The Rainbow Warrior

Last night I watched (on the computer) the last two episodes of Message Stick telling the story of Pemulwuy (c. 1750-1802).

Pemulwuy was a Bidjigal warrior who led the Eora and surrounding nations in the first major response to the invading British from 1790 to 1802. Indeed, the lands we’ve come to know as Sydney were occupied during the last 14 years of his life. He has been described as a leader of his people and in 1790 was estimated as being around 30 years of age. The name Pemulwuy means "earth: man of earth" and he is believed to have been born around 1756. What makes Pemulwuy stand out from other patriot Aboriginal war heroes who resisted the British invasion like Wiradjuri warrior Windradyne in New South Wales, Yagan, a Nyungar from southern Western Australia and Jundamurra from northwest Western Australia, was the fact that Pemulwuy led the first major response against the British. The other was the attitude of the British and some of their descendants towards him was to not only destroy him physically but to attempt to obliterate the very existence of him from this unknown history. Until recently his name never appeared in any white Australian history books… – Gadigal Information Service.

I first read of him some twenty years ago in Eric Willmot’s novel Pemulwuy the Rainbow Warrior. At the time I wondered how much was true and how much fictional in that novel, but it appears it is essentially true. Eric Willmot is one of the speakers in the Message Stick program.

MIRIAM COROWA: Hello. I’m Miriam Corowa. Welcome to Message Stick. This week, the second part in our series on Pemulwuy. He was a traditional lawman of the Bidjigal clan, who are the original woodlands people of Toongabbie and Parramatta in Sydney. He was a warrior who almost brought the early settlement at Sydney Cove to its knees. And for the survival of the colony, a price was put on his head, literally. For 200 years, he was written out of history but now there’s pressure to find Pemulwuy’s remains and restore his reputation. Grant Leigh Saunders produced Pemulwuy: A War Of Two Laws.
DR JIM KOHEN: Pemulwuy’s clearly one of the first people we know about who actively resisted white settlement. We know that he caused the Government a great deal of concern. He was listed as an outlaw. There was a price put on his head. So perhaps as the first in the Sydney region, he has special importance.
PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: He was different. And he became more different. He became better than everybody else. Whatever anyone else could do, Pemulwuy did it better. He could use a spear like no-one else could. And so around him was created an aura of difference.
DR JIM KOHEN: From the point of view of Pemulwuy and many of his followers, they were simply doing what was traditionally their right to do, that was to remove people who had come onto their land uninvited. It was important to the Government that he be stopped and so they were prepared to grant major concessions to anybody of any social status who could kill or capture Pemulwuy.
ACTOR READS: "With the ripening of the maize fields, the depredations of the natives returned. On the 19th, the governor received a dispatch from Parramatta, containing an account that a man had been murdered by them near Toongabbie, and three others severely wounded. And a few days after, two others were killed in the same manner. It became, from these circumstances, absolutely necessary to send out numerous well-armed parties and attack them wherever they should be met with. Judge Advocate, David Collins."
DR JIM KOHEN: It’s important to remember that when we hear about these interactions between Aboriginal people and the early settlers, we’re seeing the white point of view and not seeing the Aboriginal point of view. We know, for example, in 1800, that Governor King issued a proclamation that Pemulwuy and his people around Parramatta, Liverpool, Georges River, Prospect, could be killed on sight. And if you read George Caley’s account, he explains that the reason that that government order was issued was because some convicts had let some of the sheep wander off, they were afraid of being punished so they blamed the Aborigines for killing the sheep and threatening them. So this order was issued that any Aborigine could be shot west of Parramatta.
PROFESSOR ERIC WILLMOT: Things that happened that don’t make sense. For instance, historically, Pemulwuy attacked Parramatta before Toongabbie. Now, by that time, I knew Pemulwuy well enough, in my view, to believe he wouldn’t do that. He would have attacked Toongabbie first. Then Parramatta. Parramatta was, by far, the most heavily fortified. Pemulwuy was no mug. If he was a mug, they would have killed him, you know, six years before.
RICHARD GREEN: He burnt to the ground, Toongabbie. Toongabbie. And a lot of military tacticians… "Well, why did he pull up there?" And it’s even in the account of the Rainbow Serpent, you know? He burns Toongabbie to the ground and then he stopped. He stopped because his woman was murdered in Sydney while he was away. And he couldn’t return to Sydney while her spirit was still displaced. It would be six months before he got back to Sydney. So he pulled up at Toongabbie, which is the real area of Burramatta…


Jim Kohen wrote the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Pemulwuy. Richard Green is a descendant of Pemulwuy’s people. His contributions come from stories passed down through his family; many would discount such stories as historical evidence on much the same grounds that my own family history can only incorporate such tales with due caution given – my own descent from the Dharawal being a case in point – but a major difference is that my family suppressed the stories and Richard Green’s didn’t.

From the ADB:

From 1792 Pemulwuy led raids on settlers at Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River. In December next year David Collins reported an attack by Aborigines who ‘were of the Hunter’s or Woodman’s tribe, people who seldom came among us, and who consequently were little known’. He also reported that ‘Pe-mul-wy, a wood native, and many strangers, came in’ to an initiation ceremony held at yoo-lahng (Farm Cove) on 25 January 1795. Collins thought him ‘a most active enemy to the settlers, plundering them of their property, and endangering their personal safety’. Raids were made for food, particularly corn, or as ‘payback’ for atrocities: Collins suggested that most of the attacks were the result of the settlers’ ‘own misconduct’, including the kidnapping of Aboriginal children.

To check at once ‘these dangerous depredators’, military force was used against Pemulwuy and his people. Captain Paterson directed that soldiers be sent from Parramatta, with instructions to destroy ‘as many as they could meet’ of the Bediagal. In March 1797 Pemulwuy led a raid on the government farm at Toongabbie. Settlers formed a punitive party and tracked him to the outskirts of Parramatta. He was wounded, receiving seven pieces of buckshot in his head and body. Extremely ill, he was taken to the hospital. Yet, late in April that year when the governor met several parties of natives near Botany Bay Pemulwuy was among them. Having ‘perfectly recovered from his wounds’, he had ‘escaped from the hospital with an iron about his leg. He saw and spoke with one of the gentlemen of the party; enquiring of him whether the governor was angry, and seemed pleased at being told that he was not’.

Pemulwuy’s close escapes resulted in the Darug believing that firearms could not kill him. In Collins’s words: ‘Through this fancied security, he was said to be at the head of every party that attacked the maize grounds’. On 1 May 1801 Governor King issued a government and general order that Aborigines near Parramatta, Georges River and Prospect could be shot on sight, and in November a proclamation outlawed Pemulwuy and offered a reward for his death or capture.

Pemulwuy was shot dead about 1 June 1802 by Henry Hacking. George Suttor described the subsequent events: ‘his head was cut off, which was, I believe, sent to England’. On 5 June King wrote to Sir Joseph Banks that although he regarded Pemulwuy as ‘a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character’. He further wrote: ‘Understanding that the possession of a New Hollander’s head is among the desiderata, I have put it in spirits and forwarded it by the Speedy’. The head has not been found in an English repository to date.

Pemulwuy’s son Tedbury (d.1810), known as Tjedboro, also threatened colonists. He became attached to John Macarthur, who allowed him to come and go at Elizabeth Farm. After Governor Bligh was placed under military arrest in 1808, Tedbury, armed with a bundle of spears, went to Macarthur’s cottage in Sydney and reportedly said that he had come to spear the governor. Next year he and Bundle attempted to rob a traveller on the Parramatta road, and he also took part in an attack on the farm of a settler at Georges River. In 1810 Tedbury was shot by Edward Luttrell at Hobartville, Richmond, and died of his wounds. He had a wife and possibly a son Tommy Dadbury, who was living with the Wianamattagal clan at Penrith in 1837.

Historians argue about the nature and extent of Aboriginal resistance to European settlement of Australia, but if one person can be identified who clearly carried out armed warfare against the settlers of early Sydney it was Pemulwuy. He has become a heroic figure to Aborigines, and Eric Willmot published a novel about him in 1987.

Pemulwuy was not entirely written out of history. Anyone reading the sources would have found a great deal about him. It is true, however, that the much more compliant Bennelong, a member of the same people as Pemulwuy, was foregrounded and Pemulwuy discounted.

See also Pemulwuy Pemulwoy, Pemulwy, Pemulwei: Justice or War?

There is no doubt his story belongs to all of us now and should be given its proper place in accounts of early Sydney.

Shire people will note that Henry Hacking, of Port Hacking fame, was almost certainly Pemulwuy’s killer. See Australia’s oldest murder mystery.

Prince William promised when visiting Redfern earlier this year to see what he could do about finding Pemulwuy’s head and having it returned to Sydney. He meant it too and has been doing what he can, but no-one is sure where it now is.


  • On my own family history, I am pleased to see the best of our family historians, Bob Starling, added to my page yesterday. The comment thread there has been very successful.