Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 10 Oct 2023 in Non-Fiction |

KATE FULLAGAR Bennelong and Phillip: A history unravelled. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

Tags: / / / / /

Kate Fullagar puts the lives of Wangal man Bennelong and Governor Arthur Phillip into a larger context beyond the brief years they spent together.

What we regard as the modern history of Australia commenced with Britain establishing a colony in New South Wales in 1788. The colony’s first governor, from January 1788 to December 1792, was naval officer Arthur Phillip. The Indigenous Australian he interacted with most was Bennelong, a Wangal man. Kate Fullagar says:

Bennelong and Phillip were the most influential leaders of their respective peoples during the initial period of contact from 1788 … They watched, taught and negotiated with each other on behalf of their communities. Because modern Australia deems this period foundational to its sense of self, Phillip and Bennelong have come to assume outsized roles in the national imagination, representing something essential about both settler arrival and Aboriginal possibility.

Fullagar says she had two ‘overarching ambitions’ in writing Bennelong and Phillip. The first ‘is to offer a new picture of Phillip and Bennelong’, which she does in two ways. The first is to situate the period of their interactions as only one part of their lives, activities and achievements. The second, and more interesting, is to delve into the nature of their interactions. It is here that Fullagar has made a major contribution to Australian historiography.

Her second ambition is to employ a new approach to the writing of history, which she calls ‘temporal scripts’. The traditional approach of historians (and others) is to provide a chronological approach to the narrative of events – going forward. The problem with this, according to Fullagar, especially with writing about the advance of empires and/or imperialism, is that approaches which have:

… events moving always towards greater liberty, have helped to exculpate empire’s terrible violence by depicting it as the unfortunate means to a justifiable end. The modern historical mode, in other words, tends to license imperial injustices by presenting them as the necessary if sad cost of modernity itself.

To overcome this problem, Fullagar decided to begin her narrative with the circumstances surrounding the death of each man and then go backwards.

This approach does not work. There are two types of scholarship – the good and the bad. Good scholarship does not live or die on the back of ‘technique’ or ‘fashion’. All the insights Fullagar provides could have been equally provided with an approach that went forward as well as backward. The drawback of her approach is that the major events and interactions she examines lack context, which makes it difficult to understand what is going on. And this problem cascades throughout the text.

Most readers lack knowledge of the minutiae of events associated with settlement, and the periods before and after. Moreover, especially in the period involving Bennelong and Phillip’s interactions, there is a high degree of change and flux.

However, Bennelong and Phillip succeeds despite these problems due to the breadth and quality of Fullagar’s research and her mastery of narrative and explanation.

Fullagar sees Phillip’s time as governor of New South Wales as just one event in the life of a servant of the British Empire. He saw a future for himself as a sailor and attached himself to ‘great men’ at an early age and used such contacts to advance his career. Aside from his governorship of New South Wales, he was never involved in any major naval operations, such as the naval battles during the eighteenth century. He was mainly involved in support roles in different actions involving the British navy against the French and the American War of Independence. On two occasions he spied on the French navy and its developments in shipbuilding, and he was seconded to the Portuguese navy in Brazil. Following his return to England from New South Wales he resumed minor roles in the navy.

Phillip has often been portrayed as an ‘Enlightenment paragon’ or as a ‘dignified humanitarian’. Fullagar says:

My intent is less to denigrate the idea of Phillip as a dignified democrat than to reveal how unlikely that label was in his period. Instead, I explore his persona as more or less typical of Enlightenment attitudes as they existed within his contemporary British empire. In this world, compassion to others went only so far as it logically furthered the aims of conquest; equity could never be extended to the people that the empire needed to suppress; and the idea of virtue had to find room for shackles, dispossession and forced labour.

Phillip saw in Bennelong someone who could act as an interlocutor with the British in the eventual negotiation of a treaty, as had occurred with native peoples in other parts of its empire. Such a treaty, of course, never eventuated. Having established contact with Bennelong, Phillip kidnapped him and took him to live with him in Government House in order to enhance communication between the two. Bennelong escaped and arranged for Phillip to be speared as payback for the kidnapping. Following this, the two developed a relationship searching for solutions to differences between settlers and Indigenous Australians.

Following the end of his term as governor, Phillip took Bennelong and fellow Aboriginal man Yemmerrawanne back to England with him as part of an attempt to develop diplomatic ties between his masters and Indigenous Australia. Phillip failed in this attempt. Yemmerrawanne died in England. Bennelong returned to Australia and he and his people decided to move down the Parramatta River to escape the white invaders. There he lived a full and active life as one of the leaders of his people.

The most common view of Bennelong is of a person caught between two worlds who ultimately became a ‘victim of all-encompassing colonial manipulation’. Fullagar takes exception to such a notion, pointing to Bennelong’s leadership role among his people, especially after his return from England:

Being a negotiator with the British colony was not his most defining accomplishment, it was merely a continuation of the work he had undertaken since adulthood to help nurture his culture. The fact that the majority of this work occurred after he stepped away from colonial business underscores how imperial intrusion disordered but never extinguished [his people].

Fullagar repeatedly uses the term ‘canny’ in describing Bennelong’s approach to his interactions with Phillip. She notes Bennelong’s ability to read Phillip and other colonialists’ body language (such as offering the right hand as a sign of peace) to work out how to approach them. Fullagar also points to the flexibility of his thinking in trying to work out strategies and tactics to resist the entreaties of these invaders. This recognition of agency by Bennelong provides one of the more valuable insights contained in this book. Rather than seeing the first settlement through the eyes of the settlers, Fullagar has provided us with a more rounded portrayal that incorporates the activities of First Nations people in responding to the invasion of these strangers. Fullagar concludes Bennelong and Phillip by saying:

I hope this history of Phillip and Bennelong reveals that conciliation between settlers and First Nations has never truly occurred, despite a brief attempt to establish terms. I hope it shows how this circumstance was produced by much longer histories of Indigenous experience and imperial reaction than has been appreciated. Most of all, I hope it prompts some understanding of why conciliation, ultimately, can and must happen.

Fullagar has been more than successful with her first two hopes; the third, well, we will have to wait and see. In Bennelong and Phillip: A history unravelled, she has provided an insightful account of the lives of two people who played major roles in the establishment of the colony at Sydney Harbour that ultimately brought about the ‘creation’ of modern Australia. This is an important, if not unparalleled work of Australian historiography. It is the sort of book that should receive awards.

Kate Fullagar Bennelong and Phillip: A history unravelled Scribner 2023 HB 320pp $55.00

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Bennelong and Phillip from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.