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Detail from Boon-ga-ree Aboriginal of New So. Wales 1819 who accompanied me on my first voyage to the NW Coast by Phillip Parker King, watercolour, from an album of drawings and engravings, 1802–1902

Sydney's Bungaree

Leader of his people, Bungaree was from Garigal Country
King of black Native

Bungaree (c 1775–1830) is a remarkable and enigmatic figure in Sydney and Australia’s colonial history. He is notable as the first Aboriginal Australian, and indeed the first Australian-born person, to circumnavigate the continent as a crewman on the Investigator with English explorer Matthew Flinders during their voyages of 1802–03. Flinders recruited Bungaree for that historically significant voyage primarily to act as an intermediary with Indigenous people they were to encounter.

Originally from Garigal country, near present-day Broken Bay just north of Sydney, Bungaree was recognised as a leader among his own people. Bungaree’s intelligence and adaptability were evidenced in how quickly he learned to speak English and the use he made of it to speak directly with the growing colony and its key players. He became very familiar to white colonists in the newly established settlement at Warrane (Sydney/Port Jackson). He sold or bartered fish with the colonists and occasionally sold Aboriginal weapons to collectors from passing ships, spending his life in the widening gulf between the world he grew up in and the hostile new world of the Sydney colony.

Bungaree and Flinders first met in 1798 onboard the HMS Reliance during a 60-day round trip delivering supplies from Sydney to the penal settlement at Norfolk Island. They were then both young men aged in their twenties. As a crew member on the Reliance this was the first recorded instance of Bungaree as a sailor, employed alongside his countrymen Nanbarry and Wangal.

The following year Flinders recruited Bungaree on the first coastal survey of Bribie Island and Hervey Bay in present-day Queensland. Flinders later wrote of Bungaree... ‘of good disposition and open and manly conduct had attracted my esteem’ and remarked on Bungaree’s kindness toward Flinders’ cat Trim, who had accompanied Flinders on the Investigator.

Bungaree also later sailed with Lieutenant Phillip Parker King on the Mermaid in 1817 exploring the north-west coast of Australia before visiting the island of Timor, returning to Sydney in 1818.

Bungaree became acquainted with several prominent colonists and governors. He was patronised by Governor Lachlan Macquarie who presented him with a military-style gorget (or breastplate) in 1815, declaring Bungaree ‘Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’. This was the first breastplate bestowed on an Indigenous Australian. Aboriginal society however had no concept of hereditary entitlement, placing greater stead in a leader’s age and experience. These breastplates were ostensibly used to elevate or recognise the status of Aboriginal leaders, but this system was simply another attempt to replace Aboriginal leadership, law and governance with a more ‘acceptable’ context and terminology. Later breastplates would often replace the word Chief with King or Queen — terms which do not begin to capture the complexities and nuances of Aboriginal governance and authority.

As a leading statesman and eloquent speaker Bungaree fascinated colonial authorities, writers and artists, who often referenced his breastplate. This was perhaps to elevate his status and indicate his acceptance within Sydney’s increasingly white population. The breastplate given by Macquarie was notably buried with Bungaree when he died in 1830.

Governor Macquarie also granted Bungaree an allotment of land at Georges Head on the harbour’s north shore where Bungaree stayed for a short time with his extended family. Georges Head was a good vantage point for sighting the arrival of ships into Sydney Harbour. Bungaree would greet incoming vessels in his small fishing boat, asking newcomers for the ‘tribute’ he said was owed to him. Artist Augustus Earle, in his Views in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land (London, 1830), recalls him welcoming Europeans to ‘his country’. This is perhaps the first recorded use of the term Country by an Aboriginal person to reference their lands, waters and ancestral connections.

No. 22 - Natives of New Holland - Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821
Natives of New Holland - Plate No. 22 - Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821

A series of drawings from 1820 by the Russian artist Pavel Mikhailov give the most detailed record of Bungaree’s family. The Russians were returning from their scientific explorations of Antarctica, captained by Fabian Bellinghausen on the ship Vostok, when they called into Port Jackson to rest and replenish. On arrival they were met by Bungaree’s family, including his wife Matora, who were camped near the Russians on the north shore at Kirribilli. Mikhailov’s engraving called Natives of New Holland was published in 1831 and shows Bungaree and his family seated outside a bark shelter.  Mikhailov's original drawings from the Russian 1820 voyage are kept at the Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.

Seventeen artists’ portraits were created depicting Bungaree. Many of these portraits were posthumous, published in the 1830s and 1840s. Bungaree became a kind of celebrity figure, even after his passing. He was the person urban Europeans conjured into their imaginations when they were thinking of prominent local Aboriginal people, long past his death — possibly because of the contradictions of being a ‘king’ who did not conform. Bungaree was the most commonly depicted figure in the colony, and appeared in many sketches and illustrations, cementing his iconic status for many colonists and visiting strangers.


In his final years Bungaree lived with his family on the Governor’s Domain (the Domain). He was an easily recognised character and somewhat the joker, entertaining Sydneysiders with his flamboyant impressions of former governors in exchange for grog or tobacco. Portraits held by the Library show him depicted by colonial artists dressed mostly in military or naval uniforms with a cocked hat and wearing his breastplate.

Bungaree was admitted to the General Hospital in 1830 aged in his 50s and affected by alcohol and malnutrition. Anxious to return to his people he was soon given rations and released. Bungaree died at Garden Island in November 1830 and was buried by his people at Rose Bay alongside his first wife Matora. An obituary for Bungaree appeared in the Sydney Gazette. He was survived by another wife Karoo, known as Cora Gooseberry, who was also well-known on the streets of Sydney. A memorial plaque honouring Bungaree was erected at Rose Bay in 2016.

A sculpture of him, by Aboriginal sculptor Laurie Nilson, can be seen in Mosman Town Hall. It is perhaps telling that despite the fame and affection Bungaree was sometimes afforded he was not publicly honoured in the same way as white male figures from the same period, and his notable absence from Macquarie Street’s parade of statues remains a point of contention and conversation. For many the fact that Flinders and his cat have prominent statues is particularly galling, given Bungaree’s pivotal role, but it is worth considering that perhaps a colonial-style statue alongside Flinders is not the best way to honour this incredible man. Being permanently associated with Flinders as part of his honorary tableau does little to honour Bungaree’s life and reinforces the old-fashioned idea that his accomplishments were merely extensions of colonial glory.