More than 200 years after Woollarawarre Bennelong’s death, the NSW government has purchased the land where he is buried. On the north side of the Parramatta river, the unmarked grave site will be turned into a memorial to the great Wangal leader.
But Bennelong is not the only person interred at the spot. Boorong, his third wife, lies alongside him. She has intrigued me for years, since I first began researching the role of Christianity in the encounter between Eora and Europeans. She is not famous like Bennelong, or his second wife Barangaroo. So who was Boorong? And why should we remember her too?
Colonial sources only give us a few glimpses of Boorong. She is discussed briefly in letters by the first chaplain, Richard Johnson, and his wife Mary, with whom she lived for about 18 months in 1789-90.
Other first fleet officers and a few later colonists also mention her in their journals, using a range of names including Abaroo, Araboo, Aboren and Aborough – as well as Booron or Booroong. These mainly incidental references are coloured by the Europeans’ perspectives and agendas. There are no surviving records produced by Boorong herself – no equivalent to Bennelong’s letter.
Still, pieced together, these fragments suggest Boorong played a significant role in the initial interaction between black and white Australians. She was the first Indigenous person to have a substantial encounter with Christianity and its Bible. She was also a political go-between, a cross-cultural broker, and a survivor.
Boorong was the daughter of Maugoran, a Burrumattagal elder, and Goorooberra, whose name means “firestick”. She belonged to the Parramatta area, “the place where eels lie down”. Born there in the mid-1770s, she was about 12 when European colonists arrived.
Boorong caught smallpox during the epidemic of autumn 1789. Some of Governor Phillip’s men found her sick and brought her into their camp for attention. She was nursed by Arabanoo, an Eora captive at Government House. Arabanoo caught the disease and died – along with as many as half the local Eora, including Bennelong’s first wife, whose name is lost to history.
Boorong, like Bennelong, was one of the survivors. According to Lieutenant Watkin Tench, she was then “received as an inmate, with great kindness, in the family of Mrs Johnson, the clergyman’s wife”.
We don’t know what Boorong thought of the Johnsons, what her agenda was, or how free she felt to stay or leave their hut. But Richard and Mary encouraged her to wear clothes, to speak English and to make herself useful around the house. The clergyman – an evangelical – taught Boorong the Lord’s Prayer and tried to convey an idea of “a supreme being”. His hope, he wrote to a friend, was to see “these poor heathen brought to the Knowledge of Christianity”.
The Reverend Johnson also “took pains” to instruct Boorong in reading, presumably using the Bible as a text for lessons. She thus encountered a new language, a new kind of literacy, and the technology of books and writing. These language skills meant she later got caught up in the political negotiations between black and white.
Early Sydney politics
By 1789, Governor Phillip had made virtually no progress in understanding the Eora – and had resorted to kidnapping people to establish a channel of communication with the local tribes.
After Arabanoo’s death, Phillip’s officers took in two more warriors by force. Coleby soon escaped his shackles, but Bennelong stayed longer – gathering information about the colonists and forging strategic relationships with Phillip and others around Government House. But then Bennelong, too, escaped – dashing English hopes that he would broker some kind of understanding between the two sides.
In this context, Phillip’s officers turned to Boorong, as well as a boy Nanberry, to act as go-betweens. On and off, between May 1789 and November 1790, they reluctantly relied on her as a translator and mediator with the Sydney tribes.
Boorong also accompanied the officers on several visits to Bennelong during the spring of 1790, and conveyed their repeated requests that he come back to the British camp.
In late October, Bennelong indicated a willingness to go and visit Phillip. Barangaroo, Bennelong’s wife at the time, opposed the trip so strenuously that the officers offered a guarantee of safety: “Mr Johnson, attended by Abaroo (i.e. Boorong), agreed to remain as a hostage until Baneelon should return”.
Boorong rejects white society
There was a rapproachment of sorts between Bennelong and Phillip. And by late summer 1791, numbers of Eora were routinely staying in the town. The Rev. Johnson thought this new state of affairs had been “principally brought about” by Boorong, the “little girl” he had taught.
Boorong herself did not stay in the English camp. In October 1790, she returned to the bush neither converted to Christianity nor convinced of the colonists’ way of life. She continued to visit the Johnsons occasionally for at least five years after that, but in Mary Johnson’s words she did so “quite naked” and “evidently preferred [her] own way of life”. An image of Boorong, now held by the Natural History Museum in London, depicts her at her brother Ballooderry’s funeral in December 1791.
By 1797, Boorong was married to Bennelong. Barangaroo had died a few years previously, and Bennelong had survived a round trip to England. Boorong and Bennelong lived together with a band of perhaps 100 Eora survivors on the north side of the Parramatta river.
Around 1803 they had a son, known as Dickey, who as a young adult converted to Christianity, received baptism, and became probably the first Indigenous Australian evangelist.
We do not know the details of Boorong’s death, sometime around 1813. But in 1815, an Aboriginal elder known as “Old Philip” told ship’s surgeon Joseph Arnold that Bennelong had “died after a short illness about two years ago, & that they buried him & his wife at Kissing Point”.
In 1821 Nanberry, by his own request, was also buried alongside Bennelong – but that’s another story. In the meantime, let’s not memorialise Bennelong in a way that erases Boorong and her contributions as a negotiator and survivor.
When the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s report was tabled in 1991, it was not the first official inquiry into this tragic phenomenon. The disproportionately high rate of mortality among Aboriginal convicts in colonial New South Wales had triggered an earlier investigation in 1850.
The problem is, of course, still with us. This year a Guardian investigation found 147 Indigenous people have died in custody over the past ten years, and 407 since the end of the Royal Commission.
In my research into the transportation of Aboriginal convicts in the 19th century, I uncovered a government circular, a formal letter, written in 1851. It set out detailed instructions about watching and reporting on the health of Aboriginal prisoners. And it recommended that if an Aboriginal prisoner’s life was in danger, he might be released from gaol.
When Aboriginal convict Jemmy died in custody in 1850 soon after being transported to Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the Native Police Office wrote to let the colonial secretary Edwards Deas Thomson know. Thomson reacted by asking for a report of the number of Aboriginal convicts who had died on the island over the past five years.
It revealed that of the 19 Aboriginal men transported there between 1845 and 1850, 12 (63%) had died there or in Sydney’s general hospital.
Jemmy, along with at least 60 other Aboriginal men from NSW (which at the time included Queensland and Victoria), was transported following his involvement in Australia’s 19th century frontier wars. Some of these Aboriginal convicts were sent to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land.
Others languished on Goat Island, Sydney, and, later, Cockatoo Island. The most high profile Aboriginal captive was Musquito who was banished from NSW to Norfolk Island in 1805 and later hanged in Hobart in 1825.
Most Aboriginal convicts simply did not survive for very long in captivity. In their first year of incarceration, Aboriginal convicts died at ten times the rate of male convicts shipped to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain. Speculation about this at the time mostly hinged around the idea that they died from pining for country.
Other contributing causes included untreated injuries following violent arrests and crowded, unsanitary living conditions, which led to chest infections. Aboriginal poor health in custody was exacerbated by colonial diets and hard labour.
The disturbing trend of high death rates amongst Aboriginal prisoners is evident in archival records from the early decades of the 19th century. Yet until the 1840s Aboriginal convicts were spread out across a range of different probation and penal stations.
When Thomson heard how many Aboriginal convicts were dying in custody at Cokatoo Island, he set up a board of enquiry to consider alternatives to confining them there. This board comprised the medical adviser to the government Dr Patrick Hill, the surgeon at Cockatoo Island Dr O’Brien, and the island’s visiting justice, H. H. S. Browne.
The most significant outcome of the inquiry was a remarkable document that went beyond the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission almost 150 years later. An official circular instructed surgeons visiting colonial gaols to report to justices any cases involving Aboriginal prisoners whose lives could be endangered by longer confinement.
The upshot of this was that, providing it was not considered contrary to the public interest, the suffering prisoner might be released from custody. With the restoration of his freedom, it was hoped he would return to full health.
While this initiative arose out of the convict system, the instructions were circulated more widely and applied to Aboriginal prisoners generally.
The gaol at Bathurst, a town north west of Sydney, was among the institutions to which the circular was sent in March 1851. In the early 1850s, Godfrey Charles Mundy visited Bathurst Gaol as part of a tour of NSW with his cousin, Governor Charles FitzRoy.
Mundy wrote about a man known as “Fish-hook”, who had been locked up for cattle stealing and showed signs of reduced mental function. Returning a month later, Mundy noted a marked deterioration in Fish-hook’s mental and physical wellbeing.
FitzRoy ordered Fish-hook’s immediate release. When Mundy saw Fish-hook a third time, after the Aboriginal man had become a colonial servant, he wrote how the former prisoner’s mental health had been perfectly restored.
Despite the transformative outcome for Fish-hook, it seems unlikely many Aboriginal prisoners were freed. To the contrary, some were considered too sick to be released, as it would almost certainly lead to their death.
The 1851 Circular and the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody shared a common concern, to reduce the mortality rate of Aboriginal prisoners. The 19th century solution was to initiate, where possible, their early release. By the end of the 20th century, the Royal Commission’s focus was on strategies to lower Aboriginal incarceration rates. However, 27 years later, many of its recommendations are yet to be implemented.
The earliest found European image of Aboriginal Australians, engraved in 1698, depicts them resisting their enslavement. Recently discovered in the Hamilton library of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa it is an apocryphal image for its times, intending to portray the Indigenous people described, “New Hollanders”, as “unfit for labour”.
Seen today it unwittingly shows their resistance to the very first incursion by the English on Aboriginal land.
I found the image recently while I was researching in the rare books Pacific collection of the Hamilton library at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Until now the earliest printed image has been considered to be that by Sydney Parkinson, published by his brother (after a dispute with Banks) in 1773. Parkinson’s image, importantly, is still the first image from direct observation. It shows two Gweagal warriorschallenging Cook’s landing at Botany Bay.
The new image, from 75 years earlier, was drawn from textual description, and comes from a little known edition of the explorer William Dampier’s journal, published in the Netherlands.
William Dampier’s journal of his first circumnavigation of the globe was published in London in 1697 as A New Voyage Round the World and became a sensation, running to five English editions by 1706 and numerous translations. His exploits – roving, mutinying, sacking, scuttling and pillaging for 12 years throughout the Caribbean and beyond – captivated an increasingly literate public at the dawn of the Enlightenment, ravenous for descriptions of exotic species and “savage” peoples.
The image comes from an illustrated edition published in 1698 in the Netherlands. It took passages from Dampier’s unvarnished description and engraved them into copperplates.
These included a ship being tossed in high seas, a marooned “Moskito” Indian being rescued some years later, a live burial, a beheading, and “New Hollanders” refusing to carry barrels (p. 340) aboard the ship Dampier crewed, the Cygnet.
This remarkable visual vignette – now the earliest known printed European image of Indigenous Australians – was incised by an Amsterdam engraver and draughtsman Caspar Luyken for the printer Abraham De Hondt. The public was agog for accounts of the New World and particularly any reports of Terra Australis Incognita, the Great Southern Land first hypothesised by the Roman scholar Ptolemy in the second century.
Dampier had been searching for any sign of the Tryall, an English vessel which had been shipwrecked in 1622. He was one of 42 European landings and sightings along the Australian coast prior to James Cook (not to mention the Macassans, Sulawesi trepangers who traded with Aborigines along the northern coast as early as 1700).
Dampier had returned to London bereft of the spices and treasures by which other privateers enriched themselves. But he had with him a slave named Jeoly from the island of Miangas (an outlying island of now Indonesia) dubbed the Painted Prince Giolo, whom he displayed at the Blue Boar’s Head in Fleet Street, London. Jeoly and his mother had been bought by Dampier in Bencoolen, or British Bengkulu, in Sumatra. They had been brought in by one Mr Moody, a trader in “clove-bark”.
Dampier was clearly sanguine about slavery. He had previously worked on a plantation in Jamaica with more than 100 slaves and later lamented a lost opportunity of acquiring “some 1,000 Negroes” – “all lusty young men and women” – to enslave in a mine at Santa Maria.
When Dampier imposed himself on the land of the Bardi-Jawi in King Sound WA in January 1688 he experimented with the Indigenous people’s capacity to labour. This first known image of Australian Aboriginals is accompanied by a highly derogatory description.
It tells how the men were clothed (“to one an old pair of breeches, to another a ragged shirt, to the third a jacket that was scarce worth owning”) and made to carry barrels of water – “about six gallons in each”. The “new servants” were brought to the wells, and a barrel was put on each of their shoulders for them to carry to a canoe:
But all the signs we could make were to no purpose for they stood like statues without motion but grinned like so many monkeys staring one upon another: for these poor creatures seem not accustomed to carry burdens; and I believe that one of our ship-boys of 10 years old would carry as much as one of them. So we were forced to carry our water ourselves.
The men then took off the clothes and laid them down, “as if clothes were only to work in. I did not perceive that they had any great liking to them at first, neither did they seem to admire anything that we had”.
Poor creatures indeed – a life unencumbered by burdens. We can surmise they were more likely unaccustomed to assigning labour to others that they were perfectly capable of carrying out themselves, and in exchange for items of no value to them.
Aboriginal people did not enslave nor exploit. Dampier did capture “several” of the people here, giving them “victuals” before letting them go. And he wondered they would not “stir for us”.
With this description Dampier created a stereotype of Aboriginality that persists to this day, that of indolence. I’ve traced the entrenching of this trope through reprints of Dampier’s description into the 1950s, but I never imagined I would find it as the first printed European image of “New Hollanders”.
The image and Dampier’s journal attempts to enshrine Aboriginal people as “unfit for labour”, as this passage is bannered in later editions of Dampier’s journal. Instead the very first image of Aboriginal Australians is testament to their resistance by refusal, from very first contact with English to take up their burdens.
The word “monster” was coined from two Latin verbs “monere” (to warn) and “demonstrare” (to reveal). In tandem, they create a sense of warning, or a portent. The figure of the monster signals what threatens society.
Monster Anthropology combines the interdisciplinary field of Monster Studies, which explores the meanings of monsters, with anthropology, which is concerned with understanding how different peoples see and experience the world in their own specific ways.
Less focused on fictional monsters in literature and popular culture, (such as ghosts, zombies, vampires, aliens, dragons, and elves) it considers the monsters who haunt the people anthropologists work with.
These monsters are more than characters in myths, songs, and stories from around the fire. They are “out there” on the prowl, lurking in the shadows, lying in wait, going about their monstrous business in the real world. They appear in all kinds of shapes, and for all kinds of reasons. Some are cheeky and mischievous, some are mysterious, others are downright evil.
But all monsters make their mark on the communities they haunt.
Fears come to life
In central Australia, for example, many Aboriginal people are terrified of jarnpa. These monsters may look like humans, but they possess superhuman powers. They can fly as fast as a bullet and make themselves invisible. They love to kill and do so with ease, using either sorcery or brute force.
Jarnpa have existed in the Tanami Desert since time immemorial. In the past, when local people moved across the desert in their seasonal rhythms, jarnpa were held responsible for otherwise inexplicable deaths. A person and a jarnpa must have crossed paths, and the jarnpa did what jarnpa do: it killed.
Nowadays, Aboriginal people live in permanent communities dotted across the desert. It is believed these small towns have become magnets for jarnpa, who flock to them to kill. Interestingly, they kill only Aboriginal residents, while non-Indigenous locals are not even afraid of them.
We can interpret jarnpa as providing insights into prevailing inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – in particular the fact that Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy of around 10 years less than those who are non-Indigenous.
Another compelling example of monsters who exert a distinct influence over the people they haunt are the Anito, spirits of the Indigenous Tao people on Lanyu Island, Taiwan. Their presence on the island and in the Tao’s lives is all-encompassing.
As the Anito take great joy in spoiling people’s plans, the Tao will not discuss their intentions out loud. For the same reason, the Tao are taught to keep their emotions hidden.
Anger, for example, is said to draw the Anito in, enabling them to detach the soul from one’s body. To ward off this danger, children are taught to suppress anger from an early age. Through these and more examples, anthropologist Leberecht Funk illustrates how the Anito shape every aspect of Tao life.
Other monsters are less intrusive, but this does not mean they are any less potent of meaning. Take the Latharr-ghun, for example. This is a big, black, scaly dragon said to live in caverns and underground tunnels in and around Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory.
The traditional custodians of the land under which the Latharr-ghun roams, the Mak Mak Marranunggu people, told anthropologist Joanne Thurman how it can pop up through soft soil and pull you down with it.
The Mak Mak Marranunggu know how to recognise the “th-d-th-d-th-d” sound signalling its approach. They say they learned how to calm the Latharr-gun from “the old people”. It’s imperative to stand very still, while announcing in the local language that one belongs to the land. Slinging some sweat in the direction of the Latharr-gun also helps, as that way it can smell that one is “from here”.
Put differently, the danger the Latharr-gun poses can be mediated by custodians only. In the context of a contested land, over which Aboriginal, mining, pastoral, and National Park interests clash, the Latharr-gun becomes a strong if dangerous ally.
Icelandic anthropologist Helena Onnudottir describes another monstrous ally: the Tröll. Human-like in appearance but larger and bit uncouth and rough, they live in caves and crevasses across Iceland and make their presence felt in a number of ways.
Like other Icelandic monsters, they are the idiom through which Icelanders know their land – and themselves. Further, as Onnudottir describes, in a situation of danger she “called on her Tröll … and the Tröll headed her call,” ensuring her safe passage.
Such ambiguity in nature, being both threatening and familiar at once, is characteristic of all monsters.
Taking monsters seriously
Monsters always take on specific cultural meanings wherever they are found. Consider ghosts, for example. They are one of the most prolific monsters, existing everywhere across time and space. And yet, they do so differently.
Ghosts in Fiji are recognisably related to other local supernatural beings and take on the same responsibilities as ancestral spirits. According to anthropologist Geir Henning Presterudstuen, they reinforce central cultural beliefs about Fijian cosmology, joining in with ancestors protecting the wellbeing of land and people. As they haunt people they also reflect the same concerns about ethnic and social relations that preoccupy the locals, such as sexual morality and maintaining racial borders.
Meanwhile ghosts in North Maluku, Indonesia, as anthropologist Nils Ole Bubandt reports, are part of the current political climate. For instance, a series of unnerving events was understood to be caused by the ghost of a woman whose husband had been killed in a conflict.
The woman had joined in herself, only to be raped, killed, and dumped in the forest. Her haunting the living echoed her own trauma and that of the conflict more widely.
The study of monsters can be a shortcut towards understanding different fears and how they manifest culturally. This is why taking other people’s monsters seriously becomes ever more urgent in these apocalyptic times of climate change, wars, inequality, terrorism, deforestation, extinction, floods, fires, and droughts.
In 19th century Queensland, the Native Mounted Police were responsible for “dispersing” (a euphemism for systematic killing) Aboriginal people.
This government-funded paramilitary force operated from 1849 (prior to Queensland’s separation from New South Wales) until 1904. It grew to have an expansive reach throughout the state, with camps established in strategic locations along the ever-expanding frontier, first in the southeast and then west and north. While staffed with non-Indigenous senior officers, the bulk of the force was made up of Aboriginal men and, sometimes, boys.
We have been exploring the remote Queensland outback for traces of the base camps of the Native Mounted Police. There were nearly 200 such camps. So far we have visited more than 45 of them.
Our archaeological work is revealing the day-to-day livelihoods that underpinned the chilling work of these police. This is an important part of reckoning with Australia’s colonial violence, given the difficulties in identifying physical evidence of massacres in the archaeological record, despite recent efforts to map massacre sites from oral and written sources.
Rather than maintaining order among the European population, the Native Mounted Police’s role was to protect squatters, miners and settlers on the frontier, by whatever means necessary. Their well documented method of “protection” was to mount patrols and kill Aboriginal people who were trying to protect their land, lives and loved ones. There were literally hundreds of such events.
On February 10 1861, for instance, a detachment led by Sub-Inspector Rudolph Morisset shot at least four, possibly more, Aboriginal men on Manumbar Station (about 160 km northwest of Brisbane). This was in reprisal for Aboriginal people killing cattle on the run. We know about these particular deaths because John Mortimer, one of the station owners, complained in the local press about the police’s behaviour. He also gave evidence to an 1861 inquiry into the activities of the Native Mounted Police.
Around Christmas 1878 meanwhile, on the banks of a waterhole near Boulia, some Aboriginal people killed one or more Europeans looking after stock. The reprisal massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children that followed — with one, possibly two, survivors — are known from a written account, and from various oral accounts documented in the months and years after. The Burke River Native Mounted Police, stationed just outside Boulia, commanded by Sub-Inspector Ernest Eglinton, and assisted by at least one prominent pastoralist, Alexander Kennedy, were responsible for the Aboriginal murders.
Excavating the past
Similar to the forts built on the plains of North America during the “Indian” Wars, or the offices of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, Native Mounted Police camps formed the force’s administrative backbone. More than 450 non-Indigenous officers lived on these bases, along with at least 700 Aboriginal men, through the force’s 50-year history.
Like other bureaucratic systems, their very domestic ordinariness — providing insights into what the police ate, drank and how they lived — belies the conflict that took place beyond their boundaries.
Many camps were short-lived, sometimes being occupied for only a few months; in such cases their physical imprint is limited. In other situations — particularly where the terrain was rugged and higher population densities meant Aboriginal people were able to mount more effective campaigns of resistance — camps were occupied for longer periods, sometimes several decades. These left a clearer impression on the landscape.
Even so, what is left is not what you might normally associate with a frontier war. There are no battlefields, in the traditional sense of the word, to be seen. No victims with bullet wounds, no mass graves, and no large fortified buildings. Instead, the Native Mounted Police camps are ordinary, banal even, revealing the detritus of everyday life: stone fireplaces, segments of post and rail fences, sections of pathways, clearings and the occasional rubbish dump strewn with broken bottles.
Perhaps more telling, are the large numbers of bullets and spent cartridges from government-issue Snider rifles. These were rarely owned by private citizens but were issued to the Native Mounted Police for decades.
At each of the Burke River, Cluney and Boralga camps we have catalogued more than 100 bullets and cartridges, an unexpected situation given that most killings of Aboriginal people by the Native Mounted Police occurred outside the confines of the camps. Perhaps the abundance of these objects in the camps is the result of regular target practice by troopers, or maybe the result of having to hunt kangaroos at the local waterhole to supplement their meagre rations. Military-style buttons from uniforms – with ornate monograms, sometimes including a royal cipher and crown – serve as a bleak reminder that the violence associated with the Native Mounted Police was endorsed by the state.
The Burke River camp
Burke River near Boulia in southwest Queensland – the base for Sub Inspector Eglinton and his detachment – was described in 1882 by a visitor as
the most respectable looking native police camp I have seen in Queensland, there seems to be a place for everything and everything in its place.
This camp sits beside a waterhole that is associated with Dreaming stories – an Aboriginal stone arrangement and the thousands of flaked stone artefacts along the edge of the watercourse are testament to it being an important living and ceremonial place. The establishment of a police camp on the site was likely to have been viewed by local Aboriginal people as both inappropriate and insulting – but of course their views were not a concern.
There are two stone buildings, likely built to house equipment, guns, ammunition and dry foodstuffs, and possibly the officer’s quarters. Further away again is a series of small mounds – so slight that unless you know what to look for you would not even see them. These mounds are a treasure trove of discarded rubbish. The fish hooks, flaked glass artefacts and animal remains we have recovered from them indicate they are likely the remains of the troopers’ huts. They serve to remind us that, despite the job they were hired to carry out, they too were just men trying to survive.
Sites of colonial violence are difficult to locate exactly. As such, there is ongoing debate about its scale and nature. Aboriginal people have always referred to these events as a war. Such statements are often dismissed by critics as unreliable. Yet 19th century European authors also described the frontier killings as a war. The archaeology of Native Mounted Police camps is the closest material indication we have of the scale of suppression of Aboriginal people through the 19th century.
While some of these camps are recognised on Queensland’s Aboriginal heritage list, none can be found on the broader State Heritage Register – despite 200 sites that refer to the regular Queensland Police Force in some manner. We believe this should change to give more formal recognition to the dark past of the State’s foundations.
There is no doubt that Europeans brought a culture of brewing and consuming alcohol during their early migration and colonisation of Australia.
But there is also evidence that Aboriginal people were already aware of fermentation processes to make beverages, in much the same way that many other cultures around the world have done for millennia.
For example, social anthropologist Maggie Brady’s 2008 and 2014 work pulls together early European accounts of some Aboriginal practices. They involved the collection and production of sugar-rich solutions and extracts followed by an “incubation” to allow fermentation to occur.
I’m interested to know more about the nature, composition, flavour and aroma of the materials used in any Aboriginal fermentations, as well as the microbiology involved.
When members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (owners of the Trawtha Makuminya reserve) heard about this project, they kindly invited my research group to examine and sample Eucalyptus gunnii trees on their reserve.
A drink from sap
The Eucalyptus gunnii trees originate from the Central Highlands of Tasmania at about 1,000 metres above sea level. Perhaps the easiest material to use from these trees is the sap.
Dotted around frost hollows in poorly drained soils, prone to extreme cold, attack from animals and insect borers – presumably for the sugary bonanza they represent in their environment – the trees appear to cling to existence.
In the past, Aboriginal people tapped the trees to allow the sap, resembling maple syrup, to collect in hollows in the bark or at the base of the tree. Ever-present yeast would ferment the liquid to an alcoholic, cider-like beverage that the local Aboriginal people referred to as Way-a-linah.
In the absence of any detailed investigation of cider gum sap and the indigenous microflora inevitably associated with it, work was initiated late in 2016 to collect samples for analysis and yeast isolation.
Considering the remoteness of the trees, it was hoped they would yield novel strains of known yeasts, if not new species. Over the course of two field trips to central Tasmania, some 20 trees scattered across three large reserve areas were sampled.
Given their endangered status, no tapping was performed, nor was any required given pre-existing flows via fissures in the bark or holes produced by boring insects.
The presence of exposed runs readily attracted insects and supported a microbial population evident from the distinct vinegar-like aroma detected as one approaches the trees.
About 130 samples of sap droplets on the trees or larger volumes from pools, bark and soil were collected.
Compositional analysis revealed sugars such as glucose, fructose and maltose as well as several organic acids and alcohol (ethanol). Across the samples there were clearly differences in the extent to which they had already fermented.
Thus sugar contents ranged from trace to several hundred grams per litre, while ethanol ranged between 0-6% alcohol by volume. By comparison, a full strength beer or cider contains about 5% alcohol.
Clearly the indigenous microflora are capable of producing an alcoholic beverage without needing human encouragement.
Extraction of DNA from relevant samples, followed by sequence-based attempts to identify the fungal species present (yeast is a micro fungi) revealed a highly variable and complex microbial population with between 10% and 90% of all sequence fragments failing to align with a known fungal genome.
In some cases these unknowns will have arisen out of sequencing issues or limitations in online fungal genome sequence databases. But new species or genera of yeast are possible and at least new strains of known yeast are highly likely. Certainly the uniqueness and isolation of the source sites would suggest this.
Since the above sequencing approach only recovers DNA, effectively telling us what was in the samples, parallel efforts sought to recover living yeast by traditional microbiological culture methods. To date we have preserved a small subset only, but even this represents about 1,500 individual isolates.
All are undergoing sequence-based identification. It’s noteworthy that the typical beer/wine/baking yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is virtually absent, while so-called non-Saccharomyces species such as Hanseniaspora osmophilia and H. valbyensis predominate.
Previously isolated examples of H. osmophilahave been linked to high sugar environments (e.g. dried grapes) and are able to produce ferments with up to 11.6% alcohol, well within the level anticipated in fermented cider gum sap.
Interesting properties have already been observed including good growth at low temperatures – lower than is tolerated by non-Saccharomyces that are already sold for wine fermentation. Such cold tolerance makes sense given the very harsh winters that are common where cider gums are found.
We are also looking to identify all recovered isolates. In some cases this has only been possible to a genus level – perhaps implying new species. In other cases no definitive identification could be made, suggesting entirely new species.
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As our work progresses we will publish our findings and report back to the Aboriginal communities that have supported the study. We have also begun to extend the study to other substrates as well as the anthropological and cultural significance of these unique fermentation practices.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story may contain images and voices of people who have died.
The five planets we can see by naked eye were known to the ancient Greeks as “asteres planetai”, meaning “wandering stars”, due to their wandering journey across the sky relative to the fixed stars. This is where we get the word “planet”.
But knowledge of the planets and their movements goes back much further, being prominent in the traditions of the oldest continuing cultures in the world.
Recent research reveals a wealth of information about the planets and their complex motions in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.
The wandering stars
These systems show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people carefully observe the complex motions of the planets.
In Wardaman traditions, the planets are ancestor spirits who walk across a celestial road. Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney calls it the Dreaming Track in the Sky.
Astronomers call this celestial road the zodiac – the region of sky nine degrees on either side of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun). As the planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane, they all are visible along this band of the sky.
Uncle Yidumduma describes the planet-ancestors moving across the sky much like we walk down a busy footpath. We sometimes hurriedly pass each other, or slow down for a chat. Occasionally, we even stop and turn backwards to chat with someone before moving forward again.
Astronomers call this phenomenon retrograde motion. It is an optical effect that occurs as the planets orbit the Sun at different distances and velocities. It means the planets can appear to slow down and move backwards for a time before returning to their normal motion.
There are five planets visible to the naked eye and right now, and you can see at least four – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – in the sky at sunset from most locations across Australia. All of these planets are currently in retrograde motion.
The (non) twinkling stars
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise that these wandering stars generally do not twinkle – a phenomenon the Meriam people of the eastern Torres Strait call epreki and observe to predict weather and seasonal change.
But sometimes they do twinkle, particularly if they are very low on the horizon. Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales say Venus occasionally twinkles when it’s low in the sky. They say it’s an old man who told a rude joke and has been laughing ever since.
In the traditions of the Euahlayi people – neighbours of the Kamilaroi – Venus and Mars relate to songlines and trade with Arrernte people of the Central Desert.
During special ceremonies, the Arrernte travel from the MacDonnell Ranges to Quilpie in southwest Queensland, bringing with them a red stone that signifies Mars. The Euahlayi people bring a green and blue stone to the ceremony, representing Venus. They are seen as the different-coloured eyes of the creator spirit Baayami.
Venus – the Morning and Evening Star
Venus is commonly known in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as both the Morning and Evening Star.
In the Dreaming stories of the Western Arrernte, a celestial baby fell from the Milky Way, striking the ground and creating the giant meteorite crater called Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The child’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – take turns searching for their lost child to this day.
Arrernte mothers warn their children not to look at the Morning or Evening Star, as the celestial parents might mistake them for their lost child and carry them away to the sky.
In Yolngu traditions of Arnhem Land, a special ceremony is held to signify the rising of the Creation ancestor, Banumbirr (Venus), between the mainland and a Burralku – the sacred island of the dead.
The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn as Venus transitions from the Evening Star to the Morning Star. Banumbirr communicates with the people through a faint rope that holds her close to the Sun.
Astronomers call this zodiacal light – the glow of dust in the plane of the Solar System.
The first rising of Venus as the Morning Star, after it transitions from the Evening Star, occurs every 584 days. Astronomers refer to this as Venus’ synodic period.
It’s 50 years since the anthropologist WEH Stanner gave the 1968 Boyer Lectures — a watershed moment for Australian history. Stanner argued that Australia’s sense of its past, its very collective memory, had been built on a state of forgetting, which couldn’t “be explained by absent mindedness”:
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
His lectures profoundly influenced historians partly because of the image he captured: for a practice based on documentation, archiving and storytelling, silence is a compelling idea. And a whole-scale silence — a “cult of forgetfulness”, no less —indicated a bold re-imagining of a national historiography on Stanner’s part.
As Stanner insisted, this sort of silence was no “absent-mindedness”: the occlusion of Aboriginal people from Australian history wasn’t inevitable.
In the wake of his lectures, influential Australian historians conceived of their own historical awakening in these same terms. In an autobiographical essay historian Marilyn Lake described the prevailing historical view in her small rural town: “Growing up in the former colony of Tasmania we did our fair share of forgetting”. And in his evocative memoir, Why Weren’t We Told? Henry Reynolds famously pondered that shift away from silence as people endeavoured to write in Indigenous perspectives from the 1970s onwards.
It’s a common refrain. I remember my dad describing how he also “hadn’t been told” about Australia’s Aboriginal history when Reynolds’ book came out. And a colleague and friend recently recounted visiting Myall Creek as part of a Sunday school picnic in the 1980s: no-one mentioned its dark history as the site of an infamous Aboriginal massacre in 1838.
Yet the move from “great Australian silence” to historical “truth-telling” isn’t quite as clear cut as Stanner’s description might suggest. “Too often it is taken to imply a kind of historiographical periodisation where there was no Aboriginal history before Stanner’s own lecture and an end to the silence after it”, writes Ann Curthoys. Yet that doesn’t capture the whole picture: “there was neither complete silence before 1968, nor was it completely ended afterwards”.
While we now have important interventions into Aboriginal history that amplify Australia’s uncomfortable past, such as Lyndall Ryan’s massacre map and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, those reverberations continue to cause anxiety.
The Statement from the Heart called for a “truth-telling about our history” but still awaits bipartisan support; meanwhile, online commentary in response to the release of Ryan’s massacre database shows the persistence of historical refusal in Australia.
The “great Australian silence” is also historically a little more complex. I’m writing a history of history-making in Australia and have been struck by the detailed interest in Aboriginal life as well as the often graphic accounts of frontier violence in works from the early and mid-19th century. For want of colonial history “texts”, I’ve also been reading travelogues and emigrant’s guides. While these books and pamphlets are largely observational, they also frequently present historical narratives and interpretation.
Many of them didn’t hold back in their tales from the colonial frontier, cataloguing extensive episodes of violent conflict between Aboriginal people and colonialists.
Have a look at this description of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre from Godfrey Charles Mundy in his travelogue, Our Australian Antipodes, published in 1852:
[The perpetrators,] with the exception of a child or two; and having bound them together with thongs, fired into the mass until the entire tribe, 27 in number, were killed or mortally wounded. The white savages then chopped in pieces their victims, and threw them, some yet living, on a large fire; a detachment of the stockmen remaining for several days on the spot to complete the destruction of the bodies.
It is graphic historical writing.
The horror of Mundy’s Myall Creek account is paradoxically eclipsed by the chilling official silence he observes after most attacks:
Reprisals [against Aboriginal people] are undertaken on a large scale – a scale that either never reaches the ears of the Government, which is bound to protect alike the white and the black subject; or, if it reaches them at all, finds them conveniently deaf.
James Demark’s Adventures in Australia Fifty Years Ago, from 1893, similarly reports a structural and deliberate deafness in response to the violent, eerie echoes across the frontier: “The settlers retaliated in their own way”, he writes, and “there were no Government regulations to check these irregular proceedings”.
Even self-described histories, such as those by James Bonwick and John West, explicitly link frontier violence with Australia’s colonisation. West’s History of Tasmania, first published in 1852, even uses the terms “black hunts” and “black war” to describe the first 50 years of Van Diemen’s Land. West was an abolitionist, and a tone of historical injustice inflects his writing about the Tasmanian Aborigines in volume two.
Take this excerpt, where he relates the perverse logic of colonial expansion:
It was better that the blacks should die, than that they should stain the settler’s heath with the blood of his children.
And this one, where he mourns the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal society in only two generations:
At length the secret comes out: the tribe which welcomed the first settler with shouts and dancing, or at worst looked on with indifference, has ceased to live.
Bonwick’s 1870 history of Tasmania is similarly full of sentiment. In a tone curiously analogous to Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech 120 years later, Bonwick offers this lament on the effects of colonisation on Tasmania’s Aboriginal people:
We came upon them as evil genii, and blasted them with the breath of our presence. We broke up their home circles. We arrested their laughing corrobory. We turned their song into weeping, and their mirth to sadness.
Bonwick also reveals the ease with which colonial discourse accounted for murder. During his time in Tasmania, Bonwick writes, he had heard several people explain that “they thought no more of shooting a Black than bringing down a bird”. He went on: “Indeed, in those distant times, it was common enough to hear men talk of the number of black crows they had destroyed”.
Those recollections of euphemistic colonial vernacular hint at some of Bonwick’s method as a historian. In the introduction to his history and in an 1895 talk to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, he gives a more detailed explanation of that approach.
It was not a hunt through blue books [government records], that provided the source material for his research, he explains. Rather, it was conversation and hearsay, from sly-grog sellers, ex-bushrangers and colonial gentry alike, that furnish his historical narrative.
How else could you write about hunting crows?
Alongside those histories was a humanitarian public discourse that anguished over frontier violence. Media commentary, public debates and lectures, as well as letters to the editor from the frontier that related specific episodes of violence, are explored in detail by Henry Reynolds in This Whispering in Our Hearts.
Likewise, poetry such as The Aboriginal Mother (1838) by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop reveals a form of popular and creative history-making in response to colonisation that can be seen in the work of writers such as Judith Wright and Eleanor Dark a century later.
So why was that reverberation replaced with euphemism and omission? Partly the silence was a fear of punishment, as Bain Attwood argues in a recent essay on historical denial.
Especially after the successful prosecution of the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators, colonial frontlines and allegiances became a little murkier. “There were good reasons to be silent,” historian Tom Griffiths has similarly insisted.
Mundy’s 1852 account of his “ramble” through the antipodes confirms Attwood and Griffiths’ explanation, and reveals how stories quietly murmured along the frontier provided a catalogue of violence.
“Dreadful tales of cold-blooded carnage have found their way into print, or are whispered about in the provinces,” he writes. And
although there be Crown land commissioners, police magistrates, and settlers of mark, who deny, qualify, or ignore these wholesale massacres of the black population, there can be no real doubt their extirpation from the land is rapidly going on.
It wasn’t simply a case of an uncomfortable frontier that came to characterise the silence Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures, however.
The historians Stanner named in his lectures (such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Hartley Grattan, Max Crawford and Brian Fitzpatrick) were largely silent on Aboriginal policy and history in their mid-20th century histories — despite being written after the 1930s, a decade which Stanner notes for its influence in shapeshifting on Aboriginal policy.
Yet this form of history writing had begun in the late 19th century. At a time when Australian nationhood and national identity were being formed around Federation, the historical discipline was moving into a particular form of narrative writing oriented towards (non-Indigenous) Australian exceptionalism based on democratic and economic progress.
As Australia’s national consciousness emerged, it required a historical consciousness of its own origin. Education departments commissioned history texts and universities appointed history professors. As history became increasingly professionalised “blue books” and official archives were in; hearsay and poetry out.
So what did disciplinary “silence” look like in Australia? It saw History (with a capital “H”) arriving with colonisation: “She alone of all the continents has no history”, proclaimed journalist Flora Shaw in a presentation about Australia to the Royal Colonial Institute in London in 1894.
She offers the introductory chapter of a new history and bases her claim to the attention of the world upon the future which she is shaping for herself.
Lorenzo Veracini has described that settler-colonial vision of the Australian continent as a sort of historia nullius, where “Australian history” only existed thanks to the selective creation and curation by colonial historians.
For Australian historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the silence of pre-and post-contact Indigenous experience occurred because it existed outside the Whiggish historical narrative of imperial progress. “The federation of (white) Australia and the birth of ‘national’ historical consciousness thus represent … a moment of disciplinary origin”, historian Leigh Boucher asserts.
In his 1916 Short History of Australia, Ernest Scott described “vast tracts of fertile country which had never rung under the hoof of a horse and where the bleat of a sheep had never been heard.” In these texts, silence is counterposed against the ringing of axes and “industry”.
Scott writes that Australia “begins with a blank space of the map, and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac”. It’s worth dissecting this quote here, to unpack that form of history writing: the inevitability of historical progress and national formation is telling.
We shouldn’t assume that this early national history writing was completely silent on Indigenous matters: Coghlan and Ewing’s 1902 Progress of Australasia in the Nineteenth Century described the “invasion” of parts of southern Australia by the colonists, and related in some detail the colonial massacre of Aboriginal people at Risden Cove in Tasmania; and Scott’s 1916 short history included ghastly and violent accounts of murder on the colonial frontier, as well as the deliberate planting of arsenic in flour destined for Aboriginal people.
Nevertheless, Stanner gave voice to an emergent idea about silence that understands history as a method that changes over time and place, rather than an objective interpretation of the past. It reminds me of what narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner explains as the “coherence” we “impose” on the past, to “make it into history”.
In other words, the 1930s histories that Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures exist in a historical structure where Indigenous perspectives have been locked out. As Stanner himself articulated,
We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.
Still a work-in-progress
Stanner’s point raises an important question: if “History” itself is tied to the process of colonisation, can it accommodate perspectives outside its colonial apparatus? Stanner sensed that history would overcome its own silences, but doing so would require major methodological shifts, such as the incorporation of Aboriginal Studies and oral history:
In Aboriginal Australia there is an oral history which is providing these people with a coherent principal of explanation … It has a directness and a candour which cut like a knife through most of what we say and write.
His predictions played out, and such approaches, applied by Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians such as Hobbles Danyari, Heather Goodall, Peter Read, Paddy Roe and Deborah Bird Rose overturned Aboriginal historiography in Australia.
The murmurings have since turned into a groundswell: Indigenous histories have become increasingly prominent and Indigenous perspectives are now mandated across school curricula. Conspicuous public and political debates over Australian history are further indication of how this counter narrative has become a significant historical lens.
“I hardly think that what I have called ‘the great Australian silence’ will survive the research that is now in course”, Stanner anticipated. And to a large degree, he was right — a substantial historical revision has taken place in Australia.
If anything, that change has accelerated since Stanner’s death in 1981. Yet in university history departments, Indigenous historians still remain vastly underrepresented.
Indigenous perspectives have increasingly informed, critiqued and revised historical approaches. But Indigenous histories are often relegated to “memoir”, “story”, “family history”, “narratives of place” or “political protest”, rather than acknowledged as part of a disciplinary practice.
And with the possible exception of oral history and pre-history/deep time, there is still a marked absence of Indigenous historiography in Australia’s historical “canon”.
We may have developed new critical approaches, and a growing understanding of the genealogy of historical “silence”. Yet the meaning and the consequences of that understanding are still a work in progress.
Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.
Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.
Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.
In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.
In 1981, linguists Terry Crowley and Robert Dixon estimated that between eight and 12 different languages, some mutually unintelligible, were spoken by Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to invasion. They used a variety of colonial records to arrive at this estimate.
Maritime explorers, missionaries and colonial officials wrote Tasmanian Aboriginal words and phrases in their journals. Some, like botanist Allan Cunningham, jotted down lists of words. Others, such as Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, also wrote down the lyrics to Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.
Between 1829 and 1834, the Conciliator of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, travelled the island with an entourage of Aboriginal people, including Truganini, and white servants. They aimed to capture Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had survived the Vandemonian War, which had been fought between Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Robinson relied on interpreters, but he and his white companions learned some Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Robinson wrote down over 4,500 Tasmanian Aboriginal words. His white servant, James Gravenor, later spoke some words in Truganini’s Aboriginal language at her burial.
Many Tasmanian Aboriginal words continued to be used by those living on the Bass Strait islands. Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Ronnie Summers grew up on Cape Barren Island. He has written, for example, about how “yolla” is an Aboriginal word for short-tailed shearwaters.
South of Hobart, Fanny Cochrane Smith continued to use some of her Tasmanian Aboriginal language. Famously, in 1899 and 1903, she was recorded singing several songs and speaking in this language.
Since the 1990s, Tasmanian Aboriginal people including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe have worked to restore language to their community. palawa kani has been built from words and songs passed down Aboriginal families as well as phrases and words recorded in colonial documents. It is a composite language that has been embraced by some, but not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Today, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are using palawa kani in different contexts. These include educational settings, during ceremonies and at official functions. Digital materials, posters and flash cards have been produced. People are encouraged to use palawa kani in their homes. Language learning is also supported by palawa kani being used in the award-winning animated television series Little J and Big Cuz.
Gradually people living in and beyond the wider Tasmanian community are becoming used to hearing or seeing palawa kani. In 2014, Tasmanian Aboriginal musician Dewayne Everettsmith’s debut album Surrender included melaythina, the first song released in palawa kani. More recently, in April 2018, the oratorio A Tasmanian Requiem premiered in Hobart. It included palawa kani, English and Latin. On approaching the ningina tunipri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, visitors hear palawa kani.
Around Tasmania, some national parks and other significant landmarks now have dual names. Examples include Mt Wellington, near Hobart, which is also known by its Aboriginal name kunanyi and Asbestos Range National Park in the north of the state. The latter was renamed Narawntapu National Park in 2000, prior to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre discontinuing the use of upper case letters in palawa kani.
The word nipaluna, for Hobart, came from a word recorded by Robinson on 16 January 1830. The Conciliator wrote in his journal that his Aboriginal informant Woorrady (Wooreddy) told him Hobart was called nib.ber.loon.ne. On 11 July, Robinson recorded the name for Hobart as niberlooner. Different spellings were common in the 19th century for Aboriginal and English words. Those working on palawa kani have had to take these variations into account.
Present day use of palawa kani goes beyond dual place naming. It is also being used as a language of protest. Earlier this year, in February 2018, a television advertisement spoken in palawa kani went to air to protest against the Tasmanian Government’s plans to reopen some four-wheel drive tracks in the remote Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in Tasmania’s north west.
Despite not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people embracing palawa kani, the reemergence of an Aboriginal language in Tasmania is providing the island’s first peoples with a culturally distinctive, unique voice.
Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).
These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)
Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).
Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.
Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.
The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.
The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.
These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.
The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.
Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.
And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.
The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.
Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.
Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.
Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.
However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.
Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.
The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.
Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.
This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.