THE EUROPEAN EXPLORERS
The Surveyor General
The Liverpool Plains is associated with some of Australia’s greatest European explorers including Oxley, Mitchell, Cunningham and Leichhardt.
“These valleys and hills abound with kangaroos, and on the plains numbers of emus were seen. We seemed to be once more in the land of plenty, and the horses as well as men had cause to rejoice at the change, from the miserable harassing deserts through which we had been struggling for the last six weeks, to this beautiful and fertile country.
……….the plains to the east and south-east were honoured with the name of Lord Liverpool.”
Thus wrote John Oxley on the 28th August 1818 after a harrowing journey in which he described the condition of his horses as being “pushed to within an inch of their lives.” Oxley had been appointed Surveyor General for NSW in 1812. At the behest of Governor Macquarie he undertook two expeditions in 1817 and 1818 seeking land to further develop the fledgling wool industry in NSW. The second expedition of 1818 was further charged with determining the extent of the Macquarie River and whether the mythic inland sea existed. Oxley was thwarted by extensive marshlands and was forced to turn East thus discovering the Liverpool Plains, the Peel River (near present day Tamworth) and finally after crossing the Great Divide, Port Macquarie. It is interesting that Oxley refers to the mountains as the “principal or dividing range” in the preface to his journals.
The Liverpool Plains was regarded as one of his most significant finds and is described in glowing if not almost romantic terms in his journal, but the problem was access.
Allan Cunningham was selected by Sir Joseph Banks to be an overseas collector for Kew Gardens (King’s Botanist to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew). After arriving in Australia in 1816, he joined John Oxley’s 1817 expedition down the Macquarie River. Oxley notes in his journal a propensity by Cunningham to plant quince, peach, apricot and acorn seeds during their travels “with the hope rather than the expectation that they would grow and serve to commemorate the day and situation, should these desolate plains be ever again visited by civilized man, of which, however, I think there is very little probability.”
Cunningham continued his explorations on behalf of Banks and accompanied a number of expeditions both inland and coastal. In April 1823 he departed Bathurst with instructions to discover a more direct way for pastoralists to access the Liverpool Plains and on June the 23rd buried a bottle under a marked tree at the top of Pandoras Pass.
“discovered a practicable and easy passage through a low part of the mountain belt, north by west from this tree, to the very extensive levels connected with the abovementioned plains, of which the southernmost of the chain is distant about eleven or twelve miles (by estimation), N.N.W. from this valley, and to which a line of trees has been carefully marked, thus opening an unlimited, unbounded, seemingly well-watered country, N.N.W., to call forth the exertions of the industrious agriculturist and grazier, for whose benefit the present labours of the party have been extended.”
He further wrote “ in a direct line (by odometrical admeasurement) were planted the fresh stones of peaches, brought from the colony in April last, with every good hope that their produce will one day or other afford some refreshment to the weary farmer………… A like planting took place on the plains, twelve miles distance north at the last marked trees, with similar good wishes for their growth.”
The Push from the Hunter
Cunningham continued to cross and recross the Liverpool Plains on his way to being regarded as one of the founders of Queensland. A map of NSW dated 1825 (from the Best Authorities and Latest Discoveries) labeled the Liverpool Plains as “Rich Land” lying behind a range of “Impassable Mountains”.
Henry Dangar arrived in NSW in 1821 and became John Oxley’s assistant. Oxley charged Dangar with the assignment of surveying Newcastle and the Hunter River in 1822.
In 1824 Dangar discovers the Cedar Brush Track taking him onto the Liverpool Plains at what was to become Warrah Station where he was driven back by local aboriginals. In 1825 Dangar again crossed the Range from Murrurundi near the present Nowland Pass and headed east to an area that was later to become Goonoo Goonoo Station.
Meanwhile The Australian Agricultural Company was incorporated in London in 1824 following negotiations with the British Government for a grant of 1,000,000 acres of land in New South Wales on the condition that certain sums of money should be expended in the development and improvement of the land so granted. Officially what happens next seems to be a matter of what history you chose to believe. History records that the AA Company was initially granted lands at Port Stephens (including all of present day Newcastle), Warrah and the Peel Estate including part of present day Tamworth and all of Nundle. However in 1827 William Nowland spent 6 months developing the crossing of the Liverpool Ranges that now bares his name with the purpose of providing a route for stock to his holdings at Warrah. As Governor Darling had proclaimed the limits of location in 1826 Nowland can be regarded as a Squatter though some biographers claim Warrah was “unfairly” taken from him by the AA Company in 1831. The relationship between the AA Company and the colonial Surveyor’s General would have modern day corruption watch dogs reaching for their notepads.
Another Surveyor General
In 1827 Sir Thomas Mitchell was appointed Surveyor General for NSW and in December 1831 made his first expedition to prove that all the west flowing rivers of Northern NSW eventually flowed in to the Darling. It could hardly be said that the Liverpool Plains were uninhabited by Europeans by this time. Mitchell describes the presence of both stock and settlers. On December the 8th 1831 he made the following observation.
“This station was situated on a fine running stream called the Cuerindie (Quirindi) and the state of the sheep and cattle about it proved the excellence of the pasture. We had passed the limits of the territory open to the selections of settlers, in crossing the Liverpool range; and the remote country is not likely to come into the market soon: such stations as this of Loder were held therefore, only by the right of preoccupancy, which has been so generally recognized between the colonists themselves, that the houses, &c. of such stations are sometimes disposed of for valuable considerations, although the land is still liable to be sold by the government.”
This was the sting in the tail for William Nowland.
Ludwig Leichhardt who is best known for perishing up North whilst trying to cross the top end also passed through the Liverpool Plains in 1842 in his role as a geologist.
The Gomeroi People
The people of the Liverpool Plains were known to their southern neighbours as the Corborn Gomeroi or the “Greater Gomeroi”. They formed part of a wider “nation” which extended from around Singleton in the Hunter Valley through to the Warrumbungle Mountains in the west and up through the present-day centres of Quirindi, Tamworth, Narrabri, Walgett, Moree and Mungindi in NSW, to Nindigully in south west Queensland.
As a result of their close proximity to the first European settlements in Australia there is a considerable amount known about their tribal structure and ceremonies. To dismiss their society as that of hunter gatherers is too simplistic though the vagaries of a fresh water supply compelled them to live this way particularly in the Upper Namoi.
There are frequent early accounts of mosaic burning to encourage fresh herbage for animals and the stacking of grass seed for future winnowing and harvesting.
Extensive trading with neighbours also occurred with weapons and artefacts manufactured from Myall wood (a type of acacia) being particularly prized in the Hunter Valley and grass tree gum (used to fix axe heads) also widely traded.
Similarly it is known that the Kamilaroi people had at least five types of spear, several varieties of boomerangs both for hunting and warfare, digging sticks, and a variety of stone axes. Very sophisticated rope making and weaving was undertaken.
Hierarchically the Kamilaroi were ruled by a chief but this was not a hereditary position being elected from a Council of sub-tribes who were defined by their hunting grounds. Violent disputes could occur if these hunting grounds were violated by neighbours. The society was patriarchal with women being very much subordinate to men. It was also polygamous meaning that the more possessions you had the more wives you needed to carry them. Society was built on a totemic or caste system which defined very strictly with whom a marriage could be undertaken. For men the four groups were, Ipai, Kumbo, Murri, and Kubbi. The corresponding groups for women were Ipatha, Butha, Matha and Kubbitha. The early writers described these as Emu, Bandicoot, Black Snake, Kangaroo,
Opossum (sic) and Iguana (Goanna?). Whilst a patriarchy, lineage was most often determined by the mother. You were not permitted to marry a member of your own totem but only members of a specific other totem. An Ipai must marry a Kubbitha for example, a Murri a Butha.
Marriage however could not take place until a young man had been initiated which occurred at an initiation ground (Buurru) which included a bora ring. The bora ring consisted of two circles interlinked by a straight path often surrounded by marked trees which also had spiritual significance. Initiation was a lengthy process and marked with the presentation of a white rock which was retained by the initiate in a possum skin bag worn around his neck. There are recorded instances of deaths of Europeans who stole or interfered with these sacred objects.
Initiation ceremonies and corroroborees were attended by other sub-tribes or even other tribes. Networks of messengers (Marbull) were used whose “message sticks” conveyed by symbols the number who had been invited and the time and location of the event. Messengers had free passage through all territory being under the protection of the Chief and could also pass freely through other tribal lands.
Whilst some corroborees had religious connotations, others were simply entertainment. There is an instance of a Queensland corroboree being performed by the Kamilaroi near Quirindi in much the same way as Europeans watch plays. Other entertainment included games with possum skin balls and returning boomerangs.
As well as couriers the Kamilaroi had Doctors (Wirringan) and Wizards (Koradji). The land provided a rich pharmacopoeia and the doctors were adept at making poultices and sucking “poisons” from the body. Other treatments included earth baths. The wizards are far more shadowy known to commune with spirits and protect the tribe from malevolent spirits or Krooben. The Kamilaroi believed in a supreme being who lived above the heavens named Baayamai. As with western religions Baiamai has a series of intermediaries with which humans deal. In common with many other native races around the world the Kamilaroi placed particular religious significance on Orion and the Pleiades star cluster.
Kamilaroi burial ceremonies were elaborate with the body wrapped in bark and sometimes a possum skin cloak and in the case of hunters with all those things needed to continue their hunts as it was believed they would continue to hunt at night. The grave was a round mound 1.5 metres high which was then covered over with saplings to keep animals at bay. An 1840 description of the burial of a chief also included the carving of three trees with diamond shape symbols and women adorning their faces with white pipe clay for a week. The grave would be visited for three days then the tribe would depart to a place safe from evil spirits.
John Fraser in his work, The Aborigines of NSW written in 1882 said:
“They have virtues we may profitably imitate; they are faithful and affectionate to those who treat them kindly; they have rules of family morality which are enforced by severe penalties; they show the greatest respect to age; they carefully tend and never desert the sick and infirm; their boys are compelled to content themselves with meager fare, and to bring the best food which they have found themselves and present it to the aged members of the tribe.”
The Kamilaroi were also regarded as fierce warriors.