Early Settlement

Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18



Aboriginal Alliance Networks

The Aboriginal peoples of the Murray-Darling basin originally belonged to a number of ‘culture blocs’ or ‘alliance networks’. The largest and best known are the Kamilaroi [Gamilaraay or Gamil’raay: pronounced “gumm-ill-rye”] in the central-north, and the Wiradjuri [correctly: Wirraadhurraay] in the central-south, each with originally 10,000 or more members. Cf below: map of the grassy woodlands of NSW.
    There were many local independent communities or tribelets (“local groups”). Each consisted of several hundred people.
    If originally 10,000 people spoke the Gamilaraay tongue, then there may have been as many as 20-30 such communities (before the smallpox pandemic of 1829-32). Alternatively, using the archaeologist Harry Lourandos’ ‘magic figure’ of 40-60 persons per ‘band’, we may envisage a pre-contact population of 10,000 Gamil’raay-speakers as divided seasonally into some 200 bands.
As well as the inland Liverpool Plains, the Gamilaraay-speaking people held effectively the whole of the Upper Hunter Valley and probably both sides of its major tributary the Goulburn River, or the northern side at least. The topographical centre of what we might call the ‘Lesser’ or cismontane Kamilaroi lands lay at present-day Denman, near the Hunter-Goulburn junction. Thus the ranges, which of course were easily crossed on foot, did not constitute any linguistic or cultural boundary.
    The latter-day authors, N B Tindale and those who have been misled by him such as James Miller and Helen Brayshaw, are quite mistaken in believing that the ‘Geawe-gal’ group lived in the Upper Hunter Valley. The same error occurs in The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (ed. Horton, 1994). The fact is that all our best sources—from the earliest explorer Howe in 1819 and the early tourist Breton in the 1830s, to Ridley’s and A W Howitt’s informants later in the 19th century—recognised Kamilaroi as the language used upstream from Singleton. As Ridley said, it was the language of the Hunter “for 70 or 80 [120 km] miles below Murrurundi”. It is abundantly clear from these sources that Geawe‑gal was just one of several middle and lower Hunter Valley dialects.
    The Gamilaraay language extended east to about Singleton. The exact point where Gamil’raay met the Hunter basin languages, Geawe‑gal, Wanarua and Darkinyung, is not known with certainty. Possibly the junction of Wollombi Brook with the Hunter River immediately upstream from Singleton formed the meeting point. Or perhaps more likely, the meeting point was higher up: at or west of Jerrys Plains. The name ‘Gamil’raay’, as we shall see later in this paper, when it is recorded for the very first time, is securely linked to Doyles Creek, a creek enters the Hunter River just west of Jerrys Plains.
In the Warrumbungle Mountains, and at Dubbo and Wellington, the language was Wirraadhurraay, or, as it is more commonly spelt, “Wiradjuri”. Wayilwan or “Weilwun”, a variety of Ngiyambaa, was spoken further NW, beyond Gilgandra. The distinctive Wayilwan suffix -bone (-buwan) is well known, if not quite famous: as in Gulargambone, Quambone and Terembone.
    James Günther, the Wellington Valley missionary, and his fellow proselytiser William Ridley said that Wiradjuri was used on that section of the Castlereagh River nearest Wellington, while a variant of Kamilaroi called Ko‑inburri (i.e. Guyinbaraay), was spoken on the section of the Castlereagh nearest the Liverpool Plains.
    This is confirmed by an examination of place-names. On and around the upper stretch of the Castlereagh we find the Gamilaraay names Ulamambri, Piambra and Uarbry (suffix –m+baraay). This indicates that the boundary between Gamilaraay-Guyinbaraay and Wiradjuri lay in the eastern Warrumbungles, on or west of the early curve of the upper Castlereagh. Other place-names, for example Dandry and Tenandra, have the Wiradjuri suffix ‑dhurraay. This would suggest that the Warrumbungle mountains themselves, or at least their western sector, belonged to Wiradjuri-speaking groups.
    In short, the boundary between Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri fell approximately along a line drawn from Coonabarabran to Coolah.
It is obscure whether the Upper Goulburn River community (the “Cassilis tribe”) spoke Gamilaraay or Wiradjuri: probably the former.
    Based on Naseby’s line (in Howitt 1904) and Rusden’s statements (quoted below), we would expect them to have been Gamilaraay-speakers. And indeed several obviously Gamilaraay-language place-names are mentioned in the early court case R v Walker (1836). On the other hand, George Suttor in 1826 grouped the Nandowey/Cassilis people with the Wiradjuri-speakers of Mudgee, perhaps – but not necessarily - implying that they spoke that language.
    Rusden wrote of a Gamilaraay group living on the Talbragar River who may have been the same as the ‘Cassilis tribe’:

“They [the Geawe-gal of the central Hunter Valley] were always in dread of war with the Kamilaroi who followed down [intruded] from the heads of the Hunter [?and] across from the Talbragar to the Nunmurra [sic: Munmurra] waters ...” (the Munmurra River being the watercourse on which modern Cassilis is located).

This seems to imply that Gamilaraay-speakers held the Goulburn Valley or at least its northern tributaries. And if we turn to a modern map, we find several place-names in the upper Talbragar-Goulburn Valley bearing the familiar Gamilaraay suffix “bri” or ‑baraay, namely Uarbry, Collaroy and Gundebri. This serves to confirm Rusden’s report.
    Rusden also said that “a section of the Kamilaroi occupied the upper sources of the waters flowing into the Hunter River and those which form the heads of the Goulburn River, for instance the Munmurra Creek”. He implies - but he does not state it explicitly - that Kamilaroi was spoken on the Hunter River at least as far downstream as Mussel Brook (the tributary stream at modern Muswellbrook). As he says, the Kamilaroi “even made raids as far as Jerrys Plains [upstream from Singleton]”.
    It would appear therefore that Kamilaroi-speaking communities held not only both sides of the Upper Hunter but also the region north of the Goulburn River, i.e. the north-west quadrant of the Hunter basin.
    Blanket distribution records show that in 1833, at the end of the smallpox pandemic, 111 Aborigines (80 adults and 31 children) survived in the greater Cassilis district. As late as 1843 the ‘tribe of Munmurra’ numbered at least 94 people. Those receiving blankets included one man, Nedabri, whose name incorporates once again the distinctive –bri or ‑baraay suffix of Gamilaraay.
In the middle-lower Hunter valley, the language or dialect or band names were Darkinung (?Daaginyaang), Wanneroo (?Wanaruwa) and Geawe-gal (?Gayaway+n+gal).
    Darkinung was the language spoken on the southern side of the Hunter from Jerrys Plains to Maitland and along Wollombi Brook, at Putty, and on the Macdonald and Colo Rivers. According to Mathews (1897) the NW extremity of their country was Jerrys Plains, upsream from Singleton, where it bordered that of the Kamilaroi. In the south, it apparently extended almost to the Hawkesbury.
    Wanneroo or Wannerawa or Wonnahruah, as it is variously spelt by the 19th Century writers, seems to have been the language spoken on the northern side of the lower-middle Hunter, namely in the Glendon Brook region (opposite modern Branxton) and north to the Mt Royal Range. It may have extended from Singleton east to beyond Maitland, possibly (but probably not) taking in the Paterson River.
     As we noted earlier, some writers have mistakenly placed the Geawe-gal group in the Upper Hunter Valley. In fact the key sources, G W Rusden (1819-1903) and Mrs Rankin, are very clear about the group’s country being centred on Glendon Brook in the lower-middle part of the Valley. Rusden lived at Maitland in the period 1834-41, from age 15 to 22, and learned to speak the local language. Thus he is likely to have known what he was talking about.
    If we follow Rankin, the Geawe-gal held the region north of the Hunter from near Muswellbrook east towards Maitland. Rusden’s account is broadly consistent with this; he clearly indicates that their territory did not include Muswellbrook, Maitland or the Paterson River (east of Maitland), although they did share a language with the Maitland people. If this is correct, there were at least two dialects: that of Glendon Brook and that of Maitland. Quite possibly they were part of a wider group of dialects that included the costal speech-form Kattang [Gadhang] used by the Worimi [Warrimay] people. Becky Johnson, b.1858, a Kattang-speaking woman of Tea Gardens (Port Stephens) told W J Enright that the language of the Singleton people (we read this as: at and downstream from Singleton) was similar to Worimi-Kattang.
     The other name Wanneroo covered an area effectively identical with the area covered by the name Geawe-gal. We must therefore consider what kinds of names they were. Taking Geawe-gal first, the suffix –gal is a people-marker. It occurs in many languages in central-eastern Australia in such cognate forms as -galu, -giyalu, -giyalung etc. Ash et al. (2003) call it the diminutive plural suffix, literally “little ones+many”, meaning ‘group of people or mob’ (‘band’ in my vocabulary). Compare ‘Gundical’ [gundhi+gal], which Edward Ogilvie (1814-1896), son of the first settler at ‘Merton’ near Denman, gave as the name of one of the four bands or ‘tribelets’ of the Upper Hunter Kamilaroi.
    In Wanneroo, the word for ‘no’ was “keawai” (Hale 1846: 526) or “geawe” (Rusden) or “kae-one” (Curr vol II; Fawcett 1898). This is perhaps to be rendered as gay(a)way. Thus Geawe-gal meant ‘those who say gayaway for ‘no’”. Here again we have a very familiar structure, for Aborigines in this part of Australia commonly selected the word for ‘no’ to name the form of speech spoken by their neighbours. The speech of the Upper Hunter and Liverpool Plains, for example, was called ‘gamil-having’ or Gamilaraay: gamil ‘no’ + araay ‘having’.
    We have no meaning for ‘Wanneroo’; but it is discussed in the sources as if it were a regional language. It would appear that ‘Wanneroo’ and ’Geawe-gal’ had the same denotation, but the latter connoted a set of people. The two or more bands who spoke Wanneroo, including those at Glendon Brook and Maitland, doubtless had their own narrower names for themselves and their dialects. Unfortunately I am not aware that they have survived in the records. Cherchez-y qui peut! – ‘she who can should seek this out!’.

passage map to the north west

Above: Map of east-central NSW.

    The two key passes into the Liverpool Plains were Pandoras Pass near Coolah (middle-left on the map) and Doughboy Hollow immediately north of Murrurundi (centre). In 1825, Allan Cunningham travelled past Merriwa and Cassilis, through Pandoras Pass into the Liverpool Plains, and along the valley of Coxs Creek past Premer, Tambar Springs and Mullaley (upper left on the map).

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1. In his Australian Papers, ed. Gunson 1974: 57.

2. Scott, letter to his sister, 22 September 1826, quoted in Milliss 1992: 60. The Governor had actually told London that the Hunter Valley Aborigines were 'a few naked Savages who, however treacherous, would not face a Corporal's Guard' (Darling to Hay, 11 September, HRA xii: 575).

3. The modern practice is not to use apostrophes in place-names.

4. NB: I do not deny that many trees were removed. If one compares a satellite map, eg Google Map, of the region, one can easily see large cleared areas that on Lang’s map (2008) show as woodland. Cf Lunt et al. 2006: 9: “we suggest that [only] 1–3 billion large trees have been cleared from the Murray–Darling Basin, rather than the 6.3 billion large trees suggested by Walker et al. (1993)”.

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