From Bennelong’s place at Kissing Point I take the ferry back downriver and into the wind toward the point, now adorned with the opera house, that bears his name. It is where the first governor, Arthur Phillip, built Bennelong a small hut in which he lived, periodically, before opting in later years for a more traditional life.
In 1788 Phillip’s fleet entered the harbor that would become the gateway to Sydney.
However, it was already a primordial city, replete with monuments testifying to the timeless occupation of the Gadigal and others.
Peter Myers, a member of the design team for Sydney Opera House, has written of how, with the arrival of subsequent fleets, the new settlement was built atop the ancient.
There was a shortage of mortar lime in the colony. The solution seemed obvious to the invaders: As glue for the new buildings of hewn timber and stone, for the seawalls and jetties, the remnants of which still abound, they used the massive oyster shell mounds that stood around the edges of the harbor.
Myers has no hesitation calling these middens “shell monuments.”
“There are recorded sightings of shell monuments 12m high along the water’s edge [… equivalent to the height of the southern podium of Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House]. Can you imagine how many thousands of years of gathering and accumulation went into their making?” Myers said.
These, not the colonial and postcolonial statues of European explorers, were Sydney’s first monuments. They belonged to the landscape of Bennelong long before they were hacked down to make way for statuary in the images — or buildings erected in the name — of the colony’s first five governors, all known to him.
No monument, it seems, is permanent. As the landscape changed, as the first monuments crumbled, so, correspondingly, did many place names alter.
Long before the arrival of the Macassan trepangers, the Dutch or the British, the landscape — north, south, east, west — resounded with stories that charted the sky and the topography, the beasts and fish and all of the humans.
The land and waters had names that came from the stories. Some — Wollongong and Werribee, Nambucca and Naremburn, Barangaroo and Bomaderry — have remained.
However, elsewhere the nomenclature whites bestowed upon the landscape honors murderous white pioneers and their violent acts. So there are unresolved suggestions Mount Wheeler in Queensland, for example, was named after a “cruel and merciless” native police officer, Frederick Wheeler, who killed many Aboriginal people.
It is not far from Mount Jim Crow, the origins of the name remaining unclear, despite the clarity of its racist intent (I recently went looking for a Jim Crow Creek just outside Daylesford in central Victoria; the identifying sign had been removed from the narrow road bridge that crosses it).
Streets in Darwin and Alice Springs are named after William Willshire and Paul Foelsche respectively. They were murderous policemen who felt Aborigines were akin to animals.
Willshire wrote books about his maltreatment, including killing of Aboriginal men and sexual abuse of Indigenous women who were, he maintained, put on earth to satisfy the needs of white pioneering males.
As you drive around Australia, stop and think about some of the names you will see on creeks, roads and beaches. It is no coincidence there are so many places named Skeleton Creek in Queensland and Skull Creek in Gippsland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
There is a Murdering Gully in Victoria, a Skull Hole in Queensland and a Massacre Waterfall in central-west New South Wales.
I have walked the length of a lichen-lined furrow through a field of gold on the Atherton Tableland, wondering if the howling wind might not be the spirits crying.
For the place, Boonjie — which was renamed Butchers Creek with the massacre of its custodians in 1887 — is alive with distressed spirits, a descendant of the dead has assured me.
The continent, seeded with indigenous names and stories, has been progressively renamed in places not to commemorate the deaths of First Nations people, but the very act of murdering them.
The wild Australian west, meanwhile, was the scene of frontier violence that stretched well into the 20th century.
The pioneering families and figures involved in extreme acts of violence against the Aboriginal people and who “opened” (a euphemism like “dispersal” when it came to dealing with the hostile Indigenes) that country, are honored with statues, plaques and public spaces. They are people such as the Duracks and the Forrests, Canning and Stirling.
Stirling Gardens is named after colony founder and architect of the 1834 Pinjarra massacre, James Stirling.
Nearby on the corner of Barrack Street and St George’s Terrace stands an imposing bronze of Alexander Forrest — complete with slung rifle — surveyor, explorer of the Kimberley, Perth mayor and lawmaker. Alexander accompanied his brother John — first premier of Western Australia and explorer, whose sculpture is in Kings Park, Perth — on his early expeditions into the Kimberley and elsewhere.
As Western Australia historian Chris Owen wrote in his history of Kimberley policing, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905, John Forrest “had significant personal experience in coming into contact with Aboriginal groups hostile to his group’s presence during his three expeditions between 1869 and 1874. In June 1874 at Weld Springs Forrest had shot Aborigines himself when about ‘40 to 60 natives came’ running toward the camp, all plumed up and armed with shields and spears. These experiences would inform Forrest’s later judgements.”
Not too far away, on the banks of the Swan River, is a statue of the resistance fighter Yagan. His body, including his head, which was hacked off upon his death in 1833 and dispatched to England where it remained until 1997, is buried nearby. The statue had been in place since 1984.
A week after Yagan’s head was repatriated from Liverpool to Perth an anonymous vandal who claimed to be a “British loyalist” cut off and stole the statue’s head.
The restored statue was again beheaded in 2002 — an act that did not elicit a 10th of the media outrage that accompanied the vandalization of the Macquarie and Cook statues in Hyde Park at the height of the “statue wars” last year.
Still, Yagan — like Bennelong — has an official memorial. Which is more than can be said of so many remarkable Indigenous Australians, including Burigon, an Awabakal elder — from the Hunter region — whom the colonizers regarded as a bridge between the blacks and the whites around the secondary settlement of Newcastle in the second decade of the 19th century.
The 46th Regiment’s Captain James Wallis — of April 1816 Appin massacre infamy — won the thanks of governor Macquarie for his “zealous exertions and strict attention to fulfilling of the instructions” in that bloody military operation.
His reward was the command of Newcastle, where “Buriejoe,” as Wallis called Burigon, helped maintain peace between the redcoats and the tribes, and was instrumental in tracking the convict prisoners who frequently escaped.
Wallis, a writer and artist, detailed his relations with Burigon in his An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements (1821), a copy of which is held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
It includes a drawing — probably based on an original by convict and painter Joseph Lycett and engraved by fellow convict Walter Preston — of a corroboree staged for the visiting Macquarie in 1818.
“All the principal figures in the foreground are from original portraits; the tall figure laughing, on the left, is the chieftan [sic] or king of the Newcastle tribe, called Buriejoe — a brave, expert fellow, who has lately presented Governor Macquarie with his eldest son, to be placed in the native institution, as a proof of his confidence in British humanity,” Wallis wrote.
In 1820 Burigon died after an escaped prisoner whom the Aboriginal tracker had apprehended, John Kirby, stabbed him.
Kirby was the first white man to be tried and executed — he was hanged on Dec. 18, 1820 — for the murder of an Aboriginal person under British law. It was not an onerous precedent; convictions of white men for killing blacks on the colonial and postcolonial frontier would be few and far between for the next century and a half.
John Maynard, director of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre at Newcastle University, lamented how “the memory and tragedy of people like Burigon are sadly lost across time, forgotten and erased from history.”
“This is especially important for the non-indigenous community who walk past Aboriginal sites and history of significance daily and are totally unaware,” he said.
As the indigenous journalist and historian John Paul Janke said, Wallis’ time in Australia is commemorated with Wallis Street, Wallis Hill and Wallis Creek in the Newcastle district, Wallis Plains (now Maitland) and Wallis Island. Burigon is not noted in statuary or bronze.
“To my knowledge there is nothing named after Burigon in the region. There are no streets, no parks, no suburbs or statues,” Janke said.
However, Burigon did leave something of himself behind — the 10-year-old son he gave to Macquarie in September 1818, a few weeks after that corroboree.
However, once inside the walls of the Native Institution in Parramatta the child, who died there a few years later, was assigned a new identity. The records show the little Aboriginal boy was renamed Wallis.
Paul Daley is a Sydney-based author and journalist. He writes Postcolonial, a column about indigenous history and Australian identity, for the Guardian. This is an edited extract from the latest issue of Meanjin Quarterly.
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