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Transcripts from unveiling of Pemulwuy plaque

Defining Moments in Australian History

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Transcripts of speeches from the unveiling of the Pemulwuy plaque

Event highlights

Ms Selina Walker [Welcome to Country]: Pemulwuy is an Aboriginal man who was Australia’s first resistance fighter. He is important not only to Aboriginal people but to all Australians past, present and future. The National Museum should be congratulated for doing what no other museum has done; it has turned Pemulwuy into a headline at the top of the history page instead of a footnote …

Dr Mat Trinca, Director of the National Museum of Australia: Pemulwuy’s story is an important one. It’s clearly important and dear to the community from which he came. It’s important for other communities in the Sydney region and, in truth, he was a hero to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout the country. Now, this is a story that deserves to be better known by all Australians. The Defining Moments in Australian History project aims to stimulate debate and discussion about our history really through an ongoing program of live public events, moderated online conversation and physical and virtual content at the National Museum of Australia. History helps us explain where we’ve come from, what we identify with, what we admire or are proud of, and even those things we find more difficult to accept …

Mr Russell Taylor, Principal of AIATSIS: Pemulwuy interpreted the advent of the colonisers as a threat to his cultural identity and to his cultural world, and he acted accordingly. Pemulwuy’s story is special and profound, and his story is a wonderful and genuine Australian story …

The Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Minister for Education and Training: I do like the Pemulwuy story because it should give some hope and pride to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they did fight for their nation. I have asked the Natural History Museum to send all the remains back to Australia, and we’ll do the job for them. I’m not sure that we have to wait for them to identify them for us, because Pemulwuy was related to Bennelong and we have Bennelong’s DNA, so we can quite happily help them to identify Pemulwuy or they can return him … they can return all of the remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and we will help them do that job because they should be in Australia where they belong , not in London …

Uncle Vic Simms, Elder of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council: My name is Vic Simms. My daddy was a Bidjigal man and my grandfather was a Bidjigal man and so on … the predecessors of my bloodline. It’s quite an awakening here today, because now that this has been officially recognised, this is a complete turnaround in the history of Pemulwuy, and thanks to you and your inception of it being delivered into Parliament is a wonderful achievement … and we salute you as well … to everyone here today to commemorate this …

Song written and performed by Ms Marlene Cummins:

Pemulwuy, Pemulwuy,
Pemulwuy, Pemulwuy,
You saw the evil.
You let them cut you down.Pemulwuy gotta move to higher ground.
Bidjigal man, oh clever payback man,
from this land.
Oh clever, clever man.
Oh Pemulwuy, Pemulwuy,
Pemulwuy, Pemulwuy,

[sings in language]

Full speech by the Hon Christopher Pyne MP

Thank you, Mat, and it is a great pleasure to be here. There are, as has already been noticed, many dignitaries to be acknowledged but I would like to acknowledge: Mat Trinca as the head of the National Museum of Australia; the former Governor-General Michael Jeffery and his wife; the Bidjigal elder Vic Simms; Russell Taylor of course from AIATSIS; and my parliamentary colleague Steve Doszpot from the ACT Assembly. I won’t go into all the other many dignitaries but I do add my words to those that have already been made. I would also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the land upon whom we meet today.

I am very excited to be here today. I read the book Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior that Eric Willmot wrote when I was a quite young person – I would have been in my 20s. I was even thinking it might have even been in my late teens but I don’t think it could have been my late teens. Eric Willmot was a former director of education in South Australia. My brother Alexander is an anthropologist and now teaches at Newington College in Sydney. I think when I was first getting involved in politics, he thought it might be a good book for me to read about Pemulwuy. I became quite enamoured with that story, because it’s a completely different story to the story that we grew up with in Australia about Aboriginal people. It totally confounds the stereotypes about Aboriginal people that I was taught when I was a student at Saint Ignatius College.

But then I got elected to Parliament and I brought that interest in trying to break stereotypes to the debate around the native title legislation. I have to say now that it’s 20 years ago, I did swim in a slightly different direction to my political party on that particular subject. I was known in those days as someone who did swim in a different direction to the party, and was pleased to do so in my early to mid-20s when I felt that I could get away with it. The longer you’re in Parliament, the more you realise that that doesn’t necessarily get you very far. But I did believe strongly in the native title bills and I was one of the people that invited Noel Pearson to come and speak to the party room about native title.

And then the story of Pemulwuy in my world went quiet for a while, until a fellow who I know quite well called Alex Hartman decided that he want to revive the story. He wanted to buy the film rights to the story. He bought the book rights from Eric Willmot and the publisher and he started a campaign to return the remains of Pemulwuy from the Natural History Museum in London. He knew me because I had put him on the board of Headspace, the mental health initiative, when I was the Parliamentary Secretary for Health. And out of the blue he contacted me and asked me for a contact at the High Commission in London because he wanted to meet somebody at the Natural History Museum to talk about Pemulwuy.

There was that name after probably ten years of not thinking about Pemulwuy; suddenly it came back into my life again. But I was also more senior in politics and I thought I would do what I could to help to try and get Pemulwuy’s remains back to Australia. Then all of a sudden the Duke of Cambridge came to Redfern, and I’m sure the Bidjigal people remember because they asked him to help them to get the remains back. I don’t think the Duke of Cambridge had been briefed about this particular subject, and he did commit to helping bring the remains back from the Natural History Museum. So I leapt onto that particular new fact.

I will tell you something that nobody has heard before: I was in London last April representing the Australian Government at Anzac Day and I was at Westminster Abbey and I met a gentleman and I said, ‘And what do you do?’. He said, ‘I’m the Duke of Cambridge’s principal private secretary.’ I said, ‘Oh, you’ve been the person responding to all my letters.’ He said, ‘Oh, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Christopher Pyne from Australia. I’m so glad to meet you’, because he couldn’t get away from me, of course. I talked all about Pemulwuy with him to try to remind Prince William of his promise to the people in Redfern that he would help return Pemulwuy’s remains.

It is difficult though, and I do have some sympathy for the Natural History Museum. I know that the Department of the Arts and the National Museum of Australia are all working hard to return these remains. But the problem is the bombing of the College of Surgeons in London in 1941 could well mean that the remains of Pemulwuy no longer exist, and it’s certainly hard to identify. I have asked the Natural History Museum to send all the remains back to Australia, and we’ll do the job for them. I’m not sure that we have to wait for them to identify them for us, because Pemulwuy was related to Bennelong and we have Bennelong’s DNA, so we can quite happily help them to identify Pemulwuy or we can return him – they can return all of the remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we will help them do that job, because they should be in Australia where they belong, not in London [applause]. Some of these points that I make as a rather brash Australian are lost on our friends in London, but I think that we’ll get there eventually.

Then to my great pleasure I was with Mat Trinca talking about Pemulwuy with Alex Hartman and he said their second defining moments in Australian history unveiling would be a Pemulwuy plaque. And that’s why we are here today. That’s why me of all people as the Education Minister is opening this plaque with Vic Simms from the Bidjigal people.

The Pemulwuy story is really important for Australians to know. It’s very important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to know, because it must give them a sense of pride that the Aboriginal people, when the English settlers first arrived, didn’t simply supinely allow their country to become what Australia is today – a colony of 200 years standing. The story that we were told about Aboriginal people was one of loss and dispossession and disease brought about by white settlers and a sense of hopelessness, which made us all ashamed – I hope ashamed as Australians, as white Australians.

But the Pemulwuy story is a different story, because this is a man who invested Parramatta successfully and militarily defeated the English and for 14 years escaped the English and fought a guerrilla warfare against them. I’m sure a lot of Australians probably don’t necessarily want to understand or know that story because it suggests that this land wasn’t simply empty and filled with English colonists, that there was a whole race of people here – in fact, many races of people here – and that they were dispossessed by us.

But I do like the Pemulwuy story because it should give some hope and pride to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they did fight for their nation. I’m pleased to be here to be part of this launching. Thank you very much. [Applause]