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Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars
William Charles Piguenit00.jpg
The Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers
DateHawkesbury and Nepean Wars 1795–1816
Pemulwuy's War (1795–1802)
Tedbury's War (1808–1809)
Nepean War (1814–1816)
LocationGreater Western Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland victory
Dispossession of land of the:

  • Dharug
  • Eora
  • Tharawal
  • Gandangara

Kingdom of Great Britain Kingdom Of Great Britain (1795–1800)

United Kingdom United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland (1801–1816)

Indigenous Clans:

  • Dharug Nation
  • Eora Nation
  • Tharawal Nation
  • Gandangara Nation
Irish-convict sympathisers
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Great Britain George III
Kingdom of Great Britain John Hunter (1795–1800)
United Kingdom Philip Gidley King (1800–06)
United Kingdom William Bligh (1806–08)
United Kingdom Lachlan Macquarie (1810–23)
United Kingdom William Paterson (1794–1809)
United Kingdom James Wallis (1814–1816)
Obediah Ikins
Musquito (POW)
John Wilson
William Knight
United Kingdom New South Wales Corps (1795–1810): 550
United Kingdom 73rd Regiment of Foot (1810–1814): 450
United Kingdom 46th Regiment of Foot (1814–1816): 600+
Armed settlers: 2,000+
Burreberongal Tribe (1795–1802) 100+
Combined total force: 3,600
Indigenous clan numbers: approx. 3,000
About 10+ armed Irish-convicts

The Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars (1795–1816) were a series of wars between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Indigenous clans of the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers in New South Wales, Australia. The conflict consisted of three wars: Pemulwuy's War (1795–1802), Tedbury's War (1808–1809) and the Nepean War (1814–1816) as well as the interwar violence of the 1804-1805 Conflict. It was fought using mostly guerrilla-warfare tactics; however, several conventional battles also took place. The wars resulted in the defeat of the Hawkesbury and Nepean Indigenous clans who were subsequently dispossessed of their lands.


Natives of the Sydney Region

The Sydney region comprised a variety of "nations" that were united by a common language. These nations were the Eora who lived along the coast, the Tharawal to the south, the Dharug to the northwest and the Gandagara to the southwest. Within the language groups there were several clans.The Eora people generally comprised three main clans known as the Cadigal, Wanegal, and the Cammeraygal, and several smaller ones. The Dharug people, however, were the largest dialect of the Sydney region and consisted of the Wangal, Kurrajong, Boorooberongal, Cattai, Bidjigal, Gommerigal, Mulgoa, Cannemegal, Bool-bain-ora, Cabrigal, Muringong and the Dural clans. A clan typically numbered between 50–100 people.[1]

The colony

Following Britain's loss of its American colonies during the American Revolutionary War, economic situations in Britain forced it to establish new colonies. After Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain in 1770 it was decided that a penal colony would be set up there to help relieve Britain's jails as well as to prevent French influence from growing in the Pacific.

The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 at Port Jackson marked the beginning of the colonization of Australia. At the time it was used as a penal colony to which criminals and political dissidents were sent as punishment, however, a small number of free settlers also took up land. The penal colony had been established at Port Jackson (present-day Sydney) which was the traditional land of the Cadigal people. The penal colony had a population of around one thousand and for the first few years struggled to adapt to the Australian climate.

Origins of the war

The origins of the Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars are complex and controversial. With the expansion of European settlement large amounts of land was cleared for farming, which resulted in the destruction of Aboriginal food sources. This, combined with the introduction of new diseases such as small pox, caused resentment within the Aboriginal clans against the British and resulted in violent confrontations, co-ordinated by men such as Pemulwuy. Whether Pemulwuy was actively resisting European settlement, or was only attempting to uphold Aboriginal law, which often involved revenge acts, is debated by historians. Regardless, the British believed the attacks made against them were acts of war.[2]

Skirmish at Botany Bay

In March of 1789, sixteen convicts marched to Botany Bay with the intention of plundering the natives of their fishing-tackle and spears. They had armed themselves with whatever tools they could find such as hatchets, shovels, and clubs. As they arrived near the bay a body of natives ambushed them, and in the skirmish most of the convicts fled. Those who fled back to the camp alerted the military to the attack. An officer with a detachment of marines quickly rushed to their aid, however they were too late to repel the natives which left one convict dead and seven severely wounded. Arthur Phillip sought no vengeance against the natives for this event as the convicts had hostile intentions, and instead dealt punishments on the convicts involved.[3]

1789 smallpox epidemic

In 1789, a disastrous smallpox epidemic broke out which killed up to 70% of the Indigenous people of the Sydney region.[4] Based on information recorded in the journals of some members of the First Fleet it has been surmised that the Aborigines of the Sydney region had never encountered the disease before and lacked immunity to it. Unable to understand or counter the sickness they often fled, leaving the sick with some food and water to fend for themselves. As the clans fled the epidemic it consequently spread further along the coast and into the hinterland. This had a disastrous effect on Aboriginal society; with many of the productive hunters and gathers dead, those who survived the initial outbreak began to starve.

Lieutenant William Bradley recorded the first indications of the severity of the disaster which had struck the Aboriginal population of Sydney when he described his shock at the small number of them to be seen on the harbour and its shores compared with previous times. The British had not seen smallpox in anyone among themselves before the outbreak. Although there were fears about the health of some of the convicts on the First Fleet, these were subsequently dismissed by Surgeon-General John White who believed they were suffering from "slight inflammatory complaints".[5]

The origin of the smallpox epidemic is controversial, and it has been speculated that the surgeons on board the First Fleet brought vials of smallpox matter and either accidentally or intentionally released it as a "biological weapon".[6] In 2013, writing in Journal of Australian Studies, Christopher Warren demonstrated that British marines were most likely to have spread smallpox, possibly without informing Governor Phillip.[7]

Attack on Governor Phillip

On 7 September 1790, upon hearing news of a gathering of natives at South-head near Broken Bay, Governor Phillip and three others made there way towards the reported happenings. When the boat arrived at Manly Cove, the natives were found busily consuming on a whale. Governor Phillip stepped out unarmed and accompanied by one seaman, Lieutenant Waterhouse. Phillip called out for Bennelong and discoursed for some time at the pleasure of seeing his old acquaintance. Gifts were traded between them and continued for more than half an hour until a native armed with a spear came forward and stopped at a distance of twenty to thirty yards from the party. Phillip extended his hand and called to him, advancing at the same time. However, as the governor came nearer to the native it only seemed to terrify him further, and subsequently fixed his lance in his throwing-stick and aimed it at him. Phillip thought to retreat would be more dangerous than to advance and so he called out "Weeree Weeree" (bad; you are doing wrong). His words fell on deaf ears and the native fired his lance, striking the governor on his right shoulder, as the native immediately retreated into the woods. Instant confusion on both sides took place as spears were thrown in all directions, and Phillips party retreated to the boat. On board the vessel, a seaman fired his musket into the natives but it is not known if any were killed. Apprehension for the safety of the party took place and Lieutenant Long and a detachment of marines were immediately sent to escort them back in case a native ambush were to finish the party off. Upon arriving at Manly Cove, they were greeted by three natives who said that the man who had wounded the governor belonged to a tribe from the Broken Bay area and that they highly condemned what he had done. It was later discovered that Wileemarin was responsible for the attack and the motivations for doing so were from the great number of British who had settled their former territories. Governor Phillip survived his wounds and ordered that there were to be no retaliatory attacks made against the natives, arguing that it was just a mistake.[8]

Death of McEntire

Governor Arthur Phillip

On 9 December 1790, a marine sergeant and three convicts, including the governor's gamekeeper, McEntire, went out on a shooting party. After they passed the northern arm of Botany Bay they decided to stay at a hut formed of boughs which had been erected by other sportsmen who hunted for game at night. At about 1:00 am the sergeant was awakened by rustling bushes and assuming it to be from a kangaroo called to his comrades, who immediately drew their weapons. However, on closer inspection the origin of the noise was found to be two natives armed with spears. McEntire attempted to diffuse the situation by laying down his gun and telling his comrades not to be afraid. He then began speaking with the natives in their own language, and they slowly retreated about a 100 yards (91 m) as McEntire followed them.

Without warning, Pemulwuy jumped on a fallen tree and launched his spear at McEntire which lodged in his left side. McEntire immediately withdrew to rejoin his party and alerted them to what had happened. Two of the armed marines set out in pursuit of the natives but they had already escaped. They then escorted the wounded man back to the colony, arriving in Sydney at 2 am the next morning. Surgeons examined McEntire's wound and proclaimed that it was mortal. Following this McEntire apparently confessed of "crimes of the deepest dye".

Colbee and several other natives came to visit McEntire, telling him that it had been Pemulwuy who had attacked him and that he lived at Botany Bay. The surgeons wanted to remove the spear but the natives violently opposed this saying that he would surely die if the shaft was taken out. However, on 12 December it was deemed necessary and so the surgeons successfully removed it. The spear penetrated McEntire about 7 and a half inches through his ribs and into the left lobe of his lungs. The spear itself consisted of a wooden barb with several smaller barbs made from stone fastened onto it with yellow gum. McEntire eventually passed away on 20 December 1790.[9]

"From the aversion uniformly shown by all the natives to this unhappy man, he had long been suspected by us of having in his excursions, shot and injured them. To gain information on this head from him, the moment of contrition was seized. On being questioned with great seriousness, he, however, declared that he had never fired but once on a native, and then had not killed, but severely wounded him and this in his own defence. Notwithstanding this death-bed confession, most people doubted the truth of the relation, from his general character and other circumstances."

Governor Phillip was convinced the attack on McEntire had been unprovoked. There had been similar attacks against unarmed men in the past, in which some settlers had been killed or seriously wounded, and he believed that the natives had to be punished to deter them from any future attacks. The governor made orders to capture six Aborigines that were living near the Botany Bay heads, stating that if it was not possible to take them alive, then they were to be killed. At the same time, he declared it unlawful for soldiers or settlers to injure or fire on a native except in self-defence, or to take any of their possessions.

A military party consisting of two captains, two subalterns, and forty privates was formed. With three days provisions they were ordered to march to Botany Bay to take the six natives as prisoners, and destroy all weapons of war, but were given strict instructions not to destroy anything else and were not to harm any women and children. Governor Phillip reasoned that seventeen convicts had been either killed or wounded since 1788 and he firmly believed the tribe living on the north arm of Botany Bay, the Bidjigal tribe, to be the principal aggressors. The goal of the military expedition, according to the governor, was "to convince them of...[British]...superiority and to infuse an universal terror, which might operate to prevent farther mischief".

Early morning on 14 January 1791, the detachment marched towards the Bidjigal territory with Captain Hill and Captain Tench in command. The first sighting occurred at a beach head from where five natives managed to escape. Shortly after, they marched into a small native village which had already been deserted, and three canoes filled with natives were seen making their way across to the opposite side of the river. After searching the village, no weapons of war were found.

The first military expedition had been a total failure, but the governor sent out a second detachment under Tench with the same orders. This time it was decided that an attack would be made at night and following several time-consuming debacles, the detachment arrived just before sunrise. Consisting of two officers, three sergeants, three corporals, and thirty private marines, Tench split the detachment into three divisions, with each division converging on the village at the same time from different directions. When they arrived, once again they found the village had been deserted. Following this second failure, two natives were detected robbing a potato farm. A sergeant and a party of soldiers pursued them and after overtaking them, a brief skirmish occurred which left one native man, Bangai, mortally wounded and resulted in three others being captured.[11]

Displacement of the Dharug

"The Natives of the Hawkesbury... lived on the wild yams on the banks. Cultivation has rooted out these, and poverty compelled them to steal Indian corn... They [soldiers and settlers] came upon them [natives] unarmed, and unexpected, killed and wounded many more. The dead they hang on gibbets, in terrorem. The war may be universal on the part of the blacks, whose improvement and civilisation will be a long time deferred. The people killed were unfortunately the most friendly of the blacks, and one of them more than once saved the life of a white man."

Rev Thomas Fyshe Palmer (3 June 1796) [12]

Pemulwuy's War

1804-1805 Conflict

Tedbury's War

Nepean War


  1. "Aboriginal People of the Sydney Region". Australian Association of Bush Regenerators. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  2. "Pemulwuy: A War of Two Laws Part 1". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  3. The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench, Chapter III
  4. D. Hopkins, Princes and Peasants, Chicago, 1983, p. 207; Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia 1780–1880, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 10, 39–50
  5. John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales with Sixty-five Plates of Non Descript Animals, Birds, Lizards, Serpents, Curious Cones of Trees and Other Natural Productions, London, 1795, p. 4.
  6. Mear, Craig. "The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789". Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  7. Warren, Christopher (2013). "Smallpox at Sydney Cove - Who, When, Why?". Retrieved 31 October 2013. 
  8. The Settlement at Port Jackson: Watkin Tench, Chapter IX
  9. The Settlement at Port Jackson-Watkin Tench, Chapter XII, 1790
  10. "A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson". Watkin Tench. Retrieved 2013-05-19. 
  11. Tench, Watkin. "Chapter XII: Transactions of the Colony in Part of December, 1790". The Settlement at Port Jackson. 
  12. "Incidents between Aboriginal people in NSW and the British colonisers 1792–1809". New South Wales Government. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 

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