In Australian history, which now portrays the First Australians as victims, there is a group of indigenous people who are as fundamentally important to national heritage as the well-recognised white explorers. Yet, they play only a limited part in the white narrative of the country and none in the indigenous history since 1788. They are largely unrecognised in written and spoken history.
These are the aboriginal guides who were alongside some of the great names of exploration – Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt, Ludwig Leichhardt, Edward Eyre, Edmund Kennedy, John and Alexander Forrest - and who were brave and intrepid explorers in their own right. For these guides, the journey from their tribal region into unknown territory was as problematic and personally threatening as it was for the white explorers. They brought their language, bush-craft skills and social knowledge, but the further they travelled from their home area, the greater their linguistic skills diminished and the higher were their chances of being perceived as an equal threat as the white explorer they guided. The guides were equally a target for spears as the pale strangers.
Is it blindness or political correctness that few historians, other than Henry Reynolds, have recognised the guides for their essential role as “ambassadors” to other indigenous people and as fellow explorers? Or is there embarrassment that talented indigenous people were an essential part of the development of nineteenth century Australia into a major primary exporting nation? 225 years after Captain Phillip established the colony at Sydney Cove it is time the story of the aboriginal explorers was told. Their names should become as well known as the British and European explorers who have dominated the national narrative since the mid-late Victorian era.
Two and a half kilometres east of Molong on the Mitchell Highway in central NSW is a left turn to Yuranigh Road. Drive down it for 750 metres and you’ll notice a parking point on the left and a sign to Yuranigh’s grave. Open the gate and drive along to the parking area and you will soon see an extraordinary symbol of recognition and respect for a little-known indigenous explorer and guide, which was set up over 150 years ago. The grave, surrounded by a low wooden fence in an open field, comprises a gravestone with extensive and effusive text at head of a stone grave. Yuranigh was the lead guide to the explorer Thomas Mitchell’s fourth and longest expedition in 1845/6. The grave is testament to a rare, highly respectful relationship between a white man and an indigenous Australian in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet it is little known.
The gravestone, organised by Mitchell soon after Yuranigh death, reads:
HONESTY AND FIDELITY
WHO ACCOMPANIED THE
EXPEDITION OF DISCOVERY
INTO TROPICAL AUSTRALIA
LIES BURIED HERE
ACCORDING TO THE RITES
OF HIS COUNTRYMEN
AND THIS SPOT WAS
DEDICATED AND ENCLOSED
GOVERNOR GENERAL’S AUTHORITY
In the same field is the last remnant of sacred tree that the Wiradjuri people had placed to recognise Yuranigh who had been highly respected and possibly a leader of his tribe in the Orange and Molong area.
Yuranigh joined Mitchell’s expedition at Boree, 27km west of Orange in the Central West in December 1845. He worked as a guide and negotiator and gained the notoriously fractious explorer’s friendship and deep respect. He safely guided the 12-month-long expedition, which travelled north into what is now central Queensland, through the territories of other tribes under very hot drought conditions. Yuranigh was the expedition’s diplomat and liaised with local aboriginals, secured guides, and tracked wandering stock and lost members of the party.
Mitchell made numerous references to Yuranigh in his records. The first came three weeks after the start of the journey when he tracked and brought back to camp three cattle that had strayed. The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) notes that “he was frequently and gratefully referred to for finding water, scanning the country from lofty trees, pacifying the Aborigines who shadowed the expedition, and generally imparting bush lore.”
At the end of the expedition in late 1846, Mitchell wrote of his “guide, companion, counsellor and friend” that “his intelligence and his judgment rendered him so necessary to me that he was ever at my elbow … Confidence in him was never misplaced. He well knew the character of all the white men in the party. Nothing escaped his penetrating eye and quick ear. Yuranigh was particularly clean in his person, frequently washing, and his glossy shining black hair, always well-combed, gave him an uncommonly clean and decent appearance.”
Yuranigh was a small slender man who had adopted some European ways and wore European style clothing by the time he was recruited by Mitchell. He and another Boree-enlisted guide, Dicky, returned with Mitchell to Sydney as the expedition completed its travels. They were rewarded with small gratuities but Yuranigh tired of Sydney and went to work as a stockman in northern NSW. He found his way back to the Molong area and died in autumn 1850, probably in April.
After his death, Yuranigh’s people marked his grave with traditional carved trees. Sir Thomas Mitchell obtained government consent to fence the site and paid for a European-style headstone with its effusive recognition of the local guide’s “Native Courage” and “Honesty and Fidelity”. In 1900 the government renovated the headstone which was re-erected on a base of Molong marble.
It is notable that Yuranigh gained Mitchell’s confidence and deep respect in such a public manner, although the Surveyor-General mostly had good relationships with aboriginal guides in his three previous expeditions, but the one with Yuranigh appears to have been of high mutual respect. In the first expedition Jerram quickly deserted, and was replaced by Mr Brown. In the 1836 expedition, “The Bathurst Aborigine” guide known as John Piper was rewarded with clothing including Mitchell’s red coat and a cocked hat and feather that originated with Governor Darling. As well as old guns and blankets, John Piper was given a breastplate with the “Conqueror of the Interior” inscription which he had chosen. Reynolds comments that while his reward was little, “the preferred inscription gave clear recognition of the crucial role played by Aboriginal advisers and Aboriginal expertise in the exploration and settlement of Australia.”
Others who served Mitchell in 1836 included Tommy Came-First and Tommy Came-Last, who were also from the Central West. Mitchell met Tommy Came-Last when surveying the new gold fields around Ophir in 1851, describing him as “now grown a powerful man in prime of manhood, but from Mr. Davidson I learnt that he was still remarkable for docility and good conduct.”
Yuranigh is the most evidently recognised of those indigenous guides, whom Reynolds titles as “aboriginal ambassador”. Without these guides, it is unlikely that the exploration of Australia would have progressed so swiftly. They were partners in it but their skill, knowledge and diplomacy are under-recognised.
Although none mounted an expedition, as they had neither access to funds or organisational power, some were more than just guides. In some cases, they were as much of the exploration team as subordinate white men. Often, they placed themselves in danger because they were perceived as threatening strangers in the same manner as the white men. For indigenous people, the threat to their women, land and freedom had traditionally come from other tribes. So a John Piper or Yuranigh was a much a stranger as the pale skinned explorers. Their skills included identifying existing tracks for the explorers to follow, finding sources of water, using local knowledge and gathering intelligence about the tribes in the direction of travel, and applying bush craft to aid white men unused to the Australian climate and landscape. Yuranigh was able to negotiate with tribesmen even though he did not speak their language and, after one slow and delicate negotiation, induced a young man whose language he did not understand to guide Mitchell’s party to a river. Many of the tracks identified by the indigenous advisers soon became important paths for trade and communication and later developed into roads.
In the margins
The Australian Dictionary of Biography refers to twelve in its “indigenous guide” category. Some like Yuranigh, Jackey Jackey and Wylie are linked to the famous explorers like Mitchell, Edmund Kennedy and Edward Eyre. Jackey Jackey and Wylie’s stories have been told to generations of Australians as examples of loyal aboriginals. Less well known, although recorded in the ADB are Bungaree, Colebe, Cubadgee, Mokare, Tommy Windich and Erlikilyika. Many others are only mentioned in the margins of explorers’ reports. Some are just recorded as “four aboriginals”.
They range from Governor Philip’s guide Colebe, Bolandree and Colbee who aided Watkin Tench’s early explorations from the Port Jackson colony to the Nepean and Hawkesbury river system, to Bongaree who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his exploration to Moreton Bay and the later 1802 circumnavigation. Also recorded in some detail are Charley Fisher and Harry Brown who were guides to Ludwig Leichhardt’s second, successful expedition from Brisbane to Port Essington in 1844.
The records of Charles Sturt’s extensive exploration only record the names of Nadbuck and Jacky (Camboli) in his final 1844-45 search for the fabled inland sea, but not in two earlier expeditions of river systems in NSW and Victoria.
By mid-century, the use of familiar white nicknames was common. For the next sixty years of exploration, reports are littered with Bob, Billy, Charlie or Charley, Daniel, Dick, Dicky, Harry, Jimmy, Joey, John, Tommy and even a rather formal Warwick (Parunda) in Spencer and Gillen’s 1902 cross-continental anthropological expedition.
In the first 40 years of the NSW colony, the guides are given anglicised versions of their tribal name except for Moowattin who was also known as Daniel. The reports of many early explorers from 1789 to 1830, however, often don’t mention the indigenous guides. They were non-people, but appear to have been widely employed.
Some guides are still recognised by landmarks, such the Tarra River is Gippsland, named after the Polish explorer Strzelecki’s guide Charlie Tarra who led the expedition across the Australian Alps, where Mt Kosciusko was named in 1840, to Western Port and Melbourne. The Gippsland historian P.D. Gardner comments that it was the “hunting and bushcraft of Charlie Tarra that enabled them to reach Western Port alive”. Yuranigh is recorded by a creek near Molong, a lagoon and a county in Queensland, while Charley Fisher, a guide to Ludwig Leichhardt, is commemorated by Charley’s Creek near Chinchilla, Queensland and north of the Condamine River.
The histories on which generations of Australians were raised on largely ignored the role of aboriginal guides and ambassadors. Henry Reynolds in his 2000 book Black Pioneers attributed this blindness to the celebration of the explorers as necessary heroes for the creation of national image. “The explorers were seized on by writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to provide colour and romance to what was thought to be a ‘rather tame and uneventful story’ singularly ‘devoid of stirring incident’. Before the exploits of the Anzacs were brought to the nation after Gallipoli, these white and mainly British explorers “provided the heroism supplied in other nations by military prowess and success in battle.” The explorers “were paraded through the minds of several generations of Australian children to promote an ‘honest and manly’ pride in the nation.” And so the role of the aboriginal explorers was erased.
There were the mid-Victorian heroic tales of Wylie, guide to Edward Eyre’s crossing of the Great Australian Bight, and Jacky Jacky (also referred to as Jackey Jackey in ADB), the guide to the stricken Edmund Kennedy in Cape York who carried on after the white explorer was speared and died. These were examples of the “faithful native” rather than partners in the exploration of this country.
Examples of explorer-centric imperialist history can be found in Sir Ernest Scott’s A Short History of Australia (1947) and Alan Shaw's The Story of Australia (1955). These books were the staple of history education in Australia at secondary school and undergraduate education for a generation. In Scott's sole chapter on exploration, which starts with Matthew Flinders at the beginning of the 19th century and ends with the Forrest’s expeditions in the 1870s, not one indigenous guide is mentioned by name. Even the celebrated Wylie is referred as “one black” who stayed with Eyre for the bleak two-month journey across the Nullarbor. The expeditions of Leichhardt and Kennedy in the late 1840s have no reference to the guides and Kennedy’s death in 1848 does not mention Jacky Jacky’s heroic support for him.
Not surprisingly with the sudden cultural impact of the white British culture, some guides weren’t always faithful and loyal. Philip Clarke writes that the mass arrival of European settlers after the initial 50 years of the colony “came in such overwhelming numbers that they dominated the Indigenous people”. This massive cultural change was hard for some to comprehend, compared with their more open and sharing society. In Gippsland, Jemmy Gibber, chief of the Maneroo tribe, acted as guide to Angus McMillan but left him after six days because he was frightened of “Warrigals, or wild blacks” in an area beyond the Maneroo region.
In Leichhardt’s expedition of 1844, Charley Fisher and Harry Brown performed well as guides but had failings as diplomats, mainly because Charley liked “native gins” (indigenous women) too much which brought the expedition into conflict with tribes in the areas that they passed through. One of Charley and Harry’ forays in Cape York led to an attack by the Kokopera people in which one explorer was killed and two wounded by spears. Leichhardt, who had been punched by Charley after reprimanding him in mid-expedition, jailed the guide in Port Essington for a night for stealing a sword and selling it to a carpenter.
Although Wylie travelled across the Great Australian Bight with Eyre in their terrible journey, there were other black guides who were less loyal to the explorer and with good reason. Eyre effectively kidnapped two eight-year-old boys named Cootachah and Joshuing from the Murray River area while driving stock to the new colony of Port Phillip. He took them on to Hobart as “crowd pleasing trophies” and they stayed with him for his next journey from NSW to South Australia. As they neared the Murray River, the boys’ families met Eyre but he would not return them. Joshuing deserted soon after but Cootachah stayed and was joined by another indigenous boy, Neramberein, whom Eyre had “got”. Their revenge on Eyre for this enslavement came three years later as the explorer prepared to go westward into the desert wilderness across the Bight. Cootachah and Neramberein shot Eyre’s companion Baxter and ran off, as they feared for their lives. The treatment of these boys and young men went unquestioned and was only recently noted by Reynolds.
In Western Australia, Tommy Windich was a guide to the Forrest brothers’ exploration and accompanied them on four expeditions from 1869 to 1874. The Forrests were expert surveyors using celestial navigation to plot their paths and so the aboriginal guides’ role was to search for water and horse feed. Windich was adept at finding native wells and waterholes, sometimes saving the expedition. John Forrest commented that without a waterhole found by him, “our position would be critical”. Windich gained small rewards in his lifetime and the gratitude of the Forrests. When he died of pneumonia in 1876 at the age of 36, they erected a tombstone over his grave inscribed with “He was an aboriginal native of Western Australia, of great intelligence and fidelity, who accompanied them on exploring expeditions into the interior of Australia, two of which were from Perth to Adelaide. Be Ye Also Ready”.
Rewards and recognition
By his marble headstone and its inscription by Mitchell, Yuranigh may be the most recognised of the aboriginal guides, although in his lifetime he was only given a small payment at the end of the expedition before returning to farm work. Wylie was rewarded with a pension and remained in Albany among his people. Others went back to their tribal areas but many faded away. Jacky Jacky, although recognised by Governor Fitzroy with a commemorative breast plate, returned to the Muswellbrook area in the NSW Hunter Valley. It is recorded that he fell into a fire while drunk and died of his burns. Geoffrey Blainey bemoaned their lack of reward and recognition: "When these guides died - mostly at an early age - a few were honoured with an obituary notice in a colonial newspaper and even an iron railing around their grave."
As Australia celebrates its national day on January 26, it is time to recognise and commemorate those indigenous explorers – guides and trackers – who helped develop understanding of the landscape and ecology, as well as aiding the economic exploitation that followed. The role of the "aboriginal ambassadors" is a story that deserves to be better known and their contribution recognised in Australia and in the histories of indigenous people, world-wide.