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Biggs, Frederick (Fred) (1875–1961)

by Jeremy Beckett

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Frederick (Fred) Biggs (c.1875-1961), Aboriginal bushworker and singer, was born in a lambing camp near Ivanhoe, New South Wales, son of a White stockman and an Aboriginal woman called Polly. He was raised in the traditional territory of the Ngiyambaa (or Wangaaybuwan) Aborigines in the hinterland of the Lachlan and Darling rivers where the country is arid, although after rain the creeks and swamps teem with birdlife. Pastoralists had occupied the region, but their stations—such as Willandra and Trida—were vast and sparsely settled, allowing the Aboriginal inhabitants to carry on a modified version of their old life.

From his mother, Fred inherited the bandicoot totem; he inherited his surname from his Aboriginal 'father' Moses Biggs who took him through the burba initiation ceremony when Fred was aged about 14. As a young man, Biggs worked at different jobs in the pastoral industry and at one time drove the mail-cart around the various stations. He married a Ngiyambaa woman Nancy Parkes who was his 'right meat'; they were to have seven children.

About 1919 a drought and the subdivision of the big stations compelled the Ngiyambaa to converge on Carowra Tank where missionaries provided intermittent instruction. In 1926 the Aborigines Protection Board took control of the community. Due to a shortage of water, the Ngiyambaa were moved in 1934 to Menindee on the Darling River which was also occupied by the Baagandji and other Aboriginal groups. In 1949 the Ngiyambaa were relocated at Murrin Bridge, near Lake Cargelligo, far away from their own country.

After his initiation Biggs had taken part in the ritual life of his people up to the last burba, held in 1914; he declared that he was 'very very sorry that it was all finished'. In the early 1920s an attempt to revive the burba failed because of an epidemic that killed several of the senior men. Fred retained his commitment to Ngiyambaa lore and passed on parts of his knowledge to researchers. Late in life he was to express a hope that the traditions might be taught in schools. In 1943 he and his kinsman Jack King provided Ronald Berndt with information on the 'Clever Men' or shamans; from 1957 Biggs informed anthropologists about the intricacies of the kinship system. He also dictated myths and recorded songs. Some of this material was later published in Roland Robinson's Aboriginal Myths and Legends (Melbourne, 1966). The song which Biggs had composed about a White boy who was lost in the bush is included in the cassette, Songs of Aboriginal Australia.

Biggs was a small, wiry man; an accident had made him blind in one eye. In his eighties he remained remarkably spry and active, and went out in his sulky to get wood from which to make artefacts for sale. He told his stories with zest, relishing their moments of ribald comedy. Still possessing a strong voice, he seized opportunities to record his songs. He died on 14 March 1961 at Lake Cargelligo and was buried in Murrin Bridge cemetery; his four daughters and two of his sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Wild (ed), Songs of Aboriginal Australia (cassette, Canb, no date)
  • T. Donaldson, Ngiyambaa (Cambridge, 1980)
  • Oceania, 17, no 4, 1947-48, p 327, 18, no 1, 1948-49, p 60, 29, no 3, 1958-59, p 200.

Citation details

Jeremy Beckett, 'Biggs, Frederick (Fred) (1875–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/biggs-frederick-fred-9504/text16731, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012