The Sydney Opera House is an architectural marvel, a miracle of form and light, and a worldwide symbol of Sydney. However, the man who gave his name to the location of the Opera House, Bennelong, is not as well known.
Who was Bennelong?
In 1789, the Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, was having difficulty communicating with the indigenous inhabitants of Sydney. That year he ordered Lieutenant Bradley to take some soldiers and capture two Aboriginal men.
Bradley took a boat and saw two Aborigines fishing. He lured them towards him with a large fish. As the men approached, Bradley and his company tripped them and forced them into the boat.
Bennelong was one of the Aboriginal men. He was a member of the Wangal clan and was destined to be the subject of an assimilation experiment.
Arthur Phillip planned to teach the Aboriginals the value of “civilisation”. After their capture they were introduced to the Governor. Then they were shackled at the ankles and roped to two keepers. The aim was to teach them English culture so they could explain the colonisers way of life to the indigenous population.
Bennelong’s friend escaped, but Bennelong remained. He was talented with languages and learnt English quickly. He was also exposed to English customs and clothing in an attempt to “civilise” him.
Bennelong eventually escaped his captors, but he made some overtures towards friendship. Soon he developed a good relationship with the Governor and opened a discourse between his people and the invaders. It was around this time, that according to legend, Phillip gave Bennelong some land on the harbour to build a home. This was later called Bennelong Point.
In 1792, Arthur Phillip returned to England and Bennelong accompanied him. Phillip introduced Bennelong to English society and Bennelong remained there for three years. In 1795, he returned to Australia with the new Governor, Hunter, whilst Phillip stayed in England.
When he disembarked in Sydney, Bennelong was dressed as an Englishman, ate at table with English manners and urged his fellow Aborigines to settle their problems like Englishmen. He also provided his wife with English clothes but she did not see the use of them. During his absence she had found another partner and was no longer interested in Bennelong.
Bennelong spent the later years of his life sadly caught between his own culture and the culture imposed upon him by the British. Governor Hunter was less sympathetic to the indigenous population than Phillip and the conflict between the two peoples was personified in Bennelong. He reportedly died during a tribal fight in 1813 and was buried at Kissing Point in Sydney.
The Sydney Opera House
In the 19th Century, during Governor Macquarie’s time, Bennelong Point was used as a fort. In the early 20th Century it was utilised as tram sheds. In the 1950s it was selected as the site of the Sydney Opera House.
Construction took many years and was plagued by problems including the resignation of architect Jorn Utzon. The building was finally opened in 1973.
Bennelong is remembered most famously in the name of the Sydney Opera House site, Bennelong Point. Parks, streets and societies are also named after him. His name remains a potent one in the history of Australia.
- Other Boundaries: Inner City Aboriginal Stories, by Diana Plater, Bagnell Publications (1994)
- A HIstory of Australia, Volume 1, by CMH Clark, Melbourne University Publishing (1993)
- Bennelong, the Aborigine, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1927.