Pemulwuy (c1750 – 1802) was an Aboriginal Australian man born around 1750 in the area of Botany Bay in New South Wales. He is noted for his resistance to the European settlement of Australia which began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. He is believed to have been a member of the Bidjigal (Bediagal) clan of the Eora people. He is known as the Rainbow Warrior.
Clashes between Pemulwuy and the British settlers
Pemulwuy was the leader of the Bidjigal people and lived near Botany Bay.
The account of Watkin Tench describes a clash between the British settlers and Pemulwuy in 1790. He relates how Governor Philip’s gamekeeper John McIntyre was speared by one Aboriginal man who was part of a group of five. The man who threw the spear was identified as having speck or blemish on his left eye, and having been recently shaved, which would indicate previous friendly contact with the British. The group was pursued by the settlers with muskets, but they escaped. The man who threw the spear was later identified by Colbee as Pemulwuy. Tench suspected that McIntyre had previously killed Aboriginal people, and noted the fear and hatred that the Aboriginal people, including Bennelong showed towards him.
Governor Philip ordered two military expeditions against the Bidjigal led by Tench in retaliation for the attack on McIntyre. He regarded the Bidjigal as the most aggressive towards the British settlers and intended to make an example of them. He ordered that six of their people be captured or if they could not be captured that they be put to death. It was Philip’s intention to execute two of the captured people and to send the remainder to Norfolk Island. He also ordered that he “strictly forbids, under penalty of the severest punishment, any soldier or other person, not expressly ordered out for that purpose, ever to fire on any native except in his own defence; or to molest him in any shape, or to bring away any spears, or other articles which they may find belonging to those people.” The Aboriginal people present in Sydney refused to assist in tracking, with Colbee feigning injury. The first expedition failed, with the heavy loads carried by the British military making them no match for the speed of the Aboriginal people. During the second they took women prisoners and shot at two men. One of whom, Bangai, was wounded and later found dead.
Pemulwuy persuaded the Eora, Dharug and Tharawal people to join his campaign against the newcomers. From 1792 Pemulwuy led raids on settlers from Parramatta, Georges River, Prospect, Toongabbie, Brickfield and Hawkesbury River.
In March 1797, following a pursuit by settlers, Pemulwuy led 100 men and confronted the British troops in Parramatta. Pemulwuy was shot seven times and taken to hospital. Five others were killed instantly. This incident has more recently become known as the Battle of Parramatta. Despite still having buckshot in his head and body, and wearing a leg-iron, Pemulwuy escaped from the hospital. This added to the belief that he was a carradhy (clever man).
He led several attacks which resulted in head-on confrontations with the New South Wales Corps, including the sacking of the Lane Cove settlement and the capture of Parramatta.
Pemulwuy used guerrilla tactics in fighting similar to those used by other Aboriginal groups on the frontier. He was the first to show the British settlers that the Aboriginal peoples were going to resist colonisation. Pemulwuy was followed by other rebels, including Yagan in Perth, who have become well known.
Governor Phillip Gidley King issued an order on 22 November 1801 for bringing Pemulwuy in dead or alive, with an associated reward. The order attributed the killing of two men, the dangerous wounding of several, and a number or robberies to Pemulwuy.
In 1802 Pemulwuy was shot and killed by British sailor Henry Hacking. Hacking was the first mate of the English sloop Lady Nelson. Pemulwuy was decapitated and his head was preserved in spirits. It was sent to London to Sir Joseph Banks accompanied by a letter from Governor King, who wrote: “Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.”
Following the death of Pemulwuy Governor King wrote to Lord Hobart that on the death of Pemulwuy he was given his head by the Aboriginal people as Pemulwuy “had been the cause of all that had happened”. The Governor issued orders with immediate effect to not “molest or ill-treat any native”, and to re-admit them to the areas of Parramatta and Prospect from which they had been forcibly excluded.
Pemulwuy’s skull is believed to have been returned to Australia in the 1950s but was lost. In 1998 a skull was identified as Pemulwuy’s, but a controversy has developed. A group of Aborigines from Taree believe that the skull is that of a Taree man. The Aboriginal undertaker Allan Murray, from Redfern, believes it is Pemulwuy’s. He is working to have the skull reinterred and a memorial statue erected.
The Sydney suburb of Pemulwuy, New South Wales named after him as well as Pemulwuy Park in Redfern, New South Wales. Opinions are divided on this – one camp considers it odd that a man who fought against settlement here should give his name to just such a settlement, the other that by carrying his name, the locality itself will guarantee his memory as a legacy.
Australian composer Paul Jarman composed a choral work entitled Pemulwuy. It has become an Australian choral standard, and was performed by the Biralee Blokes in their victory in the ABC Choir of the Year 2006.