Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Forlorn Hope: Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie Go to England

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

The Forlorn Hope: Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie Go to England

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article covers aspects of Bennelong's and Yemmerrawannie's sojourn in England between 1793 and 1795 not previously published and provides a different explanation concerning the illness that eventually led to the death of Yemmerrawannie. I also argue that both men were not paraded as curiosities but, rather, treated with respect.

Initially, the subject of this article was to be the experience of a little-known Aboriginal youth's sojourn in England. However, as the story unfolded and it became apparent that the youth's experiences were closely bound to those of his travelling companion, Bennelong, the focus had to be on both men.

Bennelong is arguably the best-known Aborigine in the history of white Australia. Almost every Australian has a little knowledge of him and many will be aware he visited England. But ask who the other Aborigine was to sail with him aboard the Atlantic on 11 December 1792 and few will know the answer. Yem-mer-ra-wannie was the youth who `voluntarily and cheerfully' left his native shores to partner Bennelong on their voyage of adventure. Both `were very much attached' (Collins 1971:251) to Governor Arthur Phillip and in all likelihood it was he who persuaded them to accompany him on his return to England.

As early as 3 December 1791, Phillip had written to Sir Joseph Banks: `I think that my old acquaintance Bennillon will accompany me when ever I return to England and from him when he understands English, much information may be obtained for he is very intelligent'. (1) Phillip was astute; he chose very carefully the two Aborigines who were to accompany him to England. Both men were intelligent and, having acquired sufficient European social skills, they could be expected to mix in British society reasonably well. Bennelong being the elder and more mature man was probably expected to assist and advise his youthful companion. The intention of their hosts was to expand the knowledge, understanding and language skills of their guests, with the hope that the two Aborigines would, on their return to Port Jackson, communicate valuable information to the British. Relating their experiences and newly acquired knowledge to their own people would, it was hoped, lead to a better understanding between the two disparate cultures. It was a forlorn hope.

It is obvious from the journals of Captain Watkin Tench that Yemmerrawannie was well known to the governor and his military aides. As early as September 1790, Tench gave a brief description of `Im-ee-ra-wan-yee', saying he was `a slender fine looking youth ... about sixteen years old' (1979:185). (The variation in the spelling of his name probably gives some indication to its actual pronunciation.) He had been initiated, as was the custom, by having a front tooth extracted. Tench, the ever-curious marine, remembered that Yemmerrawannie `suffered severely' following the initiation. The youth proudly `boasted the firmness and hardihood, with which he had endured it' (Tench 1979:278). The local name given to the elaborate initiation ceremony by the Cammeragal Clan, was Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang (Collins 1971:563-83). Captain David Collins and Tench both witnessed such a ceremony.

During September 1790, Tench and his compatriots (probably including the governor) were trying to marry off Yemmerrawannie to an Aboriginal girl who had been residing with the family of the Rev. Richard Johnson. Her name was Boo-ron but, from a mistaken pronunciation by the British, she acquired the name Ab-ar-o'o (Tench 1979:148). Bennelong was also a party to this matchmaking. Tench described the matchmaking scene thus:

   The lad, on being invited, came immediately up to her, and offered many
   blandishments, which proved that he had assumed the toga virilis [garment
   of virility or coming of age]. But Abaroo disclaimed his advances,
   repeating the name of another person, who we knew was her favourite.
   Imeerawanyee was not easily repulsed, renewing his suit later with such
   fervour as to cause an evident alteration in the sentiments of the lady. … 
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