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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Aboriginal War
Friends or foes?

History Wars
Denying contestability

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Pelmuwuy
Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Racism
Contemporary racism against Indigenous People

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present


Convict life
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Convict crimes
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Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Escapes
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Pemulwuy

Pemulwuy Pemulwoy, Pemulwy, Pemulwei

Justice or War?

Over the last few decades, various agents of Australian culture have been searching for an Aboriginal Ned Kelly; a native outlaw that defied the British in the name of justice and could therefore become a role model for today's generations. In the 1970s, white director Fred Schepisi and white author Thomas Keneally tried to make one out of the mixed race bushranger Jimmy Governor. The ploy didn’t work because Governor was a man who went out murdering women and babies with axes as part of a plan to become famous. Governor's actions were just too brutal and too selfish to ever warrant him becoming an icon.

More recently, Pemulwuy has emerged as the Aboriginal Ned Kelly. Irishman Peter Baxter sang about him defending Australia against the invaders. Likewise, white Australian band Red Gum sang about him being a patriot and in 2004, a new Sydney suburb was named Pemulwuy in honour of his fight of resistance against British rule.

While there has certainly been a desire amongst many contemporary white people to see Pemulwuy as a resistance leader, the history is a little bit complicated by the fact that he wanted to maintain good relations with the colony's governors and his son wanted to maintain good relations with the colony's business leaders. Perhaps instead of being a guerrilla fighter, Pemulwuy was a caradhy, a man whose position in the Bidjigal tribe empowered him to dispense justice. His attacks on the settlers weren’t attempts to drive them away, rather they were attempts to punish them for their breaches of Bidjigal law.

Pemulwuy first came to public attention in 1790 when he killed Governor Phillip's game shooter, a Convict named McIntyre. Although McIntyre was suspected of mistreating Aborigines, witnesses of the actual attack said it was unprovoked. Consequently, Phillip became so infuriated that he dispatched a military expedition to bring back Pemulwuy and "any six Bidjigal or their heads." (Phillip’s soldiers were reluctant to carry out the orders and they returned empty handed, saying that no Bidjigal could be found.)

 Following many unsuccessful expeditions to apprehend him, Pemulwuy increased his attacks against the settlers. In particular, he led a number of raids against farms. Sometimes crops and clothes were stolen. Sometimes maze fields were set on fire. Because such resources were desperately needed by the colony, some historians have argued the attacks were calculated war strategies devised by Pemulwuy to weaken his enemy. (Another possibility was that he was being used by rival landowners to weaken their neighbours in the hope of acquiring their farms. There is no way of knowing for sure.)

 Although Pemulwuy’s actions had the characteristics of guerilla war, he also wanted to maintain friendly relations with the colony's governors. (He wasn't outlawed until 12 years after his initial attack.) Perhaps this would indicate that his attacks were a form of dispensing justice. Most aboriginal cultures had a payback system where justice could be inflicted on the tribe an individual came from rather than the individual themselves. Consequently, if one settler broke any Bidigal laws, other settlers could be punished for the violation. Once punished, the matter was in the past and a state of peace returned. Unfortunately, settlers knowingly or unknowingly continued to violate local laws, which forced Pemulwuy to keep dispensing justice. Settlers in turn found themselves being punished, but often not knowing what they were being punished for or even knowing they were be punished.

In 1794, Pemulwuy attacked a group of Convicts and ending up fighting John 'Black' Caesar, a huge Convict/Bushranger of African descent. With his commanding physical strength, Caesar managed to crack Pemulwuy's skull and many people in the colony celebrated because they thought he was dead. Although seriously wounded, Pemulwuy recovered to fight on.

In 1797, Pemulwuy led a sustained attack on the Toongabbie outpost, capturing more food and clothing. He then led the Bidjigal to Parramatta. Here on open ground near the Parramatta River he led what has been defined as a pitched battle against the English. Pemulwuy was quickly identified and subsequently felled after being hit by seven bullets. The Bidjigal suffered great losses and were forced to retreat. Pemulwuy was left lying in a pool of blood and thought to be dead.

Amazingly, he was only severely wounded. In a display of mercy and admiration, the soldiers took him to the hospital at Parramatta. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for many days and his death was thought to be a certainty. Against expectations, Pemulwuy recovered. Several weeks later, he escaped into the darkness - his leg-irons still in place. According to the Bidjijal people, his impossible escape was achieved by turning himself into a bird.

Pemulwuy's ability to recover from his wounds gave him a Rasputin-like reputation for being invincible. The local Aborigines believed that bullets couldn't harm him, nor could chains hold him. Even the colonists started believing the myths. John Washington Price said:

"He has now lodged in him, in shot, sluggs and bullets, about eight or ten ounces of lead."

Despite the conflict, the colony’s governors as well as Pemulwuy seemed to want to build some kind of relationship. In 1897, Governor Hunter met several parties of Aborigines near Botany Bay. Pemulwuy was among them. According to one report, Pemulwuy,

‘spoke with one of the gentlemen of the party; enquiring of him whether the governor was angry, and seemed pleased at being told that he was not.’

Although Hunter was forgiving, his successor was not. In November 1801, Governor Philip Gidley King outlawed Pemulwuy and offered a reward of 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon for his capture, dead or alive. The prospect of spirits or freedom proved an ample incentive to prove that Pemulwuy was mortal. In 1802, he was shot and decapitated. His head was preserved in alcohol and sent to England as a gift for Joseph Banks. Accompanying the head was a letter from Governor King stating that,

 "although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character...."

Pemulwuy's son Tedbury also had an ambiguous relationship with colonists. He made trouble for some settlers but was on friendly terms with John Macarthur, an ex-soldier who became a very powerful pastoralist. Macarthur often entertained Tedbury at his Elizabeth farm. Later, when Macarthur had Governor Bligh removed from office in 1808, Tedbury arrived at Macarthur’s cottage with a bundle of spears and announced that he had come to spear the governor. Tedbury was shot by a settler in 1810 when he made another attack on a farm.

Tribes Sydney

Justice man or guerrilla leader?

Whether Pemulwuy was a guerrilla leader or a justice man has implications for the way Aborigines thought of the colonists, which in turn some Australians would use to model their behaviour on today. If he was a guerrilla leader, it would suggest that he considered all colonists to be invaders and wanted them gone. If he was a justice man, then it would suggest that he was not so much concerned about the presence of colonists, but about their breaches of Bidjigal law.  

There are numerous facts of history that suggest Pemulwuy was more concerned about upholding Bidjigal law than fighting a war of resistance. Firstly, when Pemulwuy speared McIntyre, there had been no settlement in Bidjigal land, and very little contact with the Bidjigal at all. As a game shooter, McIntyre probably ventured into Bidjigal territory. He was disliked by Aborigines and had been suspected of some kind of unsavoury conduct. His spearing may have been punishment for breaking laws. Secondly, it was almost 11 years between Pemulwuy's spearing of McIntyre and the date he was outlawed. If the governors saw him as a guerrilla leader then he would have been outlawed far earlier. The failure to outlaw him was probably a sign that the governors viewed his actions as typical of hunter gatherer people. Alternatively, they may have seen his actions as retaliation against poor behaviour by settlers. Thirdly, Pemulwuy's left foot had been clubbed, which was a sign that he was a carradhy (clever man/justice man). Finally, his son Tedbury maintained a good relationship with Macarthur. So much so, he came to spear Governor Bligh after he was arrested in the rum rebellion. If Pemulwuy had been guerrilla leader, then Tedbury probably would have been taught similar values. He wouldn’t have formed relationships with colonists and wouldn't have had a desire to inflict justice on behalf of Macarthur.

Presently, most white historians want to define Pemulwuy as a guerrilla leader and they have done so in the name of helping Aborigines by giving them a hero. In truth; however, perhaps they have been on the lookout for a hero for themselves.

Peter Baxter - Pemulwuy

Pemulwuy lay by the side of the road
His body was silently numb
A soldier raised his sabre high
Did what no man should have done
In a silence conspired their lives would backfire
Their shadows would follow and haunt them
What fool would expect a proud man to forget
The land he fought to defend

Clever man, clever man that Pemulwuy

Pemulwuy died with blood in his eyes
In a land now others call home
They brought their ways, they brought their laws
They brought their disease and their rum
With furrowed brows pushed broken ploughs
Crippled the earth with their toil
One man stood firm, one man stood tall
Now his blood soaks deep in that soil

Clever man, clever man that Pemulwuy

The Crow he watched with a wounded stare
And a solemn chant he begun
His death wish flew on a wind that blew
From the west, across and beyond
Centuries on and still now this song
Echoes through the valleys and mountains
To the deserts away. On the great Ocean spray
In the sunshine and the cold southern rain

Clever man, clever man that Pemulwuy

Red Gum - Water and Stone

Breathing in the stars
In the cool comfort of night
Water and stone winter and spring

Hearts rise with the dance
The days remembering
Water and stone winter and spring

Face of the earth
Painted by the light 
water and stone winter and spring

Just listen to the fire
And you will hear him sing
Water and stone winter and spring

Around the fire spirits dance
The story of the ocean
Of fishing birds and 
For winds to carry
Pemulwuy's song

All that I am and all that I have
Water and stone, winter and spring
Are in this place this land
These ways I understand
Water and stone, winter and spring

A thousand pities fell like rain
The day the world changed color
Tears of rage filled out eyes
And ears were ringing
A thousand pities fell like rain 
the day the world changed color
Tears of rage filled our eyes
And ears were ringing
With Pemulwuy's song

Come fools with promises
To throw into the fire
Water and stone, winter and spring
To burn like fragrant flowers
And turn to smoke and ashes
Water and stone, winter and spring

200 years won't celebrate a story of survival
The spirit of a patriot
All the children singing
200 years won't celebrate a story of survival
The spirit of a patriot
All the children singing Pemulwuy's song
Water and stone, winter and spring
Water and stone, winter and spring
Water and stone, winter and spring

All that I am, and all that I have
Will make the day again
The rising hope

Water and stone, winter and spring
Water and stone, winter and spring
 

 

 

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"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)