Damien has recently pointed out that Thomas Bungelene was an Aboriginal man who served on Her Majesty’s Colonial Steamer Victoria from 1861 to 1864.
Peter Gardner may have been the first to draw attention to Thomas Bungelene’s naval service in Gippsland massacres: the destruction of the Kurnai tribes 1800-1860 first published in 1983. Information about Thomas Bungelene from archival sources as well as a photograph showing him in uniform was published in 1993 in My Heart is Breaking, a guide to records about Aboriginal people in the Public Record Office of Victoria and the National Archives of Australia’s Victorian Office.
Thomas Bungelene or Marbunnun was the son of Gippsland GunaiKurnai leader Bungelene (Bunjil-ee-nee) who with his children was detained by the Native Police during the celebrated/notorious search for the ‘white woman’ in 1847. His father, who was brutally treated, died the following year in the Native Police barracks. Attempts were made to ‘civilise’ Thomas who was sent to the Merri Aboriginal School at the junction of Merri Creek and the Yarra and later worked in the Lands Survey Office. Subsequently Thomas came under the control of the Victorian Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines.
In 1861 the Board, as a disciplinary measure, arranged for him to become a member of the crew of the Victoria with the rank of ‘seaman’. He spent three years on this ship during which time the Victoria travelled to the Gulf of Carpentaria seeking to locate evidence relating to the disappearance of the explorers Bourke and Wills. His service was punitive not voluntary and although he sought to leave the ship he was in effect a virtual prisoner. Not only that but he was not paid.
Bungelene may have been the earliest known Aboriginal member of a colonial force – naval – as opposed to the men who later served in military units – but his service differed from that of these men. It was coerced: he was in the power of the Central Board and he received no remuneration. His service was part of an attempt to control and civilise and bore no relation to the service of the Indigenous men who followed him, who served of their own free will as volunteers.
He died the year after he left the navy on 3 January 1865, aged 18. The Board noting his death in its annual report for 1866 recorded his short, stolen life as a failure.
Thomas Bungelene, an Aboriginal, who for some months was employed in the [Board] office in Melbourne, and gave evidence of some talent, is dead. A hope was entertained at one time that he would become a useful member of society; but, whether owing to defects in his early education or a natural propensity to evil, he became nearly as troublesome in the office as he was when on board the Victoria. He died of gastric fever.
Thomas Bungelene undoubtedly served in the Victorian navy and undertook on oath to serve the Queen ‘on board of any armed vessel belonging to Her Majesty’s local government of Victoria’. However his tragic story lies more appropriately with the story of the stolen generations than it does with that of Aboriginal service in Australia’s armed forces.
Philippa Scarlett 13 August 2014