Birabahn (1800-1846) was a prominent Awabakal leader and scholar from the 19th Century in the Newcastle, Hunter, and Lake Macquarie region of New South Wales.
From being stolen as a child by the British to contributing to one of the greatest cultural collections in southeast Australia, Birabahn’s story highlights the resilient nature of First Nations people and the need to uplift local knowledges.
Birabahn was born around the year 1800 near the area Muloobinba (Newcastle) with the name We-pohng, and he was stolen as a young boy by the British to be a servant in the Sydney Military Barracks.
In Sydney, We-pohng received an English name — John M’Gill. This was because he was a servant to Captain Gill and the name was meant to indicate Gill’s “ownership” of We-pohng.
During this time, We-pohng learned how to speak English fluently, understand colonial British culture and observe the operation of the colony.
We-pohng came back to Newcastle in the 1820s and gained the name ‘Birabahn’, as the result of formal initiation. ‘Birabahn’ means ‘eaglehawk’ and is a revered totemic animal.
Both Awabakal community and Governor Lachlan Macquarie recognised Birabahn as a leader. He was a gifted guide, tracker, teacher, singer, dancer, and interpreter, who was known to lead cultural assemblies. Due to his early bi-cultural training and knowledge of civic processes, Birabahn often acted as a translator and cultural mediator.
Lancelot Threlkeld (1788-1859) was a congressional minister, missionary and linguist who had an ongoing, collaborative relation with Birabahn. From around 1825, Birabahn and Threlkeld were associates, friends, and colleagues who worked to record Awabakal language.
Birabahn was understood to have been an excellent language teacher and accustomed to teaching language. He also educated Threlkeld in matters beyond the recording of language. Birabahn instructed Threlkeld according to Awabakal Dreaming, governance, and lore.
Birabahn and Threlkeld were almost daily companions. They would travel to civil courts on coastal New South Wales together to act as translators for Aboriginal parties. Birabahn would also report violence committed against First Nations people to Threlkeld, who would act as an advocate to colonial authorities.
Threlkeld’s writings also include an insight into life for Birabahn as a husband to Tipahmah-ah, describing how they would braid each other’s hair as they sit cross-legged on the mission house veranda.
Threlkeld also wrote about Birabahn in a posthumous (post-death) tribute in the preface to his 1850 book Australian Grammar, describing himself as being “indebted” to the intelligence of Birabahn and the knowledge he shared. Threlkeld also remembered Birabahn as an honourable and sensitive man.
Through this collaboration, Birabahn and Threlkeld co-authored several pieces of literature, including anthropological accounts of Awabakal people, the first translations of the Bible and prayers into an Australian Indigenous language, and the translation guide between English and Awabakal, ‘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 and New South Wales’.
Considering this, Birabahn is recognised within contemporary reflections as the greatest English-speaking Aboriginal scholar of the 19th Century.
Emeritus Professor John Maynard is a Worimi man and co-director of Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Centre (Chair of Indigenous History), who has researched and written about Birabahn for decades.
Maynard believes that Birabahn is like other 18th and 19th Century Aboriginal figures, such as Bennelong and Bungaree, where he operated in “…a third space, between an Aboriginal space and a white space”.
Through Birabahn’s cultural literacy and cross-cultural relationships, he was able to be a primary contributor to some of the greatest cultural collections in Southeast Australia, fostering a “treasure chest of language”.
He contributed to the recording of over 20 Dreaming histories, and through his work we know of several spiritual and cultural sites from inner city to the Greater Newcastle area. These collections have been integral to the language and knowledge revival of not only Awabakal people but of neighbouring nations such as the Worimi, Wonnarua, and Dunghutti.
Maynard believes that there is incredible value to Birabahn’s life story and the knowledge he preserved, especially for people living in urbanised areas and cities.
Muloobinba, where Birabahn was likely born, continues to develop into a city space and Maynard hopes that sharing Birabahn’s story and work conveys, “the deep spiritual significance of inner-city Newcastle”. He continued to explain that it is integral for non-First Nations people to understand that, “this whole country is sacred, and every single square inch is critical to us [First Nations people] in a spiritual way”.
It is also integral to understand that stories like Birabahn’s exist everywhere on the continent, even if mainstream history books fail to highlight them appropriately. Stories where First Nations people have utilised their skills to advocate for their community interests and operated between incredibly different systems of governance.