Pemulway: The Rainbow Warrior by Eric Willmot, Australia, 1987

Pemulway: The Rainbow Warrior by Eric Willmot, Australia, 1987

If anyone believes that the conquest of Australia was fair and just, this is the book to right such ignorance. After lamenting the fact that Australian schoolchildren know more about American Indians – names, places, battles – than they do about Australian Aboriginal history, Willmot gives a balanced, and detailed, account of the early years of European occupation from 1788 until 1802, focusing on the warrior Pemulway.

Pemulway belonged to the Bidjigal clan, one of the many different clans or tribes around Sydney that together became known as the Eora people. He was a natural leader and a brilliant tactician. A turned eye did not only make him distinctive, it also caused many to believe that he had supernatural powers – powers in which even he believed, especially when it came to avoiding British musket shot.

Initially curious about the Europeans and their strange ways, Pemulway gradually realized what their presence would mean for his people’s way of life. He desperately wanted the British to return to England, and to this end he activated many of the other Sydney tribes. But after twelve years, he realized that there was no way he could win. Shortly before he was killed he said to his friend: “To win a war, Kiraban,” (…) “you must make someone lose.” When Kiraban retorted that if it is a war then it is they who must lose, Pemulway answered: “Only if we fight, Kiraban.”

Eric Willmot died on the 20/4 2019. The photo is from hillsfamilyfunerals

Although Pemulway was fighting a war he could not win, things may have been very different had Governor Phillip and, later, Governor Hunter had their way. Both men were eager to find a peaceful solution to the land situation, but they were hampered in their efforts by the New South Wales Corps – ‘a pack of brigands and pirates’, according to Lieutenant Carpenter – and greedy, obnoxious men like John MacArthur.

I remember, as a child, seeing pictures of MacArthur surrounded by sheep, and being told that he was the amazing person who opened up Australia and founded the wool industry. I had no reason to question MacArthur’s place in Australian history, but after reading Willmot’s book I am quite certain that Australia would have been a better place without him. Seeing an opportunity to get his hands on an unlimited amount of land, he worked together with the corrupt and power-hungry New South Wales Corps to ensure that England was not made aware of Pemulway’s war. MacArthur knew that were England to realize the extent of the problem she would send more people – in all likelihood, diplomatic people – to deal with both the British and the Aborigines: MacArthur’s dream of vast land holdings would have remained just that – a dream.

Pemulway fought against frightful odds for the right to retain his and his people’s way of life. He may not have won, but he deserves to be remembered for his courage and for what he tried to accomplish.

Image of Pemulwuy from

2 Replies to “Pemulway: The Rainbow Warrior by Eric Willmot, Australia, 1987”

    1. I agree. Let’s hope that the present generation is being given a more accurate picture of how and why things happened.

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