What do I know of Pemulwuy?

MHS member Gayle Adams reflects on history lessons.

When I was at high school we were taught that the French Revolution began as a glorious struggle for liberty by the wretched and disenfranchised people of France against the overwhelming power of the French monarch.

The revolution was an epic upheaval that raged during the 1790s and had repercussions for societies around the world. Ordinary people struggled for equality under the law and freedom from oppression. It happened 17,000 kilometres from my school in a foreign land, but we recognised Bastille Day every 14 July.

At the same time and in my own land, indigenous Australians had been engaged in a little-known but furious struggle. The mortal threat was from British interlopers who eventually so completely overcame them that this historic resistance and its leaders were for many years all but forgotten. 

One of those resistance leaders was Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal clan of the Eora nation. 

The only known portrait of Pemulwuy. By Samuel John Neele from the book “The Narrative of a voyage of discovery…” by James Grant. National Library of Australia (nla.cat-vn2312357)

I knew nothing of Pemulwuy for many decades, but he had been well-known in the years after the British arrived at Port Jackson. He came to Governor Phillip’s attention in 1790 when he reportedly speared and fatally wounded John McEntire, the colony’s convict game shooter, in an unprovoked attack when the two met on Cooks River near Botany Bay.

For Phillip, this was a pivotal moment in the engagement with the Eora people. It seems he had hoped there might be some accommodation between them. But Pemulwuy’s act was decisive and Phillip ordered punitive expeditions into the country behind Botany Bay with orders to take six Bidjigal warriors dead or alive. The expeditions were a failure but from then on Pemulwuy was an outlaw. 

I got to know a little of this remarkable man through Eric Willmot’s 1987 historical novel Pemulwuy: Rainbow Warrior. Willmot gives us an alternative account of McEntire’s killing which justifies Pemulwuy’s actions. It does not appear in official records but it does reflect suspicion that McEntire was a scourge of the Eora. 

Taking other historical events as his inspiration, Willmot fleshes out Pemulwuy’s life and his military campaigns. Pemulwuy planned his resistance around a very astute assessment of the weakness of the invaders. He studied where and when spear, club and shield could counter musket, pistol and sword.

The Eora faced many catastrophes: devastating disease and the loss of traditional lands and food sources to settlers, but Pemulwuy used the advantages he had. He worked alliances between tribal groups and gathered intelligence from local people. His warriors were agile, could move quickly and lightly through country to retreat quickly into safe territory after daring hit and run raids on strategic targets. They burned and pillaged crops, stock, grain stores, settlers’ homes and buildings over a wide area. 

In March 1797, Pemulwuy led a large body of warriors in attacks on settlers around Toongabbie and Parramatta. They were met with musket fire and Pemulwuy was wounded. He was detained under guard and in chains – not expected to live. His miraculous escape gave rise to the belief that he had supernatural powers and could transform himself into a crow to elude his captors. The colonists were wary of him.

Pemulwuy – The Rainbow Warrior, Jason Wing, 2019.
Ewen Park, Tennant Parade, Hurlstone Park. Photo: Gayle Adams

A tribal leader and a clever man with unusual powers, Pemulwuy was an intelligent observer of the British patterns of settlement as they spread from Sydney Town to the Hawkesbury, south toward the Illawarra and west toward the Blue Mountains. He well understood the inevitable outcome of British occupation for indigenous people and he knew that without resistance the Eora would be crushed.

His guerrilla war ranged widely across the Cumberland Plain and forced the British to constrain the spread of settlement to positions their limited resources could defend. Colonists travelled under arms. By 1802 his campaign of resistance was so effective that Governor King ordered every person in the colony to do their utmost to bring Pemulwuy in, dead or alive. 

I know a little more of this Australian hero now. He is remembered in small ways around Sydney. On the banks of Cooks River there is a splendid mural which depicts a solitary but powerful Pemulwuy canoeing on the waters in the guise of the crow – the ‘bird spirit of his birth’. In a final skirmish in 1802 he was shot dead, his body decapitated and its preserved head exported to England. 

His absence from my school history was not surprising: he and his comrades lost the war and the records of the victors prevailed. But when I think of the French Revolution nowadays, I remind myself of that other heroic struggle on my own doorstep by a small number of people determined to defend their land. 

Gayle Adams

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