Yesterday I went to Yarramundi Reserve, a small and frankly not very interesting area at the junction of the Nepean, Grose and Hawkesbury Rivers, north-west of the Sydney metropolitan area. Yarramundi (or Yel-lo-mun-dy, or Yal-lah-mien-di, or Yèl-lo-mun-dee, or Yellomundee, or Yello_mundy, or Yellah_munde) was a leader and healer of the Buruberongal (or Boo-roo-bir-rong-gal, or Bu-ru-be-ron-gal, or Bu-ru-be-rong-al, or Boorooberongal, or Buribırȧŋál), a ‘wood tribe’ whose country extended inland from somewhere north-west of Parramatta towards and including the Nepean/Hawkesbury River.

A party of British explorers led by Governor Arthur Phillip met him and several others in April 1791, on an expedition to discover if and how the Hawkesbury (which they had previously explored upstream from its mouth) and the Nepean (which they had encountered after walking overland westward from Parramatta) met. As it turns out, the Nepean/Hawkesbury is essentially one river, but the two names have stuck, and this junction is the arbitrary point at which the names officially change. (The Grose River was named later; Major Francis Grose (later acting governor) did not arrive in the colony until 1792.)

The British party was accompanied by two members of tribes living around the harbour, Colebee and Ballooderry, who explained that the Buruberongal were ‘bad men … their enemies … climbers of trees’; that is, they lived by hunting and not fishing (Phillip’s italics).* Despite this, they met on friendly terms and Colebee allowed Yarramundi to perform a healing ceremony on him. Each group spoke their own language, but understood the other. (Modern scholarship is divided as to whether the two groups spoke different dialects of the same language, or two distinct but related languages.)

Yarramundi later had other contact with the British, and his son Colebee (not to be confused with the Colebee in the story above) and daughter Maria held a land grant near current-day Blacktown. According to Wikipedia, her descendants still live in the area. The rural locality around the river junction is named Yarramundi, and a suburb on the fringe of the metropolitan area north-west of Blacktown is named Colebee.

The multiplicity of spellings above reflects the difficulty the British writers had in hearing and processing the sounds of the native languages. Some modern scholars have reconstructed some original names and words, but the results are sometimes inconclusive. One uses the spelling Gulibi (for Colebee) in one context and Gulubi in another, and two scholars reconstruct the name of the best-known native, Bennelong, as Banalung and Binilang.

[* Sneering at ‘Westies’ has a long history. Judge-Advocate David Collins records: ‘The natives of the coast, whenever speaking of those of the interior, constantly expressed themselves with contempt and marks of disapprobation. Their language was unknown to each other [not true – see above], and there was not any doubt of their living in a state of mutual distrust and enmity. Those natives, indeed, who frequented the town of Sydney, spoke to and of those who were not so fortunate, in a very superior tone, valuing themselves upon their friendship with the white people, and erecting in themselves an exclusive right to the enjoyment of all the benefits which were to result from that friendship.’]

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The Grose River is to the lower left (it’s actually smaller, but looks larger because I’m standing closer to it), the Hawkesbury River is to the upper left, and the Nepean River is to the right. The Nepean/Hawkesbury flows from right to left (that is, south to north).


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