Reminiscences of Biraban or M’Gill and Patty by the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld

The original portrait of Bi-ra-ban or M’Gill was drawn by artist Mr Alfred T. Agate on the The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. It was drawn around December 1839 when members were in the Hunter Region and paid a visit to Reverend Threlkeld on Lake Macquarie.

 

The first story comes from Threlkeld, L. E. (Lancelot Edward), 1788-1859. A key to the structure of the Aboriginal language : being an analysis of the particles used as affixes, to form the various modifications of the verbs : shewing the essential powers, abstract roots, and other peculiarities of the language spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter River, Lake Macquarie, etc., New South Wales : together with comparisons of Polynesian and other dialects. Sydney : Printed by Kemp and Fairfax, 1850. (4.60 MB PDF) [University of Newcastle Rare Books: 499.15 THRE-1] pp 5-7:

 

REMINISCENCES OF BIRABAN

The Aborigine of this part of the colony, whose likeness is engraved from a woodcut in a work published in America, entitled “The United States Exploring Expedition,” by Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., vol. II., p. 254, was taken by Mr. Agate, one of the gentlemen attached to the expedition, at my residence, Lake Macquarie, 1839, and is an excellent likeness of the late Biraban, or as he was called in English, M’Gill.

Partiality might, perhaps, be attributed to any remarks that I might make respecting M’Gill, but the following extract, taken from the American publication already mentioned, is above suspicion. Vol. II. page 253, states thus :-

” At Mr. Threlkeld’s Mr. Hale saw M’Gill, who was reputed to be one of the most intelligent natives; and his portrait was taken by Mr. Agate. His physiognomy was more agreeable than that of the other blacks, being less strongly marked with the peculiarities of his race; 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 depressed and broad at the base. It was very evident that M’Gill 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 civilization, it was impossible for him to overcome his attachment to the customs of his people, and he is always a leader in the corrobories and other assemblies.”  Biraban was his native name, meaning an eagle-hawk, the analysis of which is at the latter end of this work. He was my almost daily companion for many years, and to his intelligence I am principally indebted for much of my knowledge respecting the structure of the language. Both himself and Patty, his wife, were living evidences that there was no “innate deficiency of intellect” in either of them. He had been brought up from his childhood in the Military Barracks, Sydney, and he understood and spoke the English language well. He was much attached to us, and faithful to a chivalrous extreme. We never were under apprehensions of hostile attacks when M’Gill and his tribe encamped nigh our dwelling. A murderous black, named “Bumble-foot” from his infirmity, and “Devil Devil” from his propensities, had attempted to murder a European by chopping off the man’s head with a tomahawk, and which he nearly effected; the man recovered and I had to appear at a Court of Justice on the occasion; this displeased” Bumble-foot,” and he avowed openly, in their usual manner, that he would slay me at the first opportunity, in the bush; this came to the ears of M’Gill, who immediately applied to me for the loan of a fowling-piece “to go and shoot that fellow for his threat,” which was of course refused. M’Gill was once present with me at the Criminal Court, Sydney, assisting as interpreter, when he was closely examined by the Judges, Burton and Willis, in open court, on the trial of an Aborigine for murder, 1834, in order that M’Gill might be sworn as interpreter in the case; but though his answers were satisfactory to the general questions proposed to him by the Judges, yet, not understanding the nature of our oath in a Court of Justice, he could not be sworn.

Patty, his wife, was pleasing in her person, “black but comely,”  and affectionate in her disposition, and evidenced as strong a faculty of shrewdness in the exercise of her intellectual powers over M’Gill as those of the fairer daughters of Eve, who, without appearing to trespass on the high prerogative of their acknowledged lords, manage their husbands according to their own sovereign will; this might perhaps have arisen from the circumstance of M’Gill, once, when intoxicated, having shot his wife, the which he deeply deplored when he became sober; the injury sustained was not much, and ever afterwards he treated her with that affection which appeared to be reciprocal. It was a romantic scene to behold the happy pair, together with many others, on a moonlight night, under the blue canopy of Heaven, preparing for the midnight ball, to be held on the green sward, with no other toilet than a growing bush, with none other blaze than that from the numerous fires kindled around the mystic ring in which to trip the light fantastic toe. Then each might be seen reciprocally rouging each others cheek with pigment of their own preparing, and imparting fairness to their sable skin on the neck and forehead with the purest pipe-clay, until each countenance beamed with rapturous delight at each others charms. The cumbrous garments of the day were laid aside, and in all the majesty of nature they would dance as Britons did in days of old.

On points of honour M’Gill was exceedingly sensitive, and was an honourable man. ” I must go,” says he, one day, “to stand my punishment as a man of honour, though I have done no wrong.” The hostile message had been duly sent, and faithfully delivered, by the seconds, one an elderly female, who made her verbal communication with all the becoming accustomed vituperation of daring challenge to. the offended party; it was duly accepted; the weapons named, the cudgel, shield, and spear; the time was appointed, on such a day when the Sun was one quarter high; the place, such a plain in a certain well known vicinity attached to our dwelling. Messengers were despatched to gather in the distant tribes, and on the mountain tops were seen the signal fires announcing their approach to witness the affair of honour. When the tribes had assembled a mutual explanation ensued betwixt the parties, and the evening dance and supper of game peacefully terminated the business of the day. The course usually pursued when matters take a hostile form, is this: the offending party is the first to stoop and offer his head for his antagonist to strike with his weapon, and if not disabled or killed by the blow, he rises from his bending posture, shaking the streaming blood from his bushy hair, and then his opponent fairly and honourably bends forward his head, and presents it in return to receive his blow, and so it is reciprocally continued until all the assembled parties and combatants themselves are satisfied. But should one strike dishonourably on the temple, thus showing an intention to kill, or in any other way than on the fair offered cranium of his antagonist, a shower of well-directed spears would instantly be sent against the cowardly assailant who would dare to be guilty of such a breach of the laws of honour. M’Gill informed me that formerly it was a custom amongst certain of the Northern Tribes, that when the first blow actually killed the person, if he were a young man in good condition, for the spectators to roast and eat the body of him who so nobly fell in the cause of honour; as a matter of taste, M’Gill expressed himself dissatisfied with the custom, and stated that he thought it had fallen into desuetude, as it tended to no good purpose but to check the spirit of duelling.

Picturesque or alarming, as in many instances these scenes were, all have for ever passed away, and the once numerous actors, who used to cause the woods to echo with their din, now lie mingled with the dust, save some few solitary beings who here and there still stalk abroad, soon, like their ancestors, to become as “a tale that is told.”

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The original portrait of Biraban was drawn by artist Mr Alfred T. Agate on the The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. It was drawn around December 1839 when members were in the Hunter Region and paid a visit to Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld who was then living on Lake Macquarie.

See Ref: Wilkes, Charles. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1845. See: http://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/usexex/learn/Philbrick.htm

The report appears in Volume 2 pp. 245-256 which documents a visit to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, meeting with Dr Brooks, Threlkeld and Biraban (M’Gill). See also Threlkeld, L.E. Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E.Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859. 2 vols, ed. Niel Gunson. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974.

This is what Mr Hale and Mr Agate, who visited Threlkeld’s mission in December 1839 said of Biraban:

“His physiognomy was more agreeable than that of the other blacks, being less strongly marked with the peculiarities of his race. 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 depressed and broad at the base. It was very evident that M’Gill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of any thing, 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 civilization, it was impossible for him to overcome his attachment to the customs of his people, and he is always a prominent leader in the corrobories and other assemblies” – Gunson (p.6)

Agate, Alfred T. (1812-1846), portrait and botanical artist on the United States Exploring Expedition under Capt. Charles Wilkes, was the son of English parents in New York state, and trained as a miniaturist. In 1832 he became an associate of the National Academy· of Design. His studies of the Aboriginals at Lake Macquarie included a portrait of M’Gill. He died at Washington, D.C., in January 1846. – Gunson (p.317)

The original art portrait drawn by Agate has not been found except for the copy that appears in Wilkes’ book.

Another version of it appears in the frontispiece of the Rev Lancelot Threlkeld’s A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language Sydney [1850] published eight years after Biraban’s death on the 14th April 1846.

Incidentally is was on the 2 October 2002 that we located Biraban (M’Gill)’s date of death as the 14th April 1846. While transcribing the reply of Rev C.P.N. Wilton (Newcastle) in “Replies to a Circular Letter, addressed to the Clergy, of all Denominations, By Order of The Select Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines. Ordered, By the Council, To be Printed 31st October 1846.” he makes mention that “McGill, the Aboriginal Chief of this tribe, by whose assistance the Rev. L.E. Threlkeld compiled his grammar of its dialect, on my speaking to him lately, but a few days before his death, upon this subject, remarked “they died off like sheep.”” His reply is dated the 1st May 1846, so I knew that we had to look prior to that date. After looking through the burials for a mention, my colleague Margaret Fryer suggested I look in the physical index of the Sydney Morning Herald. And there under “M’Gill” we found his death notice:

Sydney Morning Herald 1st May 1846:

Died. At Newcastle. on the 14th April, M’Gill, the aboriginal native well known a few years back at the Supreme Court as assistant interpreter in several cases in which the aborigines were tried for capital offences. He was a living witness against the assertion of the French Phrenologists, “that the blacks of this colony were physically incapable of instruction, from organic malformation”.

This newsclipping and the transcription was communicated to Dr Niel Gunson who had prepared Biraban’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and was placed online on the then Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region site and now Living Histories @ UON: https://livinghistories.newcastle.edu.au/nodes/view/57785

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories


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