If First Australians and the rest of us are motivated to select a new date on which to celebrate national unity, we need look no further than a day that is barely mentioned: September 17, 1790. It was the day our cultures came together in a spirit of amity and reconciliation, when Admiral Arthur Phillip – nursing the wound being speared 10 days earlier – came to Bennelong and his people with gifts and an apology.

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But first, some background. January 26 is not a date on which we can say Phillip had even met his hosts, the Gadigal people. The Gadigal avoided the British like the plague. The smallpox that arrived with the First Fleet began to spread from May 1789. Within the first four years, it killed an estimated half of the 1500 “Eora” (people), who spoke a common language of coastal Sydney.

A 15-year-old girl, Boorong – the daughter of Maugoran, chief of the Burramuttagal (of modern-day Parramatta) – was brought in to the Sydney colony suffering smallpox eruptions from head to toe. A nine-year-old Gadigal boy named Nanbarry was likewise taken to the surgery of John White. Both were cured.

Rather than sending them back to their extended families, White adopted Nanbarry and christened him Andrew Snape Hamond Douglass White. Reverend Richard Johnson and his wife adopted Boorong, but did not suggest she take a new name. In fact, when they had their own daughter, they gave her an Aboriginal name. Boorong and Nanbarry thus became among the first individuals of the “stolen generations”.

Boorong became, in time, the fourth and favourite wife of Bennelong. Nanbarry became a spy for the Sydney Aboriginal people, feeding them information from inside Governor Phillip’s house – and disinformation to the British. He joined navigator Matthew Flinders on the first leg of his 1803 circumnavigation of the Australian continent, along with “King” Bungaree of the Broken Bay Tribe.

Colebee applying grilled fish to Nanbarry’s gum after his his tooth was struck out in 1798.
Credit:Courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

It’s nice to reflect on what Flinders called these men: “fine Australians”. This was the first use of that term, by the man who would give the name to our eventual nation state, Australia. Indeed, these first “Australians” were First Australians.

James Squire, a convict who became Australia’s first brewer, fulfilled the final wish of Nanbarry and Boorong to be buried together – under an orange tree on his farm at Kissing Point. Squire’s granddaughter subdivided and sold the property and named one street after her husband – a Watson. Where Watson Street, Putney, now intersects Hordern Avenue is where Bennelong, Boorong and Nanbarry rest in peace.

Environmental scientist Peter Mitchell found the long-lost grave site in 2011. The home at which it was located was put up for sale during the by-election in the surrounding federal seat of Bennelong in December 2017. Bids at auction failed to reach the vendor’s $3 million reserve price, and it was passed in – and after a grassroots and multi-party campaign, the state government bought the site in 2018.

Now, to the significance of September 17, 1790. Governor Phillip had nearly lost his life when he was speared in an act of “payback” at Manly Cove. Phillip instinctively knew this was traditional justice for his having ordered the abductions of Arabanoo, Colebee and Bennelong. He gave that instruction so they could be forced to learn English and act as translators.

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With his speared right arm in a sling, Phillip took a boat to the north side of Sydney Harbour, to the spot that is now the Prime Minister’s residence, Kirribilli House. There, Phillip presented gifts –a including a metal hatchet, clothing and sweets – to Bennelong and his second wife, Barangaroo. And Phillp apologised for the abductions.

So the first national apology to “stolen people” was delivered by Arthur Phillip. And it was graciously accepted by Bennelong. Two giant figures put aside their differences and egos, and put their reputations and bodies on the line, in the hope that their respective cultures could coexist peacefully and – as King George III had ordered – “live in amity”.

I’m not sure why many Australians consider January 26, 1788, as modern Australia’s “foundation”.  They should regard September 17, 1790, with equal, if not more, fondness.

We’ve found it within us to change the first line of the national anthem to “Australians all” – not merely “Australia’s sons”. If we truly intend to rejoice in a shared experience of nationhood, we will find it in our hearts to change the date on which we celebrate Australia Day.

Adam Joseph is a former Howard government and Abbott opposition policy and media adviser. He is the public officer of the Bennelong Putney Project. He convened its committee, which includes Liberal, Labor and Greens MPs, Gadigal elders, First Fleet descendant Robbie Waterhouse, and others.

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