Article 4: Myall Creek & Len Payne
Bussamarai was also known as Possum Murray, Eaglehawk, Combo, Old Billy, and perhaps other names.
By Patrick J Collins, who retains the copyright, 26.11.2002.
Since the publication of Goodbye Bussamarai: the Mandandanji Land War, Southern Queensland 1842-1852, Bussamarai has, thanks to Russell Kelly, a Mandandanji from Roma, and his associates, become the focus of a great deal of attention. It is therefore essential that details of Bussamarai’s identity are as accurate as possible, for he was known by many names in the Maranoa and adjacent districts. The evidence is in Goodbye Bussamarai and in documents cited in the reference notes. This paper expands on the text and includes key extracts from the documents.
As acknowledged in Goodbye Bussamarai, I believe that Clem Lack and Harry Stafford, in The Rifle and the Spear (1964), reconstructed the name “Bussamarai” from the nickname “Possum Murray”. “Bussamarai” was possibly a close approximation of this elder’s name but, as it was probably not authentic, I believed that publishing it would not offend any Indigenous Australians who do not speak the names of deceased ancestors. It was therefore appropriate to include “Bussamarai” in the title of the book. My primary reason for doing so was to draw attention to an extremely significant Aboriginal leader, whose death marked the end of major military resistance by the Mandandanji and some neighbouring tribes. After Goodbye Bussamarai was published I learned that “ss” (as in “Bussamarai”) would not normally be found in an authentic Aboriginal word. The authors of Aboriginal Words in English (Dixon, Ramson and Thomas), stated, “(leaving aside a couple of isolated exceptions) [Aboriginal languages] lack any fricatives or sibilants, like English f, v, th, s, z, sh, h.” 1
Some implications follow from this. It will be difficult to determine Bussamarai’s exact traditional name, eg from language dictionaries and word lists. Some Indigenous Australians may feel a sense of loss when they realise this. On the other hand, because the name “Bussamarai” is not authentic, it is symbolic of the cultural destruction that he and his people tried to stop. Although this man was one of the most effective Aboriginal resistance leaders, it appears that no white person recorded his name accurately. From my perspective, this additional symbolic meaning enhances, rather than detracts from the title Goodbye Bussamarai. It was my intention to reveal the truth about frontier conflicts and cultural destruction in southern Queensland. Few cultural crimes were worse than the deliberate annihilation of personal identity, especially the replacement of meaningful names with others of less status. Lack and Stafford attempted to overcome this for Bussamarai, but that was more than one hundred years after he died (see below).
During Bussamarai’s life, which ended in 1852, several nineteenth century writers used different names to identify him. Conflicts on Allan MacPherson’s Mount Abundance station in 1848-49 were central to these. The station sprawled between the present day towns of Roma and Muckadilla. In 1879 MacPherson published details of how traditional Aborigines killed nine of his staff and contractors. This effectively forced him to abandon the station. Attacks on stations to the east of Mount Abundance were also included. 2
Intentionally or otherwise, MacPherson did not refer to Bussamarai by any name.
On 31.12.1849, Lieutenant Frederick Walker, the Commandant of the first Native Police to patrol in Southern Queensland, reported on the attacks and deaths on Mount Abundance and the stations east from there. Walker, who encountered MacPherson’s attackers near the Condamine River, stated, “An attempt was made by the combined Fitzroy Downs, Dawson and Condamine blacks about 150 men in number to repeat their attack on [Wallan Station near Miles] brought on two collisions with the Native Police- On the first occasion the Fitzroy Downs blacks the same who had killed seven men of Mr Macpherson’s and also Mr Blyth’s shepherd [on Tingan/Blyth Creek], besides spearing himself [Blyth] and also murdering two of Mr Hughes’s men [on Dulacca station], suffered so severely that they returned to their own country…” 3
MacPherson’s Mount Abundance station was located on Fitzroy Downs, a name no longer used to identify the grasslands adjacent to and west of Roma. Based on current maps, the “Fitzroy Downs blacks” were Mandandanji. 4
In late 1850 a squatter-writer named Gideon Lang, accompanied by two unnamed Aborigines and a frontiersman named Richard Walker, rode around and claimed more Maranoa land than any other white settler. In 1865, Lang published The Aborigines of Australia, in which he recorded two names that identified the leader of Walker’s “Fitzroy Downs Blacks”. As Lang did not meet this man, either the local land commissioner, Roderick Mitchell, or Richard Walker, was the likely source of the following extract from Lang’s book.
“Old Billy, as the whites called him- Eaglehawk I understood was the meaning of his native name- had sufficient influence and ability to induce five entire tribes to combine and attempt the expulsion of the whites from the country [Maranoa and Lower Condamine]; and it was only after great destruction of white men, and blacks, and many stations being abandoned, that the whites managed to hold their own.” 5
The only Maranoa stations that were abandoned before Lang’s visit to Surat and the Maranoa were MacPherson’s, Blyth’s and possibly Dulacca, above. Lang did not name these stations but the similarities between his and Walker’s reports indicated they were talking about the same situation. If so, the leader of the Fitzroy Downs Blacks was “Eaglehawk”, also known as “Old Billy”, who had organised several tribes to fight together.
Any doubts were removed by Hovenden Hely, who searched for Ludwig Leichhardt: departing from Surat in May 1852. Hely’s search took him via the future site of Muckadilla to the Upper Maranoa River and then west to the Warrego River before returning to Surat. To ensure that he was well advised on local conditions, Hely hired Richard Walker, the frontiersman who had accompanied Gideon Lang in 1850. Walker in turn engaged two local Aborigines to act as guides and interpreters. One of these was an elder from near Surat: the other was a younger man who was originally from west of the upper Maranoa River.
Hely compiled two records of his search: a summary written in July 1852 and a journal that he completed throughout his journey. Hely used several names to identify his senior Aboriginal guide. In his journal he referred to him as “Billy” or “old Billy” “the Balonne Native”. Towards the end of the search, when he thought Billy had organised some Aborigines to kill the search party, Hely recorded that, “Billy had the name of being the ringleader, chief, and greatest- scoundrel in the Mount Abundance Country- supposed to have been the head, and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there.” 6
This description contained elements from both Frederick Walker’s and Gideon Lang’s statements above. Clearly, Billy, Old Billy and Eaglehawk were one and the same person. He was the man who had orchestrated the killings on Mount Abundance and related stations. He was the man who led the combined tribes that attacked various stations throughout the Maranoa and neighbouring districts. However, he had been given other names as well. In his summary report of the Leichhardt search, Hely continued to use the name “Old Billy”. However, Hely also referred to him as “Combo”, and as “a Combo”, 7 the name of an Aboriginal “clan” that Hely believed lived in the district (see below).
The term clan was possibly used incorrectly by Hely but in his 1852 journal he stated that the Maranoa Clans were the “Hippi”, “Cubbi” “Coogi”, “Murrie” “and many others”. 8 The neighbouring Bigambul, 9 the Kamilaroi 10 and also the Muruwari, 11 used similar terms to describe the way in which they organised their societies. Hely also claimed that the “Camilaroy [Kamilaroi] language … is almost universal among the natives of the northern interior.” 12
Old Billy was one of those who could speak Kamilaroi. This knowledge of the Kamilaroi language and the common social structures above, suggest that the Mandandanji from the Balonne and east of the Maranoa River had strong cultural ties with the Bigambul, whose land adjoined that of the Kamilaroi. 13
This, and the lack of a Mandandanji dictionary prompted me to search for clues to Old Billy’s (Combo’s, Eaglehawk’s) traditional name in the Kamilaroi language but this was several years after I first read the names Bussamarai and Possum Murray.
In 1964, Clem Lack and Harry Stafford wrote The Rifle and the Spear, which included a version of the conflicts on MacPherson’s Mount Abundance station. MacPherson’s primary antagonist was identified as Bussamarai or Possum Murray. To add interest and excitement the authors included created conversations, some imagined scenes and a few exaggerations. Unfortunately, as they cited few of their sources, I rejected this book for several years. I changed my assessment when I realised they had drawn on original sources, eg Native Police correspondence, memoirs and early newspapers. I learned nothing about Harry Stafford but Clem Lack (1901-1971) was a significant Queensland historian. He was once co-editor of the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland and was a contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He was also the author of many historical articles and two formally written scholarly books, including Triumph of the Tropics about Queensland, which he co-authored with Sir Raphael Cilento. 14
Lack was well connected with contemporary historians and had access to archival documents.
Lack’s background added credibility to the names Bussamarai and Possum Murray being used to identify the same person whom Gideon Lang and Hovenden Hely had recorded as Eaglehawk, Old Billy, Billy and Combo. There were three references to Bussamarai in the Rifle and the Spear. All related to the period 1847-1849. The first was used to set the historical context in which Allan MacPherson established his Mount Abundance station. The references to Tingan Creek, Campbell and Multuggerah in the following extract were all authentic.
“His [MacPherson’s] old enemy, Bussamarai – white men called him Possum Murray – king of the Tingan blacks, was the greatest [Aboriginal] raider of them all, except for Tinker Campbell’s “brother”, that wily devil Multuggerah, whom the whites called Moppy. 15
The second reference to Bussamarai followed two white deaths on Mount Abundance and another on James Blyh’s neighbouring station.
MacPherson recorded that in late 1848 he spoke with Blyth, who had been driven from Tingan (now Blyth) Creek. Blyth provided him with many details of the recent conflicts. Lack and Stafford presented these details in a created a conversation during which Blyth supposedly said, “We had only been there a few months when Bussamarai, or Possum Murray, as the whites call him, king of the Tingan blacks no less, raided my station.” 16
A few lines later MacPherson was reported as saying, “The fighting Myalls of the Mandandanggi tribe number many hundreds. Their camps stretch through a wide area along the Balonne country and adjacent rivers and creeks. Their chief is Bussamarai ...” 17
Although The Rifle and the Spear included MacPherson’s demise at the hands of the Mandandanji, and also the 1856 sale of his property, Lack and Stafford did not mention the death of “Possum Murray”. This suggests they were not aware of the details. The relevance of this is discussed below. MacPherson possibly did not know of it either, for he was in Scotland for several years after late 1849. His book was based on a journal that he compiled on a regular basis. Lack and Stafford drew on the book, not the journal. From enquiries made by historian Peter Keegan, the journal was lost many years ago. 18
MacPherson was therefore an unlikely source of the name Bussamarai. Lack and Stafford possibly located archival documents in which either “Bussamarai” or “Possum Murray” was recorded, but regardless of their source, he was definitely the same Aboriginal leader who had previously been identified as Eaglehawk, Old Billy, Billy and Combo.
I searched Clem Lack’s other publications, his cutting books and any of his correspondence held at John Oxley Library but found no references to Bussamarai or Possum Murray. Similarly, I did not locate the name Bussamarai in any archival record. Also, Old Billy (or Eaglehawk or Combo) was apparently never written about again by any of these names, after he walked off from Hely at Surat in July 1852. This begged the question, did this most notorious Aboriginal leader just disappear without record? I did not believe so. Many significant documents were missing, but there was no shortage of archival correspondence from that period. One pertinent report referred to a warlike elder, “Possum Murray”, whose death was recorded soon after “Old Billy” disappeared from the scene. Considering that Possum Murray was supposedly leading an attack on a settler named Paddy McEnroe at the time, it is reasonable to assume that he was the same man that Lack and Stafford referred to as Possum Murray and Bussamarai: i.e. the same man whom others had referred to as Old Billy, Eaglehawk and Combo. However, if Lack and Stafford had read of Possum Murray’s death, why didn’t they mention it in their book? As they did not, it stretches credibility to conclude that Skelton’s letter was their source of the name Possum Murray.
As discussed in Goodbye Bussamarai, Sergeant James Skelton reported that his Native Police troopers killed Possum Murray and several other Aborigines on 14.11.1852. This was near a hut owned by Paddy McEnroe beside Yalebone Creek. 19
But why did Skelton use the name Possum Murray instead of Old Billy, if they were one and the same person? This could also be asked about Commandant Frederick Walker, who, in 1853, complained that Possum Murray was killed illegally. 20
The explanation possibly lies with McEnroe, Allan MacPherson’s former stockman and caretaker. Paddy had an Aboriginal family. He would have known Old Billy’s traditional name and perhaps pronounced it as Possum Murray. By contrast, Sergeant Skelton did not usually patrol in the Maranoa. Presumably he asked McEnroe or another settler to identify the deceased elder. Regardless of the explanation, it was Skelton who made the earliest archival record (that I found) of the name Possum Murray.
As stated above, it is unlikely that Lack and Stafford ever read Skelton’s report. All of their references to Bussamarai relate to 1848-49 but Possum Murray died in 1852. It is also unlikely that they coincidentally created the name “Possum Murray” to refer to a contemporary of Skelton’s victim with the same name. A logical conclusion is, they located another, earlier archival reference to “Possum Murray” from which they reconstructed the name Bussamarai. If they did not find an archival reference to “Possum Murray”, they introduced needless ambiguity and their book lost some authenticity by not referring to him as Eaglehawk, Old Billy or Combo: names that were recorded in archival documents to identify the deliverer of MacPherson’s and Blyth’s nemesis.
Alternatively, it is possible that “Bussamarai” (rather than Possum Murray) was recorded in a document that Lack and Stafford read. This is not unrealistic, for “Oorumunde”, the name of a second warlike Maranoa leader was recorded by three different officials in 1852-53. However this points to another problem, each spelled this name differently: Hely as Oorumunde, Sergeant Dempster as Oromundi and Frederick Walker as Ooramundi. 21
Such variations were common, for each official simply made a guess at how to spell Aboriginal words and names. It follows from this and the inclusion of “ss” in his name, if “Bussamarai” was recorded in an unknown document, the original pronunciation was at least slightly different from what this spelling suggests. It also follows that if Bussamarai was a version of an authentic Mandandanji name, a linguist could perhaps determine what it meant. For instance, “marai” appeared to be a version of “Murri”, but Hely reported that Old Billy was a Combo (or Kumbi). Also, as Gideon Lang believed that Old Billy’s traditional name meant Eaglehawk, a version of “Bussamarai” should mean this, or it should contain a section that does.
I did not locate a Mandandanji word for “eaglehawk”, but north from Mandandanji land the Nguri word was “mul-yel”, 22 which was reminiscent of “maliyan”, the word used by the Kamilaroi and the Muruwari 23 to the south. Presumably the Mandandanji used a similar word to identify this bird. A version of this was perhaps the source of “marai” in “Bussamarai”. If so, the authentic version of “Bussa” possibly derived from a word such as “barraay”, which meant fast or quick in Kamilaroi, or “bamba”, which meant strong in that language. 24
Neither “Barraay-maliyan” (Fast-Eaglehawk) or “Bamba-maliyan” (Strong-Eaglehawk) is a convincing source of Bussamarai. On the other hand, they demonstrate that a name similar to “Bussamarai” (but with “ss” replaced) could have included Eaglehawk in its meaning.
There are other, possibly insurmountable, problems associated with sections of the name “Bussamrai”. Eg in Austin and Nathan’s Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay Dictionary, “Muraay” is said to mean “white cockatoo”, and “mari” is an Aboriginal person. 25 Intriguingly to me, in 1846 Sir Thomas Mitchell met some Mandandanji men who wore cockatoo feathers in their hair. Perhaps Gideon Lang’s recollection of “Eaglehawk” was incorrect. There is however, no doubt whatsoever that Eaglehawk, Combo, Billy and Old Billy were different names recorded to identify the same Mandandanji military leader, and that he was later referred to as Bussamarai and Possum Murray by Lack and Stafford. There is also no doubt that a leader named Possum Murray was executed beside Yalebone Creek. Similarly, there is no doubt that after Possum Murray was shot, there were no further references to Eaglehawk, Combo, Billy or Old Billy. This was not a coincidence. To regard it as such would be to deny the obvious. As for Lack and Stafford using the names Bussamarai and Possum Murray as they did in The Rifle and the Spear, I would be most surprised if they did so without some authentic basis. An uncited archival document was their likely source.
1. Dixon, R.M.W. Ramson, W.S. and Thomas, Mandy, 1992, p.17. Australian Aboriginal Words in English, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne. [top]
2. Collins Patrick J, 2002, p. 27. Goodbye Bussamarai: the Mandandanji Land War, Southern Queensland 1842-1852, UQP, Brisbane. [top]
3. As for previous note, p.67. [top]
4. Horton, David (general editor) 1999, Aboriginal Australia Map, AIATSIS, Canberra. [top]
5. The Aborigines of Australia, Wilson and Mackinnon, Melbourne. [top]
6. Hely, Hovenden, 1852, p.215. Journal of Hovenden Hely’s Search for Leichhardt. ML:C265. [top]
7. “Papers Relative to Leichhardt and Party” NSW V&P, 12.8.1852, Fr’s 328-49. [top]
8. Hely H, 1852, p’s 58 & 99, Journal … as above. [top]
9. Howitt, A.W. 1904/1996, p 109, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. Originally published by Macmillan, London. [top]
10. As for previous note, p. 104. [top]
11. Oates Lynette F. 1992, p.17. Muruwari Dictionary, Desktop Publishing, Albury NSW. [top]
12. Hely H, 1852, p. 97, Journal … as above. [top]
13. Horton, David (general editor) 1999, Aboriginal Australia Map, AIATSIS, Canberra. [top]
14. Lack’s biographical details were taken from the “Preface” to his A Bookman’s Essays, 1969, pp. vii-viii, Smith & Patterson, Brisbane. [top]
15. Lack, Clem and Stafford, Harry 1964, p. 31, The Rifle and the Spear, Smith and Patterson, Brisbane. For details on Multuggerah see Campbell, John (“Tinker”) 1875, The Early Settlement of Queensland and Other Articles, Ipswich Observer, Ipswich Queensland. [top]
16. As for previous note, p. 46. [top]
17. As for previous note, p.47. [top]
18. Peter Keegan lives in Roma and is heavily involved with local history and is a consultant to the Roma Town Council. He informed me during a conversation of his extensive attempts to locate MacPherson’s journal. [top]
19. From a letter written by Sergeant James Skelton to Lieutenant George Fulford, 15.12.1852, NMP4, M2072/4, QSA. The complete text is in Goodbye Bussamara, pp. 202-204. [top]
20. This letter is drawn on extensively in Goodbye Bussamarai. See p.204 and Notes. [top]
21. The sources of these versions of Oorumunde are in Goodbye Bussamarai, p’s 193-196, 206, 208 & 215 and associated Notes. [top]
22. Barlow, Harriot. “Vocabulary of Aboriginal Dialects of Queensland”, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, London, 1873, 2 (2), pp.166-175. See p.167. My copy came from the personal collection of Simon Whiley, Rathdowney. [top]
23. Austin, Peter and Nathan, David, 1995/1998. Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay Dictionary, Internet. [top]
24. Oates Lynette F. 1992, p.37. Muruwari Dictionary, Desktop Publishing, Albury NSW. Oates listed seven words that named various eagles and hawks. The word that meant “eaglehawk or wedgetail eagle” was “maliyan”. [top]
25. Austin & Nathan as above. [top]