BIRABAHN, or JOHNNY M'GILL (c.1800-1846)
by David Andrew Roberts
Johnny M'Gill, or "We-pohng", later
known as Birabahn, was born c.1800, and grew up in Sydney as a
servant of an officer at the military barracks. He returned to
Lake Macquarie and was designated a chief of the Awabakal tribes
by Governor Macquarie. At Newcastle, Birabahn was active in the
pursuit and recapture of convict bolters, and in 1820 was present
at the apprehension of the convicts Kirby and Thompson, during
which King Burrigan was fatally wounded. McGill's deposition helped
secure the conviction and execution of Kirby in December 1820.
Shortly after, in March 1821, Captain Francis Allman acquired
Birabahn's services for the expedition to found the penal settlement
at Port Macquarie. From 1825 he was an associate, friend and colleague
of the Lake Macquarie missionary, Reverend L.E. Threlkeld, assisting
Threlkeld with his language studies and duties in the Criminal
Court in Sydney.
I n his "Reminiscences of Biraban"
that prefaced the Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language
(Threlkeld 1850), Threlkeld described his friend as an intelligent,
honourable and sensitive man who was feared and respected by his
countryman. Birabahn endeared himself to many Europeans who made
his acquaintance, including Peter Cunningham, Backhouse and Walker,
Ludwig Leichhardt, Lt. Coke, and Horatio Hale and James Agate
of the United States Exploring Expedition. In 1830, Governor Darling
honoured him with a brass plate, "Barabahn Chief of the Tribe
at Bartabah" as reward for his "assistance in reducing
his Native Tongue to a written language" (Sydney
Gazette, 12 January 1830). His caricature was made in 1819
by the convict artist, R. Browne of Newcastle ("Magill',
Petherick Collection, National Library of Australia), and again
in 1839 by Mr Agate of the United States Exploring Expedition.
Birabahn died in Newcastle on 14 April 1846 (Sydney
Morning Herald, 1 May 1846). He is remembered today as "an
outstanding personalty, a `chief' of heroic mould like Cannabayagal,
who earned himself the admiration of Europeans" (Gunson
1974, I: 6), and is revered among Indigenous Australians as
"the greatest English speaking scholar of the 19th century"