Pemulwuy was a Bidjigal warrior who led the Eora and surrounding nations in the first major response to the invading British from 1790 to 1802. Indeed, the lands we've come to know as Sydney were occupied during the last 14 years of his life. He has been described as a leader of his people and in 1790 was estimated as being around 30 years of age. The name Pemulwuy means "earth: man of earth" and he is believed to have been born around 1756. What makes Pemulwuy stand out from other patriot Aboriginal war heroes who resisted the British invasion like Wiradjuri warrior Windradyne in New South Wales, Yagan, a Nyungar from southern Western Australia and Jundamurra from northwest Western Australia, was the fact that Pemulwuy led the first major response against the British. The other was the attitude of the British and some of their descendants towards him was to not only destroy him physically but to attempt to obliterate the very existence of him from this unknown history. Until recently his name never appeared in any white Australian history books.
The journals of Judge Advocate David Collins, Marine Captain Watkin Tench and Chief Constable of Parramatta George Barrington are the earliest accounts of life in the new settlement and they detail many references to Pemulwuy. He is first mentioned in 1790, accused of killing a missing convict. Not long after that incident Captain Phillip's gamekeeper McIntyre, who was well known for his outrages against the Eora, was killed by Pemulwuy reportedly 'with a skill that was unerring'. Pemulwuy was held in great awe by the Eora through his leading active resistance and survival, despite frequently being wounded and captured.
After fighting the British with direct armed attacks with some level of success, the Eora soon came to the understanding, because of their many casualties, the most effective way of fighting would be through guerilla warfare tactics. The Eora were also fast being struck by casualties from sickness and the smallpox disease which was foreign to this country. Prior to 1797 Pemulwuy's attacks were sporadic. In that year though, this changed. A guerrilla force of over 100 Eora warriors began raiding crops in the Parramatta district. Settlers asked for military protection to defend them. A party was sent to search the area and it wasn't until it had given up that Pemulwuy appeared challenging them by hurling his spear at one of them. The soldiers begun firing shots upon the Eora, wounding Pemulwuy with seven pieces of buckshot in his head and killing five others. The soldiers led Pemulwuy to the hospital in chains where remarkably, he managed to escape.
Pemulwuy and the group he led were clearly at war with the British. His 12-year campaign and persistent attacks on crops and towns were not merely the acts of an outlaw or thief. They were acts of war, carried out by a people who were determined not to surrender their land and sovereignty to the invader.
He was perhaps the colony's humblest of enemies, but he suffered the most barbaric and dishonourable treatment by the British, having his amputated head taken away from Australia to England.
As Europeans explored and invaded land around the world in the 16th,17th and 18th centuries, they created many enemies - some weak, some powerful - but none more implacably hostile or uncompromising as the Australian Pemulwuy. Governor Phillip Gidley King, in consigning Pemulwuy's head to England, wrote:
'Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.'