Awabakal is one of the minority languages that have disappeared during the last two hundred years. Its native speakers - Aboriginal Australians living in the vicinity of Hunter's River and Lake Macquarie on the northern coast of New South Wales - were already dwindling in numbers when the missionary and Congregational minister Lancelot Edward Threlkeld (1788-1859) began his translation of Luke’s Gospel in the early 1830s. By the time this revised version was completed in 1857, he had long since closed down his lakeside mission as a hopeless cause (there was nobody to convert) and moved to Sydney.
Born in London, Threlkeld worked as an actor and a merchant before joining the London Missionary Society in 1814. His first missions were at Moorea and Raiatea in the Society Islands. He arrived in Australia in 1824. His contemporary, Lady Franklin, described him in later life as a 'dingy elderly plain man'. This might have been true, but he was also a gifted linguist.
He was aided in his translating tasks by an Awabakal tribal leader known as Biraban or McGill. Horatio Hale, an American philologist who visited Threlkeld's Lake Macquarie station in 1839 as part of the United States Exploring Expedition, left a memorable pen-portrait of Biraban: ‘He was about the middle size, of a dark chocolate colour, with fine glossy black hair and whiskers, a good forehead, eyes not deeply set, a nose that might be described as aquiline, although depressed and broad at the base. It was very evident that McGill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of any thing, he pronounced the word very distinctly, syllable by syllable, so that it was impossible to mistake it.’
Another ardent philologist, George Grey, was one of the keenest admirers of Threlkeld's researches into Aboriginal languages. Grey corresponded with Threlkeld and repeatedly requested a copy of the Gospel translation. The ageing reverend eventually obliged, sending a version in his own handwriting described in the preface as his 'fourth revision'. The inscription at the front of the manuscript reads: 'His Excellency Sir George Grey, K.C.B., from the translator and writer of this book, with respectful compliments. Sydney, N.S.W., June 26th, 1858.'
Grey had the Awabakal Gospel bound in red morocco and asked the talented artist Annie Layard, wife of his private secretary, Edgar Leopold Layard, to illuminate some of the pages in the style of a medieval manuscript. The illustration shown here depicts St Luke in the act of writing. A bull (or ox), traditional symbol of this saint since the second century, looks on reverently.
Related resources: Manuscripts.