Author and historian Amy Fullager

A fascinating analysis of the lives of these two important men – Governor Arthur Phillip and Bennelong, their interactions , how they were and are viewed by historians and society , their similarities and differences … They were the leaders of their two sides during the first skirmishes and engagements between the British arrivals and the Indigenous Australians – Philip was a naval man, the colony’s first Governor and Bennelong the Yiyura ( Eora) headman.

The book is of small to medium size and thickness. With an opening acknowledgement of First Peoples , it is extensively researched , divided into nine parts and also includes maps, a timeline, illustrations and an index as well as a note about language .(What is interesting is the discussion regarding the last letter Bennelong wrote to Phillip , written in English , and how the British and Indigenous interacted  in NSW and a couple of the British attempted to write down the Aboriginal language and music , with misunderstandings as to spelling and names etc – which leads to the naming of among other things Parramatta).

Kate Fullagar’s book is captivating reading and what is unusual about it is that it is written chronologically backwards, from 1823 when Phillip passed away and attempt to give equal consideration to both and analysing their interactions over the years, revealing the ongoing dissent between the British Imperial demands and that of the Aboriginal world that in some ways continue to this day. The two were born a quarter of a century apart but died within a year of each other.    

It is the first detailed, considered biography of Bennelong .Both men’s marriages are discussed, as well as the position and social expectations regarding women at the time. One of Bennelong’s wives was Barangaroo and we learn of his other wives and children .Phillip’s rather unconventional domestic arrangements are also considered. 

Fullagar presents Phillip’s turbulent time as Governor of New South Wales as part of the life of a patriotic servant of the British Empire. He had a vocation as a sailor and was also ambitious, using his network of contacts to further his career. He was not involved in any major naval incidents, rather more involved in various schemes for the British navy against the French and during the American War of Independence. At one point he was seconded to the Portuguese navy in Brazil and he also spied on the French navy and its shipbuilding plans.Once returned to England , living in Bath ,he was given minor naval roles , continued to offer his extensive knowledge and experience , stayed aware of the various situations in the colony of NSW but was frustratingly ignored. Fullagar looks at how networking and patronising by higher ups in the British government either helped or hindered him and how his reputation has changed.

Fullagar shows how Phillip was in most ways a typical example of the prevailing Era of Enlightenment attitudes of the time. In that environment, compassion with regards to others only existed when in the service of subjugation, the Empire diminished and stifled equality of the natives in the various countries it conquered, and the concept of ‘virtue’ included moral double standards and allowed for the inclusion of forced labour, flogging , shackles and dispossession (so , exactly how the convicts and Indigenous were treated ).To the Indigenous , the British appeared to have no understanding of caring for the land or environment and wilfully destroyed their food supplies .Their Dreamtime stories , totems , weapons ,hunting ,food gathering and cultural standards – what was regarded as ‘ women’s business’ or ‘men’s business’ , births , marriages and deaths are discussed and how the British could not really comprehend them . 

And we must not forget the sudden French appearance by La Perouse that startled both the British and Indigenous. 

Bennelong was regarded by Phillip as uneasy go- between the British and his people in the possible development of a treaty as was organised with other Indigenous peoples of the British Empire ( eg New Zealand , Africa ,India , Canada , the West Indies …) . But that never happened.  Phillip kidnapped Bennelong and made him live at Government House so as to further develop relations and understanding between the two of them. Fullagar discusses the multi-layered, complex life he led.

However Bennelong manage to escape and arranged for Phillip to be speared as restitution – Phillip survived but there were unfortunate deaths by innocent convicts. 

In the aftermath an uneasy rapport was established, trying to work out the conflicts and misunderstandings between the British and Indigenous. How did both sides view each other ?  Seeking to further establish links between Indigenous Australians and his British higher-ups, when he finished his term as Governor of NSW, Phillip took Bennelong and another Aboriginal man, Yemmerrawanne, with him to London. 

Their arrival in the UK and the various sights, sounds and events attended are described. Unfortunately, Yemmerrawanne died while in Britain.  Fullagar questions how Bennelong viewed London and what British society thought of him. Attempts were made to obtain an audience with the King, but this never eventuated.

Fullagar describes both the voyage to London and Bennelong’s voyage back with the new Governor of NSW, Hunter. A major stop on the return voyage was at Rio. Upon his return Bennelong reverted to his Indigenous lifestyle and died. Fullagar looks at the various ways Bennelong has been portrayed and his reputation. Plays and a work by Bangarra Dance Theatre have been created about him.

Fullagar also looks at the  way Philip’s reputation was established and how this has changed over time.

A fascinating look at two very important people in Australian history. The book ends with a plea for reconciliation and understanding.

ISBN: 9781761108174

ISBN-10: 1761108174

Published: 4th October 2023

Format: Hardcover

Language: English

Number of Pages: 320

Publisher: Scribner Australia