I ask you to imagine a new movie, a big budget Australian masterpiece. The star character being an historical Australian, charismatic and brave, a historical character who resisted the authorities and is an inspiration to many people today. No, I am not talking about Ned Kelly. I refer to the Aboriginal resistance warrior Pemulwuy. My research has found that Pemulwuy’s story is eligible for the big screen. This is a story that will lead to more positive Australian identities, for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It is clear that Pemulwuy is being celebrated in many forms in our culture; still, he deserves more collective memory.
There are books and a new ABC documentary about his life, yet some readers may ask who Pemulwuy was. Pemulwuy lived near Botany Bay, he was the leader of the Bidjigal people of the Darug language group. Born around 1750 New South Wales, Pemulwuy is noted for his guerrilla campaign against the British, from 1790 to his death in 1802. My research concluded that Pemulwuy used relatively successful guerrilla tactics in fighting, similar to those used by other Aboriginal groups on the frontier. Pemulwuy appears to be among the first to show the British settlers that the Aboriginal peoples were going to resist colonisation of their lands. Pemulwuy was followed by other ‘rebels’, including Yagan in Perth, who have become relatively well known.
Why is Pemulwuy being remembered? There is some evidence Pemulwuy persuaded the Eora, Dharug and Tharawal people to join his campaign against the newcomers. From 1790 Pemulwuy led raids on settlers from Parramatta, Georges River, Prospect, Toongabbie, Brickfield and Hawkesbury River. Between 1790 and 1797, Pemulwuy and his followers had killed at least 17 European settlers in the Sydney-Parramatta area, mainly in guerrilla style ambushes. These warriors, brave and united, posed considerable problems to the young colony. Indeed, a warrior from the Eora could throw four spears in the time it took an Eighteenth Century British soldier to reload his flintlock musket. As impressive as these facts are in theory, the reality of these conflicts gave distinct and increasing advantage to the European guns. Nevertheless, Pemulwuy’s resistance continued throughout the decade.
In 1797 Pemulwuy was chased with hundreds of his people to Parramatta. His large congregation of allied warriors had at this point, ransacked many farms in the northern Parramatta region, and killed whoever got in their way. The event that followed involved what can be called the first battle on Australian soil. According to the sources, there were relatively few conventional exchanges in the history of indigenous resistance; this makes the battle an important event. In March, the indigenous war band, said to be one hundred men strong, confronted a large group of British troops and armed settlers at Parramatta. Pemulwuy taunted the British and charged into battle. Many people were killed, including fifty, or more of Pemulwuy’s men. Pemulwuy was wounded and captured, but later escaped. The ‘Battle of Parramatta’ must have been quite the event, hundreds of spears jaunting through the air, lines of redcoats firing muskets, the wounded, dead and dying scattered piecemeal. Potentially the stuff of Hollywood, certainly the stuff that inspires national pride and nostalgia.
Pemulwuy continued to lead raids around lane Cove and the Hawkesbury during the period after 1797 to 1802. According to the historical sources, there are clear examples of Pemulwuy using economic warfare, mainly the slaughter of British livestock, and burning down houses and farms. Resistance tactics similar to these were to be used for over a hundred years in the frontier war. Pemulwuy’s warriors killed many settlers. It is clear from the sources that Pemulwuy preferred these guerrilla tactics over conventional ones, perhaps as a result from losing the battle at Parramatta. In 1802, Pemulwuy, the man who was never afraid of European guns, was shot dead by British sailors. Pemulwuy’s twelve year resistance was continued by his son, but few other Aboriginal warriors were as successful as the ‘rainbow warrior’.
I suggest that Pemulwuy’s story rivals many others: William Tell in Switzerland, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Che Guevara in South America, George Washington in America, even Robin Hood in England. Unfortunately, his collective memory does not. Nevertheless, Pemulwuy still makes headlines. In 2008, Prince William agreed to act upon a request put to him by Aboriginal elders to assist in returning Pemulwuy’s missing skull. Many prominent contemporary artists are clearly inspired by his legacy, especially indigenous art. In 2009, Brenda Saunders made headlines with her creation the Pemulwuy cloak. The popular artist Ron Hurley painted Pemulwuy as he was one of his most cherished heroes. Pemulwuy has featured heavily in contemporary music. Many indigenous musicians write music inspired by Pemulwuy, including James Asher, Paul Jarman and the Birralee Blokes. Interestingly his legacy does extend further than indigenous culture, the triennial singing event Pemulwuy National Voice Festival is for Australian singers of all ages and backgrounds. The organisers of this event are non-indigenous, yet they still pay homage to the resistance leader in every show.
Pemulwuy’s story is too long to discuss here in detail. I encourage any interested readers to delve deeper into this fascinating colonial history. I agree with author David Dale in 2008 when he calls for a modern movie that represents Pemulwuy’s resistance. Dale calls for Geoffrey Rush as Arthur Phillip, Guy Pearce as Watkin Tench, the humane officer who leads many patrols after him. The story would include many heroes and villains. But who has the charisma to be Pemulwuy? I suggest there would be many young indigenous artists that would be honoured to represent a national hero to many of them. The Pemulwuy story would make a great Australian movie with an enduring message. More importantly, it would confirm, to indigenous Australians, that many Australians value their history, their heroes, and their struggles.
WHO WE ARE: The man who nearly changed everything A column about Australia by David Dale, published in The Sun-Herald, 16/2/2008 http://blogs.sunherald.com.au/whoweare/archives/2008/03/who_we_are_the_11.html
Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia (UNSW Press, 2007)
David Collins. An account of the English colony in New South Wales (vol. 2, 1797) http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/album/ItemViewer.aspx?itemid=846072&suppress=N&imgindex=49
Willmot, E., 1987, Pemulwuy – The Rainbow Warrior, Weldons.( A fictionalised recount using early colonial documents as source)