Pemulwuy was a member of the Bidjigal people, one of the Aboriginal tribes who lived on the east coast of Australia.

When the British arrived to colonise his people's ancestral land he fought back. Over 12 years, Pemulwuy led and unending war against the new colony and united multiple Aboriginal tribes under his leadership.

After being shot multiple times and surviving, rumours started that the man had supernatural powers.

Had the British Empire finally met its match?

This 'Forgotten Footnote' episode has been produced in support of 2021 NAIDOC Week!

Additional Reading / Sources:



Anthology of Heroes acknowledges First Nations people and recognizes their

continuous connection to the country community and culture.

The show pays its respects to elders past present and emerging

and honor the sharing of traditional stories passed down through generations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this

show may contain names images or voices of people that have since passed away.

It's the 21st of March 1797. In the emerging colony of Sydney Australia

Lieutenant General Watkin Tench and a handful of British redcoats

nervously readied their muskets. Tench yelled to his men to stand firm and

remind them of their duty to the British crown.

Many weren't even soldiers but convicts, criminals really,

armed only out of sheer necessity. In front of the quivering battle line an

angry black mass shouted and gesticulated. Their spears

were sharpened and barbed to ensure extra pain if removed.

Front and center was their leader a man they called Pemulwuy.

Tench knew him well with a clubbed foot and a turned eye he was winning no

beauty contest but covered from head to toe in white

paint the lieutenant general had to admit it was an intimidating sight. The

man had been a thorn in the side of the colony for almost a decade now

and his reputation among his people had risen so high

that he had managed to unite four aboriginal tribes under him.

For all the technology and weaponry at their disposal the British empire was

being outplayed by one determined native. As more and more men joined the frothing

mob Tench knew he needed to act. Stepping slowly

forward with a forced air of confidence he held out his hands his palms facing

downward in a gesture of calm but before he could say a word he got

his response. In under a second a spear hissed through

the air and embedded itself in the chest of the

man standing beside him. As the man gurgled horribly Pemulwuy

stepped forward menacingly. Fire yelled Tench.

You're listening to an anthology of heroes forgotten footnote.

Stories of heroes from nation states that history left behind.

And today is a story about an aboriginal leader from the Bidjigal tribe

who stood tall against the colonization of his land.

Over 12 years he would fight tooth and nail uniting other tribes in a coalition

against the British empire. Devilishly accurate with a spear and

unable to be bought down by bullets his very name evoked fear in the hearts

of white settlers across the east coast of Australia.

This is the story of Pemulwuy.

Out of all the stories we've covered so far Australia's history is

short. A group of tall ships arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1788.

Chock full of convicts of Irish and British descent they were dumped into an

unfamiliar land to build their own prison

and work off the sentence performing hard labor. The colony expanded and the

rest is history. So at the time of writing this that

makes the country 233 years old right? Absolutely not. Australia, its people and

their traditions are some of the most ancient on the planet.

The original inhabitants of Australia known as aboriginals

have called the island home for an obscene amount of time.

Though still debated the general consensus is that these people have

inhabited Australia for at least 50 000 years.

50 000. Estimates even go up to 65 000 while the oldest aboriginal rock art has

been confirmed at 28 000 years old. Let that sink in for a minute. For

reference the great pyramid of Egypt something I consider to be ancient was

built in 2600 bc making it around 4 500 years old.

Only a toddler by comparison to this ancient culture.

In 2016 a man looking for a good place for a toilet break on the side of the

road stumbled into an aboriginal cave dwelling

and came across tools that were 40 000 years old.

Just sitting there as if the owners had only just left.

If this isn't news to you don't worry up until quite recently there has been an

unfortunate tendency to plaster over the achievements and history of aboriginal

culture. When the British colonized Australia it

was much more palatable to think of the country as

empty. And even if it wasn't completely empty

these people who lived there weren't really making use of it. They were a

bunch of hapless scavengers wandering from place to place with no

concept of crops, money or international trade.

With this mindset it's easier to think of colonization more as

enlightenment. The way the British preferred to see it was that

they were here to save these people from themselves.

The idea to establish the colony of Australia came out of

basic necessity. Britain's prisons were too full and the establishment of a base

in this part of the world could serve as a launching pad for

attacks on Spanish possessions in South America.

The man tasked with leading the expedition was Arthur Phillip.

Phillip had originally requested a group of skilled laborers to help establish

farms to, you know, feed them. Instead he was given

just over 700 petty criminals and a few soldiers to keep order.

It was a hard start but Phillip was a good governor and he did his best to

treat the convicts with dignity and turn the place into an actual colony

rather than a prison camp. Initially he took a similar approach with the

aboriginal population who lived in the area.

I've included an interactive map of aboriginal Australia on our socials

to help you understand how incredibly diverse the language and cultural groups

were and continue to be. For each distinctive

terrain across Australia there was a tribe that

thrived there. Mountains, rivers, forests, islands, beaches,

even deserts that to us would be nearly completely incompatible with life.

There were tribes that had perfected the art of surviving there over a millennia.

As the colony of Sydney grew in size, Phillip's goal was to establish friendly

relations with the aboriginal people. There had been sporadic contact with a

few men and women but none could be coaxed into entering

the town and hanging around for a significant period of time.

So as any sensible human would do, Phillip decided to abduct an aboriginal

person instead. The plan was essentially going into a

community and just grabbing two men, throwing them into a boat and paddling

away. Obviously a great start to a friendly

respectful relationship. The journal from the man who was tasked

with kidnapping the two aboriginals says this of the event, quote,

The natives who were very numerous all around us on seeing us

seized these two, meaning the two men, immediately advanced with their spears

and clubs but we were too quick for them. Being

out of reach before they had got to that part of the beach where the boat lay,

they were entering on the beach just as everybody else was in the boat

and as she did not take to the ground we immediately pulled out without having an

occasion to fire a musket, end quote. The two men captured were named Colby

and Bennelong. The two men were shackled and dragged back into town

with Phillip trying to have someone learn their language and teach them

English in return. Colby escaped not long after. Bennelong

hung around for a little longer, picking up a bit of English and

providing Phillip with a token understanding of some basic Euro words

but soon he too escaped. A few months later,

Phillip received word that Bennelong, with a small group of warriors,

was nearby the colony and travelled to meet them. Boldly he approached

Bennelong and another Aboriginal man to introduce himself.

The act was premature though and the other man hurled a spear straight at the

governor, hitting him in the shoulder. A scuffle broke out but Phillip cooled

the situation by insisting that no harm should come to the men.

Maybe he figured, hmm, probably deserved that one to be fair.

As he recovered in hospital over the next few months, Bennelong visited his

bedside and the two eventually became friends.

A journal from a settler who knew Bennelong says about him, quote,

his powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity.

He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language,

faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information,

sang, danced and caped, told us the customs of his country and all the

details of his family's economy. Love and war seemed to be his favourite

pursuits, in both of which he suffered severely,

end quote. As the initial culture shock began to wear off,

Aboriginal men and women began to poke their head into the strange foreign city,

more out of curiosity than anything else. Habits and rituals that seemed so

commonplace to one culture seemed alien to the other. For settlers, the

Aboriginals nakedness was in striking contrast to

their conservative British mindset and once they got past that, small things

like how many Aboriginal women were missing part of their little finger,

which was amputated and thrown into the sea as an offering to ensure good

fortune when fishing. While the Aboriginals observed that the

colony more or less ran on rum, as there was a shortage of

coins, it was this potent alcohol that facilitated the exchange of goods

and, when consumed, relaxed the drinker,

loosened conversation. They also saw that the colony struggled to grow crops

or keep their livestock healthy in a climate that was so foreign to what they

were used to. This gave way to Aboriginal hunters being

paid to provide the colony with food. Both the men and women were expert

hunters on land and sea and you had to catch, clean and cook

almost every animal that was available. And soon European settlers were eating

kangaroo and goanna lizard for the first time.

One of the hunters who started to be a regular face around the camp were the

shadowy figure. The man kept his distance from the

townsfolk and had a notable air of indifference to western culture.

He spent as little time as he could within the colony. Once the meat was

dropped off and he got paid he was gone. The settlers noticed that he had a

blemish in his left eye giving him a somewhat

crazed look and some noted that when he walked it was with a slight limp due to

a clubbed foot. If this was true then this was a

deliberate mutilation performed on him by his tribe to mark him as a

karate or someone with supernatural powers.

His name was Pemulwuy. Aboriginal culture possessed no need for

a written language so unfortunately our record of his life commences when he

began interacting with the colony. But generally a child with such a

striking birth defect like a turned eyeball

may have been killed soon after his birth. The fact that Pemulwuy had

survived up to this point and had even had his foot clubbed

indicated he was a particularly strong individual.

And soon every man woman and child in the young colony would know his name.

For a time a kind of nervous status quo was maintained.

Though each aboriginal and settler had individual feelings about the other

the two civilizations lived in cautious proximity to each other.

But all that changed on the 9th of December 1790.

A few convicts and marines were assembled into a hunting party.

Armed with muskets they set out to the frontiers with the mission to bring back

whatever meat they could find to feed the colony.

Among the group was a man called MacIntyre who held a minor position of

authority under Governor Phillip. Camping out the frontier at 1am the

small group was awoken by rustling in a nearby bush.

Thinking it was a kangaroo MacIntyre quickly worked the other men and went to

investigate. But it was no kangaroo. Peeking through

the scrub were a couple of aboriginal hunters

with spears pointed and ready to fling. MacIntyre's alarm

dissipated quickly though telling his men it's okay I know them.

He dropped his gun to show that he meant no harm and walked slowly towards the

aboriginal men talking to them in their language

which he understood a small part of. The hunters backed away cautiously

spears still primed. Then from out of nowhere a third man appeared

a man with a blemish in his left eye. Without warning the third man hurled

his spear directly into the chest of MacIntyre

who fell backwards. As his hideous screams filled the warm night air

the aboriginal party quickly scattered back into the bush.

Almost immediately the men knew that the wound was fatal.

They managed to carry him back to town where a surgeon confirmed the nature of

the wound. Unable to remove the spear without

causing the dying man immense pain the doctor waited until MacIntyre had

passed. Once he had he discovered the spear tip

was barbed with sharpened stone attached to the main shaft with a glue

made from native plants. This thing had been designed to kill and

cause extreme pain while it did so. Bennelong and Colby arrived at the

man's bedside and confirmed what MacIntyre had shouted in his last moments

of delirious pain. Pemulwuy had done this. But why?

Prior to the incident both Bennelong, Colby and many other aboriginals around

the colony had spoken of their hatred of MacIntyre

and avoided going anywhere near him. Though they never explicitly stated why

there were rumors that MacIntyre had murdered one or a few aboriginals on

his many hunting expeditions, the rumors were so pervasive that the

man was even questioned about them on his deathbed.

In his last few moments of life MacIntyre insisted that he had only shot

one aboriginal once and that was out of self-defense.

Make up your own mind on this one but in my eyes this man probably had blood on

his hands and Pemulwuy's attack was not random

but a calculated revenge hit. Whatever the reason the killing of

MacIntyre ushered in a violent new era of colonial life.

Governor Phillip in a knee-jerk reaction ordered a huge expedition party be

assembled. Totalling around 50 men it was the first

army the colony had ever put together. It was to be led by a man called Wat

Kintench whose journal provides a good portion of the source material we've

used for this episode. The governor ranted to Tench that since

the birth of the colony 17 settlers had been killed by aboriginals

according to him all of which came from the Bidjigal tribe.

Based on this the tribe was inherently violent and needed to be made an example

of, lest other tribes believe that the

British were weak and followed in Pemulwuy's footsteps.

Tench was ordered to capture 10 members of the Bidjigal tribe

one being Pemulwuy if they could find him. They were to chain them up and

return to colony where they would be hung. In the event

that it was not feasible to bring them back

they were to be executed on the spot by beheading

and then their heads were to be returned to camp to prove the task was done.

The governor had even provided hatchets specifically prepared for the task.

Tench put through a counter proposal to the governor and instead offered to

bring back six Bidjigal warriors, two of whom would be hung and four

others sent to a prison camp and then released.

This way the quote lesson of western punishment would have more staying power.

The proposal was accepted but it didn't matter.

Far from the comparatively cushy shores of the colony

the group floundered through the dry baking heat of interior Australia.

They found no aboriginals except Colby who told them that he had

heard Pemulwuy had fled south. Trying to follow the trail the exhausted group

arrived at an aboriginal village that had been vacant for many days.

Many of the European prisoners who had been conscripted into the expedition

claimed they couldn't go on and needed to rest.

The alien climate of heat and flies was wreaking havoc on them.

Tench reluctantly agreed and the group headed back to Sydney.

But on the way back the party fell into a marsh that almost took the lives of a

few men who sank up to their chests before

having to be pulled out by rope. The expedition had been a complete

failure. But on the outskirts of Sydney they

stumbled across a few aboriginals nicking a handful of potatoes from a

farm. Despite having no evidence that these

people were Bidjigal they fired on them, two of whom later died from their

injuries. While the expedition had achieved little

if anything Pemulwuy had been working his magic with

other local tribes. Aboriginal tribes were not as rigidly

defined as countries in Europe. The land claimed by one tribe may

overlap others. Tribes bordering the other would have

similar languages and with many people being at least partly bilingual.

The members of the tribes themselves would break into smaller groups to

ensure they could gather enough food to live on

and throughout the year all members of the tribe would usually reunite at a

particular time for a cultural or religious ceremony.

It was perhaps at one of these ceremonies where Pemulwuy convinced a few

other tribes to join his resistance. Through his power of persuasion Pemulwuy

was able to fill his ranks with men of the Yura,

Darug and Thuroal tribes. All of these groups were centered

around the Sydney Cove Colony who would have had the most contact with

the Europeans. Lorna Munro an Aboriginal activist,

artist and podcaster said this of the tribal council quote

the surrounding tribes they united because of Pemulwuy.

They united because they knew they had a strong leader and they knew they had

someone that was going to die for them if need be

end quote. Over the next few years Pemulwuy and his newly found allies

would strike from the shadows stopping the growth of the colony.

Pemulwuy's attacks were designed to be fast and unpredictable

hitting the exposed farmlands on the edge of the colony

burning crops houses and farms and killing any cattle they could find.

The message was hard to ignore the British Empire for all its past

achievements was struggling in this part of the world.

Richard Green an Aboriginal land counselor described the situation with a

kind of eloquent simplicity quote black fellas

all around the country were coming along and taking whatever they wanted

big cows sheep they decimated them ate the lot

they left the people of the colony starving and on the brink of desolation

end quote. Maintaining four different tribes focused on a singular goal was an

incredible feat and even as the smallpox began to tear

through the native population Pemulwuy's raid still continued. Usually

he would rely on the settlers fleeing and make off before any serious military

efforts arrived on the scene but in 1795 he almost met his match.

If you've listened to our episode on Antigua and Barbuda

we covered the life of a convict called John Caesar or Black Caesar.

This man had been in the colony for a while and at this day he was assigned to

labor duty. Caesar would have been quite a sight he

was probably the only black skinned convict

and if that wasn't enough he was a big fella with a huge appetite.

Still he didn't scare Pemulwuy. Undeterred the raiding party came

charging in to where Caesar and some other colonists were working

but unlike the other settlers in previous raids Caesar didn't budge.

Pemulwuy charged the enormous man and the two rain blows down upon each other

while the other convicts spurred on by Caesar also stood their ground.

As the two men duked it out Caesar managed to get the upper hand and almost

caved in Pemulwuy's skull. Either through musket shot or the

impact of a pickaxe Pemulwuy copped a severe blow to the

head some sources saying that his skull itself was cracked

but he hadn't got this far in life from being weak. Despite the grievous wound

he and his band of men freed themselves and managed to retreat back into the

bush. Caesar was confident that the wound

would take its toll and confident that he

had finally put an end to the famous Pemulwuy.

But only a few weeks later Pemulwuy was right back in the fray

leading his men to raiding parties on yet more isolated farms

seemingly no worse for wear despite the massive wound that should have killed him.

And with this his legend began. Pemulwuy had always attracted a good deal of

superstition and wonder from his own tribe.

Remember he likely had his foot clubbed as a testament to his perceived

supernatural ability. But after this encounter the settlers

began to indulge in their own theories about the man.

Far away from their home in this strange foreign land the minds of the townsfolk

began to wander. Maybe this man had perhaps tapped into

some kind of ancient power that was beyond their comprehension.

Perhaps Pemulwuy wasn't able to be killed by European weapons.

As the budding colony began to stabilize its borders pushed into what was

undeniably aboriginal land, specifically Darug land.

The Darug tribe relied on a cultivated crop similar to what we would call a yam

or sweet potato. Good cultivatable land was rare around

the colony and so it's no surprise that this was

the first place the settlers began to encroach upon.

The natives yams were torn up and the European corn was planted in its place.

The takeover was handed with the subtleness of a bull in a china shop.

Aboriginal men women and children were more or less told to clear off and find

somewhere else to live. It didn't matter where but it couldn't

be here. And sometime over the course of the day

an aboriginal child was shot dead. This event led to an increase of raids

over the next few months and alarmingly the raiding party seemed

to be getting larger and better coordinated.

Pemulwuy was clearly pulling the strings in the background and more

disgruntled aboriginal tribes were now seeking him out to join the cause.

As harvest time for the corn began to draw near the Darug people organized

about 50 warriors who were either planning to steal or burn

the crop that had taken the settlers so many months to mature.

Word of this plan leaked to Governor Philip who was incredibly concerned that

as these crops were now becoming the primary food source the colony may

starve if the raid was successful. 62 men were deployed to the perimeter

and during the night a Darug camp was sighted.

The settlers opened fire killing eight aboriginals.

This once again sparked a kind of tit-for-tat warfare

with many bands of warriors from a number of tribes now bent on revenge

against the colony, the loved ones that were killed.

The thin veneer of peaceful coexistence that Governor Philip had tried to

cultivate had been completely blown off. There was no room for neutrality now. You

were either on Pemulwuy's side or England's. Hunting parties sent out

from Sydney were particularly vulnerable. Settler accounts give descriptions of

aboriginals butchering any isolated men they came across

and hanging their entrails on spears leaving their mutilated bodies as a

grisly warning. Aboriginals became a rarer site within

the colony. It was best to keep away unless you'd be accused of spying for

Pemulwuy. For Governor Philip the situation was

becoming too much for him. His job was to stabilize and expand the

colony but the combined hostility of the tribes

as well as their unity made this an almost impossible task with

the manpower he had available. Pemulwuy would never come to the

negotiating table and without that there could be no truth.

The months turned into years but still there was no peace in the colony.

Governor Arthur Philip eventually returned to England taking his old

friend Ben along with him. Finally in 1797 things came to a head

near the modern day city of Parramatta. Pemulwuy had gathered a huge war band of

around 100 men. With the confidence of numbers it was

the first time he was to give a kind of pitched battle to the British. Instead of

ordering retreat when the British troopers showed up

Pemulwuy hurled the first spear. The colonial militia lined up in battle

formation and opened fire. As the whiz of spears and bullets cut

through the air the technological gap between the two civilizations was made

as clear as day. The battle raged on but it was clear the

aboriginal warriors were dropping faster. Pemulwuy as usual was not one to keep

himself out of harm's way and was shot multiple times but still

continued fighting. But as the losses mounted and they ran

low on spears to throw the war band broke and fled back to the

safety of the interior. The battle of Parramatta as it became

known left 55 dead, 32 aboriginals and 13 settlers.

In the aftermath a British trooper came across the body of a man with a clubbed

foot and turned eye. Pemulwuy had been shot an unbelievable

seven times but he was still alive just barely.

Pemulwuy was scooped up from the battlefield and was transported to the

colony hospital where he was expected to pass away soon.

With almost as many bullets in him as 50 cent

every day his bedside doctor predicted his demise

but he lingered. So much so that as a precaution

leg irons were slapped on him and with every day he looked

better, more healthy. Then one day once the morning sun rose

he was gone. Despite being full of bullets

with a cracked skull and wearing leg irons he had somehow managed to escape

in one of the most secure and well guarded places in the colony.

His jailers were stupefied. By all logic this man should be dead

or at very least permanently disabled. This further fueled speculation of the

man's supernatural abilities and truth be told if I was there I'd

probably start believing them myself. Against all odds six months later

Pemulwuy was back at the head of his men but his plethora of wounds had clearly

weakened him. There were no more pitched battles like

Parramatta. Maybe some of his tribal allies had deserted the cause

or perhaps the length of the war which was now almost 10 years

had thinned the ranks of available recruits. Whatever reason

small scale infrequent hit and runs became the norm again.

Even so his appeal was still widespread with now two white convicts raiding

alongside he and his men. His son Tedbury may also have started to

be more involved in the attacks at this time.

Perhaps all were now starting to see the signs of this legendary figure beginning

to slow. His lifetime of hard fighting was

finally catching up to him. Gallons of rum were offered to anyone

who could capture him but still the raids on the frontier farms continued.

Every expedition that was sent to find him came trudging back from the bush a

few men short barely catching a glimpse of anything

suspicious until the very last second before they were attacked.

But finally after 12 years of resistance a great Pemulwuy's luck finally ran dry.

During a raid he was shot and killed by a sailor named Henry Hacking.

In order to claim the reward for his death and to prove finally and

definitively he had been killed the sailor then cut off the man's head

and sent to the governor. The head was pickled and sent back to England

with a simple epitaph reading quote although a terrible pest of the colony

he was a brave and independent character end quote.

Pemulwuy's death marked the end of organized resistance to British rule by

Australian aborigines. Though many had and would continue to

defend their lands none could seem to rally the tribes in the way Pemulwuy had.

In the same way Genghis Khan you know the Mongols or

Skanderbeg you know the Albanians it takes a very unique type of person to

inspire others to move in one direction for a perceived greater good.

Pemulwuy had managed to cut through political and social barriers

and move four different tribes together for a common goal

and keep it going for an unbelievable 12 years.

Aboriginal scholar Eric Wilmette says this of Pemulwuy quote

this war wasn't a scrap between a bunch of Bidjigals and a bunch of British

this was a war of worlds of two different worlds

the British believed in their world and Pemulwuy believed in his

end quote. In the years after Tedbury Pemulwuy's son did his best to keep his

father's legacy alive but never achieved the kind of fame he did

he was executed eight years later and slowly but surely the colony expanded

into the interior. The legacy of Aboriginal Australia

continues to this day as it rightfully should however it's

only recently that some of the atrocities committed against the

original custodians of this land have been acknowledged in any form.

Tasmania the small island below the east coast of Australia

experienced such a decline in Aboriginal population that the word genocide has

been thrown around while in Western Australia in the early

1900s Aboriginals were chained up and used to help find the location of wells

in particularly dry parts of Australia and for 50 years from the 1910s to the

1960s a government policy forcibly removed

many Aboriginal children from their parents to be re-housed elsewhere

claiming that they were not being cared for correctly. Those that were relocated

are referred to today as the stolen generation. It's not within the scope of

this podcast to deep dive into all the examples of this but

I wanted to try and showcase that the concerns Pemulwuy may have had about

exploitation were at very least partly warranted.

In the 1930s a protest event led by an Aboriginal community

led to the creation of NAIDOC Week which this episode was credited in honour of

NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day

Observance Committee and this is a weekly long celebration across Australia

that celebrates Aboriginal people's achievements.

Each year during this very week the stories of Pemulwuy and other Aboriginal

leaders are told and retold to younger generations.

In the late 1980s the folk band Red Gum wrote a song called

Water and Stone about Pemulwuy. I'll have the link to the full song on our

website but some particularly powerful lyrics go like this

a thousand pities fell like rain the day the world changed colour

tears of rage filled our eyes and ears were ringing

with Pemulwuy's song. In the last 20 years or so there has been a revisionist

look at Aboriginal people's relations to the land.

The persistent colonial idea of them being hapless wanderers is beginning to

melt away as interest in Aboriginal foods methods

cultivation and fire control are being re-examined.

If this is something you'd like to learn more of I've added a fascinating book

that goes into detail about this on our website.

Since Pemulwuy's death all those years ago there's been a growing collective

call from the Aboriginal community of Australia to have his skull returned

where it belongs. In 2010 Crown Prince William announced

that he would have the skull returned and there seemed to be a genuine effort

made to locate it but eventually the trail went cold. It's

likely that somewhere in the archives of the National History Museum of London

the skull of this brave indigenous warrior sits

waiting to be rediscovered and sent back to the country he fought so hard for.

I'll take us out with another quote from Eric Wilmot.

As the Europeans explored and expanded their domains in the 16th,

17th and 18th centuries they created many enemies

some weak, some powerful but none more implacably hostile or uncompromising

than the Australian Pemulwuy.