Spearing the Governor

(Video image: Arthur Phillip by Francis Wheatley © National Portrait Gallery, London.)

One of the most famous paintings in the First Fleet collection depicts an encounter between British colonialists and Aboriginal Australians, when the British Governor was wounded with a spear.

In the video above, Professor Carl Bridge, Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College London, and Dr Sandy O’Sullivan (Wiradjuri Nation), Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at the Batchelor Institute, Australia, discuss this well-known artwork, and reveal there is much more to the story than might at first appear.

A detail of the First Fleet painting showing the British Governor with a spear through his shoulder

A detail of the First Fleet painting, 'Mr Waterhouse endeavouring to break the Spear after Govr Phillips was wounded […] where the Whale was cast on shore in Manly Cove.'

Like a current-day news story, this First Fleet painting records an important and dramatic event. In it we see Governor Phillip, head of the British colony, standing on the beach with a spear through his shoulder. There are people of the Eora Nation all around and we know the Governor was there to meet with them.

The Aboriginal people had gathered to feast on a whale. They had given the Governor a piece but what he really wanted was to talk to Bennelong, a senior man of the Wangal clan who had been acting as an interpreter and go-between but who had escaped and returned to his people.

Bennelong was important to the British as they needed to establish a good relationship between the Aboriginal Australians and settlers if they were to establish a successful colony.

While at the feast, the Governor apparently approached another man. One interpretation of the incident is that this man thought he was about to be kidnapped, perhaps not surprisingly, as Bennelong and another man had previously been kidnapped by the British. So he picked up a spear and used it.

The painting clearly records the event for a British audience: the British brave but out-numbered, the Governor wounded but walking. We don't know how the Aboriginal Australians would have seen it.  

As Professor Bridge says, ‘We know that Phillip had several more people with him than we see in the painting.'

Dr O’Sullivan adds, 'If they wanted to kill him, they would’ve...' and that it's very likely that the spearing was intended as pay-back. Certainly the event didn't stop the Governor's ongoing relationship with Bennelong and the Aboriginal people.