Bennelong

Telling the stories: Bennelong (2017)

WHAT IS THE INSPIRATION FOR BENNELONG?

Woollarawarre Bennelong (Bennilong, Baneelon) (c1764-1813), a Wangul man of the Eora nation lived in the Port Jackson area at the time of the first British settlement. Today Bennelong is one of the most celebrated and mythologised Aboriginal men of those early settlement times. There is a considerable amount of primary source material available about Bennelong, mostly through the notebooks and diaries of several first fleet officers. His story has persisted over two centuries to the point where he has become a central figure in Australia’s turbulent and complex settlement history.

Bangarra’s telling of Bennelong’s story is imagined thought the perspective of Bennelong himself. The work explores his personal character, his conflicts, his relationship, his community and his standing within that community. The production is not a literal translation of historical events. Instead, it looks between the layers of the narrative that has gathered around this one man, and beyond the common perceptions that have prevailed in regard to Bennelong’s unique place in our colonial and post-colonial history.

WHERE DOES THE STORY COME FROM?

Bennelong was born around 1764, a member of the Wangal people who occupied the land stretching from Goat Island along the southern shore of the Parramatta River up to Parramatta itself. In 1789, Governor Arthur Philip received orders from King George III to make every possible effort to build a dialogue with the Aboriginal people. On 25 November of the same year, Lieutenant William Bradley and a small troop of British military went to Manly Cove and captured two Aboriginal Men – Colebee, a Gadigal man, and Bennelong.

Colebee escaped shortly afterwards, but Bennelong remained for a period of about five months, learning the ways of the Europeans and ingratiating himself to the household of Governor Phillip. After Bennelong returned to his people, and to his life as a traditional man, he retained some contact with Arthur Phillip and often acted as a go-between for the Indigenous people and the British, demonstrating his own personal efforts to build a peace between the groups – however tenuous that peace would be.  

In 1792, Bennelong accompanied Phillip to London, making him the first Aboriginal person (along with his tribal partner Yemmerrawanne) to travel to England. 

There is no doubt that Bennelong’s story is important to the way we reflect on Australia’s story of colonisation. But it is also a very personal and unique story. While the actual events are fascinating and remarkable, it is the enormous emotional, social and cultural disruptions experienced by Bennelong and his community that are at the heart of this production, and connect us as human beings with a shared history.