Thursday, October 21, 2010


Image:  ©Sheila Smart Photography

(Sheila is a Sydney based artist who is also available for freelance work here)


The story of Onyong - Tribal leader of the Ngambri people an Australian Aboriginal tribe of the Australian Capital Territory. Set in the 1830's and 40's the narration tells the tale of the proud warrior and leader of his people Onyong, who saw the coming of the white man to his country where the nations capital resides today.

A transcript of the video is below:
Aborigines in the Canberra region around the year 1825 were estimated to be between 6 and 7 hundred strong.

Onyong was a well known Aboriginal man and leader of  his people the Ngambri during the time of early European settlement of the Canberra region in the 1830's. Onyong's home-base appears to have been located on the Tuggeranong Plain south/west  of Mount Taylor although he was known to travel extensively - as far as Goulburn and Bungonia to the northeast, Mannus to the southwest and the Bo-gong Mountains to the west.

Two groups of Aborigines are recorded in the Canberra Region in 1834 - the Hagen-Hope tribe numbering 46 and the Nammitch tribe numbering between 60 and 70. The chiefs of these two groups were recorded at the time to be, Jemmy the Rover and Onyong, respectively. The members of the group under Onyong were described as: 

"wild blacks ... [who] seldom go near the haunts of white men".

In 1841 the Colonial Government blanket issue at Queanbeyan listed both men as belonging to the Hagan-Hope Tribe (for some reason the two groups had merged) the tribe now numbered only 56.
JJ. Moore of 'Canberry' Station described Onyong as 
'A ‘tall burly man’, he cut an impressive figure to all who met him.
His leadership of his people was recognised among the European settlers. Onyong was feared by some settlers as he often raided their stock, but he struck up a respected friendship with ex-convict Garett Cotter for whom Canberra’s main water supply was named and the two spent much time together'.

James Wright, owner of Lanyon mentions that Onyong was once caught by Henry Hall of Charnwood spearing livestock and consequently was 'shot in the leg'.
During the 1840s Onyong's band maintained a close relationship with the Wright family at Lanyon, and it is known from Lanyon records that there had always been rivalry between Onyong and Jemmy the Rover over tribal leadership issues.
The Herald newspaper of October 31, 1834, reports that the blacks in the neighbourhood of the Limestone and Maneroo Plains – had been accused of spearing cattle and sheep, but, with its old time caution, the paper remarked:
“This statement is likely to be without foundation. It being probable that the same is published with a view to covering some of the delinquencies of the stock keepers and others in care of their master’s stock.”
Terence Aubrey Murray of Yarralumla when speaking concerning the employment of Aborigines in 1841, remarked:

'... they in general shew [sic] a determined dislike to settled habits of any kind ... their love of independence is too great and habits of wandering too strong to admit of it .... they are so wedded to their own habits - supporting themselves with so much ease by the chase - that it can scarcely be expected they should adopt ours'.

Sometime between 1847 and 1852 Onyong was killed by Jemmy the Rover, as:
'...while the latter was away Onyong had usurped his position as chief'.

Wright records the burial of Onyong, who  he stated was the chief of the Kamberra tribe. The site of the burial was on top of a stony hill about a quarter of a mile from the Tharwa bridge:

 “The body was trussed in the knee-elbow position, and the fat about the kidneys was removed. The fat was supposed to possess great virtues, and was distributed to the gins, who carried it in the bags which were hung from their necks.

A hole was dug in the ground, at the bottom of which a small tunnel was excavated. In this tunnel the body was placed, together with the chief’s weapons a broken spear, shield,
nulla-nulla, boomerang, tomahawk, opossum rug, and other items for use in the next world. The grave was then filled in.”
After Onyong's death it was hard for aboriginals to maintain a traditional existence due to the growth of European livestock, crops and fencing. At the same time European Illnesses were inevitably introduced, decimating the population. Mixed race Aboriginals tended to remain working on local stations and some dispersed to other tribes in other areas
The following quote from James Wright about the eventual fate of Onyong's remains,  as a poignant reminder of the Europeans attitude to Aborigines of the day...

'Well, that was the end of that 'worthy' with the exception that a number of years later a man named Smithie dug up the skull and with questionable taste had it made into a sugar bowl, which I actually saw in use on his table.'
Onyong is buried on a hill behind the village of Tharwa in the Australian Capital Territory.



  1. Good one, excellent video. Good to see so many images of natives using skins and what I call "breechclouts" rather than being depicted wearing white man's cloth. I would like to see native dancers today wearing the breechclout, I think it is more fitting/becoming.

  2. Most of the photos are of Victorian and New South Wales Aboriginals so breechclouts must have been commonplace in these states at least Keith. Unfortunately images from the Canberra area are extremely limited and if they exist are certainly not in the public domain.


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