Bungaree, or Boongaree (1775 – 24 November 1830), was an Aboriginal Australian from the Kuringgai people of the Broken Bay area north of Sydney, who was known as an explorer, entertainer, and Aboriginal community leader. He is also significant in that he was the first person to be recorded in print as an Australian, and the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent.
When Bungaree moved to the growing settlement of Sydney in the 1790s, Bungaree established himself as a well-known identity, as one able to move between his own people and the newcomers. He joined the crew of HMS Reliance on a trip to Norfolk Island in 1798, during which he impressed Matthew Flinders. In 1798 he accompanied Flinders (and his brother, Samuel Ward Flinders, a midshipman from the Reliance) on the sloop Norfolk on a coastal survey as an interpreter, guide and negotiator with local indigenous groups. Despite the lack of a common language, the indigenous people persistently sought Bungaree out to speak to instead of Flinders. And his mediation skills were greatly appreciated by the Europeans with whom he shared the ship. In 1799, to reach an agreement with local people in one particular situation, Bungaree gave them a spear and a spear thrower as gifts, showing them how to use them. It is referred to by Bronwen Douglas as a “cross-cultural act, signifying a reciprocal rather than a hierarchical relationship and challenging the reified notion of ‘cross-cultural’ as contact between opposed, homogenized ‘cultures’”, adding that “the Moreton Bay people probably took Bungaree for the leader of the expedition and the white men for his followers”.
He was recruited by Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia between 1801 and 1803 in Investigator. Flinders was the cartographer of the first complete map of Australia, filling in the gaps from previous cartographic expeditions, and was the most prominent advocate for naming the continent “Australia”. Flinders noted that Bungaree was “a worthy and brave fellow” who, on multiple occasions, saved the expedition. Bungaree was the only indigenous Australian on the ship – and as such, played a vital diplomatic role as they made their way around the coast, overcoming not-inconsiderable language barriers in places. According to historian Keith Vincent, Bungaree chose the role of a go-between, and was often able to mollify indigenous people who were about to attack the sailors, by taking off his clothes and speaking to people, despite being in territory unknown to himself. Flinders later wrote in his memoirs of Bungaree’s “good disposition and open and manly conduct” and his kindness to the ship’s cat, Trim.
In 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie dubbed Bungaree “Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe” and presented him with 15 acres (61,000 m2) of land on George’s Head as well as a breastplate inscribed “BOONGAREE – Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe – 1815”. Bungaree was also known by the titles “King of Port Jackson” and “King of the Blacks”, with his principal wife, Cora Gooseberry, known as his queen.
Bungaree continued his association with exploratory voyages when he accompanied Captain Phillip Parker King to north-western Australia in 1817 in the Mermaid, amongst other things giving advice on which plants were safe to eat.
Captain Faddei Bellingshausen referred to Bungaree’s welcoming visit to the Russian exploration ship Vostok in 1820.
Bungaree spent the rest of his life ceremonially welcoming visitors to Australia, educating people about Aboriginal culture (especially boomerang throwing), and soliciting tribute, especially from ships visiting Sydney. He was also influential within his own community, taking part in corroborees, trading in fish and helping to keep the peace.
In 1828, he and his clan moved to the Governor’s Domain, and were given rations, with Bungaree described as ‘in the last stages of human infirmity’. He died at Garden Island on 24 November 1830 and was buried in Rose Bay. Obituaries of him were carried in the Sydney Gazette and The Australian.
By the end of his life, he had become a familiar sight in colonial Sydney, dressed in a succession of military and naval uniforms that had been given to him. His distinctive outfits and notoriety within colonial society, as well as his gift for humour and mimicry, especially his impressions of past and present governors, made him a popular subject for portrait painters, with eighteen portraits and half a dozen incidental appearances in wider landscapes or groupings of figures. His were among the first full-length oil portraits to be painted in the colony, and the first to be published as a lithograph.
Denis Hill: Australian History – the way it was – a nostalgic look at our past (Facebook)