“The dead are soon forgotten…”
So said an “Old Parramattan” in 1890 in reference to the people buried at Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery: St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta (1790). But the dead are not so easily forgotten if their stories live again!
The St. John’s Cemetery Project is an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery, which was established in January 1790 in an old stock paddock on the outskirts of Parramatta, the land of the Darug People’s Burramattagal clan. Thenceforth, it became the final resting place of more than 50 First Fleeters; a multitude of convicts, soldiers, pioneers and colonial elites who were immortalised in place names in Parramatta and surrounds; Governors’ wives, women and children who died at the Parramatta Female Factory; orphans who passed away at the Orphan Schools at Parramatta and Liverpool; as well as patients from the nearby convict hospitals and various mental health institutions in the colony — to highlight just a few major groups that are well represented in this historic cemetery. The cemetery is also the most likely burial place of Dicky Bennelong, the son of Woollarawarre Bennelong and first husband of Maria Lock.
Originally a non-denominational cemetery, St. John’s is a place of diversity that provides a more nuanced view of the early colony and the town of Parramatta specifically, with Aboriginal, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Romani, African American, German, Dutch, and French people buried here as well as British Anglicans. This State Heritage listed site, then, is significant not just for Parramatta, New South Wales, or even Australian history, but for World History.
Nevertheless, while St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta is by no means an exclusively British, Protestant cemetery, with ethnically diverse people and many faiths represented among the formerly “general” cemetery’s permanent citizens, the fact remains: there is an inherent European bias in this European-style burial ground. For example, we find only one possible, albeit highly significant, Aboriginal burial in the cemetery; that of Dicky Bennelong who, just a few months prior to his passing, converted to Christianity at the original Wesleyan Chapel, which adjoined Centenary Square, Parramatta. And, even then, Dicky Bennelong’s grave is unmarked, its exact location unknown, due to the fact that the map for the burial plots of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta are lost to us. Other non-western burials, such as the Muslim and Chinese burials, are often also isolated cases rather than large groups.
By extension, then, this project likewise contains an inherent European bias in terms of the sheer quantity of opportunities the cemetery provides to tell European stories as opposed to those of non-western groups. Even so, working with such rich documentary evidence has a way of illuminating other stories, which are significant in their own right and also cast their light upon the stories we originally set out to tell. And so it was with the biographical subjects listed below. Not every one of them is buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, yet in the process of researching and writing our first feature collection St. John’s First Fleeters, their life stories proved to be inextricably linked in some way to the First Fleet if not to a specific First Fleeter buried at the cemetery. Far from being merely interesting tangential stories from the St. John’s First Fleeters collection, though, the majority of these biographies feature First Peoples and, as such, amplify indigenous experiences—particularly the long-term intergenerational effects of the First Fleet’s arrival in the land now known as ‘Australia.’
While only a small contribution to date, these related readings are therefore an essential part of what is ultimately intended to collectively tell a larger and more complex ‘dual history’ of that colonial encounter through individual yet deeply interconnected life stories.
Dicky Bennelong (coming soon)
To search the cemetery database go to the SEARCH page.