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Pemulwuy (1750–1802)

by J. L. Kohen

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Pemulwuy, bronze portrait by Masha Marjanovich, created with the permission of Bidjigal elders

Pemulwuy, bronze portrait by Masha Marjanovich, created with the permission of Bidjigal elders

Pemulwuy (c.1750–1802), Aboriginal warrior, was born near what was later named Botany Bay, on the northern side of the Georges River, New South Wales. His name (also spelt as Pemulwhy, Pemulwoy or other variations) was derived from the Darug (Dharug) word pemul, meaning earth. Europeans also rendered his name as 'Bimblewove' and 'Bumbleway'. He spoke a dialect of the Darug language and had a blemish in his left eye. According to Colebe, his left foot had been clubbed, suggesting he was a carradhy (clever man). In December 1790 Pemulwuy speared John McIntyre, Governor Phillip's gamekeeper, who later died of the wound. The spear was barbed with small pieces of red stone, confirming that Pemulwuy belonged to one of the 'woods tribes' or Bediagal (Bidjigal) clan. A bungled retaliatory expedition failed to find any Aborigines.

From 1792 Pemulwuy led raids on settlers at Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River. In December next year David Collins reported an attack by Aborigines who 'were of the Hunter's or Woodman's tribe, people who seldom came among us, and who consequently were little known'. He also reported that 'Pe-mul-wy, a wood native, and many strangers, came in' to an initiation ceremony held at yoo-lahng (Farm Cove) on 25 January 1795. Collins thought him 'a most active enemy to the settlers, plundering them of their property, and endangering their personal safety'. Raids were made for food, particularly corn, or as 'payback' for atrocities: Collins suggested that most of the attacks were the result of the settlers' 'own misconduct', including the kidnapping of Aboriginal children.

To check at once 'these dangerous depredators', military force was used against Pemulwuy and his people. Captain Paterson directed that soldiers be sent from Parramatta, with instructions to destroy 'as many as they could meet' of the Bediagal. In March 1797 Pemulwuy led a raid on the government farm at Toongabbie. Settlers formed a punitive party and tracked him to the outskirts of Parramatta. He was wounded, receiving seven pieces of buckshot in his head and body. Extremely ill, he was taken to the hospital. Yet, late in April that year when the governor met several parties of natives near Botany Bay Pemulwuy was among them. Having 'perfectly recovered from his wounds', he had 'escaped from the hospital with an iron about his leg. He saw and spoke with one of the gentlemen of the party; enquiring of him whether the governor was angry, and seemed pleased at being told that he was not'.

Pemulwuy's close escapes resulted in the Darug believing that firearms could not kill him. In Collins's words: 'Through this fancied security, he was said to be at the head of every party that attacked the maize grounds'. On 1 May 1801 Governor King issued a government and general order that Aborigines near Parramatta, Georges River and Prospect could be shot on sight, and in November a proclamation outlawed Pemulwuy and offered a reward for his death or capture.

Pemulwuy was shot dead about 1 June 1802 by Henry Hacking. George Suttor described the subsequent events: 'his head was cut off, which was, I believe, sent to England'. On 5 June King wrote to Sir Joseph Banks that although he regarded Pemulwuy as 'a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character'. He further wrote: 'Understanding that the possession of a New Hollander's head is among the desiderata, I have put it in spirits and forwarded it by the Speedy'. The head has not been found in an English repository to date.

Pemulwuy's son Tedbury (d.1810), known as Tjedboro, also threatened colonists. He became attached to John Macarthur, who allowed him to come and go at Elizabeth Farm. After Governor Bligh was placed under military arrest in 1808, Tedbury, armed with a bundle of spears, went to Macarthur's cottage in Sydney and reportedly said that he had come to spear the governor. Next year he and Bundle attempted to rob a traveller on the Parramatta road, and he also took part in an attack on the farm of a settler at Georges River. In 1810 Tedbury was shot by Edward Luttrell at Parramatta, and died of his wounds. He had a wife and possibly a son Tommy Dadbury, who was living with the Wianamattagal clan at Penrith in 1837.

Historians argue about the nature and extent of Aboriginal resistance to European settlement of Australia, but if one person can be identified who clearly carried out armed warfare against the settlers of early Sydney it was Pemulwuy. He has become a heroic figure to Aborigines, and Eric Willmot published a novel about him in 1987.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony of New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • J. L. Kohen, ‘The Dharug of the Western Cumberland Plain: Ethnography and Demography’, in B. Meehan and R. Jones (eds), Archaeology with Ethnography (Canb, 1988)
  • J. L. Kohen, The Darug and Their Neighbours (Syd, 1993)
  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 4
  • Newsletter of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Jan 1970, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 Nov 2003, p 38
  • return of Aboriginal natives, 4/1133.3 and 37/7370 (State Records New South Wales)
  • S. Smith journal, 20 July 1802 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. Suttor memoirs (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. L. Kohen, 'Pemulwuy (1750–1802)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Pemulwuy, bronze portrait by Masha Marjanovich, created with the permission of Bidjigal elders

Pemulwuy, bronze portrait by Masha Marjanovich, created with the permission of Bidjigal elders

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Pemulwhy
  • Pemulwoy
  • Bimblewove
  • Bumbleway
  • Pimbloy

Botany, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 June, 1802 (aged ~ 52)
New South Wales, Australia

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.