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Your Location: University > Faculty > School > AMRHD > Awaba > Language > Missionaries, Dictionaries & Australian Aborigines, 1820-1850


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to the Wiradjuri people in Wellington, and William Ridley among the Kamilaroi, but these were, for the most part, unpublished and rudimentary.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, 1858).

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 (Maitland 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.


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Citation: D.A. Roberts, H.M. Carey and V. Grieves, Awaba: A Database of Historical Materials Relating to the Aborigines of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie Region, University of Newcastle, 2002
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Last Updated: 23 January, 2003
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