Hear the story of Billy Blue at the Sydney Festival 2011

6 December 2010

Professor Cassandra Pybus will discuss the life of Billy Blue at the Sydney Festival 2011.
Professor Cassandra Pybus will discuss the life of Billy Blue at the Sydney Festival 2011.

One of Australia's first celebrities and cultural figures will be brought to life at the Sydney Festival by Cassandra Pybus, Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney.

The talk will form part of the Sydney Festival's Sydney Stories series, which will be held at the Seymour Centre, the University's centre for performing arts. Sydney Stories is a five-part series of intimate, informal pre-theatre experiences where Sydneysiders tell stories of the pieces of the city they know best.

Professor Pybus will discuss the remarkable life of Billy Blue, a convict of African descent who became a local celebrity in the early 1800s as Sydney Harbour's first ferryman.

"Billy Blue became a real part of colonial Sydney's landscape," says Professor Pybus.

"Here you had this multiple offender, who had been twice found guilty of smuggling and harbouring runaways, becoming a celebrated member of Sydney society. This was a time where emancipated convicts were really treated with disdain, so it was even more exceptional when you consider that he was black."

Formerly an African-American slave, Blue was involved in the Battle of Quebec and the American Revolution before finding himself in London, where he was caught for stealing sugar and sent to Australia.

After reaching Sydney as a middle-aged man in December 1801, Blue quickly found favour with both the public and government officials for his charm and eccentricity. In his role as ferryman, he took to calling himself 'the Commodore', donning an abandoned naval uniform and a top hat and demanding that men salute him, women curtsy, and children doff their hats. If they failed to do so, they were met with a barrage of cruel words and colourful language.

He became close friends with Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his family, likely as a result of their shared involvement in the American Revolution, and was given tracts of land at either end of his ferry route, now Blues Point and Miller's Point. He was also appointed, perhaps unwisely, as Constable of the Harbour.

Blue fell into disrepute before long when he was caught using his ferry to smuggle rum across the harbour. True to his enterprising form, however, he claimed to have dutifully confiscated the contraband from smugglers in the cove to hand over to the Chief Constable.

"When Billy died there was this real portrait painted of him as a Sydney hero," says Professor Pybus. "In the Sydney Gazette, his obituary stated 'the reign of Billy is coeval with the foundation of the Colony'."

"So it's clear that he was a foundation father of New South Wales. But somehow he seems to have fallen out of historical notice. The places bearing his name remained, but he fell out of repute. I'm hoping to resurrect him."

The Seymour Centre is hosting the Sydney Stories series as part of the University of Sydney's partnership with the Sydney Festival. For the second year running, the University will serve as a leadership partner of the festival, inviting Sydneysiders to share in its passion for the arts, culture and the life of the mind, as well as its strong sense of community.

Visit our special Sydney Festival 2011 website

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