In darkest Eltham, there is a headstone dedicated to an Aborigine who came to England in the 18th century. It was the New World meeting the Old World. The English had begun to colonise New South Wales which had been his home although he called it by another name. The country itself wasn’t called Australia when he left his home for England. In fact, it wouldn’t be called that until 1804. It was known as New Holland. He was a young man who died in England and never returned home.
So who was he?
And why is he buried here? After all, Aborigines believe that, until the bones are returned to his ancestral homeland, he is destined to remain forever a wandering spirit, homeless and alone. If he’s actually still here.
I was out exploring, during the Christmas/New Year relaxation of lockdown. when I visited the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Eltham. It has a fine old churchyard with a few 18th century memento mori. Then I found this headstone by the boundary wall which is dedicated to Yemmerrawanyea, a native of New South Wales. The full epitaph reads:
a Native of
NEW SOUTH WALES
Who died the 18th of May 1794
In the 19th Year of his
I was intrigued as the headstone is a substantial one and it isn’t everyday that you discover an Aborigine grave.
There are several spellings of the name but I will keep to the spelling on the headstone as it’s easier.
In the 18th century, the British had begun to colonise what they called New South Wales and they wanted to establish relations with the Aborigines. George III was very keen for this to happen and the first Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, resorted to kidnap to get one man, Bennelong, involved. There will be more on him later.
Yemmerrawanyea was a member of the Wangai tribe, part of the Eora nation of Aborigines. They lived in the Port Jackson area on the south bank of the Parramatta river where Sydney is now. He was known to the settlers and Capt Watkin Tench, as ’ a good tempered, lively lad who became a great favourite with us, and almost constantly lived at the Governor’s house.’ He had clothes made for him and he waited at the Governor’s table. He was a servant.
In February 1791, aged 16, he was initiated according to Aboriginal custom, by having a front tooth and part of his jaw knocked out by a Kebba which was a stone or rock. This allowed him to use the name Kebarrah which was only given to men who had undergone this ritual. It was done according to Keith Vincent Smith:
‘…..in February 1791 at a bay in the Gamaragai territory on the north shore of Port Jackson. It was Bennelong who officiated, removing the teeth with a specially cut womera or throwing stick. Though Yemmerrawanyea ‘suffered severely, losing apart of his jawbone, he ‘boasted the firmness and hardihood, with which he had endured it.’ wrote Capt Tench.
He came to England with Bennelong when Phillip returned home to England in 1792-93 after his first stint as the British Governor of the colony of New South Wales. Apparently, they went on the very long sea journey ’voluntarily and cheerfully’. Bennelong could speak English but I have been unable to discover if Yemmerrawanyea could also do so. However, they did have English lessons during their visit.
In 1793, they arrived in Falmouth, Cornwall and then travelled onto London. Mayfair to be precise and there they mixed in high society. Fashionable Regency clothes were made for them and they were tutored in reading, writing, and English. There are still expense claims on file for their visit. The men visited St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and even went bathing in the Serpentine. I did wonder what Regency society made of them and vice versa.
At a fashionable gathering, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanyea performed a native song accompanied by clapsticks and you can hear a modern recreation of it here:
They said that the song was ‘in praise of their lovers; but the meaning of the song has been lost. Only two words have been translated and were apparently about jumping kangaroos.
Edward Jones, (1752-1824) who was in the audience, wrote down and published the words and music and called it ‘A song of the natives of New South Wales.’ It appeared in Musical Curiosities in 1811. Jones was the composer, Welsh Harpist, folk music collector and bard to the Prince of Wales who became George IV.
However, in October 1793, disaster struck when Yemmerrawanyea fell ill and began to drastically lose weight. After injuring his leg, his health declined even further. He and Bennelong were taken to Eltham which was then a village and he was treated by Dr Gilbert Blane. He was the Prince of Wales’s physician. They lodged at the house of William Kent who had been employed by the former Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. This again emphasises the circles in which the two men moved. But it was to no avail as Yemmerrawanyea died on 18 May 1794 aged roughly 19 from a lung infection. This may have been tuberculosis but no-one’s quite sure.
There are still bills preserved at the National Archives for his burial and,according to Keith Vincent Smith:
‘A gravedigger covered Yemmerrawanyea’s grave with turf at a cost of 1 shilling and 6 pence. The headstone costs £6.16.00’,
This was a substantial cost for a headstone.
There have been several campaigns to have his remains returned to Australia but their current location in the churchyard is unknown. In fact, they may no longer be there due to the practice of graves being re opened and re used for burials to reduce overcrowding. The headstone has also been moved and restored several times.
In 1982, 3 Aboriginal men made what is believed to be the first Australian Aboriginal pilgrimage to visit Yemmerrawanyea’s grave. But they were unaware that his body may have been removed and that the headstone may not even be over his grave.
Bennelong returned to what is now Sydney in 1795 and went back to the bush. He was considered by some of Sydney’s white society to be a ‘thorough savage’ who couldn’t be tamed. Relations between the Aborigines and the colonists were deteriorating as Keith Vincent Smith says:
‘as more and more land was cleared and fenced for farming and they were seen as savages who were unwilling to give their country and become labourers and servants to the colonists.’
Bennelong died on the 3 January 1813 and his grave has been finally been located. The New South Wales Government has announced that it has bought the house and garden in which he is buried. It would be turned into a public memorial with a museum commemorating the impact of the European invasion on the indigenous people of the Sydney area. The site of the Sydney Opera House is located at Bennelong Point which was named after him.
These were 2 important figures in Aboriginal society and have left their traces in Australia and England. Yemmerrawanyea’s grave is of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people and their history. it seems sad that the stone is the only surviving trace of him in the churchyard and yet it’s it’s a reminder of the New World visiting the Old World. So that passers-by, like me, stop and wonder who he was. how he came to Eltham and remember him.
©Text and photos by Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
References and further reading:
https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/SL_autumn2014_lr.pdf – informative article on Yemmerranyea which I have quoted from.