Australia in the 1790s


In November 1789 Bennelong (1764?–1813), a member of the Wangal clan, and Colebee, a Cadigal man, were kidnapped while they were fishing at Manly Cove. Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) hoped that he would be able to learn the local Eora language and come to understand their culture and way of life. Despite being kept in chains for many weeks, Bennelong was invited to Government House as a guest. Colebee escaped but Bennelong stayed longer with Governor Phillip in his house and developed a close friendship with him. Bennelong called Phillip 'Beanga', meaning father in the Eora language, and Phillip in return called him 'Durung', meaning son. When accompanying the governor, Bennelong learnt English, and adopted some of the values and attitudes of the British. Bennelong did escape but returned with some of his family and they made the yard at Government House their home. In 1791 Governor Phillip built a brick hut for Bennelong on the site of Djubuguli. The area became known as Bennelong Point. He played an important role as a mediator between the Aboriginal clans and the colonists.

In 1792 Bennelong and an Aboriginal youth, Yemmerrawanie, travelled with Governor Arthur Phillip to England. They were received by King George III in May 1793. Yemmerrawanie died in Britain and Bennelong's health became precarious because of the cold, homesickness and his disappointment in the long delay in returning to the colony. He arrived home in September 1795 with Governor John Hunter (1737–1821). Bennelong found that his hut had been demolished and his wife, Barangaroo, had left him. He had embraced many English customs and attitudes while he was away and found it difficult to return to his people. Before long Bennelong lost the respect of his people, the Eora, and without Phillip for support he had no status in the colony either. He died on 3 January 1813 and was buried at Kissing Point on the banks of the Parramatta River.

On their arrival, the British claimed the country as their own through the law of terra nullius (meaning land belonging to no-one) giving the local Indigenous people no rights to a treaty or any ownership of their land. By 1795 colonists had claimed the land of the Cadigal clan and neighbouring Aboriginal language groups, dislocating them from their own countries. This area was known as Wuganmagulya and is now occupied by the New South Wales Royal Botanical Gardens. The site is culturally and spiritually significant as it contains a Bora ring, a place where Aboriginal communities traditionally came together to hold initiation ceremonies. In 1795, the officers of the First Fleet, including David Collins (1756–1810), observed initiation ceremonies at this sacred place.

Bennelong - the Indigenous mediator_1790

A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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