Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws Part 2

ABC1 Message Stick Part 1 | Part 2

Pemulwuy (Actor)
Pemulwuy (Actor)

Pemulwuy the warrior was seen as a real character, who until now, has never been acknowledged let alone celebrated in Australian colonial history. It explores history as viewed by Aboriginal and non Aboriginal expert voices reconciling the contention between the oral and written history of the early European colonisation of Australia and give him his due place in Australia's shared history.

The Transcript
MIRIAM COROWA: Hello. I'm Miriam Corowa. Welcome to Message Stick. This week, the second part in our series on Pemulwuy. He was a traditional lawman of the Bidjigal clan, who are the original woodlands people of Toongabbie and Parramatta in Sydney. He was a warrior who almost brought the early settlement at Sydney Cove to its knees. And for the survival of the colony, a price was put on his head, literally. For 200 years, he was written out of history but now there's pressure to find Pemulwuy's remains and restore his reputation. Grant Leigh Saunders produced Pemulwuy: A War Of Two Laws.

DR JIM KOHEN: Pemulwuy's clearly one of the first people we know about who actively resisted white settlement. We know that he caused the Government a great deal of concern. He was listed as an outlaw. There was a price put on his head. So perhaps as the first in the Sydney region, he has special importance.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: He was different. And he became more different. He became better than everybody else. Whatever anyone else could do, Pemulwuy did it better. He could use a spear like no-one else could. And so around him was created an aura of difference.

DR JIM KOHEN: From the point of view of Pemulwuy and many of his followers, they were simply doing what was traditionally their right to do, that was to remove people who had come onto their land uninvited. It was important to the Government that he be stopped and so they were prepared to grant major concessions to anybody of any social status who could kill or capture Pemulwuy.

ACTOR READS: "With the ripening of the maize fields, the depredations of the natives returned. On the 19th, the governor received a dispatch from Parramatta, containing an account that a man had been murdered by them near Toongabbie, and three others severely wounded. And a few days after, two others were killed in the same manner. It became, from these circumstances, absolutely necessary to send out numerous well-armed parties and attack them wherever they should be met with. Judge Advocate, David Collins."

DR JIM KOHEN: It's important to remember that when we hear about these interactions between Aboriginal people and the early settlers, we're seeing the white point of view and not seeing the Aboriginal point of view. We know, for example, in 1800, that Governor King issued a proclamation that Pemulwuy and his people around Parramatta, Liverpool, Georges River, Prospect, could be killed on sight. And if you read George Caley's account, he explains that the reason that that government order was issued was because some convicts had let some of the sheep wander off, they were afraid of being punished so they blamed the Aborigines for killing the sheep and threatening them. So this order was issued that any Aborigine could be shot west of Parramatta.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Things that happened that don't make sense. For instance, historically, Pemulwuy attacked Parramatta before Toongabbie. Now, by that time, I knew Pemulwuy well enough, in my view, to believe he wouldn't do that. He would have attacked Toongabbie first. Then Parramatta. Parramatta was, by far, the most heavily fortified. Pemulwuy was no mug. If he was a mug, they would have killed him, you know, six years before.

RICHARD GREEN: He burnt to the ground, Toongabbie. Toongabbie. And a lot of military tacticians... "Well, why did he pull up there?" And it's even in the account of the Rainbow Serpent, you know? He burns Toongabbie to the ground and then he stopped. He stopped because his woman was murdered in Sydney while he was away. And he couldn't return to Sydney while her spirit was still displaced. It would be six months before he got back to Sydney. So he pulled up at Toongabbie, which is the real area of Burramatta.

DR JIM KOHEN: He'd attacked settlements at Toongabbie and he came into Parramatta with approximately 100 men - it's been suggested that he had 100 men with him. And taunted the soldiers to come and get him. I think it's one of those situations where he felt that he couldn't be harmed. He'd been shot at many times before and had always survived. On this particular occasion, many of his people were killed. There was a contingent of the military in Parramatta. So many of his warriors were killed, he was severely wounded and captured. And that, to a large extent, was the last major attack on a settlement as such. There were, later on, attacks on farms and isolated shepherds, but it was the last major attack on a settlement.

RICHARD GREEN: They pulled up at Toongabbie and, uh...that's where the resistance started to break down. They shot him, shot him in the shoulder, in the back of the neck, the elbow, they got him with buckshot, with shot, all over his body. They took him to Balmain and they put him in a cell. And they chained him up to his wrists and to his feet and chained him against the wall.

LEANNE TOBIN: And yet, he escaped with the chains still on his ankles, so of course that caused his legend to grow and people then saw him as being invincible.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Then it was all very strange because... rumours started to appear about this man. And many of them written in diaries, like Collins's diary and Dawes's and so forth. Pemulwuy and his own people and the British started to believe he couldn't be killed with a musket.

DR JIM KOHEN: And the fact that he had been wounded and escaped gave him great status amongst his own people. It was believed, for example, that he couldn't be killed by bullets. And so this enhanced his reputation.

ACTOR READS: "He has been known to say that no gun or pistol can kill him. Many shots have been fired at him and he has now lodged in him, in shot, slugs and bullets, about 8 or 10 ounces of lead. It is supposed he has killed over 30 of our people but is doubtful on which side the provocation was given. JW Price"

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: And after that, the whole thing took on kind of a surrealistic conflict. The British half believed this guy was some sort of a goblin from the bush. And Pemulwuy encouraged them to think that because it suited what he was trying to do. And what he was trying to do was get them to go away...some place else.

RICHARD GREEN: The story that we're told from family and as were kids is that when they had him chained inside the prison cell, there were guards posted out the front and women sat around the whole building all night singing, singing songs, and the story amongst the people was that they absolutely mesmerised and hypnotised the guards. Alright? It wasn't a matter of him pulling the brick out of the wall and running down the street with it, he was injured, OK? It was a matter of them singing, the guards falling asleep, keys being taken and being unlocked and let go.

DR JIM KOHEN: He recovered from his injuries. He was shot in the head with a shotgun, presumably. He had a number of pellets in his head. But by the end of 1797, he seems to have been fully recovered from them. He was encountered by some Europeans in, I think, November, 1797, and continued to lead raids right through until 1802. He was a person who they knew was in fact motivating a lot of other Aboriginal people to raid farms and to attack the settlements. So he was targeted as being the person who they wanted.

RICHARD GREEN: Hacking was on a ship and Bembilwyam was walking along the coast. And, you see, Pemulwuy, after being wounded, all the people believed that he was immune to British bullets. So he'd stand out in front and, you know, stand right out in front of them and take them on, you know? So after 12 years, his time ran out. He got his shot and he took it.


DR JIM KOHEN: By, it was June 2, 1802, there's an announcement made that Pemulwuy had been killed. There is some evidence to suggest that it may have been Henry Hacking, after whom Port Hacking is named. It's not clear but it seems likely that it was certainly two European settlers, two Europeans, and it's likely that Henry Hacking was at least one of them.

ACTOR READS: "The manifold packages you have had the goodness to forward to me have always, owing to your friendly care in addressing and invoicing them, come safe and in good condition to my hands. Among the last was the head of one of your subjects, which is said to have caused some comical consequences when opened at the Customs House. But when brought home, was very acceptable to our anthropological collectors and makes a figure in the museum of the late Mr Hunter, now purchased by the public. Sir Joseph Banks."

DR JIM KOHEN: So his head was removed. We know it was preserved in spirits. And it was sent back to England on the ship The Speedy.

RICHARD GREEN: They shipped it off to England to Sir Joseph Banks, who'd been knighted by this stage. And Sir Joseph Banks presented it to King George III. When the head rolled round, it sent him over the edge. He went into quite a state after that and never recovered.

DR JIM KOHEN: It was also common to remove heads. I mean, from 1791, we know that Aboriginal heads were removed and preserved and sent back to England.

LEANNE TOBIN: I'm not sure where that head is. It's interesting 'cause I've come across a few little clues here and there. My thoughts are that his head might actually be in Ireland, in Dublin.

RICHARD GREEN: Now, they claim that head was placed in an Irish museum. The more we dug, the more our people wanted to know where it was, they claimed it was put in a German museum. They've made a lot of claims about the remains. And today, they're claiming that they were bombed during World War II.

DR JIM KOHEN: It was believed to be in the Hunterian Museum in London. Although, they claim that they don't have it. Nobody seems to know exactly where it is or nobody claims ownership of it at the present time. There are investigations still going on to see if it can be located.

LORNA MUNRO: Some of our people believe that if you're not buried intact, that you're doomed to wander this earth. You know, you're a restless soul. And as long as Pemulwuy's head is still in England, then his soul is, you know, never gonna be rested.

RICHARD GREEN: If it happens and it's returned, we need to all congregate and spend that time for the weekend saying our prayers, crying for him and realising that he's home.

DR JIM KOHEN: There are many Aboriginal people whose remains are in various museums in the United Kingdom, in other places in Europe, certainly in Russia and the United States. And some of these remains are coming back. So there are examples where museums are now recognising the fact that Aboriginal people do have rights of ownership over their ancestors. However, we also know that many museums are very reluctant to give up what they consider to be specimens, things that were donated to them. So there's a lot of difficulty in obtaining some of these remains. It's not an easy matter.

SHANE PHILLIPS: If our Government won't listen and make it happen, we need to take it to a level where it will get more exposure. The week before Australia Day, we were talking to the future king of England. A couple of things came from that. The idea of trying to get this document, which asks for the return of Pemulwuy. Like, Pemulwuy's repatriation. He should be buried in country and respected as the great warrior that he was.

LEANNE TOBIN: I'm not sure if Prince William has any clue about what's going on with that stuff but perhaps he can take it back as a messenger.

RICHARD GREEN: He might just go home and do some research and realise that his grandfathers and great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother have been mucking up a bit, you know? So if he takes any notice of it, that's more righteousness for the kid.

LEANNE TOBIN: Yeah, I guess Pemulwuy now, he's seen as a figure of courage and resilience. You know, being able to keep going and fight back, regardless of how big that enemy might appear. You know, you keep on and keep standing up for what you know is right and what is yours. And I think as Indigenous people, we need those role models.

SHANE PHILLIPS: It epitomises struggle, it epitomises resistance, but in a lot of ways, it epitomises pride and identity. We know there's been problems in the past. But if we consistently told our kids about those problems, they'll always see that and their thoughts will be top-heavy of the problems and not who they can be. So we tell them everything about the good things, about Pemulwuy, even about Bennelong, who did do well. He went down in history as some sort of sell-out, he wasn't. Collobi, Arabanoo - all these fellas who were part of our area. And that dual history, we're showing people that. It'll only teach people about Aboriginal people. It'll break down perceptions.

LEANNE TOBIN: I know as a primary teacher, when I'm talking about Pemulwuy now, there are kids who do know of him because it's starting to be encouraged into the education system now, we're starting to learn more about Indigenous people and figures that were part of the making of this country. So, yeah, I think it's an important thing that we hold those people up and put them on the same level as Ned Kelly or, you know, the other classic iconic figures of Australian history.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Ned Kelly is so easily accessible. Inside, I think just about every white Australian, there dwells an Irishman. And that Irishman isn't necessarily Ned Kelly. But he looks like him, feels like him, thinks like him. And in some cases, does like him. Now, Pemulwuy's quite different. Pemulwuy's not inside everyone. Pemulwuy belongs to some few people but not to everyone. So, what the others can do is respect it. It's the history of the place that's come to be the place where they live. And where many of them will die.

SHANE PHILLIPS: I think they all resonate with Ned Kelly because it's still connected to the colonial history. And his promotion of who he was, who Ned Kelly was - promotion or exposure was - outweighed Pemulwuy.

DR JIM KOHEN: Most white Australians would still not consider Pemulwuy to be a hero because he resisted European settlement of Australia. That's not necessarily racism, it's simply the reality that they're now in the majority and so they see themselves as being the people who are looking after the Australian continent. Aboriginal people, on the other hand, have an entirely different point of view. He was a man who was defending his country. He was trying to stop the British from spreading settlement into other areas.

LORNA MUNRO: The fact that he was, you know, the first patriot of this country and he's unrecognised. He's the first patriot that died fighting for his land, culture and country, you know? And there's no recognition. Up until now, he was written out of history.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Written out carefully. Now, when that book was published, it just dropped into an empty valley. There was nobody. You know, why wasn't it attacked by all sorts of academics of the descendants of the Rum Corps? 'Cause they didn't know about it. They were more efficient than they knew what was good for them. And they had removed one piece of history but didn't really write another convincing one.

LORNA MUNRO: That's the biggest blow that you could ever deal to an enemy, is write them out of history, is to get rid of, you know, all recognition that they ever existed.

DR JIM KOHEN: The question of how we can better recognise people like Pemulwuy is a difficult one because Australians generally will hold a few things dear to them and ignore most of history. If you asked people who the first Australian Prime Minister was, most Australians would not know. If you asked them who the Prime Minister was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, many Australians would not know. So history is relative. It's a story which is told by the victors. It's a story which is, in the case of Australian history, almost always told by white historians.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: There are still some people... in this country who have a vested interest in the country's history remaining as it is. That is, a place where British came to, found the country empty, took that over. There were a few blacks running around but they died of disease and that was the end of it. There's still some people in Australia who would like that to be the way it is. Or was. Although, it never was.

DR JIM KOHEN: History is open to interpretation. Many historians in the 1970s, 1980s and '90s looked at primary sources of information and came up with estimates of how many Aboriginal people had been killed, had been massacred, had been poisoned. If we talk about a population in Australia of 1 to 2 million Aboriginal people in 1788, and we know that that was perhaps less than 40,000 by 1900, then we're looking at a massive depopulation and so there's a responsibility on the point of historians to document that. On the other hand, there are those historians who argue that those figures can't be justified. And so they maintain that Aboriginal people succumbed to European settlement.

LORNA MUNRO: Like, just having those terms, you know the black armband view of history or whatever, like... Why isn't it just history?

DR JIM KOHEN: Why do we need to have two different interpretations of history? Well, it's because people should look at the documentation and draw their own conclusions. My conclusion is that there were large numbers of Aboriginal people in Australia at the time of contact. From the 1790s and probably earlier than that, they were resisting European settlement and they continued to do so, virtually right up to the present day.

PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Think of it this way, imagine had the book not been written. Imagine if it had not been written. What would people think happened? What on earth would people think when they landed on that airport at Ka-may? Would have they really thought this was an empty land? That somebody just wandered up the beach like Robinson Crusoe and used a hut on the shore? What would have they thought if it wasn't for the existence of that story?

LORNA MUNRO: When the proper history is presented and when the proper facts are presented, then people have, you know, they have no choice but to go with the truth. So I suppose that's what I'm all about, is changing those perceptions. And even changing my own people's perceptions. You know, some of my own classmates in high school, they never even would comprehend certain things that, you know, Pemulwuy achieved and Windradyne achieved and how that sets up, you know, the fight that we've gotta continue now.

SHANE PHILLIPS: You know, I've found, even with myself, that the more I learn and the more I talk about what I've learned, it makes it so much more easy to remember and I can pass what's right to my young children. That's how simple we want it to be, people to learn about it so they can share it with their children. And their children can grow up with this pride of who their people were and who they are. And that means... It's so simple but it means everything to us.

DR JIM KOHEN: I know that most of his descendants are quite happy that place names are being given which come from traditional culture, which come from Aboriginal people or from Aboriginal place names. I know that most people are happy with that. Whether Pemulwuy would have been happy with that, I can't say.

LORNA MUNRO: It's a bit of a contradiction, you know what I mean? To name a suburb after him full of people who he fought to keep out.

SHANE PHILLIPS: I love the fact that our names are remembered for places. And I know there's a few places that still have Aboriginal names. If you're looking down south, Wollongong. If you're looking at Cronulla, Curranulla.

DR JIM KOHEN: Parramatta is the place where the Burramatta clan were. Mulgoa is the place where the black swan people were, the Mulgoa people. We know the term Cabramatta is where the Cabrogals or Cobrogals were, it's the creek where the Cobragals were. So right across Sydney, we already use traditional Aboriginal names for places. And what we're doing now is identifying some of the people who were from those areas, who are also giving their name to those local places.

LEANNE TOBIN: I just thought, "Pemulwuy fought for 13, 14, 15 years, resisting settlement of this country. And here we are naming a suburb after him. I found it just incomprehensible. Why would you do that?

SHANE PHILLIPS: But it's fantastic to have it in other places. People ask, "Who the hell was Pemulwuy?"

LORNA MUNRO: What about a statue? You know, or something like that. Or even a museum, you know, our past heroes? But that will never happen in our country because then that means that our heroes are immortalised. And they try to write them out of history in the first place.

SHANE PHILLIPS: I think it's amazing that they're naming a suburb after him. But still, they'll be printing it in their own fashion, you know? His real name, Bembilwyam, you know? We're gonna have to put up with Pemulwuy but then again, a lot of the non-Indigenous constituents who know nothing about him. And I think the people of Holroyd should be full of pride for that name that's coming to their district. It was his hunting ground and he lived all through there, brother, you know?

MIRIAM COROWA: Well, I hope you've enjoyed this series on Pemulwuy: A War Of Two Laws. It's no surprise that Indigenous leaders in Sydney want to find his remains and return them to country. And none other than Prince William has offered to help. Already, the story of Pemulwuy is being included in history curricula and as you saw in the film, suburbs are being named in Pemulwuy's honour ...

Grant Leigh Saunders (Biripi, Aboriginal Australian) completed his masters from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. As well as directing radio documentaries and dramas, he is a musician, performer, and sound designer. His short documentary film, B.L.A.C.K, won the EU Award.

M.A. (Honours) Film and TV Documentary - Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Sydney, 2006
Graduate Diploma in Media Arts and Production - University of Technology Sydney 2003
B.A. Communications - University of Technology Sydney 2001.
More Awards and Festivals
Inaugural John Newfong Media Award, Brisbane, 2008
Best Indigenous film, St Kilda Film Festival, 2007
ImagineNative Film Festival, Toronto Canada, 2007
European Union Award, Marseilles France, 2006
Audience Choice Award, Riddu Riddu Film and Music Festival, Norway, 2006
Harlem Curated Film Festival, Harlem, USA, 2006