Missionaries, Dictionaries and Australian Aborigines, 1820-1850
by Hilary M. Carey

Missionaries were among the first Europeans to show an interest in Aboriginal 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to the Wiradjuri people in Wellington, and William Ridley among the Kamilaroi, but these were, for the most part, unpublished and rudimentary.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 are a significant record of the first encounters between Europeans 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1850), but the Gospel of St Luke and St Mark, and the extensive lexicon to accompany the Gospel of St Luke were not to be published in Threlkeld's life time.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 ).

Last updated on the 20th November, 2008.


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 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.

What is the language to which Threlkeld devoted so much of his life called? Threlkeld himself did not give 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. Since Threlkeld's death, scholars have devised other names for the language. That most commonly used today, 'Awabakal', was invented by John Fraser for his 1892 collection of Threlkeld's linguistic writings, possibly to make his collection sound more exotically Australian. Fraser also published then unpublished translation of the Gospel of St. Luke (Fraser 1892 ). Rejecting the name 'Awabakalal', the German linguist Wilhelm Schmidt (1919) called it 'Kuri' after the HTML term for 'man'. Since Awabakal is now in common use around the Newcastle and Hunter Regions it

Fraser published the Gospel of St Luke from the copy sent by Threlkeld to Sir George Grey which was completed in 1857. It is now held by the Auckland Public Library. The present web site provides the first transcription of the Gospel of St Mark  which in the Mitchell Library (MS MSS 2111/2). A scan of this text has recently (2008) been placed online by the library so that it is possible to examine the original.