Pemulwuy: Prominent Aboriginal Rebel Leader Murdered in 1802 AD

Pemulwuy was an Aboriginal Australian who lived during the 18 th century. This was the period when the Europeans began to colonize Australia. The arrival of the Europeans in Australia had a profound impact on the lives of the Aboriginals. This impact, however, was a negative one, and the Aboriginals began to resist the colonists. Pemulwuy became a prominent resistance leader and gained such a reputation that he was proclaimed an outlaw, and a reward offered for his death or capture. A year after this proclamation, Pemulwuy was shot dead. The identity of his killers, however, has remained a mystery. After the killing of Pemulwuy, the resistance leader corpse was decapitated, and his head sent to England. Unfortunately, the current location of Pemulwuy’s head is unknown.

Pemulwuy, also known as Pimbloy, in an 1804 painting by Samuel John Neele. (Samuel John Neele / Public domain)

Pemulwuy, also known as Pimbloy, in an 1804 painting by Samuel John Neele. (Samuel John Neele / Public domain )

Pemulwuy: An Oral History Passed to Many Generations

Although Pemulwuy was a significant figure in the Aboriginal resistance to the European colonization of Australia, there is not much information known about him. In addition, the written records about Pemulwuy are scarce. Nevertheless, these limited sources are complemented by stories about Pemulwuy that were transmitted orally from one generation of Aboriginals to the next.

Pemulwuy is said to have been born around 1750 AD. He belonged to the Bidjigal, one of the Aboriginal peoples whose lands “stretched from Botany Bay south of the Cooks River and west along the Georges River to Salt Pan Creek, south of Bankstown.” Pemulwuy himself was from Botany Bay area of Sydney, on Australia’s east coast.

Pemulwuy’s name is derived from the word “bembul,” which means “earth” or “clay” in Dharug, the language spoken by the Bidjigal. When he became a man, Pemulwuy became known as Bembul Wuyan, meaning “the earth and the crow.” He was also known as Butu Wargun, meaning “black crow,” and it was believed that Pemulwuy had the power to transform into a crow .

Little has been passed on about Pemulwuy’s early life. Instead, there has been more focus on his physical characteristics. For instance, Pemulwuy is said to have been a strong man, and that he was able to “carry three, four kangaroos in one arm.” More importantly, however, were two features that set Pemulwuy apart from the rest of the people. The first is that he has a speck or blemish in his left eye. The other is that he had a clubfoot. This means that one foot is rotated either inwards or downwards. According to Western medicine, this is a birth defect . It has been speculated, however, that in Pemulwuy’s case, this defect was not congenital. Instead, it has been claimed that Pemulwuy’s injury was deliberately inflicted with a club.

The reason for this deliberate injury to Pemulwuy’s foot is supposed to serve as an indication of his status as a “carradhy,” meaning a “clever man” or a man with supernatural powers. Indeed, Pemulwuy is said to have been a doctor or healer .

It is claimed, for instance, that Pemulwuy had remedies for curing smallpox, one of the diseases brought to Australia by the Europeans. The devastation caused by this disease on the Aboriginals was recorded by Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales. Governor Phillip reported that within 14 months of the arrival of the First Fleet (in 1788), half of the Aboriginals living in the Sydney region had been killed by smallpox. Apart from smallpox, other diseases brought by the Europeans to Australia included measles and influenza.

A 1966 Australian postage stamp celebrating explorer Captain James Cook, who discovered Australia when future Aboriginal rebel leader Pemulwuy was a young man. (laufer / Adobe Stock)

A 1966 Australian postage stamp celebrating explorer Captain James Cook, who discovered Australia when future Aboriginal rebel leader Pemulwuy was a young man. ( laufer / Adobe Stock)

The Settling of Australia By Europeans Began in 1788 AD

The settling of Australia by European colonists began in 1788. Prior to the arrival of the colonists, Australia was home to more than 500 Aboriginal groups, with an estimated population of 750,000. These groups developed over a period of over 60,000 years, and they learned to live in close relationship with the land.

In 1768, James Cook , who was a lieutenant at the time, undertook his first Pacific voyage. In 1770, Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia, and claimed it for the British Crown. Cook was back in Britain in 1771, and his reports inspired the British authorities to turn this newly claimed territory into a penal colony. This would not only alleviate the problem of overcrowded prisons in Britain, but also serve to expand the British Empire, assert their claim to the territory against other colonial powers, and to establish a British base in the southern hemisphere.

In 1786, Arthur Phillip was appointed captain of the HMS Sirius. He was commissioned to establish an agricultural work camp for British prisoners on Australia’s east coast. The 11 ships of the First Fleet carried about 1,500 colonists, most of whom were prisoners. The fleet set sail from England in May 1787  and arrived at its destination after eight months at sea.

Living conditions in the new colony during the first few years were harsh. The soil was poor, and the climate unfamiliar to the colonists. Moreover, most of the colonists had no farming experience. Although Phillip had requested many times for more experienced farmers prior to leaving Britain, these requests were always rejected.

As for the relations between the colonists and the Aboriginals, Phillip had been instructed to treat them well, and to maintain friendly relations with them. To some extent, the governor was able to achieve this, and trade was established between the colonists and the Aboriginals. Since Pemulwuy and his people were good hunters, they brought meat to the colony, and traded it for other goods. Starvation was a real threat to the survival of the colony, so this source of food must have been welcomed.

The maintenance of relations between the colonists and the Aboriginals, however, eventually proved to be impossible. This is due primarily to the opposing viewpoints held by the colonists and the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals had a “complex system of laws that governed social relations, behavior and resource use.” The colonists, however, were ignorant of this system, and perceived the Aboriginals as uncivilized. This would have certainly caused tension between the two groups.

In 1789, an outbreak of smallpox decimated the Aboriginal population, and sparked an internal crisis. Although this temporarily prevented open conflict, it added to the anger felt by the Aboriginals towards the colonists.

Artwork depicting the first contact between the fierce Gweagal Aboriginal people and British explorer James Cook and his crew on the shores of the Kurnell Peninsula, New South Wales, Australia. (Andrew Garran / Public domain)

Artwork depicting the first contact between the fierce Gweagal Aboriginal people and British explorer James Cook and his crew on the shores of the Kurnell Peninsula, New South Wales, Australia. (Andrew Garran / Public domain )

1790: First Open Conflict Between Aboriginals and Colonists

Open conflict between the Aboriginals and colonists eventually broke out in 1790, following the spearing of John McIntyre by Pemulwuy on 10 December of that year. McIntyre was one of three convicts appointed to serve as a gamekeeper in 1788. This meant that he was given the task of hunting game to provide meat for the colony. For this purpose, he was allowed to carry arms.

McIntyre had acquired a negative reputation amongst the Aboriginals and was feared and hated by them. He is said to have broken Aboriginal laws by trespassing on their land, and shooting animals revered by the Aboriginals as spirit ancestors. McIntyre is also suspected of violence towards the Aboriginals, and the man himself admitted to shooting an Aboriginal on one occasion.

Therefore, it is thought that Pemulwuy’s spearing of McIntyre was an act of retribution for the crimes committed by the gamekeeper. From the governor’s point of view, however, this was an unprovoked attack, as McIntyre was unarmed when he was speared. Consequently, Philip, who had been tolerant towards the Aboriginals, decided to retaliate.

A punitive raid, consisting of 50 marines and led by Captain Watkin Tench was organized. The goal was to kill six Aboriginal men at Botany Bay, and to capture two others for execution. The raid, however, was a failure, as the targeted Aboriginals had fled from the area.

From 1792, Pemulwuy launched a series of raids against the colonists. The first raid was at Prospect in May that year. Other places subsequently raided by Pemulwuy were Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill, and the Hawkesbury River.

Pemulwuy and his raiders would burn huts, steal maize crops, and attack the colonists. This guerrilla war was aimed at stopping, or at least slowing down the establishment of farming settlements on Bidjigal lands.

A depiction of the armed Aboriginal warriors that would have followed Pemulwuy into the Battle of Parramatta in 1797. (Museum Whisperings)

A depiction of the armed Aboriginal warriors that would have followed Pemulwuy into the Battle of Parramatta in 1797. ( Museum Whisperings )

Pemulwuy’s Strength and the 1797 Battle of Parramatta

One rather interesting incident during Pemulwuy’s war of resistance against the colonists was his encounter with John Caesar, nicknamed “Black Caesar,” an African bushranger. As bushrangers were escaped convicts, Caesar himself was on the colony’s wanted list. In late 1795, Caesar (who had returned to the colony at the time) was with a work party at Botany Bay when he was attacked by Pemulwuy and his warriors. Caesar managed to crack Pemulwuy’s skull, leading to the rumor that the Aboriginal leader was killed during the encounter.

The rumor turned out to be false. Over the course of the war, Pemulwuy was wounded many more times, and was even captured on several occasions. The wounds, however, did not kill him, and Pemulwuy managed to escape from captivity every time. This no doubt served to enhance his reputation as a “carradhy,” and as a leader of the Aboriginals. Another notable occasion when Pemulwuy was wounded (and captured) was during the Battle of Parramatta.

In March 1797, Pemulwuy led a raid on a government farm at Toongabbie. A vigilante group of armed colonists and soldiers eventually chased the Aboriginals, numbered around 100, to the outskirts of Parramatta. About an hour after the colonists entered the town, Pemulwuy and his warriors attacked.

The colonists returned fire, killing at least five Aboriginals with the first volley. Pemulwuy himself was severely wounded, as he had seven buckshot lodged in his head and body. Pemulwuy was captured and taken to a hospital for treatment. Not only did Pemulwuy survive his wounds, but he also succeeded in escaping from the hospital, whilst still in chains. Although the wounds Pemulwuy suffered at the Battle of Parramatta affected his ability to fight, he continued to lead the Aboriginal resistance against the colonists.

In 1801, the colonial government decided to take harsher measures in dealing with the Aboriginals. On 1 May, the governor, Philip Gidley King, issued a government and general order that allowed the colonists to shoot on sight any Aboriginals near Parramatta, Georges River, and Prospect. In November, a proclamation outlawing Pemulwuy was issued, along with the offer of a reward for his capture, dead or alive. The type of reward depended on the person’s status, which is as follows:

“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.”

Not long after this proclamation was issued, Pemulwuy met his end. On 2 June 1802, or shortly before, Pemulwuy was shot dead. His corpse was decapitated, and the severed head sent to England to Sir Joseph Banks, a well-known naturalist. The governor’s letter that accompanied the head described Pemulwuy as follows, “Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.” It is known that during the 19th century, Pemulwuy’s head was kept in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The current location of the head, however, is unknown.

Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay in 1770 in a painting by E. Phillips Fox; 32 years later the great aboriginal leader Pemulwuy was murdered by killers unknown. (E. Phillips Fox / Public domain)

Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay in 1770 in a painting by E. Phillips Fox; 32 years later the great aboriginal leader Pemulwuy was murdered by killers unknown. (E. Phillips Fox / Public domain )

Pemulwuy’s Killers Conveniently Unknown

It is also uncertain as to the identity of Pemulwuy’s killer. According to one account, Pemulwuy was killed by two colonists, whilst another suggests that a single man was responsible for his death. In either case, no names were given. This has led to some speculation, and Henry Hacking, the first mate of the sloop Lady Nelson , is popularly thought to have killed Pemulwuy. Others have suggested that Pemulwuy was probably killed by the colonists either from Parramatta, Toongbie, or Prospect.

The story of Pemulwuy’s resistance is one of the episodes in Australian history that has not received much attention. Nevertheless, it is still relevant even today, and there are attempts to bring it to a wider audience. Indeed, the story of Pemulwuy’s resistance serves to highlight the experience of the Aboriginals during the period of Australia’s colonization, and the suffering that was inflicted upon them.

Some efforts to communicate Pemulwuy’s story to a wider audience include the 2010 film Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws , produced by Grant Leigh Saunders, and a 2012 production titled I AM EORA by Wesley Enoch.

Top image: Though we do not have many images of Pemulwuy, the prominent Australian Aboriginal rebel leader of the late 18th century, we know he was strong like this man at an Aboriginal culture show in Queensland. Source: Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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