Buckley’s legacy


by Bruce Moore*

Image source: State Library of Victoria

Source: State Library of Victoria

William Buckley (1780–1856) was a British convict who was transported to Australia for receiving stolen cloth. He escaped from custody at Port Phillip in Victoria in 1803 and lived with the Wathawurung Aboriginal people near Geelong for thirty-two years. He was discovered by John Batman in 1835, at the time of the settlement of Melbourne. He received a pardon, and acted as a liaison officer between settlers and local Aboriginal groups, but became unhappy with his situation and shifted to Hobart at the end of 1837. He died in Hobart in 1856. When people consider the possible origins of the Australian phrase Buckley’s chance (or Buckley’s hope, or simply Buckley’s), William Buckley is a strong candidate (see, for example, Ozwords, October 2000 for a discussion of the origins of this phrase). However, his contribution to Australian English is greater than this, and much more than has previously been recognised.

Buckley learned the language of the Wathawurung, and we might expect that he would be a good source of information about that language, and of words from Wathawurung that found their way into Australian English. When he was in Hobart, Buckley collaborated with John Morgan on a biography that was published in 1852 as The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. This was seventeen years after Buckley’s ‘return’, and many commentators have worried about the extent to which John Morgan, the Tasmanian journalist newspaper editor, was responsible for the text: ‘It’s difficult to determine just how much influence Morgan had in shaping this remarkable autobiography, but there are reasons to assume that his editorialising was extensive—for Buckley was only semi-literate, and he agreed that Morgan should share the profits from the work’ (T. Flannery, Introduction to The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 2002, p. xiii).

Frederick William Woodhouse, 1861, 'The first settlers discover Buckley'. Source: State Library of Victoria

‘The first settlers discover Buckley’, Frederick William Woodhouse, 1861. Source: State Library of Victoria

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley is quoted on some twenty occasions in the first edition of the Australian National Dictionary as early evidence for the use of Australian English words. Most of the examples used are for words of English origin such as absconder, first settler, immigrants’ home, penal station. A few, such as native camp, native chief, and native language refer to Indigenous culture, but there is no mention of Indigenous words in association with them. The Australian National Dictionary gives only one quotation from Buckley for a word from the Wathawurung language. This is malka, a word for ‘shield’. It is first recorded by the explorer T.L. Mitchell in 1836, and the Buckley Life is the second piece of evidence.

There are, however, four other Wathawurung words, noted by Buckley, that appear as entries in the Australian National Dictionary but without the Buckley evidence. The Life records that in response to Buckley’s expertise in killing possums, his Aboriginal companion on possum-hunting expeditions would use the term merrijig meaning ‘very good’. This Wathawurung word found its way into nineteenth-century Australian pidgin. The evidence from the Life is not used by the Australian National Dictionary in its entry for merrijig, but it should be used since it fills a gap (1852) between 1843 and 1862. Similarly, Buckley gives a Wathawurung word for a boomerang: ‘The boomerang, or wangaam, as they are called, is made from a solid piece of wood formed in the shape of a half-moon; this they hurl at their antagonists with great force, holding it at one end before letting it go spinning against the enemy’. The Australian National Dictionary includes wonguim as a borrowing from Wathawurung (and the neighbouring Wuywurung of the Melbourne area) in the sense ‘boomerang’, but its first evidence is from 1878. Buckley’s wangaam is clearly the same word, and needs to be added because of its early (1852) date.

'Ceremony with William Buckley and sailing ship' by Tommy McRae, about 1880s. Source: University of Melbourne Archives

‘Ceremony with William Buckley and sailing ship’ by Tommy McRae, about 1880s. Source: University of Melbourne Archives

Buckley also describes a kind of fighting stick: ‘And then there is the jeangwell, [a] piece of wood cut into a half-square at one end, with a handle to it and a knob at the end’. The Australian National Dictionary includes the entry leangle ‘an Aboriginal fighting club with a hooked striking club’, with the first evidence from 1841, and describes it as a borrowing from the Western Victorian Wemba Wemba language. Buckley’s jeangwell is clearly the same word as leangle; and, indeed, subsequent research has shown that leangle is more likely to have been borrowed directly from Wathawurung. Buckley’s use of it solidifies the Wathawurung attribution, and fills a gap in the Australian National Dictionary evidence.

The fourth Wathawurung word taken over into English is bunyip. Buckley says that he only ever saw the back of this ‘extraordinary amphibious animal’, that it ‘appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour’, and that it ‘seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf’. As with leangle, the first edition of the Australian National Dictionary attributed the word bunyip to the Wemba Wemba language, but we now know that it is from Wathawurung. Again, Buckley’s evidence solidifies the Wathawurung attribution, and his evidence should be included in the Australian National Dictionary entry for bunyip. In these instances, Buckley’s linguistic evidence is accurate. In the Life he notes another ten or so Wathawurung words that were not taken over into English, and in every case his words have supporting evidence from other sources.

Title page of Langhorne's manuscript: 'Reminiscences of James Buckley...'. Source: State Library of Victoria

Title page of Langhorne’s manuscript: ‘Reminiscences of James Buckley…’. Source: State Library of Victoria

There is another ‘Buckley’ document in existence. This is a short account taken down by the Reverend George Langhorne from Buckley soon after he had re-entered white society, and is probably to be dated 1836 (fifteen years before the publication of the Life).  The account is headed: ‘Reminiscences of James [sic] Buckley for Thirty Years resident among the Watourong Blacks at Port Phillip taken verbatim nearly, from himself by Mr. Langhorne’. This account includes two Wathawurung words that do not appear in the Life, but which found their way into Australian English. The first is a word that is transcribed as Willum (‘On reaching a hut or Willum near which was a Waterhole I made signs that I was thirsty’) and Willam (‘Sometimes a Black will go to a Willam … to entice a woman away’). Willam clearly means ‘hut, shelter’, and is synonymous with words such as gunyah, humpy, and wurley that have been borrowed into Australian English from other Aboriginal languages. Willam is not widely attested in later English records, but it appears in accounts of a ceremonial letter of greeting to Queen Victoria, presented to the Governor of Victoria, by leaders of the ‘Waworrung, Boonorong, and Tarawaragal tribes’, in 1863. Newspaper accounts quote the letter in an Aboriginal language and in English translation, and it reads in part:

Blackfellows come from Miam and Willum to bring this paper to the good Governor.

Koolingee Bagarook nerlingo William bar Miam Wantagee paper wa Governor koongee. (Melbourne Argus, 27 May, 5/2)

This suggests that willum for ‘hut’ was used more widely than in Wathawurung, including in the Wuywurung language of the Melbourne area. This word was also used as a marker of tribal grouping, as explained by E.S. Parker in 1854:

Each of the nations or languages I have instanced ⅆ is divided into several tribes, sometimes as many as ten or twelve, each of which has a distinctive appellation, known by such terminations as bulluk, people,—goondeet, men,—lar, or in other dialects, willam or illam, house or dwelling place. Thus we have on the Goulburn, the Yowang-illam, ‘the dwellers on the mountain’; the Yerrawillam ‘the dwellers on the river’. (The Aborigines of Australia: a lecture, p. 12)

The word willam in the sense ‘hut’ is used by R. Brough Smyth in his account of some Victorian Aboriginal myths in The Aborigines of Victoria (1878, vol. I, pp. 449-50):

An Aboriginal shelter

An Aboriginal shelter

Mirram (the Kangaroo) and Warreen (the Wombat) were once men, and they dwelt in the same place; but Warreen had a good camp (willum) made of bark, but Mirram had none. … At length a great rain fell. Warreen went to his willum, made a good fire, and lay down comfortably in front of it, well sheltered by his covering of bark.

Willam will be included as a new entry in the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, with the earliest evidence being Langhorne’s account of Buckley.

In the letter to Queen Victoria, the word miam is used as a synonym for willam, and this word is also used in the Buckley-Langhorne document in the reduplicated form miam-miam. Buckley says: ‘As I always kept up at night the best fire and had the best Miam Miam in the camp (the Blacks notwithstanding cold being often too lazy to attend to their fires) the children would often prefer to sleep with me and I was a great favourite among them’. This is the word we now know as mia mia, for an Aboriginal shelter, although in the earliest records it appears with a variety of spellings. Some have argued that mia mia was brought to Victoria from Western Australia (where the Nyungar language has the word mia for ‘shelter’) by sealers and whalers, but I am by no means convinced by this (see Ozwords, April 2001, pp.7-8). Whatever the case, the Buckley-Langhorne document is the earliest evidence for mia mia in Victoria, and the above quotation will be included in the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

William Buckley is an important figure in Australian history, and he fascinates Australians as the possible origin of the phrase Buckley’s chance. But much more than has hitherto been recognised, Buckley is an important early source for our knowledge of how words found their way from Aboriginal languages into Australian English.

'Buckley's Escape' by Tommy McRae. Source: National Museum of Australia

‘Buckley’s Escape’ by Tommy McRae. Source: National Museum of Australia

*Our guest blogger, Bruce Moore, is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary.