Bongaree was an Aboriginal man from the Guringai tribe of the Broken Bay region of New South Wales, born around 1765. He acted as a guide, interpreter and good friend to Matthew Flinders, who spoke of Bongaree as having a “good disposition and manly conduct”. Their first voyage together, in the “Norfolk” in 1799, to chart the coast north from Sydney, was described in our last blog.
On their return to Sydney, Bongaree assisted Lieutenant Grant in exploring the Hunter River. In 1802 he again sailed with Captain Flinders in the famous circumnavigation of Australia, the first of his race to sail the entire coast of his ancestral land. His primary responsibility to the exploratory voyages was in making contact with other tribes, perceiving their intentions and gaining permission for his British friends to make landings. It was, at times, a hazardous job; Bongaree often had to strip naked and go unarmed, in order to reassure the local Aborigines of his peaceful intentions.
Bongaree was a remarkable man of his times; well respected by Aborigines, Whites and authorities. 173 cm tall, with a happy disposition, Captain Philip King wrote of Bongaree that he had “a sharp, intelligent and unassuming disposition”. Both Flinders and King commended his even temper and brave conduct..
King was impressed by Bongaree’s fishing ability, his bushcraft and skill in dealing with people and was grateful when the Aborigine again proffered his services in 1817, to help further investigate the coast north of Sydney through to north-western Australia.
After three more trips, with Captain King in the “Mermaid” and accompanying John Oxley’s ship the “Lady Nelson”, Bongaree retired from the sea in 1821, to take charge of a settlement of Aboriginal farmers at George’s Head, which Governor Macquarie had set up in 1815. Macquarie also bestowed Bongaree with a brass plate inscribed ‘Bungaree: Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’. The agricultural venture failed, after which Governor Brisbane gave them a fishing boat and net, partly as reward to Bongaree for saving the life of a runaway convict.
Bongaree usually wore uniforms and a cocked hat, given to him by the various governors, as well as the sword presented to him by Governor Brisbane. Bongaree’s typical attire consisted of “a gold laced blue coat, with many epaulets, buttoned up close, to avoid the necessity of a shirt or waistcoat, and wearing a large varnished cocked hat, but neither shoes nor stockings”. He enjoyed copying the walk and mannerisms of governors and other important men and played to the local Sydney crowd, with his fine-tuned imitations and cheeky humour. He spoke English well. Although he had no tribal authority, his adaptation to the life of the settlement, talent for entertaining and high standing with officials established him as a leader among the Sydney Aborigines.
Bongaree was invited to spend his final years at Garden Island Naval Base and was paid a full man’s ration until his death in November, 1830. He was buried at Rose Bay.
Bongaree had several wives, some of whom had very unusual names. Cora Gooseberry was his principal wife and is the namesake of one of our 8-person BBQ Boats. Other 8-person BBQ Boats in our fleet which are also named after the wives of Bongaree are “Broomstick” and “Askabout”. The fourth 8-person BBQ Boat is named “Norfolk”, after the little vessel that took Bongaree on some of his first maritime adventures!