The naming of names

If you watch almost any documentary on Aboriginal Australia, it is usually prefaced by a warning that the program will depict the names and images of people who have passed away.  The sensitivity about naming people who have died was also highlighted in Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man, which traces the events that followed the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island.  His name is no longer used in media and court reports: instead he is now referred to as Mulrunji, at his family’s request. This sensitivity is completely at odds with a Western view, where we yearn to have our name live on, even though we may have died.

I’ve been particularly aware of the naming of people while reading George Augustus Robinson‘s Journal as he travelled around the Western District of Victoria in the early 1840s.  The volume I am reading is part of a series edited by Ian D. Clark,  a true labour of love when you consider Robinson’s handwriting seen here.   I have commenced at Volume 2, as this covers the time that Judge Willis was in Victoria and so I have missed the specific details of  Robinson’s commission in the Port Phillip District but he, at least, interpreted it as among other things, a linguistic and ethnographic investigative task.  As he wrote on 10 May 1841:

My Aboriginal attendants, assured of my anxiety for information respecting themselves and the names of localities and animals, vegetables, insects, were at times extremely annoying in making this communication.

But he not only collects names of localities and animals, but also investigates and confers names on the natives he encounters as well.


It’s interesting to look at the names that he records.  On 11 October 1840 he records the original and conferred names of the Goulburn blacks under arrest at the time.

  1. Yar.mer.der.rook  – Long Bill
  2. You.ur.but.kalk, otherwise Pon.der.min – Lankey
  3. Yabbe – Billy Hamilton
  4. Kor.ram.mer.bil – Fuckumall
  5. – the same appellation
  6. Pin.gin.quor, otherwise My. tit – the same
  7.  Jackey Jackey
  8. Nan. – John
  9. -Charley
  10., otherwise Gine Gine – Mr Clarke
  11., otherwise – William (I’ll skip a few here)
  12. Pee.beep – Mr Maclane
  13. Tare.rin.galk – Mr Langhorne
  14. –  Tom
  15.  – Billy
  16. Won.gon.bul – Mr Clarke
  17. – Mr White
  18. No name conferred by settlers
  19. – Fuckemall
  20. Nili.gurn –  Mr. Murray

These were the names conferred by other settlers, prior to Robinson’s contact with the natives.  In April 1841 Robinson travelled down to Port Fairy where he came across

the wildest natives I have seen, that is, as their entire absence of all and everything connected with white people: they had not a word of English nor any of the manners or customs or the usual salutation of shaking hands.  …they had not any names from the English; all were pure, original  (28 April 1841)

He describes the process by which he gave them names:

I then took down their names &c. …I had some difficulty in inventing names for them.  They were not satisfied unless they had one; they wanted to be served all alike. (26 April 1841)

He then lists some of the names he bestowed:

  1. Tal.line.malk,    Mr Robinson
  2.,  Bonenepart
  3.,  Mungo Park
  4.,  Franklin
  5.,  Truggernonner
  6.,  Jupiter
  7.,  Neptune
  8. Mee.pal,  Woorradedy  (28 April 1841)

In his book Aboriginal Victorians, Richard Broome discusses the significance of the name-giving ceremony.   Citing Jan Penney, he notes that “names possessed power and indicated relationships, which in turn carried obligatory rights and duties”.  He notes:

Before long new names were bestowed on the Aborigines.  This pleased Europeans, who were unable to master Aboriginal names and their tricky pronunciations, with soft ‘ng’ sounds and all syllables emphasized.  The bestowal of names also suited Aboriginal people for it established an attachment and avoided the use of traditional names that were hedged with protocols and strictures. (Broome, Aboriginal Victorians p. 57)

It’s interesting to note the names that were conferred by white settlers.  One of the most striking, and disturbing things about the list of names bestowed on the Goulburn River Blacks- widely feared for their ferocity- was the prevalence of the name “Fuckemall”.  Robinson decried it:

The names given to the natives by the stockeeepers [sic] and others is a proof of the depraved state of the community of those parts.  This boy mentioned a woman named ‘cunt’ and ‘arsehole”, and another ‘white cunt’.  Faithful [a settler]  said Mr Docker asked a black woman her name before him and she replied ‘white cunt’. I asked same woman and she gave me same answer. Her husband told me the same.  I gave her a fresh name.  (15 Feb 1841)

The names that Robinson himself conferred are interesting.  Perhaps as a response to young, well formed men, he seems to have often named a young man “Mr Robinson”, and on several occasions he named ‘Mungo Park‘ (the explorer of the African continent) and Napoleon.  Here we have Franklin (Benjamin? Sir John?), Jupiter and Neptune.  He also confers aboriginal names himself, even though they already have aboriginal names.  The aboriginal names are those of Van Diemens Land aborigines he knew- or is he just lacking imagination?-  Wooreddy (as in the fascinating fictional account of early VDL clashes Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World) and Truggernonner, (Truganini) considered to be the last Aboriginal “full-blood” and who was brought over by Robinson himself from Flinders Island.

It’s interesting to note that several are given the names of white settlers, but in Robinson’s notation are given the designation “Mr”.  This does not always seem to be the case.  Broome tells the story of Charley, the aboriginal boy who wanted to become a gentleman, and managed to equip himself with all the accessories, including top hat and cane :

Charley realized that Europeans had two names and that gentlemen had formal ones, so he renamed himself Charles Never. (The other youths wanted two names as well, and with the help of the Edgars, became James White, Jacky Warren, Thomas Gurrenbook, and Kitty, Harry and Tommy Bungaleenee.) (Broome, p. 51)


As Broome points out, the conferring of a name did not necessarily have to denote ownership, but could be an act of affiliation that worked to Aboriginal advantage as well, either by a claim on the settler or as a way of deflecting white intrusion into private beliefs. It’s striking that prominent people in the Koorie community today often share surnames with 1840s settlers as well-  there are several prominent Koorie ‘Firebrace’ s for example,  probably named by Major William Firebrace, a prominent Port Phillip personality.  Likewise Pettits and Atkinsons – common Koorie surnames.  I had always assumed that this suggested that white men had consorted with Aboriginal women: it had not occurred to me that perhaps there was Aboriginal agency in adopting these names.

The naming went both ways.  Aboriginal people also named white people- for example, Robinson rather proudly announces that:

They conferred on me a new name namely, which in their language is great or big chief  (12 August 1841)

Robinson also reports on Glendinnon, a white man much respected by the natives he deals with.   Robinson arrived at Mt Emu

where the far famed among the Aborigines, Jaggy Jaggy, resides.  He is a white man and a lowland Scotchman named Glendinnon and whom the Aborigines have designated as Jaggy jaggy min min. (5 August 1841)

After Robinson’s description of many callous, brutal white settlers, Glendinnon stands out for his calm demeanour and humanity.  I don’t know what Jaggy jaggy min min meant, but I’m sure that it denoted more dignity, for both the namer and the named,  than ‘Fuckemall’.


Richard Broome Aboriginal Victorians, 2005

Ian D. Clark The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Two: 1 October 1840-31 August 1841.

6 responses to “The naming of names

  1. Might elders receive the Mr in front of their names?

    • He didn’t mention the age or status of the men amongst the Goulburn blacks, but it’s a thought. The surnames accompanied with the Mr were all of settlers in the area I assume- Mr Malcolm, Mr Langhorne, Mr Clark, and no-one seemed to have a surname only- the single names were all first names. Among the Port Fairy natives that he conferred names on, Mr Robinson was 19 and Mr Campbell was 35. Mars and Jupiter were 32 and 42 respectively- but it’s hard to tell as other middle aged men also received single male first names like Harry (30) and Paul (29).

      I’m amused that he was so specific about their ages, distinguishing for example between 10 and 11 year olds- if the tribe was so “pure” and “original”, I wonder if they’d understand number or year with only one days contact?

  2. Janine, this is just fascinating. The terrible disrespect of ‘Fuckemall’ (and the others) puts terms like Gubba and others that we probably don’t know about in a slightly different light. And interesting he used the same names over and again – was it laziness? It would be so interesting to know what the Aboriginal men made of the names and what meanings they associated with them, given they were so unvaried.

  3. I’ve just had that very book recommended to myself and Feral Beast (12 yr old son).
    ABC radio 774 featured a chap who’s compiling the origins of place names (notably the original Aboriginal Peoples names for places) and No Good Damper opened up a whole slew of calls, some not so honest.
    Another great, recent publication is Possession by Bain Attwood.

  4. Pingback: Mr Robinson reports « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  5. Pingback: “Reading Mr Robinson” by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.) « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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