Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws Part 1

ABC1 Message Stick Part 1 | Part 2

Pemulwuy  (Actor)
Pemulwuy (Actor)
Source: ABC

Pemulwuy will chart the history of Australia's first ever Aboriginal resistance fighter. From his first encounter with the British in Botany Bay, to his 12 year war against the establishment, to his eventual demise in 1802 in Parramatta where he was finally beheaded. The program will attempt to expose one of Australia's forgotten histories and an unsung hero of the Bidgigal people of the Dharug language group of Sydney.

The Transcript
MIRIAM COROWA: ... Earlier this year when he visited the block in Sydney's Redfern, Prince William of Wales was presented with a request to help find and repatriate the remains of Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy was a traditional lawman of the Bidgigal clan, the original Woodlands people of Toongabbie and Parramatta in Sydney. When the First Fleet arrived in 1788, Pemulwuy, along with his better-known Bidgigal clansman Bennelong, tried to coexist with the colonists. But Pemulwuy saw the white man breaking his law and he began a 12-year guerrilla war of retribution which almost brought the young colony of New South Wales to its knees. Grant Leigh Saunders produced this film - Pemulwuy - A War Of Two Laws.

EXCERPT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY GEORGE III: "You are to endeavour, by every possible means, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. King George III."

JIM KOHEN: Pemulwuy is 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.

ERIC WILLMOT: This war wasn't a scrap between a bunch of Bidgigals and a bunch of British. This was a war of worlds, of two different worlds. The British believed in their world. And Pemulwuy believed in his. And the British had every right to believe in their world and to try and preserve it. But not in Australia. They had a right to do that in Britain. Pemulwuy had a right to do that here. In fact, he was the keeper of it. So he was the keeper of the nature of Old Australia.

RICHARD GREEN: Pemulwuy was a Bidgigal man. Bembul means earth, he had that as a child. When he grew to be a man, he became Bembul Wuyan. The earth and crow. And that's what his name represents, the earth and the crow. And in all reality, intentions and purposes, if he was to return today, he might not recognise me as being part of his clan. You know, because he wasn't very impressed with the mix of cultures. He preferred that we stayed within our own peoples.

ERIC WILLMOT: Aboriginal people are very careful about their genetic health and their population levels. And he was a child who was born with a turned eye. Normally, a child that showed an obvious deformity would've been, well, people would have expected that child to be sent back, to be reborn again. It was generally thought that humans, like everything, came from the land. And that a woman, the actual act of conception, was a woman being infected by a child's spirit from the land. And that child grows within her. And so 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 run further, he was one of the best, he could use a spear like no-one else could. And so, around him, was created an aura of difference. So much so that he was said to be a clever man. In an Aboriginal society, clever man is often a man who deals with the spiritual nature of things and sorcery even.

LORNA MUNRO: He is supposed to be a clever fella. You know, this is sorcery. This is black magic. But he had the support of his ancestors Because they all probably knew, you know, the degradation and pain that was going to be felt, you know.

LEANNE TOBIN: The crow was something that was associated with him. We call him Butu Wargun, which is black crow. And he was thought to be able to have the power to change into a crow.

RICHARD GREEN: Yeah, he was a kadachi, man. He was a real lawman. He was a well trained doctor. Not so much a witch doctor but a doctor. Aboriginal people had forms of heart massage too. You know, they lived for a long time. And let's remember, people, let's get this serious and straight to the fact, we were running as fast as emus.

ERIC WILLMOT: So he was different. Bennelong, on the other hand, was a very normal Bidgigal kid. And they grew up together but always different. Then here they were. I think whatever happened, Pemulwuy was always going to be an accident about to occur.

RICHARD GREEN: The truth about Pemulwuy is that Bembul Wuyan, he lived amongst the British of the colony for two years. He was probably the first diplomat, apart from Bennelong.

ERIC WILLMOT: Bennelong seemed to get along pretty well with the British. But Pemulwuy didn't. So then I track back to find why he didn't like them. The next thing I found is that he was trading meat with them because, at that stage, the British colony in Sydney was pretty short of meat and Pemulwuy's people were very good hunters. He would trade meat for them, for other things, but the trade broke down. And the trade broke down mainly because of the arrival of the New South Wales Corps, which was a bunch of soldiers who were not very interested in soldiering. Jail-keepism - more interested in stealing land off people.

JIM KOHEN: I think there was a combination of two things going on in that early settlement period. There was certainly hostilities by the Europeans against the Aboriginal people which caused retaliation - no question about that. But there was also the removal of food resources. If you have Aboriginal people netting with a small net or catching fish with a hook and line, then you remove a small proportion of the fish from an area. The Europeans had large seine nets and they removed all the fish from a bay.

ERIC WILLMOT: All the land around the harbour of Tu-bow-gule, they took, they put fences on it and made it theirs. And they did the same around Botany Bay or Kamay. They did it right up the Georges River, the Parramatta River, right out as far as the Hawkesbury. And Pemulwuy watched them do it. I mean, you'd have to be Blind Freddy not to know what the British were up to. And he saw what they did. He saw them making these things called farms. He saw the way they used, worked them.

JIM KOHEN: When the first farms were established along the Hawkesbury River, they dug out the yam beds and the yam beds were the staples of the local people along that part of the river. So they were immediately forced to try to find other sources of food and when they took the crops, the potatoes and the corn the settlers were growing, they were seen as stealing what was Europeans' food and, indeed, it was Europeans' food. It wasn't theft from the point of view of the Dharug people, it was simply taking a new food resource which was growing on what had been their traditional land.

ERIC WILLMOT: Like with the treaty, like with the Americans did, the Americans are pretty smart at that. They wrote out treaties, they said, look, in return for the land, you can have this. But they never did that in Australia. Mainly because they didn't want to admit that Australia was owned by anyone. So they dreamt up this policy of Terra Nullius, which means a land that nobody owns. And on the base of that, they didn't justify whatever they did.

RICHARD GREEN: What the academics say, the non-Indigenous academics will tell you, is that the wars in this country started over fish. The ocean is full of fish - full of them. The wars in this country started over the disrespect, rape and murder of our women. And that's what it started over. McIntyre was responsible. He was called a gamekeeper. What he was was a provisioner. He was the equivalent of an army provisioner. And this was an army that was trying to eat off the land. Now, they couldn't eat off the land because if they went out there, they'd either get lost or mysteriously, they would die. I mean, Pemulwuy was said to have killed 20 people before all this started. If he did that, guess why he did. He found someone wandering around on the land and stealing what was the economy of the Bidgigal people. So he killed them. Which is what would happen in anywhere else in Australia.

LEANNE TOBIN: He was basically, you know, fighting the lawbreakers, the people who were breaking the law of this land, of this country. And so, you know, it depends on what side you're standing on. He was seen as a renegade, as someone who was, you know, a lawbreaker but he was actually enforcing the law in an Indigenous sense, yeah.

RICHARD GREEN: Pemulwuy lived amongst them for two years. One day, he was hunting, coming back with rue and more prey emu. He's coming back into the colony and he found these tracks. You know, he followed these tracks. These tracks were made by Tilmouth and McIntyre. McIntyre was the governor's gamekeeper. They'd both been running all around Rushcutters Bay, Gweagal area. (SIGHS) And disposing of our females, of our women, and in quite numbers. It's why Aboriginal people today never visit Rushcutters Bay. All right? Cos of what's been left. They used to have big rushes in there that they made spear tips from but that's where Tilmouth and McIntyre were disposing of the bodies.

JIM KOHEN: McIntyre was certainly killing Aborigines as he was going out hunting. If Pemulwuy's people of Bidgigal found bodies of their relatives, they would know who the killer was, and it's fairly clear that there was a responsibility on Pemulwuy for payback. He had to payback against the British for those who had killed his countrymen.

ERIC WILLMOT: So McIntyre was central to this. McIntyre was probably a crooked provisioner. Probably most provisioners have been crooked so McIntyre was nothing special. It was just that he took on Pemulwuy and he believed he could deal with Pemulwuy by intimidation. But with Pemulwuy, it didn't work. So he went out there, armed himself and with armed New South Wales Corps soldiers with him. And it's reported he put his gun down on the ground and told Pemulwuy to do likewise. To both disarm and let's talk. So Pemulwuy dropped his spears. McIntyre picked up the gun and tried to shoot Pemulwuy but, imagine, to stand in front of Pemulwuy, with a spear in his hand, and think you're going to shoot him before he can stick it in you. And of course, he killed McIntyre.

JIM KOHEN: He did that by spearing McIntyre with a death spear which was armed with two rows of barbs, stone barbs, and the idea of the death spear was that when the person was speared, when the spear shaft came out, the stones would stay inside so they'd break off and stay inside. And then, of course, over a period of time, the person who'd been speared would die.

ERIC WILLMOT: And eventually, he did this thing, a lot of the Europeans did. A bedside confession, you know. "I have done thee wrong. Before the eyes of my God" or whatever "I confess to these things." In thought, that such a confession would somehow remove the guilt. And he did that and was reported on by Collins and Doors both. And he confessed to all sorts of depredations.

EXCERPT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY WATKIN TENCH: "He was of the Catholic persuasion, but on being brought to the hospital he desired to have the clergyman sent for, to whom he confessed that he had been a bad man, and desired his prayers. Watkin Tench."

JIM KOHEN: He wasn't specific but he indicated that he'd done many things that he shouldn't have done in his life and clearly killing Aborigines was one of them.

RICHARD GREEN: Now that's what caused Bembul Wuyan, Gumbedi, Nagingeri, many other men to turn their backs on white people, on the colonists, on the invaders. And they left the community, Bembul Wugan left, had nothing more to do with the white people and declared war on them. And what a war it was.

JIM KOHEN: Following the death of McIntyre, following that spearing, he was involved in a number of attacks on farmers across his traditional country. Not only his own clan, not only the Bidgigal people, but he was also leading other people from Liverpool, from Prospect Hill and probably the South Creek people as well. Leading them in attacks against European settlement. Basically trying to drive them off his land.

LORNA MUNRO: The important thing that I want people to know is that the surrounding tribes, they united because of Pemulwuy. They united because they knew they had a strong leader and they knew they had someone that was going to die for them if that needed be.

EXCERPT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY WATKIN TENCH: "Phillip's harsh orders were given for a reason - to demonstrate and shore his own authority in the precarious colony. The Eora were treated kindly and indulged when they behaved well, but if they persisted in killing and thieving they had to be given a terrifying lesson in the awesome might and ruthlessness of 18th-century British justice. Watkin Tench."

ERIC WILLMOT: The Rum Corps felt that Phillip should make an example of Pemulwuy coming. And Phil was happy to do that. Phillip had had enough of it by this time and said, yeah, Watkin Tench, go out and bring him in. And they said, the Rum Corps said, no, it's got to be more than that. He said, well, bring his head in. Bring six Bidgigal heads in. And it was an extraordinary expedition for the small military resources that colony had. They seemed to all be sent out into the bush, lead by none other than a marine captain named Watkin Tench. And off they went. They never saw hide or hair of Pemulwuy. So that was also to be expected but then they arranged another expedition after him.

RICHARD GREEN: With simple spears, rocks, boomerangs, stones, he defeated the British army that they sent here. Every single soldier except for Watkin Tench, that they sent in pursuit of Pemulwuy either walked back into the community with their saddle over their shoulders or they didn't make it back.

ERIC WILLMOT: Now, the British were armed with firearms, muskets, and Pemulwuy's people were armed with spears and clubs and shields. So it didn't seem to me they were much of a match for each other. Now, if that was the case, I found it an extraordinary puzzle that he could keep this constant conflict up for 12 years. But then I found the muskets and the spears were not the weapons of that conflict.

JIM KOHEN: The expeditions that went out to try to hunt him down were largely unsuccessful because he had a lot of support within the Aboriginal community not just the inland people, not just his own groups, but also the coastal people. So he could move freely between the mouth of Botany Bay and Liverpool and up to Parramatta and across to the Hawkesbury without any problems.

ERIC WILLMOT: The weapons on the British side were two things - diseases, introduced by the British, and the settlers, terribly determined to take this land And on Pemulwuy's side, a remarkable weapon - fire. A weapon that this country had known since humans began here. And, uh, Pemulwuy used it as a weapon. And it was that weapon that did two things. First of all, it terrorised the British and forced them further and further back towards where they arrived at the harbour of Chibigul, or Port Jackson as they call it. The second was, it prevented them feeding themselves. If they tried to grow crops, Pemulwuy burnt them. If they tried to grow animals, cattle or, I suppose, sheep, eventually, he'd kill them. And presumably ate them. So it was a war, a strange sort of war, of attrition.

RICHARD GREEN: Black fellas all along the country were coming along taking whatever they wanted. Big cows, sheep, they decimated them, ate the lot. Left the government of the day, well, the colony of the day, it wasn't a government just yet, but they left the people of the colony starving and on the brink of desolation.

JIM KOHEN: They would sneak up on their enemies, they might light a fire and drive the enemies in a particular direction. They would have a group of people, spears at the ready, to spear the people who came out of huts for example. The question of whether or not it was a tactic of war is a little misleading because it wasn't war in the sense that the Aboriginal people recognised it, it was perhaps war in the sense that Europeans saw it, they were being attacked and so they retaliated. But 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 would come on to their land uninvited.

RICHARD GREEN: When they speak about guerrilla warfare, he was basically one of the first men to even use it. And we're talking about people from all over the world. OK, we're referring to that term today, he was one of the very first men to ever use it. Tactics of hit and run. Hit and run. Hit and run. OK, so his tactics were beyond the British to even combat.

EXCERPT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY PHILLIP GIDLEY KING:"They are to fire on any native or natives they see and if they can, pursue them with a chance of overtaking them. Every means is to be used to drive them off, either by shooting them or otherwise. Government and General Order, Phillip Gidley King, 1801."

JIM KOHEN: Aboriginal people, in Sydney and indeed in other parts of Australia, certainly believe that smallpox was intentionally introduced and probably other diseases as well.

ERIC WILLMOT: Some people say, and the British argued at the time, smallpox may have endemic, it may have, in fact, existed in Australia. I was very curious about that and I chased it back every way I can and I could find no evidence that that disease ever existed in Australia.

RICHARD GREEN: It didn't come from the Macassans, we'd been trading with the Macassans for thousands of years. OK, why didn't smallpox occur thousands of years ago?

JIM KOHEN: The question of whether smallpox was intentionally introduced is a difficult one because we don't have a lot of primary information. What we do know is that some of the surgeons who came on the First Fleet had scabs from smallpox with them.

RICHARD GREEN: It's because they brought it in vials on the Sirius. Because they brought it as an attempt at germ warfare and they spread it throughout our blankets, they put it on the top of bottles, and taught our children how to blow the bottles and play ring a ring o' rosie. All right?

ERIC WILLMOT: And some cases, the infection would render the people that it was infected immune. But in other cases, it started an epidemic. And I think, by that stage, that group of British, centred on the Rum Corps, were crooked and bent enough to do it. But whether they actually did it, no-one will ever know. I don't think. I'd hate the job of trying to prove it one way or the other.

JIM KOHEN: We do know that in the Americas, some of the officers who had served in the US, in the Americas, and then came to Australia had been involved in the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans, which caused massive depopulation there. So on balance, I suspect that it was intentionally introduced because it was introduced in 1789 at a time when there were hostilities between the British and the Aboriginal people. There were no friendly contacts - there had been initially but after the Europeans killed some Aboriginal people, contacts diminished. So one of the ways of protecting the settlement would be to depopulate the native population and this could be by introducing smallpox into the local Aboriginal people.

ERIC WILLMOT: So by that time, it was a confirmed war. Phillip began it by trying to attack the man but to send out just about, you know, a big a military force as the colony could muster to chase one man. You know, that was crazy. That was an act of war. So it was obvious. What do you send a whole bunch of military personnel out into the bush, armed to the teeth, determined to bring someone back, dead or alive, or kill them, if it's not an act of war?

JIM KOHEN: How much was Pemulwuy worth to the government? It depended who you were. If you had a life sentence or a 14 year sentence, your sentence would be commuted if you killed Pemulwuy.

EXCERPT FROM A LETTER WRITTEN BY PHILLIP GIDLEY KING:"To a prisoner for life or 14 years, a conditional emancipation. To a person already conditionally emancipated, a free pardon and a recommendation for a free passage to England. To a settler, the labour of a prisoner for 12 months. To any other descriptions of persons, 20 gallons of spirits and two suits of slops. Government and General Order, Phillip Gidley King, 1801."

JIM KOHEN: 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.

MIRIAM COROWA: Well, I hope you've enjoyed the first episode of our two-part series on Pemulwuy. Please tune in next week to learn more about this extraordinary character of 18th and 19th-century Australian history.