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Bungaree, John

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John Bungaree

In the 1830s, a clever Aboriginal boy named John Bungaree or Bungarrie frequently won prizes at the Normal Institution, a school at Hyde Park in Sydney. He excelled in handwriting, geography, arithmetic and drawing maps from memory. John Bungaree later joined the Native Mounted Police and served on frontiers included in the colony of Queensland after 1859.

It was previously believed that John Bungaree (1829–1855) was Sydney-born and was the son or grandson of the Broken Bay Aboriginal elder Bungaree, who died in Sydney in 1830. But when John Bungaree died in 1855, his obituary revealed that he was not from Sydney, but belonged to the Kamilaroi or Gamilaraay language group. He had been taken from the Namoi River area as a child and adopted by Stephen Coxen, a settler at 'Yarrundi' on the Dart Brook, a tributary of the Upper Hunter River, north of Sydney. [1] 'He was placed in the Institution by Mr. Coxon [Coxen], of the Hunter, who removed him from his people at a very early age', said the Australasian Chronicle. [2]

Stephen Coxen probably accompanied his brother Charles when he left the Upper Hunter in December 1834 on a four-month expedition, seeking, as AH 'Alec' Chisholm wrote in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, 'specimens of birds and mammals in the sparsely settled country between the Hunter and Namoi Rivers'. The Coxen brothers sent many specimens to John Gould in England; he had married their sister Elizabeth Coxen in 1829. [3] They found the area densely inhabited with hostile Aborigines. As a report in the Sydney Gazette noted, 'Although Mr Coxen had some tame blacks with him, he could not communicate with these people.' [4] The Coxens probably also 'collected' John Bungaree, then five years of age, on this journey.

John Bungaree is also likely to have been related to another 'King' Bungaree, the Kamilaroi chief Joe Bungaree of Gunnedah on the Namoi River in New South Wales, who about 1888 told the story of a predecessor named Gambu Ganuuru, or 'Red Kangaroo' to Police Sergeant John Peter Ewing. [5] He wore a brass gorget inscribed 'Joe Bungaree/King of the Blacks/1886'. [6]

On a visit to Sydney in 1838, George Augustus Robinson, notorious in history for rounding up and 'removing' the Palawa (Indigenous Tasmanians) to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, became one of the first to note John Bungaree's ability. Robinson wrote in his journal:

Visited the normal school in Hyde Park. Saw an aboriginal native youth drawing. He had, the master reported, made great advance in education, could read and write and had a taste for drawing. [7]

Lady Jane Franklin, wife of John Franklin, deputy governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), went to the Normal Institution to see John Bungaree on Saturday 8 June 1839, but found that 'the black boy was not at home'. She was told by the classics master Mr Grace that 'He is a grandson of King Bungaree but comes from a distant part of the country … beyond the Upper Hunter'. [8]

Historians (myself included) were also led astray by an anonymous article about 'King Bungaree' in the Sydney Daily Mirror (1988), which claimed that in 1829, the elder Bungaree, though ill and about 49 years old, had been 'presented with a son' by his new young wife, said to be named Rose. [9] In fact Rose was not Bungaree's wife but the wife of his second son Tobin, usually called Toby or Joe Bungaree, as noted in Colonial Secretary blanket lists and painted by artists Pavel Mikhailov and WH Fernyhough. [10] Toby and Rose had five children, none of them named John.

John Bungaree and Stephen Coxen's son Charles boarded with some 90 other boys at the Normal Institution school. As juniors in 1839 both John and Charles Coxen Jnr were cited for 'superiority in their several departments'. The Sydney Herald commented

It must not be supposed that the prize thus awarded was given in courtesy to his nation. It was fairly won from his class-fellows by his ability in writing, geography, and English grammar – more particularly the latter! [11]

The following year, aged 11, John was awarded first prize for writing and another for geography. 'It is astonishing to state that the aboriginal native lad, John Bungarrie, acquitted himself much superior to other boys of his age', the Sydney Gazette stated. [12]

In December 1841 The Australian newspaper said John Bungarrie was 'the most expert' of the 'young gentleman' at the school in rapidly drawing maps on a slate with neatness and accuracy. [13] Yet John's schooldays were drawing to a close. 'Bungarrie is now home for vacation and will not return to school again for some time, perhaps no more,' Stephen Coxen told his sister Elizabeth in a letter that month. [14] Sadly, Elizabeth Gould had died nearly four months earlier, on 15 August 1841. A talented artist, she produced beautiful hand-coloured lithographs from her husband John Gould's drawings to illustrate his Birds of Australia (London, 1848) and other ornithological works.

Writing in 1883, Richard Sadleir, a retired navy lieutenant who thought Bungaree was the son of 'King Bungaree', claimed the boy had been sent to England to college but 'the cold weather and his laziness caused ill-health' and he returned. [15] John Perrell Wilkie, who employed John Bungaree as 'a first rate stockman' at Daardine Station, contradicted this statement in a letter to Henry Hughes written in 1852 and now in the Dixson Library, Sydney. Wilkie wrote:

Now [John] Bungaree was educated at the 'Normal Institution' certainly – but never took many prizes, poor fellow: and was of so violent a temper as to be not only unteachable but unmanageable – so much so that Mr. C [Coxen] took him from school, and not being able to make anything of him (not even a storekeeper) sent him among the men on the farm to work for his living. [16]

Bankrupted by drought and a severe flood, Stephen Coxen committed suicide by swallowing poison at the Saracen's Head hotel in Sydney on 5 September 1844. [17] His brother Charles Coxen, the owner of Jondaryan Station on the Darling Downs near Toowoomba (Queensland), assumed responsibility for John Bungaree, then aged about 15. By this time Charles Coxen had also purchased Daardine Station on the Darling Downs from Wilkie, who remained as manager.

The Native Mounted Police

We next hear about John Bungaree at the age of 23, when he was under pressure from Lieutenant Frederick Walker to join the Corps of Native Police he founded in 1848 at Callandoon on the Macintyre River (west of present day Goondiwindi). The earliest Native Police Corps had been founded in Port Phillip (Melbourne) in 1837.

In 1852 John Bungaree left Daardine Station with a gift of £2 from Wilkie and a horse given to him by Charles Coxen to join Lieutenant George Fulford of the Native Police at Wandai Gumbal on the lower Condamine River. In his letter to Hughes, Wilkie, with some insight, frankly listed the 'attractions' of the Native Police Corps:

the gay dress – the constant itinerancy – the lazy life – the independence of the elders of the tribe – and last tho' not least, the ability to make love to a choice of lubras in every tribe they visit, with perfect impunity [18]

In camp the Aboriginal troopers were drilled and taught to ride their own horses. They were armed with Snider carbines and carried swords. They wore caps with a white calico 'Foreign Legion' sun-flap, dark blue jackets with red facings and dress trousers of dark blue with a red stripe. On punitive patrols the troopers wore red shirts, moleskin trousers and boots, but usually discarded these clothes in the bush. John Bungaree seems to have led a quiet and sober life and, according to the Moreton Bay Courier (contradicting Wilkie), was employed as storekeeper and kept the accounts of his section in the Port Curtis district. [19]

As a result of his removal from his people, his 'adoption' and education, John Bungaree was unhappily caught between two opposing cultures. For this we have the word of Lieutenant Fulford, repeated by the Reverend William Ridley before the Select Committee on the Native Mounted Police in Brisbane in 1861:

Bungaree, who after taking prizes at Sydney College, speaking good Latin, and behaving as a gentleman in elegant society, returned to the bush, and then entered the black police, once said in a melancholy tone to Lieutenant Fulford (who repeated the remark to me at Surat, on the Condamine) 'I wish I had never been taken out of the bush, and educated as I have been, for I cannot be a white man, and they will never look on me as one of themselves; and I cannot be a blackfellow, I am disgusted with their way of living.' [20]

In January 1854 Sergeant John Bungaree and two Aboriginal troopers were sent to blaze trees marking the route of the mail run from Traylan (north of Eidsvold, Queensland) to Gladstone. Aborigines attacked the three men as they slept in camp and Bungaree was clubbed with a nulla nulla. They returned to Gladstone the following day and all recovered. [21] However, seven months afterwards, on 21 July 1854, John Bungaree, aged 25, died from a lung infection at the Native Mounted Police barracks at Traylan in the Burnett River district, where he was buried.

'He died a few weeks ago,' said the Moreton Bay Courier's obituary, 'very much regretted by all who knew him, and who had become attached to him in consequence of his intelligence and amiable disposition.' [22]


Patrick J Collins, 'John Bungarie, the Coxens and the Native Police', Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal, vol 17, no 7, August 2000


[1] 'Death of a Civilized Aboriginal', Moreton Bay Courier, 23 December 1854, p 2; reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1855, p 5

[2] Australasian Chronicle, Sydney, Tuesday 17 December 1839, p 1

[3] AH Chisholm, 'Coxen, Charles (1809–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, pp 487–88, available online at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coxen-charles-3281/text4981, viewed 15 July 2011; Sydney Times, 26 August, 1834

[4] Sydney Gazette, 18 April, 1835, p 4

[5] M O'Rourke (ed), 'Sung for Generations': Tales of Red Kangaroo war-leader of Gunnedah – The Ewing Manuscripts transcribed with a commentary by Michael O'Rourke, Michael O'Rourke, Braddon, ACT, 2005. See also Ion Idriess, The Red Chief: as told to the last of his tribe, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965.

[6] Jakelin Troy, King Plates: A history of Aboriginal gorgets, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993, p 133

[7] GA Robinson, Journal, 18 September 1838, quoted in NJB Plomley (ed), Weep in Silence, Blubber Head Press, Hobart, 1987, p 586

[8] Penny Russell (ed), This errant Lady: Jane Franklin's overland journey to Port Phillip and Sydney, 1839, National Library of Australia, 2002, p 12

[9] Anon, Daily Mirror, Sydney, 26 February 1988 p 20; KV Smith, King Bungaree, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1992, p 148

[10] 'Toúbi', 1820, Pavel Mikhailov, watercolour, R29206/204, Russian State Museum, St Petersburg; 'Toby, Broken Bay Tribe', 1836, lithograph, WH Fernyhough, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, PXA 615

[11] Sydney Herald, 16 December 1839, p 2

[12] Sydney Gazette, 15 December 1840, p 2

[13] The Australian, Sydney, 18 December 1841

[14] Stephen Coxen to his sister Elizabeth Gould, quoted by AH Chisholm in 'Mrs John Gould and her relatives', The Emu, Sydney, vol 40, 1941, p 341

[15] Richard Sadleir, The Aborigines of Australia, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney, 1883, p 62

[16] JP Wilkie to Henry Hughes, 25 October 1852, State Library of New South Wales, Dixson Library, DL Doc14

[17] Morning Chronicle, Sydney, 7 September 1844, p 3; Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 1844, p 3

[18] JP Wilkie to Henry Hughes, 25 October 1852, State Library of New South Wales, Dixson Library, D14

[19] Moreton Bay Courier, 23 December 1854, p 2

[20] Reverend William Ridley, Appendix C, Report of the 1861 Select Committee, Queensland, into the Native Police Force, MFL 328.943, Fr 572, John Oxley Library, Brisbane

[21] LE Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-59, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1975, p 129

[22] Moreton Bay Courier, 23 December 1854, p 2