Captain James Cook and the HMB Endeavour did not circumnavigate Australia in 1770. However, 33 years later, a man from Sydney became the first Indigenous Australian to voyage around the continent.
Bungaree, also known as Boongaree, was an Indigenous Australian explorer and community leader. He was eventually nicknamed ‘King of Port Jackson’, which is why he continues to be remembered by many as King Bungaree.
Bungaree was one of the Kuring-Gai people, from the Broken Bay area north of Sydney. He moved to the growing Sydney settlement in the 1790s, soon establishing himself as a well-known figure who was able to move between both his own people and the newcomers.
In 1798, Bungaree joined the crew of HMS Reliance, led by Captain Matthew Flinders, on a journey to Norfolk Island—almost 900 miles east of the Australian mainland. He was a key crew member, being both an interpreter and a guide.
Flinders was deeply impressed by Bungaree’s friendly demeanour, sharp intellect, intuition and bravery. Consequently, he invited him to travel on another voyage the following year: a coastal survey voyage to Bribie Island and Hervey Bay in Queensland.
First Indigenous man to circumnavigate Australia
The journey for which Bungaree is best known, however, is his circumnavigation of Australia. Bungaree accompanied Flinders on this famous voyage between 1801 and 1803 on HMS Investigator.
Bungaree’s contribution to the voyage cannot be emphasised enough. He was the only Indigenous Australian on the ship, which meant Bungaree played a vital diplomatic role as the ship made its way along the Australian coastline.
He effectively communicated the intentions of their visit with the Indigenous groups they encountered and subsequently avoided any misunderstanding or attacks. Bungaree and the crew came across many Indigenous nations along the way with different languages and lore. Bungaree’s prior knowledge of common established communication methods between Indigenous nations was crucial to the success of avoiding conflict and disrespect.
In his book detailing the journey, Flinders described Bungaree as having saved the expedition on multiple occasions. He also described Bungaree as a “worthy and brave fellow”, with “good disposition and open and manly conduct”. He even noted Bungaree’s kindness towards the ship’s cat, Trim.
On his return to Port Jackson in June 1803, Bungaree continued to prove a popular local figure as well as a skilled intercultural communicator. He was deeply respected for his wit, his knowledge and his experiences. This led to him assisting with further exploratory voyages and receiving honours within the colonial community.
Bungaree spent the rest of his life ceremonially welcoming visitors to Australia, educating people about Indigenous cultures and customs, and soliciting tributes from those who landed on Australian shores. In this way, he was also strongly influential within his own Indigenous community, taking part in corroborees, trading, diplomacy, and working to uphold peace.
Bungaree was the first person to be recorded in print as an Australian and is a significant figure in Australian history. Indeed, while he and Captain Cook did not cross paths, Bungaree and Flinders achieved something Cook did not: namely, the achievement of circumnavigating Australia. For this reason, it is especially important that Bungaree’s contribution to early Australian exploration is recognised and understood.