Bungaree born on 1775 – 24 November 1830, with a happy disposition and much intelligence, accompanied Flinders in the Investigator (1801-2) and was thus the first Aboriginal known to have circumnavigated Australia. The Ku-ring-gai man was a conspicuous figure in early Sydney, and one of the most commonly represented people in colonial imagery. Bungaree was a brilliant diplomat and despite language barriers could quickly ascertain the wishes of the coastal Aboriginal groups they encountered. Flinders therefore used him again on his most exploratory voyage, the circumnavigation of Australia in the HMS Investigator, from 1802 to 1803. It was on this expedition that much of Australia’s unknown coastline was mapped.
Many governors and colonels gave Bungaree discarded uniforms and a cocked hat; in this garb he lived and slept. He affected the walk and mannerisms of every governor from John Hunter to Sir Thomas Brisbane and perfectly imitated every conspicuous personality in Sydney. He spoke English well and was noted for his acute sense of humour. Although he had no tribal authority his adaptation to the life of the settlement, his talent for entertaining and his high standing with governors and officials established him as the leader of the township Aborigines. A pathetic remnant of their people, they spent their days giving exhibitions of boomerang throwing, doing odd jobs, and begging for bread, liquor, tobacco and cash: ‘Len’ it bread’ was Bungaree’s favoured approach.
Such facility for social performance made him an ideal mediator between the new settlers and indigenous inhabitants, and it was in the role of trusted diplomat that he accompanied Phillip Parker King to the coast of WA in 1817. In 1815 Governor Macquarie named him ‘Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’ and tried to establish him as a farmer, complete with white convict labourers, at George’s Head to the north of Sydney Harbour.
‘Kindness of heart’
The Investigator arrived back in Port Jackson in June 1803, having completed its circumnavigation of Australia but having failed to fully survey the entire coastline.
Back on land – where his height and penchant for wearing old military uniforms ensured he stood out – his knowledge and wit made him a popular figure with the colonisers.
On 31 January 1815 Governor Lachlan Macquarie reserved land and erected huts at Georges Head for Bungaree and his clan to ‘Settle and Cultivate’. Macquarie’s intention was to civilise all the Aboriginal people by first converting Bungaree to the ‘benefits’ of living a ‘civilised’ lifestyle and then use him as an example to other Aboriginal people. Also he hoped to keep them away from the British settlement with its temptations of alcohol and tobacco.
Bungaree was given a fishing boat, clothing, seeds, stock and convict instructors and farming implements. Elizabeth Macquarie gave Bungaree a sow and piglets, a pair of Muscovy ducks and outfits for his first wife, Matora, and their daughter.
They were installed with a feast at which the governor decorated Bungaree with a brass plate inscribed ‘Bungaree: Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’, a completely fictitious title.
On Tuesday last, at an early hour, His Excellency the GOVERNOR and Mrs. MACQUARIE, accompanied by a large party of Ladies and Gentlemen, proceeded in boats down the Harbour to George’s Head.
The object of this excursion, we understand, was to form an establishment for a certain number of Natives who had shewn a desire to settle on some favourable spot of land, with a view to proceed to the cultivation of it. The ground assigned them for this purpose (the peninsula of George’s Head) appears to have been judiciously chosen, as well from the fertility of the soil as from its requiring little exertions of labour to clear and cultivate; added to which, it possesses a peculiar advantage of situation; from being nearly surrounded on all sides by the sea; thereby affording its new possessors the constant opportunity of pursuing their favorite occupation of fishing, which has always furnished the principal source of their subsistence.
On this occasion, sixteen of the Natives, with their wives and families were assembled, and His EXCELLENCY the GOVERNOR, in consideration of the general wish previously expressed by them, appointed Boongaree (who has been long known as one of the most friendly of this race, and well acquainted with our language), to be their Chief, at the same time presenting him with a badge distinguishing his quality as “Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe,” and the more effectually to promote the objects of this establishment, each of them was furnished with a full suit of slop clothing, together with a variety of useful articles and implements of husbandry, by which they would be enabled to proceed in the necessary pursuits of agriculture : – A boat (called the Boongaree), was likewise presented them for the purpose of fishing.
About noon, after the foregoing ceremony had been concluded, HIS EXCELLENCY and party returned to Sydney, having left the Natives with their Chief in possession of their newly as-signed settlement, evidently much pleased with it, and the kindness they experienced on the occasion.
Just like before, his knowledge proved invaluable.
“There are some wonderful anecdotes in Parker King’s journals of going ashore and asking Bungaree ‘can we eat this plant’? And Bungaree says, ‘I don’t know what the plant is, so maybe we should not eat it’,” John Paul Janke, the co-chair of the National NAIDOC committee, told ABC’s The World Today.
“In some cases, there’s a potential that he might have saved people’s lives by telling them what not to eat or what to eat.
“So to me he was more than just someone who was taken on board to show them around. He was actually, I think, a very strong confidante for Flinders.”
Bungaree did not forget his people, however.
According to Sydney Barani, while he was happy to help track escaped convicts, he “was also influential within his own Aboriginal community taking part in corroborees and ritual battles”, looking after his community by “selling or bartering fish”.
As Russian Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen wrote, Bungaree “has always been noted for his kindness of heart, gentleness and other excellent qualities and has been of great service to the colony”, but also “often endangered his life in his efforts to keep the peace within his tribe”.
Despite the accolades from the Europeans, the racist undertones were never far away.
“The facetiousness of the sable chief, and the superiority of his mental endowments, over those of the generality of his race, obtained for him a more than ordinary share of regard from the white inhabitants of the colony,” the Sydney Gazette wrote in an article announcing his death in 1830.
Today, his legacy appears almost all but forgotten. There are statues to Flinders and even the cat Trim, but as yet, there are no statues to Bungaree recognising his role in the exploration of Australia.
“It breaks my heart that we, as Australians, don’t have a statue to Bungaree that celebrates an iconic figure and someone who actually assisted in building this continent and building our nation’s history,” Mr Janke said.
No doubt, with the discovery of Capt Flinders’ grave and the renewed interest in the Investigator, there are hopes this will soon change.
- Bungaree Biography and Profile (Politicoscope / BBC / PWON / ADB)