The Story of Biraban

The Story of Biraban (name during his youth, We-Pohng. English name “Johnny M’Gill”) Biraban rises in prominence in the Brisbane Waters district. From boyhood Biraban is servant to an officer at the military barracks, Sydney, where he learns to speak English fluently, and is given the name John McGill. In 1821, Jemmy Jackass, Bob Barrett and Biraban accompany Captain Francis Allman when he is instructed to establish a penal outpost at Port Macquarie. Surgeon Peter Cunningham notes that “Certainly three more powerful intelligent men he could not have selected, and such good marksmen”. Biraban tracks escaped convicts. He returns to Lake Macquarie and as Biraban he assumes ceremonial leadership among his people, becoming “tribal king” of the district under Governor Macquarie. He becomes an “almost daily companion” for Rev Threlkeld for many years at his mission on Lake Macquarie. He works with Threlkeld to establish the mission, translate his language and interpret Aboriginal evidence in court cases. Biraban marries Patty, who is “pleasing in her person, black but comely, kind and affectionate in her disposition, and has a strong faculty of shrewdness in the exercise of her intellectual powers” which she uses well to manage her husband. A caricature painting of “Magill” by convict artist Richard Browne, about 1819, shows him in corroboree stance. He is also drawn by artist with the US exploring expedition. (ADB, Biraban by Niel Gunson; Blair, 2003, 50-54; Threlkeld, 1850, p88-89)