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200 years on, Bennelong proves a sticking point

It is not every day that a community conference gets held in a front yard alongside a grave containing one of Australia's most prominent historical figures. But this is no ordinary situation.

Woollarawarre Bennelong is immortalised as one of the first Aboriginal people to live among white settlers. Today his remains rest beneath the garden of a suburban family home in Sydney.

The remarkable discovery, made in March last year, ended 198 years of speculation about Bennelong's final resting place. Since then, a celebration has been mooted to coincide with the bicentenary of his passing.

That date - January 3 - is less than a fortnight away and Bennelong continues to lie in limbo under a front lawn in Putney.

''This is a significant matter for the Aboriginal community,'' said the environmental scientist who made the discovery, Peter Mitchell. ''Consultation is essential. They must decide what they want.''

That consultation finally began on Friday, when Allen Madden from the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council met the federal member for Bennelong, John Alexander, as well as the state Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Ryde MP, Victor Dominello.


Also present was Bill Stride, the resident of 40 years whose home is now an unofficial ''sacred site''.

And the stage for this summit? Several metres above where Bennelong is buried.

Mr Madden asked those present: ''If that was one of your ancestors - your great-grandfather, say - buried in the front yard, how would you feel?

''I think we've got to get old mate out of there. There has to be a more appropriate place for him to be.''

Bennelong had been a senior member of the Eora, from the Port Jackson area of Sydney harbour, when he was kidnapped in 1789 as part of governor Arthur Phillip's plan to learn more about the Aboriginal people.

Over time, his intermediary skills helped two vastly different cultures communicate and trade. He later returned with governor Phillip to London, where he was said to have dined ''as elegantly as the Englishmen, bowed, toasted, paid the ladies compliments and loved wine''. But drink proved to be his undoing.

After growing increasingly homesick and ill through alcohol, he returned home and was shunned not just by his original tribe but by his adopted one. That exile drove him to the north side of the Paramatta River, between Kissing Point and Parramatta, where he struck up a friendship with Australia's first brewer, James Squire, who had amassed more than 500 hectares along the river.

When Bennelong's remarkable life finally ended through illness, the brewer honoured him with a proper burial in his private orchard.

Over time, the grave site became lost. However, there was sufficient historical evidence for Dr Mitchell to locate the site last year.

As the group gathered around the hallowed patch of grass and debated a way forward, Mr Dominello told Mr Madden: ''The Aboriginal community should be the ones who drive what happens and we, as governing society, should appropriately listen and take part.''

Mr Madden said if and when Bennelong's remains were relocated, it should be to a place where they could never be disturbed, adding the Aboriginal Land Council had successfully completed more than 200 reburials across the city.

But Mr Alexander argued that further thought might be given to repatriating Bennelong at a secret plot within the nearby Bennelong Park.

''It would be a terrific legacy if a significant, appropriate memorial could also be installed there, to educate future generations.''

Mr Stride remained dubious about the actual discovery: ''Can the remains be moved and is he even there?'' he asked. ''The story I always heard was that he was further over the road … He could be any-bloody-where, mate.''