Sydney Festival: I am Eora

16 January 2012

Professor Cassandra Pybus, from the University of Sydney's Department of History, reflects on one of the Aboriginal heroes portrayed in the Sydney Festival production I Am Eora:

I Am Eora is an exhilarating collaboration of 30 Aboriginal artists which is part rock concert, part dance spectacular and part story-telling, directed and created by Wesley Enoch, assisted by co-writer Anita Heiss, with superb set, projection and costume design by Stephen Curtis.

The Eora was the name for the nation of Indigenous clans of the Sydney basin covering an area that ranged south to the Georges River, north to the Hawkesbury River, and west to Parramatta. The literal translation means "the people from here."

The performance falls roughly into three acts, each one centred on a legendary hero of the Eora people at the time of white settlement. But Wesley Enoch is not interested in giving a history lesson and there is next to no concession to an audience who may be largely ignorant of the narrative of early colonial Sydney.

The first act gives us an embodiment of the legend of the warrior Pemulwuy. The great warrior is embodied in the powerful black perfomer/singer Radical Son, supported by a tough hip-hop performance from Nooky, in the fine rap song 'Fist in the Air'.

Some may find it unsettling or incongruous that musical forms of African-American culture have been adapted to tell a legendary story of indigenous Sydney, but it infuses the story-telling with a thoroughly appropriate if unintended irony on the part of the show's creators. This is because in fact African-Americans were involved in Pemulwuy's highly dramatic life.

Recalling Pemulwuy

The Dharug warrior Pemulwuy came from the northern side of the St George's River and his name was derived from the word pemul, meaning earth. He made his first appearance in written Australian history in December 1790 when he was identified as the man who deliberately speared Governor Phillip's gamekeeper John McIntyre on a hunting trip with two others near Botany Bay.

The other two gamekeepers present were unharmed and the spear was specially designed to cause the maximum damage, serrated with a series of stone barbs, attached by gum resin that broke off and lodged within the body, ensuring an excruciatingly painful death. Watkin Tench understood that McIntyre had given serious offence to the Dharug, yet Phillip insisted Tench capture Pemulwuy and take the heads of another ten men, although Tench persuaded him to modify this to six heads.

A punitive expedition of about fifty men left at dawn on 14 December 1790, carrying muskets, hatchets for decapitation and bags for the heads. This grisly expedition was guided to the spot by one of the gamekeepers, named John Randall, an African-American man who arrived as a convict on the first fleet. When the over-heated, insect-bitten party finally reached Botany Bay they were unable to find a single soul.

The whole event was a farce from beginning to end, but it did have the effect of enshrining Pemulwuy as a resourceful and dangerous enemy. Pemulwuy made no attempt to harm John Randall, who continued to openly hunt in Dharug territory.

Over the next five years Pemulwuy led raids on the settlers' farms to drive the settlers away and murderous conflict followed.

So great was the disruption to farming on the Hawkesbury that it appeared the area with the colony's richest soil would have to be abandoned.

It 1795 it was reported that Pemulwuy had finally been killed by the convict outlaw known as Black Caesar, another African-American who lived among the Dharug.

The report was mistaken. It seems there was an armed confrontation with Black Caesar in which Pemulwuy was seriously wounded, but he was not killed. He abruptly disappeared for over a year before dramatically reappearing at the head of a large party of Aborigines in the streets of Parramatta.

Here again he was shot and said to be dying, but made a miraculous escape. Henceforth it was believed that Pemulwuy was a shape-shifter who took the forms of birds to escape capture and could not be killed by guns. He was shot, and believed dead, in June 1802.

His head was cut off and preserved in spirits to be sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England to whom Governor King explained that although Pemulwuy was "a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character". The warrior's head has never been found in England so perhaps he turned into an albatross and flew away.

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