In December 1792, the cultural explorer Bennelong, an Eora man of the Wangal clan, set off on the long ocean voyage from Sydney Cove. This placed him in a position to personally examine the country of the Englishmen. His sponsor was the Governor of the British convict colony of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, whom he had known for three years. Phillip’s parents, including his linguistically talented father Jacob, would host him during part of his visit to England. Bennelong’s young clansman Yemmerrawane accompanied them.
Bennelong first met Phillip as a jailer, for he had authorized his capture by a contingent of jauntily singing marines. Although escaping at one point, the dynamic, effervescent Bennelong spent his time in custody acquiring fluent English, fashionable British dress, dining and drinking etiquette, cracking jokes and learning the cues for flirting with attractive British ladies. Bennelong cultivated an intriguing relationship with the dour Phillip that included a name exchange that in turn tangled up the Governor in Indigenous kinship law. In 1790, Bennelong set up a meeting at Manly where Phillip ended up getting speared. In 1791, they both grieved long and hard for Bennelong’s wife Barangaroo and then their infant child Dilboong. Bennelong had hoped that Phillip would find a convict woman to suckle her, and that Phillip would help rear her up.
During his visit to London, Bennelong checked out tailors and stores, selecting some fine clothing for himself and the women he had left behind. He visited the grand architecture of St Paul’s Cathedral and studied the brutal carceral icon of the Tower of London.
While Lloyd’s Evening Post seemed more interested in the four kangaroos carried by their ship the Atlantic than in Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne, not everyone felt that way. Possibly hearing of their efforts to sing their old country into this new place, a London musicologist asked them to perform the chant, which he painstakingly tried to notate in the European style. Possibly it was Bennelong who initiated the idea of spreading this song so far and who wanted it recorded for posterity.
Recently, the song made the return journey. The first modern version was performed in 2010 at the Sydney Opera House, located near the English-style brick hut that Phillip had built for Bennelong. As part of the Deepening Histories of Place digital history project, it was performed in a compelling 2012 adaptation at the Conservatorium of Music, which is located not far from where Bennelong’s wife and child are buried.
In London, Bennelong’s visit was commemorated in a neatly-paved way in White City, Hammersmith, called Bennelong Close.
Ann McGrath is a Professor of History and the Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History.