This post amounts to what knowledge I have on a famous historical Aborigine from today’s Canberra region whose significance is largely unknown yet should be worthy of a monument. This man's name was Onyong.
When I say knowledge I mean information collected over time that I have absorbed. Often I did not reference these gems as I never thought I’d be writing at any length about what I discovered to be a remarkable story that opens a window to the realities of European expansion.
This post is also an expansion of an essay I wrote in 2010 and I think the meagre information still paints a picture of a full life representative of those affected by colonial history wherever it was forged.
As far as I can discover, around the year 1825 there was an estimated 6 or 7 hundred strong Indigenous population roaming the plains, reportedly counting only the men. Onyong was a well known Aboriginal man and apparent leader of his people, the Ngambri, during the time of early European settlement of the 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 Bogong Mountains west. Ten years later, in 1834, two groups are recorded in the Canberra Region. Records show the Hagen-Hope tribe numbering 46 and the Nammitch tribe (neither of which I can find a record of the European naming), 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”.
7 years later, 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 numbering only 56.
We are left however with a bold image of Onyong left to us from JJ. Moore of ‘Canberry’, the first European Station owner on the Limestone plains. He described Onyong as
‘A ‘tall burly man’, he cut an impressive figure to all who met him.”
Onyong’s leadership was widely recognised among the European settlers and over time a few scant stories were recorded.
Onyong was apparently 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’. Garett is a story on his own.
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’.
Six to eleven years later, sometime between 1847 and 1852 Onyong was killed by Jemmy the Rover at what became the Township of Queanbeyan’s Showgrounds 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. This in itself is interesting as an apparent phonetic development as Canberra’s Name was developing. 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 obviously difficult 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, remain as a poignant reminder of European attitude towards 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.
I think Onyong is archetypical of the last ‘wild blacks’ at a time when the clash of cultures between Europeans and the First Peoples was brutal, disempowering and final. His descendants do however live on and the community is represented
Personally I’d like to see a historical representation of Onyong. Perhaps the ACT government could throw a funding grant to a public art space artist. Perhaps at the National Arboretum amidst a grove of ghost gums.