Portrait of Deborah Cheetham in front of a colourful tapestry
Deborah Cheetham AO, composer (Image: Wayne Quilliam)
Deborah Cheetham AO, Yorta Yorta woman, soprano, composer and educator has been a leader and pioneer in the Australian arts landscape for over 25 years.

In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Cheetham was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), for ‘distinguished service to the performing arts as an opera singer, composer and artistic director, to the development of Indigenous artists, and to innovation in performance.’

In 2009, Cheetham established Short Black Opera as a national not-for-profit opera company devoted to the development of Indigenous singers. The following year she produced the premiere of her first opera, Pecan Summer. This landmark work was Australia’s first Indigenous opera and has been a vehicle for the development of a new generation of Indigenous opera singers.

In 2015, Cheetham was inducted onto the Honour Roll of Women in Victoria and in April 2018 received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia for her pioneering work and achievements in music.

In 2019, Cheetham established the One Day in January project designed to develop and nurture Indigenous orchestral musicians, launching Ensemble Dutala in 2021. She received the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award for service to music in Australia and the Merlyn Myer Prize for Composition, the Melbourne Prize for Music, and, in 2019, was inducted onto the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll. 

PROGRAM NOTE
DEBORAH CHEETHAM AO (B. 1964)
BUNGAREE

Bungaree, or Boongaree, (1775 – 24 November 1830) was an Aboriginal Australian from the Kuringgai people of the Broken Bay area north of Sydney, who was known as an explorer, entertainer, and Aboriginal community leader.

He is also significant in that he was the first person to be recorded in print as an Australian and was the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent.

Having moved to the growing settlement of Sydney in the 1790s, Bungaree established himself as a well-known identity, as one able to move between his own people and the newcomers. He joined the crew of HMS Reliance on a trip to Norfolk Island in 1798, during which he impressed the then midshipman Matthew Flinders.

In 1798 he accompanied Flinders on the sloop Norfolk on a coastal survey as an interpreter, guide and negotiator with local Indigenous groups. Despite the lack of a common language, the Indigenous people persistently sought Bungaree out to speak to instead of Flinders. Bungaree’s mediation skills were greatly appreciated by the Europeans with whom he shared the ship.

He was recruited by Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia between 1801 and 1803 in Investigator. Flinders was the cartographer of the first complete map of Australia, filling in the gaps from previous cartographic expeditions, and was the most prominent advocate for naming the continent ‘Australia’. Flinders noted that Bungaree was ‘a worthy and brave fellow’ who, on multiple occasions, saved the expedition. Bungaree was the only Aboriginal man on the ship – and as such, played a vital diplomatic role as they made their way around the coast, overcoming not inconsiderable language barriers in places. According to historian Keith Vincent, Bungaree chose the role as a go-between, and was often able to mollify Indigenous people who were about to attack the sailors, by taking off his clothes and speaking to people, despite being in territory unknown to himself. Flinders later wrote in his memoirs of Bungaree’s ‘good disposition and open and manly conduct’ and his kindness to the ship’s cat, Trim.

In 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie dubbed Bungaree ‘Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe’ and presented him with 15 acres (61,000m2) of land on George’s Head as well as a breastplate inscribed ‘BOONGAREE – Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe – 1815’. Bungaree was also known by the titles ‘King of Port Jackson’ and ‘King of the Blacks’, with his principal wife, Kaaroo (named Cora Gooseberry by the British), known as his queen. Kaaroo was the daughter of Moorooboora after whom the Sydney suburb of Maroubra was named.

Bungaree continued his association with exploratory voyages when he accompanied Captain Phillip Parker King to north-western Australia in 1817 in the Mermaid, amongst other things giving advice on which plants were safe to eat.

Captain Faddei Bellingshausen referred to Bungaree’s welcoming visit to the Russian exploration ship Vostok in 1820.

Bungaree spent the rest of his life ceremonially welcoming ships to Australia and educating people about Aboriginal culture. He remained influential within his own community, taking part in corroborees, trading in fish and helping to keep the peace.

In 1828, Bungaree and his clan were moved to the Governor’s Domain, and were forced to live off rations. At this time Bungaree was nearing the end of his life. He died at Garden Island on 24 November 1830 and was buried in Rose Bay. Obituaries of him were carried in the Sydney Gazette and The Australian.

By the end of his life, he had become a familiar sight in colonial Sydney, dressed in a succession of military and naval uniforms that had been given to him as recognition for his service. His distinctive outfits and notoriety within colonial society, as well as his gift for humour and mimicry, especially his impressions of past and present governors, made him a popular subject for portrait painters, with 18 portraits and half a dozen incidental appearances in wider landscapes or groupings of figures. His were among the first full-length oil portraits to be painted in the colony, and the first to be published as a lithograph.

Kaaroo lived on for 24 years after the death of her husband and was the subject of many portraits. She died in 1854 at the age of 75 having navigated a period of change for her people many Australians are yet to fully comprehend.

© Deborah Cheetham

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