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The Birpai

Long before Europeans arrived in what is now Kendall and district, it was the home of the Birpai people who lived in settled villages along the river banks and around the lakes.

The entire northern coast of New South Wales supported a substantial number of Aboriginal Australians. The rich strip from the Camden Haven to the Queensland border and from the coast west to the Great Dividing Range – 30,000 square kilometres – might well have nourished 45,000 people.

As everywhere else in Australia, they farmed the country with fire. At the time of the British settlement, the land was a wondrous mosaic of grassland and open forest, occasional belts of thick eucalypt forest, rainforest of varying width along the creeks and rivers, and coastal heath. The many rivers, creeks, lakes, swamps and lagoons made it easy to control the spread of fire. The entire coast and eastern slopes were burnt in small patches at periods ranging from a few months to several years. >

The coastal people had a much easier time of the drastic climate changes of between thirty thousand and twelve thousand years ago than the inland people did. But they had to make drastic changes seven thousand years ago when the seas rose by about one hundred and fifty metres. The coastal fringe where they had previously caught fish and gathered shellfish is now about 250 kilometres out to sea. All the coastal middens now known have been made in the last seven thousand years although some older ones exist along waterways, away from the coast.

Women fashioned deep, boat-shaped water carriers out of the leaves of the Bangalow Palms by bending the main rib of the long, pinnate leaf to the shape they wanted, tying the ends together with a cord handle, then lacing the pinules in such a tight weave that no water seeped through them. These water carriers were traded. All over Australia people with special foods and special tools or special plants like pituri traded them for their own needs. Well used trade routes connected all areas of Australia. Widespread trade took place with Papua New Guinea. One route ran from Watam at the mouth of the Sepik River on the north coast of Papua New Guinea south by canoe and walking tracks through the centre of the island, then by boat and overland routes through coastal districts as far south as present Sydney Harbour.

An important article of trade from coastal heaths was glue made from the yellow resin of Xanthorrhoea species, sometimes from natural exudations, usually by beating the leaf bases on a sheet of bark or in a coolamon. The resin, collected as a powder, was then heated, mixed with fine sand or the carbonaceous structures made by Trigona bees, and rolled into balls. This glue, traded west, met glue from various species of Spinifex, Triodia, traded east.

The people indigenous to what is now defined as the Hastings area (of which the Camden Haven is part) are members of the Birpai or Biripi Nation. As in other regions, they had names for each natural feature, each waterway, perhaps each part of each waterway. Their names for their country and its features were not recorded by the British who first came into the area, instead they bestowed new names, often in honour of some distant dignitary with no connection to the country.

The Birpai people lived in settled villages along the river banks and around the lakes. Fire was a valuable tool in restraining the rampant rainforest that grew along the riverbanks and in deep gullies and ravines. It prevented it from creeping across the open grasslands that were so valuable for hunting. Large trees provided shelter for many species of animals and birds, and vantage points for those hunting them for food.

When canoes for fishing, shields, woomeras and weapons were cut from trees, great care was taken to cut from only one side: no tree was ringbarked. The scars healed, often with an overgrowth of bark around them, and the life of the tree was not diminished. In 1819, explorer Phillip Parker King commented:

The canoes were merely sheets of bark, with the ends slightly gathered up to form a shallow concavity, in which the natives stood and propelled them by means of poles… The native huts were more substantially built and contained 8 or 10 persons. They were arched over to form a dome with the opening on the land side, enabling them to be screened from the cold sea winds, which were generally accompanied by rain.

Their houses were built of timber and bark, with special huts being built for particular purposes. A birthing hut was prepared for the coming of each baby. The hollow inside it in which the mother would lie to give birth was lined with eucalyptus leaves and the hut smoked in preparation. A new coolamon made from a nearby tree was lined with ti-tree bark ready to receive the baby and more layers of the bark were placed under the baby. It was replaced regularly and the soiled bark burnt. The mother remained in the birthing hut until she healed.

The kino (a juice or gum of some Australian trees) of the Red Bloodwood was applied to cuts to assist with healing, it was also used as a remedy for diarrhoea. For the latter treatment, the kino was carefully wrapped inside a piece of food so that it did not come into contact with the mouth. Gum resin from several species of Acacia was also used to treat diarrhoea.

Indigenous Australians in this area experienced considerable loss of life from the early waves of smallpox from which they had barely recovered when the British arrived to establish the settlement at Port Macquarie.

< The Birpai Nation’s draft history, drawn from oral records passed down by Elders, records that their people experienced loss of life very soon after European ‘settlement’ (1820s/30s). In c.1840 they endeavoured to fight back, enlisting the help of the neighbouring Thungutti Nation but, as a result of the superior weaponry of the new arrivals, many were killed near a place subsequently known as Blackman’s Point. Cedar getters, as obsessed by ‘red gold’ as those who later suffered ‘gold fever’, brooked no interference in their quest for the magnificent old trees. Cedar Creek is, for Birpai people, a site of death.

Between 1840 and 1900 as the colony grew, the Birpai people were systematically dispossessed of their land and placed on to local reserves under the control of the Aboriginal Protection Board. Between 1900 and the 1940s they were moved away from the Hastings area to reserves at Purfleet, Taree and Burnt Bridge, Kempsey.

During the early part of the twentieth century many were directed to land clearing under instruction from the Aboriginal Protection Board. Others worked for farmers from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. (8 pm in summer) for little or no pay. They lived on the property and were given rations, if they were lucky they got some meat when the farmer killed a beast.

When the railway came to the district, several Koori men worked on the track, some were able to secure a sleeper-cutters’ ticket and the necessary quota. During later decades, life improved for some who cut timber for the local mills and secured work in other rural enterprises.

It was, however, many years before Birpai people were able to live without the fear of authorities who would take their children away.

Birpai Nation History (draft typescript): Birpai Land Council, 2002
Preece Pat: interview EvK 2002
Davis Lois: interview EvK 2002
King Phillip Parker: Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, London 1826
McCarthy F.: ‘ “Trade” in Aboriginal Australia and “Trade” Relationships with Torres Strait, New Guinea and Malaya’ in Oceania vol. 1X, no.4, June 1939 and continued in vol. X, no. 1, September 1939 & vol. X no. 2, December 1939.
Steele J..G.: Aboriginal Pathways, University of Queensland Press, 1984 (p.17)

© Elaine van Kempen 2006


© Kendall Community Centre May 2006