Missionaries, Dictionaries and Australian Aborigines, 1820-1850
by Hilary M. Carey
Early missionaries to the Australian Aborigines
were also the first Europeans to show an interest in their languages.
Among those who undertook this spiritual and scientific work,
Lancelot Threlkeld was both the earliest and one of the most accomplished.
Attempts at translation of scripture, as well as the accumulation
of word lists and grammars were made by later missionaries, including
those active at the Church Missionary Society mission to the Wiradjuri
people in Wellington, and William
Ridley among the Kamilaroi,
but these were, for the most part, unpublished and rudimentary.
For most missionaries, the struggle to acquire a native language
was always considered to be a pathway to the great work of conversion.
Where the first translations and conversions were followed by
others, it was possible for the new converts, who were often bilingual
in the language of the converters as well as their own tongue,
to provide more informed and sophisticated translations to serve
the new Christian communities. But in Australia, Aborigines proved
reluctant converts, and many of the speakers of the languages
of the south-east, where the first missionaries were active, were
unable to correct and give life to the early translations. Nevertheless,
as the only extensive examples of a number of Aboriginal languages,
these translations must be treasured as records of the first encounters
between missionaries and Aborigines.
In 1827, the missionary Lancelot Threlkeld was
pleased to be able to report that he was "advancing rapidly"
in his efforts to disseminate the Scriptures among the native
people of the Hunter and Shoalhaven Rivers (Monitor
1827). The chief measure of this success was his early publication
of a "Grammatical Specimen of the dialect of the Aborigines"
- actually a highly distinctive and complex language. This work,
published in the same year (Threlkeld,
1827) was always recognised by Threlkeld to be imperfect.
Threlkeld provided a much more developed attempt at a Grammar
in 1834 (Threlkeld,
1834). A "Key" to the structure of what Threlkeld
persisted in calling "the Aboriginal Language" followed
in 1850 (Threlkeld, 1850), but the Gospel of St Luke and St Mark,
and the extensive lexicon to accompany the Gospel of St Luke were
not to be published in Threlkeld's life time. By 1858, when Threlkeld
provided an account of Aboriginal linguistics to Waugh's Australian
Almanac, he reported that "the native Blacks are so rapidly
becoming extinct, the language must of necessity become utterly
lost to posterity unless preserved by the press" (Threlkeld,
Although it was certainly true that there was
a dramatic loss of life among the Aborigines of Lake Macquarie
and Newcastle, it was not correct that all Awabakal speakers had
become extinct in the 1850s. "Old Margaret" and her
children, described as "the last surviving Aborigines of
the Lake Macquarie district" were still alive in 1880 when
the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner's Advocate reported
that attempts were made to secure a grant of land for her and
her family (NMH
and MA, 20 Feb. 1880). The Newcastle people may have been
extinguished earlier. A man called "Brown, the last of the
Newcastle Tribe" was reported to have passed away in 1854
Mercury, 21 June 1854). Nevertheless, modern day descendants
of Old Margaret and her husband, Ned, are proud inheritors of
Awabakal genealogy and culture.
Most of Threlkeld's linguistic work was republished
in 1892 by John Fraser, who also prepared an edition of Threlkeld's
translation of the Gospel of St. Luke (Fraser
1892). To Threlkeld's collected works, Fraser gave the title
"An Australian Language as Spoken by the Awabakal the People
of Awaba or Lake Macquarie." Threlkeld himself appears not
to have given the language of his missionary subjects a particular
name. Although he was well aware that there were many languages
spoken by the various coastal people among whom he worked, his
publications gave the impression that there might be only one,
and that this language was spoken among people of Lake Macquarie
and Newcastle in New South Wales. Unfortunately, as succeeding
missionaries later discovered, this was by no means the case.
Fraser published the Gospel
of St Luke from Threlkeld's own manuscript which is now held
in the Mitchell Library (MS MSS 2111/2). The present web site
provides the first transcription of the Gospel
of St Mark from the same manuscript.