LINGUISTS: Biraban and Threlkeld

Threlkeld does deserve recognition for his efforts but Biraban was a wonderfully gifted man and it was he that was the voice of knowledge whilst Threlkeld guided the pen that recorded it.

Research By Professor John Maynard on Episode 3

Biraban, also known as John M’Gill, was a leader of the people known today as the Awabakal. Biraban translates as the “eaglehawk”. He was a gifted guide, tracker, teacher, singer, dancer and interpreter. He died on the 14 April 1846.

Birabhn was an Aboriginal man of high degree who today is recognised as possibly the greatest Aboriginal scholar of the 19th century. What a remarkable and gifted individual this Aboriginal leader must have been. It was he who had the foresight to relate the language to Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld in such a meticulous manner over 180 years ago. Like his counterpart in Sydney Bungaree, Biraban was a broker between two cultures over a divide of seismic proportions. Biraban like Bungaree sought to occupy a third space at the intersection between black and white, which for a short time, provided some comfort, safety and autonomy. Biraban was taken as a young boy as a servant for a British officer at the Sydney military barracks, where he learnt to speak English fluently and observed their ways at close quarters. He was given the English name John McGill. In 1821 he was taken to Port Macquarie and assisted in establishing the penal settlement and was utilized as a very effective tracker in capturing escaped convicts. He then returned to Lake Macquarie and took on the role of ceremonial leader of his people. He acted as a guide for many explorers and visitors to the region including Ludwig Leichardt. When the United States Wilkes expedition visited Threlkeld’s mission in 1839 James Agate recorded his observations of Biraban:

He was about the middle size, of a dark chocolate colour, with fine glossy black hair and whiskers, a good forehead, eyes not deeply set, a nose that might be described as aquiline, although broad and depressed at the base. It was very evident that McGill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of anything, he pronounced the word very distinctly, syllable by syllable, so that it was impossible to mistake it. Though acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity, and all the comforts and advantages of civilisation, it was impossible for him to overcome his attachment to the customs of his people, and he is always a prominent leader in corrobories and other assemblies.

Reverend L.E. Threlkeld with a linguistic background and interest set up the London Missionary Societies mission to Aboriginal people on the shores of Lake Macquarie during the years 1820-1841. Threlkeld would be a great supporter and campaigner for Aboriginal people and his partnership with Biraban would produce the greatest south-east coast Aboriginal cultural collection of knowledge in existence.

In the local area Threlkeld was quick to recognize the importance and rich nature of Aboriginal cultural life. Fortunately, Threlkeld had developed a great interest in linguistics and his prior experiences in the South Pacific Islands would serve him well. In this capacity, he was painstakingly accurate and he translated in a period when his Aboriginal teachers were still in their natural state. Threlkeld does deserve recognition for his efforts but Biraban was a wonderfully gifted man and it was he that was the voice of knowledge whilst Threlkeld guided the pen that recorded it. Biraban was singled out by Governor Macquarie as a tribal king.

Besides the language Threlkeld and Biraban recorded much of the cultural knowledge and stories of the local people. Dozens of those stories survive today including one of great significance and importance. The story relates that long ago when animals were still giant sized, all animals periodically separated into exclusive male and female groups. One day when the kangaroos separated a single male, unable to control his desire, raped a female wallaby. The whole wallaby clan was angry and sought revenge on the rogue kangaroo who, realising his peril, bounded away towards the coast. After a long chase the kangaroo reached Muloobinbah, the place of sea ferns (now Newcastle). He was very lucky as aided by a dense sea fog he entered the sea and slipped away from his wallaby pursuers. The wallabies assumed that he drowned, but the kangaroo had swum out to Whibay-gamba (Nobbys) and entered the tall, rocky island, locking himself inside from sight. He is still there to this day entombed, but he won’t come out because he’s never sure that he is safe from the wrath of the wallabies. Sometimes he jumps around inside his prison with frustration, banging his mighty tail against the rocky walls of his island prison. At time his violent actions make the ground tremble and rocks to fall on the mainland! Writing in the 1820s, Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld made light of the Awabakal belief and warning, noting “manual (convict) labour is now employed to fill up the space between the island and the mainland so as to form a breakwater for the protection of the harbour of Newcastle, and a great part of the top of Nobby’s has been taken down without reaching the monster kangaroo said to dwell within its depths”.

They blew 125 feet off the top of the island and convict labor overseen by British marines built the break-wall despite Aboriginal protests. If only Threlkeld had been present in 1989 when an earthquake struck Newcastle. The shock by Richter scale measurement was only 5.6, but for a city built on alluvial deposits it was devastating. Thirteen people were killed, nine of them at the Newcastle Workers Club, 160 more were injured, and 10,000 buildings were damaged at a cost of $4 billion. In the wake of the 1989 earthquake, investigations and historical analysis revealed that Newcastle had in fact bore witness to damaging earthquakes from the beginning of settlement. The most notable hit the city in the 1920s. The impact of the 1989 earthquake brought great understanding and respect for the local Aboriginal story, which was a combination of social control and environmental warning. 

Threlkeld along with Biraban were constant outspoken supporters of Aboriginal people including speaking on their behalf in court. Biraban would have been sworn in as an interpreter in his own right had the oath not precluded this. His answers to Judges Sir William Burton and John Willis in an open court in 1834 impressed them with his ability. Threlkeld himself was openly critical of the behaviour of early settlers in their barbaric treatment of Aboriginal people writing ‘a large number were driven into a swamp, and mounted police rode round and round and shot them off indiscriminately until they were all destroyed! Forty five heads were collected and boiled down for the sake of the skulls’. Threlkeld recorded other stories of horror from the time period:

The shrieks of girls, about 8 or 9 years of age, taken by force by the vile men of Newcastle. One man came to me with his head broken by the butt end of a musket because he would not give up his wife. There are now two government stockmen, that are every night annoying the blacks by taking their little girls, and I am now waiting to be informed, when they are in the native camp to get the apprehended, but as was the case once before, the evidence of the black cannot be admitted.

The levels of this brutality even impacted onto Aboriginal people after death. Threlkeld noted that after attending an Aboriginal girl’s funeral he was approached by the girl’s mother who begged him to keep the location of the grave secret: Inquiring the reason for this request, she made reply that the ‘white-fellow’ would come and take away her head. Threlkeld explained that the Aboriginal people had known of this happening at other gravesites in the area. Money was being paid as Aboriginal skulls became prized additions for museum curators and collectors.

Threlkeld for his outspokenness began to draw the ire of settlers, government officials and even the Church. This accelerated in the aftermath of the Myall Creek massacre. He was forced to close the mission in 1841 because of funding cuts. He lived the rest of his life in Sydney and died in 1859.