The exhibition Bungaree: The First Australian is showing at Mosman Art Gallery at the moment, which pays homage to this important Aboriginal figure from Sydney’s early colonial days. Fascinated by images and accounts of him wearing discarded British military uniforms and imitating the city’s earliest governors, I decided to explore his story in the Dictionary of Sydney and spoke about it on 2SER Breakfast.
So who was Bungaree? Bungaree was part of the Garigal clan and was from Broken Bay, north of Sydney. During the early days of British settlement in Sydney, Bungaree adopted the role of a mediator between the English colonialists and Aboriginal people. But before he attained fame in our city’s history, he was something of an explorer. He sailed with the navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders to Norfolk Island in 1798 and Bribie Island the following year. Flinders wrote that Bungaree’s ‘good disposition and open and manly conduct had attracted my esteem’.
In 1801, Bungaree took part in the establishment of the first penal settlement at the Hunter River in Newcastle. Between 1802 and 1803 he became the first Australian-born person to circumnavigate Australia when he sailed with Flinders, again, on HMS Investigator. During this voyage, he used his knowledge of Aboriginal protocol to negotiate peaceful meetings with local Indigenous tribes.
Bungaree and his Broken Bay people settled on the north shore of Port Jackson. On 31 January 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him land at Georges Head in Mosman for himself and his people to farm. Bungaree had befriended Macquarie and became a prominent figure in what the Governor termed, the ‘Experiment towards the Civilization of these Natives’. Macquarie even had a brass breastplate gorget made, inscribed with the words ‘Boongaree, Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe, 1815’.
Historian Keith Vincent Smith describes Bungaree in detail in the Dictionary of Sydney. An intelligent man, Bungaree apparently had a penchant for impersonating governors and other local figures, copying their walk and mannerisms like a true entertainer. He used his talents to obtain clothes, tea, tobacco, bread, sugar and rum for himself and his people. As soon as any ship would enter Sydney Heads, Bungaree would arrive in his fishing boat, rowed by two of his wives. Dressed in a discarded British military jacket, tattered trousers and his trademark hat, he climbed aboard and welcomed newcomers to ‘his’ country. Doffing his hat, bowing deeply and grinning widely, he would ask to drink the captain’s health in rum or brandy.
In 1828, Bungaree and his clan moved to Sydney’s Domain, where he was seen naked and ‘in the last stages of infirmity’. The effects of age, alcoholism and malnutrition had taken its toll, and he was admitted to the General Hospital in 1830. He died at Garden Island on 24 November 1830 ‘in the midst of his own tribe and that of Darling Harbour, by all of whom he was greatly beloved’.
His distinctive image survives today, as he appears in 18 portraits and other illustrations created by artists of the time. The story, ‘Bungaree, King of the Blacks’ was published in Charles Dickens’ weekly journal All the Year Round in 1859, bringing the famous Sydney character to London readers.
Despite his reputation as a drunkard and a beggar in his later life, he remained a respected figure and was regarded as the most famous character to walk the streets of Sydney. And so may we remember King Bungaree – the flamboyant joker, the pioneer and Aboriginal leader – grinning from history’s pages wearing military attire and raising his trademark hat.
Listen to my Dictionary of Sydney segment at 2SER radio and have a read of the article at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.