Grammar of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines

By William Wood, Foyle Special Collections Library, King’s College London

Last year I was tasked with cataloguing a new acquisition for the Foyle Special Collections Library, purchased from Sussex based antiquarian booksellers, Reg and Philip Remington.

The item in question was the Grammar of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines by the late Reverend George Taplin of the Aborigines’ Missionary, Point McLeay and was printed by E Spiller, Government Printer in Adelaide, 1880.

Title page of Taplin’s ‘Grammar of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines’ [XMISC Collection] PE1130.5.A95 TAP

In 1859, the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association requested that Taplin teach at the Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission, now Raukkan, on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, in Narrinyeri (or Ngarrindjeri) country. Taplin had a keen interest in Ngarrindjeri culture and made extensive efforts to learn their language with the aim of publishing Biblical translations in the local dialect. He also wrote on Ngarrindjeri lore and culture, which have had great anthropological value. A product of his times, Taplin held the belief that the best chance Indigenous Australians had to advance under colonial rule was to gain acceptance in European society, and that literacy, the adoption of Christian values, and the learning of trades were essential steps in that process.

Many sources disagree as to who the Narrinyeri people were, with Irene Watson, a direct descendant of this community, arguing that the notion of Ngarrindjeri identity is a cultural construct imposed by colonialists, who conflated a variety of distinct tribal groups into a homogenised whole known today as Ngarrindjeri. Watson also directly addressed Taplin’s belief that the adoption of Christian values was a step towards acceptance in this colonial society. Watson argues that by recording the Ngarrindjeri language and using it to reframe Christian mythology in line with local traditions, Taplin’s arrival was like the expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the Ngarrindjeri were naked and sinful, demonised, and in need of the clothing of European society and the trappings of ‘civilised’ culture. For Watson, the impact of Christianity was genocidal; the co-opting of traditional myth as a vehicle for Christian education was the beginning of a process that attempted to reduce Aboriginal cultures.  

George Taplin, through his authority in the field of anthropology, directly contributed to the construct of a Ngarrindjeri identity through the popularisation of his use of the generic ethnonym, Narrinyeri, which he applied to designate a unification of multiple tribal groups, formed from narr (linguistically plain or intelligible) and inyeri, a suffix indicating belongingness. The term Ngarrindjeri is taken to mean “belonging to men” and refers to a “tribal constellation”. The Ngarrindjeri peoples are made up of several distinct but closely related tribal groups, including the Jarildekald, Tanganekald, Meintangk and Ramindjeri, who he believed began to form a unified cultural bloc after the remnants of each separate community, adversely affected by colonisation, congregated at Raukkan, South Australia, formerly the Point McLeay Mission.

According to Taplin’s research, he felt that there were eighteen territorial clans or lakalinyeri that constituted a Ngarrindjeri “confederacy” or “nation”, each of which was governed by roughly a dozen elders or tendi. Each clan’s tendi in turn would convene to electa rupulli, or chieftain of the entire Ngarrindjeri confederacy. Taplin construed this as a centrally administered, hierarchical government representing tribal estates or ruwe.

Later ethnographers and anthropologists have disagreed with Taplin’s construction of this tribal federation of eighteen clans. Norman Tindale, anthropologist and ethnologist, and Ronald Murray Berndt, social anthropologist, were both critical of Taplin, but also of each other’s re-evaluation of the evidence. Berndt argued that, despite the cultural links Taplin identified, there was no political unity between tribes that warranted his idea of a “nation” or “confederacy”.

Page one of the introduction for ‘Grammar of the Language of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines’ [XMISC Collection] PE1130.5.A95 TAP

In creating this work on the grammar of the language of the Ngarrindjeri peoples, Taplin outlines that his aim was ‘to present it in such a form as to enable students of comparative philology to use it for the purpose of rendering a modicum of help towards arriving at the correct conclusions respecting the philosophy of language’. A pursuit which he felt was of the greatest importance.

In his introductory remarks, he makes no attempt to conceal his bigotry regarding the difficulties he felt are faced by anyone attempting to ‘gather up the grammar of an unwritten and barbarous language’ and does not hold back when scathingly criticising his contemporary, the Reverend HAE Meyer, whose attempts to master the grammar of this language in 1843, present ‘a great number of ludicrous mistakes to one better acquainted with it’. Stating that he would have to rely on his own observations if he was to ‘gain any correct knowledge of the language’.

Taplin’s derision is starkly juxtaposed by a later paragraph, where he reveals a contradictory level of humility by stating, “I do not presume that in preparing this grammar I have never fallen into any mistakes. I know that I am always discovering something in the language which I did not know before.” Strange that for Taplin, his own mistakes are not ‘ludicrous’ but instead present an opportunity to find out ‘new capabilities and powers and beauties of expression’.

Page 14 and 15 of Taplin’s ‘Grammar of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines’ open to the section titled Verbs and displaying English translations of Ngarrindjeri terms [XMISC Collection] PE1130.5.A95 TAP

The region populated by the Ngarrindjeri, the surrounds of the lower Murray River, were originally some of the most heavily populated in Australia. This was before a smallpox epidemic travelled down the Murray River during the period of early British occupation and colonisation, which is believed to have killed large numbers of the Ngarrindjeri.Songs and oral traditions from the time tell of the smallpox that came out of the Southern Cross in the east with a loud noise and a bright flash. This event, along with the wider impacts of colonisation, resulted in the disruption of cultural practices and funeral rites, causing surviving family groups to merge, and altering the ways in which these displaced peoples had traditionally used the land.

In contrast to most other Indigenous Australian communities, the fertile plains of the lower Murray River had allowed the Ngarrindjeri and neighbouring Merkani to live a semi-sedentary life, moving between semi-permanent summer and winter camps. Unlike the rest of Australia, the Letters Patent establishing the Province of South Australia of 1936, following the South Australia Act 1834 (or Foundation Act), actually acknowledged Aboriginal land ownership and stated that no actions could be undertaken that would ‘affect the rights of any Aboriginal natives of the said province to the actual occupation and enjoyment in their own persons or in the persons of their descendants of any land therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such natives’. This passage effectively guaranteed the land rights of Aboriginal people under force of law; however, this was interpreted by the colonists as simply meaning that Indigenous peoples could not be forcibly removed from sites they permanently occupied.

In May 1839, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, William Wyatt announced publicly, ‘it appeared that the natives occupy no lands in the especial manner’ described in the letter patent. Catering to the whims of prominent colonists and the Resident Commissioner who wanted to survey and sell the land without issue, Wyatt chose not to highlight the fact that semi-permanent sites were listed in his reports on the local Aboriginal culture and practices. This is but one small example of the systematic denial and dismissal of Indigenous land rights and claims to country that were the hallmark of British colonisation in Australia. The loss of South Australia’s linguistic heritage can be attributed to both population loss from the spread of foreign disease and to these and other colonial and assimilationist policies.

A famous Ngarrindjeri man, David Ngunaitponi, known as David Unaipon, was an influential and outspoken advocate for Aboriginal rights, whose many contributions to Australian society helped to change persistent stereotypes. Over the course of his life, he was actively involved in the political issues surrounding Aboriginal affairs and was a keen supporter of Aboriginal self-determination. He worked tirelessly as both a researcher and witness for the Bleakley Enquiry into Aboriginal welfare and lobbied the Australian federal government to take responsibility for Indigenous Australians from its constituent states. He proposed that the government of South Australia should replace the office of Chief Protector of Aborigines with a responsible board and was arrested for attempting to provide a separate territory for Aboriginals in central and northern Australia. He is featured on the Australian $50 note in commemoration of his work and stands as a powerful representative of a people whose culture and language were irreparably changed by colonial rule.

Portrait of David Ngunaitponi (Unaipon), from Volume 1: Manuscript of ‘Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines’ by David Unaipon, 1924-1925, acquired with the Publishing Archive of Angus & Robertson in 1933, State Library of New South Wales, A 1929.

The Grammar of the Narrinyeri Tribe of Australian Aborigines is a tangible artefact of this history of entrenched prejudice and highlights the earlier stages of what is a lasting inequality in Australia. The power of this kind of material, and of the many other examples of colonial texts in our collection, is that they exemplify the importance of necessary basic human rights such as equality and personal freedoms, standing as a grim reminder of why these ideals must be upheld and why atrocities such as these cannot be permitted to occur again. We must learn from past transgressions and work together to build a better, more inclusive future.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Norman Barnett Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. (Jarildekald SA: Australian National University Press, 1974)

Ronald Murray Berndt ; Catherine Helen Berndt ; John E Stanton, A World that was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia. (University of British Columbia UBC Press, 1993)

Irene Watson, Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law: Raw Law. (Routledge, 2014)

George Taplin, The Folklore, Manners, Customs, and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines. (Adelaide: Government Printer, 1879)

F Donald Pate, Hunter-gatherer social complexity at Roonka Flat, South Australia. (Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006) pp. 226–241.  [Humanities books E-Z] ; GN666 DAV

Heinrich August Edward Meyer, Vocabulary of the Language Spoken by the Aborigines of the Southern and Eastern Portions of the Settled Districts of South Australia (1843) pp. 1–121. [FCDO Historical Collection] ; PL7091.S6 WIL

John Robert Hobson, Re-awakening Languages: Theory and Practice in the Revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous Languages. (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010)

Graham Jenkin, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri. (Rigby, 1979)

Gerard Krefft, On the Manners and Customs of the Aborigines of the Lower Murray and Darling. (Transactions of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales, 1865) pp. 357–374.

David Unaipon, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2001) [Humanities – Book Store] ; GR365 UNA

James Dominick Woods ; George Taplin, The Native Tribes of South Australia. (E S Wigg, 1879) [FCDO Historical Collection] ; GN667.S6 NAT

G K Jenkin, Australian Dictionary of Biography: Taplin, George (1831–1879). (National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1976) [Round Reading Room] ; CT2802 D56

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