PEOPLE

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" (Maynard 2002).