Bennelong's grave found under a front yard in Sydney's suburbs by Eamonn Duff
THE grave of Bennelong - one of the most prominent figures in Australian history - has been found beneath the garden of a suburban family home in Sydney.
SMH - March 20, 2011
Bennelong’s final resting place ... an obscured detail of the front garden of the home in Putney.
Photo: Simon Alekna; Fairfax Photos
For almost two centuries, mystery has surrounded the final resting place of Woollarawarre Bennelong, one of the first Aborigines to live among white settlers. But now one of Australia's leading environmental scientists, Peter Mitchell, has gathered archival evidence to pinpoint the grave to a patch of grass in Putney between a family's front lawn and a council-owned nature strip. Before urban sprawl consumed the area, it was part of the estate of James Squire, Australia's first brewer, who befriended Bennelong in the years before his death in 1813. Dr Mitchell, honorary associate professor of physical geography at Macquarie University, led a covert investigation with Ryde Council to find the site. Not even the home's owners were told.
With Bennelong's bicentenary looming, the discovery now creates a dilemma. Dr Mitchell said it was ''vital'' that the exact location remained secret because ''the whole question of what to do next is likely to be controversial in the broader community … It's not a question Ryde Council, or I, can resolve. This is now a significant matter for the Aboriginal community. Consultation is essential. They must decide what they want.’’
The Sun-Herald has agreed not to publish the location. History portrays the iconic tribesman Bennelong as a crucial intermediary between colonists and Aborigines. He sailed to England alongside Governor Arthur Phillip. His later years in Sydney, however, were dogged by alcoholism.
While it is no secret Bennelong was buried on the banks of the Parramatta River, the exact spot has been the subject of speculation – until now. A council source explained: ‘‘We knew Bennelong was buried in the area but it’s always been an urban legend in terms of where. Dr Mitchell quietly chipped away on the project for some time and following some extraordinary research, he was able to add some general certainty to the grave’s location. From there, council’s surveyors advanced his findings to where it now stands today. They’ve pinpointed the grave, to within the nearest metre, in someone’s front garden.’’
Two weeks ago, the council resolved to meet Aboriginal authorities to discuss the next step – the use of non-invasive ground-penetrating equipment to explore the earth around any remains.
Dr Mitchell yesterday described the find as a ‘‘a significant archival effort ... I started by gathering all early references in regards to both the nature and location of the grave. I then matched them up against the known landscape of the time – and of today. It was difficult because you’re searching for one critical piece of evidence that leads to the ultimate link. Using old photos, I eventually identified a ground area with a lot of common threads. I then researched, around that, various features and landmarks, some of which remain today.’’
Dr Mitchell encountered conflicting information. ‘‘For example, some early references suggest Bennelong’s grave was in James Squire’s garden while others point to an orchard. That led me to ask, was there any difference between the orchard and garden, or are [they] the same place? ‘‘Eventually we found a map that showed they were indeed two separate locations. Other things cross-correlated and suddenly, it was like wow, breakthrough! It was the orchard, after all.’’