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Arabanoo (c. 1759–1789)

by Emma Dortins

This article was published:

Arabanoo (c. 1758–1789), kidnapped Aboriginal man and intended envoy, was born in the late 1750s and was likely either a member of the Aboriginal clan of Kai’ymay (Manly Cove), North Harbour, New South Wales, or a visitor with affiliations to this clan and Country. The British fleet appeared at Kamay (Botany Bay) and then Port Jackson in January 1788, and the invasion began with the establishment of a base at Warrane (Sydney Cove). Arabanoo, who called the cove Weerong, was among the local people who sought to make sense of this intrusion. They largely stayed away from the small settlement but engaged in sporadic interactions—both friendly and hostile, incidental and strategic—with parties of colonists and convicts.

In late 1788, following a series of attacks upon Aboriginal people by convicts and thefts of their fishing tackle and weapons, several convicts were wounded in retaliatory strikes. Aboriginal people displayed force in seizing fish catches, leading Governor Arthur Phillip to become increasingly alarmed. He resolved to take a captive to either ‘inflame’ the situation, which he believed he could then end decisively, or ‘induce an intercourse’ (Tench 1793, 7)—that is, start a dialogue. Judge Advocate David Collins anticipated that the captive, if treated kindly, could help to facilitate communication so that the colonists ‘might learn to distinguish friends from enemies’ (Collins 1804, 43). The colonists had first visited Kai’ymay in January 1788. Their reconnaissance party had met a group of about twenty Aboriginal men who had much impressed them with their confident and ‘manly’ behaviour, which inspired the British name for the area. The colonists had also had their first meeting with Aboriginal women at this small harbour beach. It was there that they sought a captive.

On 31 December 1788, at Kai’ymay, Arabanoo was approached by a party led by lieutenants Ball and Johnston. Using gestures, they attempted to engage him in conversation; they then threw a rope around his neck and dragged him into a boat. A second man was seized, but managed to escape aided by others who had returned in response to his and Arabanoo’s cries for help. As the boat pushed off, the Aboriginal men launched a shower of spears and stones, which were returned with musket fire. To the colonists, Arabanoo seemed terrified on the journey to Warrane, though he was somewhat reassured by being offered fish to eat.

For much of the next three to four months, Arabanoo was kept cuffed and bound by either his wrist or ankle, with a convict ‘keeper’ (Collins 1804, 43) who stayed with him at all times, including when sleeping, which he did in a small hut near the guardhouse. The written sources for his life come from this period of incarceration. Arabanoo remained reserved and watchful for the first month: he was wary of the settlement’s dogs, and he would not allow his hair to be cut or beard to be shaved without first seeing another person undergo the same. He was furious about being restrained. Watkin Tench noted that, though angry and anxious about his capture, Arabanoo maintained a sense of curiosity. As he became more relaxed, his captive life developed a rhythm, including after-dinner conversations in which he would exchange language with the colonists. However, compared to other, later exchanges with Aboriginal people such as Bennelong, little was learned from him, and Tench was disappointed at how few English words he seemingly acquired.

Tench and Collins were interested in learning about Arabanoo’s beliefs and cultural practices, but having little language in common made this difficult. For at least the first month, Arabanoo did not tell them his name—or was not understood—and so he was known as ‘Manly’ (Tench 1793, 11) after the British name for the place where he had been captured. His personal and family history was not recorded, and it is not known who his relations were, or whether he was married or had children. In line with their own cultural interests, the European diary writers were attentive to Arabanoo’s ‘manners.’ They documented vignettes that illustrated differences between his ways and so-called civilised practices: for example, that on his first day of being held captive (New Year’s Day 1789), he went to throw his empty plate out of a window after finishing his meal. However, they were also keen to perceive Arabanoo’s sociability in what they considered positive terms, as characterised by modesty and restraint. His courtesy towards European women in the colony was one such example. They were also assessing whether Aboriginal people could be moulded into a useful class in the colony; Collins described Arabanoo as becoming ‘docile’ (1804, 59), meaning obedient and submissive.

Soon after he was taken captive, Arabanoo was rowed back to the northern part of the harbour. He told the officers the names of places, and he told Aboriginal people in nearby canoes where he was being held. His relative sense of ease in the settlement was perhaps related to it being on familiar Country. In mid-February 1789 he was taken onto the ship Supply, bound for Norfolk Island, which was just at that moment setting sail. His response was to leap over the side of the ship and strike out for shore.

Arabanoo learnt much about the colony and its people, although little of what he thought was documented. One exception was his ‘disgust and terror’ (Tench 1793, 17) at the flogging of a group of convicts who had absconded. He did not have the opportunity to take his knowledge of the colony back to his own people, as the subsequent captive Bennelong was to do, and so nothing is known of what use he might have made of it.

An infectious disease, resembling smallpox, broke out in the Sydney area in April 1789 with devastating impact: Bennelong told the British that ‘one half of those who inhabit this part of the country died’ (Phillip 1790, 308). Arabanoo was taken by boat to look for his friends, but not one living person could be found. He ‘lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony’ and exclaimed ‘“All dead! All dead!”’ before hanging ‘his head in mournful silence’ (Collins 1804, 384). Despite grieving, he cared for other survivors of the sickness, including two children, Boorong and Nanbaree. A month later he also contracted the disease, dying on 18 May 1789. He was buried in the governor’s garden above Warrane.

Arabanoo had a powerful impact on the First Fleet diarists’ views of the traditional owners. Tench had attributed to them ‘a spirit of malignant levity’ after some of the conflicts of mid-1788, but ‘a farther acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity … entirely reversed my opinion’ (Tench 1793, 4). In particular, he appreciated Arabanoo’s care for those suffering from what was believed to be smallpox. Although they knew him for only a short time, and related to him through their own cultural assumptions, the colonists assessed his character as thoughtful and kind, good-humoured and friendly, dignified, self-possessed, and steady: ‘we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity and allowed no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power, but the independence of his mind never forsook him’ (Tench 1793, 24). He is remembered as the first Aboriginal person to interact closely with the colonists, to teach them some of his language, and to share company, food, and humour over an extended period, even as he endured his captivity. A lookout overlooking Kai’ymay (Manly Cove) at Dobroyd Head is named for him.


Emma Dortins is a person of European descent. She was living on Gadigal Country when she wrote this biography.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1. [View Article]

Select Bibliography

  • Collins, David. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 1. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1804
  • Gapps, Stephen. The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the Early Colony. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2018
  • Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, 13 February 1790. In Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol. 1, Part 2, 304–8. Sydney: Government Printer, 1892
  • Hunter, John. An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island. London: John Stockdale, 1793
  • Irish, Paul. Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2017
  • Karskens, Grace. The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2010
  • Tench. Watkin. A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales. London: G. Nicol and J. Sewell, 1793

Additional Resources

Other ADB articles for Arabanoo

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Emma Dortins, 'Arabanoo (c. 1759–1789)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Araboonoo
  • Arooboonen
  • Arooboonoo
  • Harrabanu

c. 1759
New South Wales, Australia


18 May, 1789 (aged ~ 30)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.