"Exclusive: Bennelong's grave found” is the headline that almost jumped off the front page of the Sun-Herald on March 20. The grave site of Bennelong, one of Australia's most important historical figures had supposedly been found in the glamorous northern Sydney suburb of Putney.
The article also showed the image of Woollarawaree Bennelong that most people are familiar with: the early colonial depiction of the “noble savage” But he was also a man of contradicton.
Since his death in 1813, mystery has surrounded the exact location of his burial site. I went along to the place where he allegedly rests: a suburban garden not unlike any other in the area.
"By putting all these things together, overlaying all the old maps and the photographs onto a modern day map we could come to a very particular spot in Putney"
Environmental scientist Dr. Peter Mitchell, says he can pinpoint the Wangul man's final resting place. He combined historical evidence with previously unrelated records to come up with a location.
"By putting all these things together, overlaying all the old maps and the photographs onto a modern day map we could come to a very particular spot in Putney which said it's within a few metres of here that the grave actually lies”, he told me.
The site falls within the jurisdiction of the Ryde City Council, who is now in the process of consulting with the relevant groups on the future of the site.
Dominic Johnson, a council representative said: “I think this is something we really have to discuss with the Indigenous community. Any time you disturb a burial site it brings consequences - it's not something you do lightly. He's not a treasure chest, it's a person's grave and there's very strong legislation to protect that.”
Historians argue Bennelong's legacy does not reflect fact. Keith Smith has written extensively on the subject of Bennelong. “In his early life Benelong is sometimes thought of in the Aboriginal community as an Uncle Tom, but in fact he was forging a friendship with Governor Arthur Phillip that was a very close one…he was a wily politician, he worked both sides of the story, both settlers and his own people,” he said.
But the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, who are responsible for repatriation of Aboriginal remains, and archaeological site excavation in the greater Sydney region are not getting carried away with this latest find. The CEO of Metro, Paul Morris, believes much care should be taken prior to any action.
“What's come from the community now there’s a lot of talk they're very excited. This is probably equivalent to finding the body of Moses or something along those lines so we need to make sure we're working on facts,” he said.
Commemorations will be held in 2013 to mark 200 years since Bennelong's death and this find could go along way in correcting his public image.