Monday, August 17, 2009


My great great grandmother Lahndrigan (c1855- 1930) is one of the first ancestors that I remember being told about when I was a young boy. She had been born into a time of upheaval, when Europeans had only just begun their violent move into her home country, that of the Bundjalung Nation, a collection of about two dozen clans or tribes, whose territory stretched along the Far North Coast of New South Wales from Grafton in the south, to the Logan River in the North, and close to Tenterfield in the West. Within that vast territory, Lahndrigan and her family lived on the Clarence River at a place called Baryulgil (85km N.E from Grafton), in what would later be known as the New England and Northern Rivers region, and part of the Australian State of New South Wales.

Living a traditional way of life, Lahndrigan's first language was the Wehlabul dialect of the Bundjalung language, and she was known to sing whe
n the Wehlabul clans would hold their corroboree's (traditional ceremonial gatherings).

Unlike the Aboriginal people in most other regions and States of Eastern Australia, the Wehlabul were able to maintain strong links to their tribal heritage, culture and customs, right through to the present day. This was possible primarily due to a
n agreement made between the Wehlabul Bundjalung people and with the first Europeans to permanently encroach upon their territories at Baryulgil - the Ogilvie brothers, Edward and Frederick.

Edward Ogilvie (1814 - 1896), the son of a naval officer during the Battle of Waterloo, was a successful squatter during the 1830's in the Hunter
district of NSW. He was one of the first settlers who had imagined and then acted upon the potential for opening up the Northern Rivers to cattle, logging and other industry. To help in his efforts, Ogilvie kidnapped a young Bundjalung child by the name of Pundoon (the Wallaby), and over the next year learnt from the child how to speak the Bundjalung language. The plan was simple - learn to speak the local language and negoti
ate a peace in turn, to help minimize the battles between settlers and the local Aboriginal population.

When Ogilvie returned to the Clarence River and where he stole the child from, he called out, to the astonishment of the tribesmen, speaking to the B
undjalung people in their own language. They replied unseen, calling for Ogilvie to go away, and to leave the hills for the black man, as the Europeans had already driven them from the plains and the majority of their low lands and sources of water. Ogilvie replied that he would not take further land, and that he only wanted to run his cattle, and would allow the local tribe to continue to hunt and live traditionally, unmolested by white influence if they would promise not to kill his men and cattle.

Thus, with such a fair offer, a treaty was forged in trust. The Ogilvie family was able to build a cattle empire that still exists today, and the Wehlabul people on the Middle Clarence were largely able to avoid the massacres and brutality that prevailed in other parts of the Bundjalung Nation, and across the Australian continent as a whole.

Whilst the treaty that the Bundjalung and the Ogilvie's forged is one that benefited both parties, it was inevitable that life in Bundjalung country would change forever. Ogilvie, although more considerate in how he would treat his Aboriginal neighbours than most other settlers, was still one to take advantage of them where possible. Ogilvie set aside a small parcel of land for the tribe to live on and turned them to working in his employ. This was a kind gesture, but one that was somewhat paternally condescending. Soon, with m
uch of their hunting territories reduced by neighbouring squatters, and with little other means for feeding their children, the Wehlabul turned to working as farm hands for Ogilvie and were paid in rations, clothing and minor wages, and given occasional vegetables from the Ogilvie's gardens.
For my ancestor Lahndrigan, matters were similar. She worked for the Ogilvie's as a laundry woman (this being suggested as the source of her tribal name). Living to a ripe old age, she saw her tribal way of life become cross-pollinated, and saw the Ogilvie's establish 'Yulgilbar Castle', their family home for several generations.

The castle, built by a team of German masons imported specifically for the job, was a grand manor. It received many important visitors in its time, including the celebrated Australian artist, Tom Roberts, best known for his works - 'The Shearing Shed', and 'Bailed Up.' During his stay, Roberts chose to paint a portrait of a local Bundjalung woman working for the Ogilvie family. I came across the portrait, in its quick, half rendered state, being displayed on the NSW State Library website. Called Maria in the portrait, the woman is one whom the Europeans called Mariah LITTLE, but one whose family knew better by the name of Lahndrigan - my great great grandmother.

No comments: