Threlkeld, Biraban, and the Awabakal manuscripts at Auckland Libraries

Held in the heritage collections at Auckland Libraries are two unique manuscripts written in the indigenous Australian language known today as Awabakal. Prior to colonisation, this language was spoken by the Aboriginal peoples of the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie area of New South Wales. During the twentieth century, its survival was at risk, however, it is now part of an indigenous language rediscovery movement in Australia.

Original texts are important sources for language rediscovery as they record the language when it was spoken widely. To aid this project, and as a contribution to the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019, Auckland Libraries has digitised these two manuscripts – Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba and An Aboriginal and English lexicon to the Gospel according to Saint Luke - and made them available on Kura Heritage Collections Online. During August they are also on display in the Real Gold case in the special collections reading room at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero. Listen to the Real Gold podcast on the Auckland Libraries SoundCloud.


Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba. 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 83.

Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba contains the Gospel of St Luke, translated by the missionary Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, and Biraban, his principal language teacher and translation informant. Threlkeld began the translation in 1829 while working in the Newcastle area of New South Wales. He was employed by the London Missionary Society (LMS) and had spent time in Moorea and Raiatea in the Society Islands before coming to Australia in 1824 to set up a mission station at Lake Macquarie.

Portrait of Lancelot Edward Threlkeld. From: Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba. 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 83.

In the nineteenth century, it was common for missionaries to learn indigenous languages and produce translations of scripture that they then used to aid conversion to Christianity. However before Threlkeld arrived in Australia little linguistic progress had been made - his publications were the earliest and most comprehensive indigenous language texts for many decades. Racial prejudice combined with the difficulty the English had in learning Aboriginal languages meant it was more common for local people to learn English.

It is believed that before 1788 there were as many as 250 different languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Australia. The language learned by Threlkeld was spoken throughout a large geographic area along the coast of New South Wales and inland along the Hunter River. This is reflected on the title page of Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba, where he describes it as “the language of the aborigines located in the vicinity of Hunter's River, Lake Macquarie, New South Wales”.

Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba. 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 83.

This geographic description is used consistently by Threlkeld - he does not use the term ‘Awabakal’ to refer to the language or the people who speak it. 'Awabakal' was invented by another linguist, John Fraser, when he edited Threlkeld’s language works for publication in 1892. (Fraser derived it from ‘Awaba’, a word used by local people to refer to Lake Macquarie). For this reason, many scholars today prefer to use the phrase ‘Hunter River-Lake Macquarie language’ (HRLM). However, ‘Awabakal’ is recognised as having been widely adopted since the early twentieth century, including by Aboriginal peoples.

Threlkeld was greatly assisted in his language work by Biraban, a local Aboriginal man who acted as Threlkeld’s teacher and translation informant. He also worked with Threlkeld as a court interpreter and advocate for his people. Biraban was a prominent leader of the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie peoples, and Threlkeld described him in 1833 as their “chief” (Carey, 2010; Gunson, 1974). In a preface to his 1950 publication A key to the structure of the Aboriginal language, Threlkeld relates that as a child Biraban was taken by the British and raised in military barracks in Sydney. It was here he learned English and was named ‘M’Gill’, in reference to Captain John M. Gill whom he served. Biraban was the name he used after returning to the Lake Macquarie area and experiencing his initiation.

Threlkeld credits Biraban’s contribution frequently in his published and unpublished works, including Biraban’s portrait and describing their relationship in terms such as this: “He was my almost daily companion for many years, and to his intelligence I am principally indebted for much of my knowledge respecting the structure of the language” (Threlkeld, 1850).

In her research on Threlkeld’s manuscripts, Hilary Carey (2010) confirms that their working relationship was indeed close, with Biraban involved in checking and correcting Threlkeld’s drafts as well as supplying the original language expertise. However, she also argues that in crediting Biraban Threlkeld may have been trying to confer validity to the texts, as having originated from a native speaker. In another part of his account Threlkeld relates the words of American linguist Horatio Hale, who visited the Lake Macquarie mission in 1839: “It was very evident that McGill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of any thing, he pronounced the word very distinctly, syllable by syllable, so that it was impossible to mistake it” (Threlkeld, 1850).

Threlkeld was clearly concerned with accuracy. In a letter to Sir George Grey, he writes “I must copy the Gospel of Luke myself to prevent mistakes into which a mere copyist would be sure to fall”. (Letter to Sir George Grey, 10 April 1857. GL_T15.1)

L.E. Threlkeld. Letter to Sir George Grey, 10 April 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GL T15.1.

The copy Threlkeld is referring to is the one held in the Grey Manuscripts Collection here at Auckland Libraries. Grey had a strong interest in indigenous languages himself and was actively collecting language texts at this time. He encouraged Threlkeld and supported him financially to produce this fourth revision. Threlkeld sent him the completed manuscript in 1858 but was unable to complete the accompanying Lexicon before he died in Sydney in 1859.

An Aboriginal and English lexicon to the Gospel according to Saint Luke. 1859. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 82.

When Grey received the manuscript of Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba its only illustrations would have been the two portraits, of Biraban and Threlkeld. Grey had the book bound in prestigious red morocco leather and asked his friend Annie Layard to decorate the Gospel in the style of a medieval manuscript. This would have seemed fitting for a religious text and the choice also makes sense in relation to Grey’s book collecting interests. Annie and her husband Edgar were close associates of the Greys and Annie would likely have had the opportunity to study the medieval manuscripts in Grey’s collection.

Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba. 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 83.

Edgar Layard was a keen ornithologist and Annie’s full-page miniature depicting St Luke includes accurate depictions of species native to the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie region. Although very small, the six birds that can be seen in the border can be identified as the Red-winged parrot, Eastern rosella, Crested pigeon, Regent bowerbird, Brolga, and White-faced heron.

Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba. 1857. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 83.

Biraban and Threlkeld's collaboration left an important legacy. When John Fraser published his edition of Threlkeld’s works in 1892 he wrote that Evangelion unni ta Jesu-um-ba Christ-ko-ba Upatoara Louka-umba “is now of no practical value”. Today we disagree and celebrate the heritage significance of both these unique manuscripts as well as what they can offer to present and future generations.

Author: Renée Orr, Heritage Collections

Sources

L.E. Threlkeld. An Australian grammar: comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter's River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Printed by Stephens and Stokes, "Herald Office," Lower George-Street, 1834.

L.E. Threlkeld. A key to the structure of the Aboriginal language : being an analysis of the particles used as affixes, to form the various modifications of the verbs ; shewing the essential powers, abstract roots, and other peculiarities of the language spoken by the aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter River, Lake Macquarie, etc, New South Wales: together with comparisons of Polynesian and other dialects. Printed by Kemp & Fairfax, Lower George Street, 1850.

An Australian language as spoken by the Awabakal, the people of Awaba, or lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an account of their language, traditions, and customs / by L.E. Threlkeld ; re-arranged, condensed, and edited, with an appendix, by John Fraser. Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.

L.E. Threlkeld. An Australian grammar : comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter's River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.

Australian reminiscences & papers of L. E. Threlkeld, missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859 / edited by Niel Gunson. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974.

Anne Keary. Christianity, colonialism, and cross-cultural translation: Lancelot Threlkeld, Biraban, and the Awabakal. From: Aboriginal History 33. 2009.

Hilary M. Carey. Lancelot Threlkeld, Biraban, and the Colonial Bible in Australia. From: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 52, Issue 2. 2010. (Link will require login with Auckland Libraries)

Hilary M. Carey. 'The Secret of England’s Greatness': Medievalism, Ornithology, and Anglican Imperialism in the Aboriginal Gospel Book of Sir George Grey. From: Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 16, Number 2. 2011.

Anna Johnston. The paper war: morality, print culture and power in Colonial New South Wales. UWA Publishing, 2011.

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