Bungaree was apparently the first person to be called an Australian in print.

This colonial - and often controversial - figure circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders in the sloop HMS Investigator from 1801 to 1803, acting as a mediator between English colonists and Aboriginal people.

Known for his intelligence, character, sense of humour and flamboyance, he often dressed in military and naval uniforms that had been given to him.

There are a recorded 18 portraits of him, ranging from a sketch by Russian artist Pavel Mikhailov in 1820 to an oil painting by Augustus Earle in 1826.

''We see Bungaree at his flamboyant best, wearing a scarlet jacket with brass buttons and gold lace, extending his arm to lift his black cocked hat,'' historian Dr Keith Vincent Smith says.

Born in 1775, he was also the subject of the first lithograph produced in Australia, also by Earle.

Smith says in a time when ''cross cultural relations were rare, Bungaree was a diplomat who created a link''.

He was said to come from the northside of Broken Bay, and first went to sea aboard HMS Reliance on May 29, 1798, sailing from Sydney Cove to Norfolk Island, with Indigenous shipmates Nabarry and Wingal.

Flinders relied on Bungaree's knowledge of Aboriginal protocol and skill as a go-between. It was the explorer, Allan Cunningham, who described Bungaree as an ''enterprising Australian''.

Telling the story of this ''first Australian'' is an exhibition first mounted at Mosman Art Gallery that is about to tour the country.

Bungaree: the First Australian is curated by Aboriginal curator Djon Mundine and, featuring the work of 15 Indigenous artists, it tackles the myths surrounding Bungaree, also known as the ''King of Broken Bay''.

The exhibition features artworks by Frances Belle Parker, Mervyn Bishop, Daniel Boyd, Karla Dickens, Fiona Foley, Adam Hill, Warwick Keen, Gary Lee, Peter McKenzie, Danie Mellor, Caroline Oakley, Rea, Gordon Syron, Leanne Tobin and Jason Wing.

According to an essay by Professor John Maynard in the exhibition's award-winning catalogue, Bungaree ''sought to occupy a third space at the intersection between black and white, which, for a short time, provided some comfort, safety and autonomy''.

''He and his retinue of wives greeted ships arriving in port, climbing on board to welcome newcomers to the country,'' Maynard says.

One of the artists, Mervyn Bishop, has produced a digital photography work, Bungaree: The Showman, 2012 depicting four facets of his life.

He describes him as ''Mr Adaptability''.

He says his rare talent for impersonation made him a popular entertainer.

''He imitated the walk and mannerisms of every conspicuous Sydney personality, governors included,'' Bishop says.

Bungaree became ill and died at Garden Island on November 24, 1830, and was buried beside his wife Matora at Rose Bay.

His widow, Cora Gooseberry, died in 1852. But this doesn't mean he and his wives don't have descendants today.

Bob Waterer believes he is descended from Matora, but he only discovered this seven years ago when he was already 81.

Born and bred in Brookvale on Sydney's northern beaches, he knew that his ancestors had come ''from up the Hawkesbury River'' but when he discovered his parents' birth certificates at the back of a cupboard he finally went on to trace his ancestry back to Biddy, who was the daughter of Matora.

Before this he only vaguely knew he had Aboriginal heritage.

''I remember about the age of eight, nine, 10 my mother told me, 'I have Aboriginal blood in me and I have German blood in me.'

''I've embraced it. I'm very very proud of it now.''

Bungaree: The First Australian. Mosman Art Gallery exhibition to November 25, touring nationally 2013-2015, including Lake Macquarie, Port Macquarie, Logan, Rockhampton, Mackay, Darwin, Bunbury, Wollongong and Tasmania. See: mosmanartgallery.org.au.

AAP