William Charles Wentworth is best known around these parts for his foundational role in the University of Sydney’s history. Among the many places that bear his name across the country is the Wentworth building, which currently houses the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council and several University of Sydney Union-run facilities. Few are aware, however, of the nature of the legacy Wentworth left behind.
Wentworth was born aboard a convict ship in 1790. Although his mother was a convict, his father was related to a prominent aristocratic family and became a wealthy landowner near Parramatta. As a result, Wentworth was educated privately in England. Upon returning to the colony, he was appointed to a government position and given a land grant on the Yandhai (Nepean River). In 1813, he became an icon of Australian history when he ‘discovered’ a crossing over the Blue Mountains, perhaps by exploiting a local Aboriginal guide as was common practice for explorers. Wiradjuri, Gundungura and Dharug people had been using the same crossings for tens of thousands of years, and they had even been previously used by other white people.
The route over the Blue Mountains precipitated an explosion of pastoral settlement into central and north-western NSW, which in turn was the catalyst for a series of extraordinarily brutal frontier conflicts that would last more than half a century. People like Wentworth styled themselves as part of a distinctively Australian ‘bunyip aristocracy’, seeking both financial riches and political power built on huge tracts of stolen Aboriginal land. The drive to acquire pasture for sheep and cattle led soldiers, police and cattlemen to shoot and poison tens of thousands of Aboriginal people across the colony.
While some of the colonial elite preferred to feign ignorance and make excuses about their inability to control settlers on the frontier, Wentworth was more brazen in his disdain for Aboriginal people. In 1838, seven white stockmen were convicted of murdering a large number of Gamilaraay people at Myall Creek in north-western NSW. A further four participants were identified by an Aboriginal witness, but the law of the time did not allow Aboriginal people to give testimony in court. To rectify this and allow the white men to be tried, a bill was introduced to the Legislative Council. However, it was defeated after Wentworth gave a speech describing Aboriginal people as “wild men” and comparing their testimony to “the chatterings of the orang-utangs.”
Wentworth later used his substantial wealth and influence to help establish the University of Sydney as the first tertiary institution in the country, providing a large financial endowment and serving on its first senate.
The land on which USyd is built was alienated from its Gadigal traditional owners just 18 months after the invasion in 1788, and gazetted as a Crown reserve for school and church purposes. A couple of years later, parts of it began to be granted to British officers seeking to build their personal estates. Meanwhile, the colony continued to grow around Aboriginal walking tracks leading from Warrane (Sydney Harbour) west to Parramatta, and south to Goolay-yari (Cooks River) and Kamay (Botany Bay), which have become modern Parramatta Rd, City Rd/King St and Botany Rd.
The Wentworth Building’s history is by no means unique – countless other places in Australia bear the names of people who excused or actively participated in the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. These stories also need to be told. But what does it say about us as a learning community that we are happy to have places on our campus named after somebody who thought Aboriginal people were apes who should be able to be murdered without legal consequences? The Uni’s website claims that:
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and engagement is a core component of our future and an essential part of our collective history. At the University of Sydney, we believe in the diversity of participation at every level of our study, work and research. It is a core part of our purpose. It’s also a big part of what makes us a uniquely Australian university.”
If we are to live up to this, surely it is essential that people like Wentworth are no longer celebrated on our campus. It’s time to change the name.