes a drawing—probably based on an original by convict and painter Joseph Lycett and engraved by fellow convict Walter Preston—of a corroboree staged for the visiting Macquarie in 1818. Wallis wrote:
All the principal figures in the fore-ground are from original portraits; the tall figure laughing, on the left, is the chieftan or king of the Newcastle tribe, called Buriejoe—a brave, expert fellow, who has lately presented Governor Macquarie with his eldest son, to be placed in the native institution, as a proof of his confidence in British humanity.
In 1820 Burigon died after an escaped prisoner whom the Aboriginal tracker had apprehended, John Kirby, stabbed him. Kirby was the first white man to be tried and executed (he was hanged on 18 December 1820) for the murder of an Aboriginal person under British law. It was not an onerous precedent; convictions of white men for killing blacks on the colonial and postcolonial frontier would be few and far between for the next century and a half.
Professor John Maynard, director of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre at Newcastle University, laments how ‘the memory and tragedy of people like Burigon are sadly lost across time, forgotten and erased from history’.
‘This is especially important for the non-Indigenous community who walk past Aboriginal sites and history of significance daily and are totally unaware,’ he says. As the Indigenous researcher John Paul Janke points out, Wallis’s time in Australia is commemorated with Wallis Street, Wallis Hill and Wallis Creek in the Newcastle district, Wallis Plains (now Maitland) and Wallis Island. Burigon is not noted in statuary or bronze. ‘To my knowledge there is nothing named after Burigon in the region. There are no streets, no parks, no suburbs or statues,’ Janke says.
Burigon did leave something of himself behind, however—the 10-year-old son he gave to Macquarie in September 1818, a few weeks after that corroboree. But once inside the walls of the Native Institution in Parramatta the child, who died there a few years later, was assigned a new identity. The records show the little Aboriginal boy was renamed Wallis.
Paul Daley is a Sydney-based author and journalist. He writes ‘Postcolonial’, a column about Indigenous history and Australian identity, for the Guardian. His most recent book is the political novel Challenge.
- Guardian, 8 July 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/08/the-story-of-bennelong-is-potent-and-evocative-but-it-may-be-wrong>.
- Town of 1770, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seventeen_Seventy,_Queensland>.
- Gweagal shield, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/25/the-gweagal-shield-and-the-fight-to-change-the-british-museums-attitude-to-seized-artefacts>.
- Arguments, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/12/whats-in-a-name-a-lot-
- Cal Flyn, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-02/author-cal-flyn-angus-mcmillan-gippsland/
- Cook statue, <http://www.cityartsydney.com.au/artwork/captain-cook/>.
- Macquarie statue, <http://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/people/government-colonial/display/
- Clover Moore, <http://www.clovermoore.com.au/governor_macquarie_statue_unveiling>.
- Bronwyn Carlson on RN, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/most-indigenous-
- Kakadu archaeological dig, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/19/dig-finds-
- Mungo Man, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/14/finding-mungo-man-the-
- Myers’ essay, <http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/every-important-colonial-building-sydney-was-placed-upon-significant-first-nations-city-site>.
- Pinjarra massacre, <http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/mp-backs-traditional-owners-campaign-to-rename-peel-region-20171024-gz7g5t.html>.
- ‘every mother’s son is guilty’, <https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/every-mothers-son-is-guilty-
- Wallis, <http://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/rare-early-image-corroboree>.