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Briggs, Louisa (1836–1925)

by Laura Barwick

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Louisa Briggs (1836-1925), Aboriginal leader, dormitory matron and nurse, was born on 14 November 1836 on Preservation Island, Bass Strait, daughter of John Strugnell, a sealer, and Mary (Polly) Munro. Strugnell, as a 17-year-old London chimney sweep, had been transported in 1818. Polly was probably the daughter of James Munro, another sealer, and Doog-by-er-um-bor-oke (Margery Munro), a Woirorung woman kidnapped from Port Phillip.

Louisa was an attractive woman with blue eyes and dark, wavy hair with a distinctive white streak. In 1853 she married John Briggs, the son of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and a sealer. Briggs was formerly married to Louisa's aunt Ann Munro. He and Louisa joined the gold rush in Victoria and worked as shepherds in the Beaufort district and for a squatter near Violet Town until the late 1860s. Between 1853 and 1871 they had nine children. Work was scarce and in 1871 the destitute family joined Coranderrk Aboriginal station, near Healesville.

Next year a dispute with the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines, which managed the station, over the board's failure to pay a cash wage to all the workers resulted in John being expelled after seeking paid work elsewhere. In 1874 the family returned, in great need, to Coranderrk. There Louisa acted as a nurse and dormitory matron and was appointed a salaried staff member in 1876.

The board's policy over Coranderrk's income and the inclusion of newcomers, who were not related to the Kulin clan inhabitants, caused resentment among the residents. Rebellion ensued. Louisa's leadership and hereditary right made her a spokesperson. She had learned to read, but not to write, so her children acted as scribes for her numerous letters of protest. When the popular manager was replaced, Louisa fought the plans to sell Coranderrk and to relocate its residents. To this end she gave evidence in August 1876 at an inquiry into the running of the station. Widowed in 1878, after further protests Louisa was forced off the reserve, seeking asylum at Ebenezer Aboriginal station, Lake Hindmarsh, where she again acted as a matron. Conditions there were poor and she wrote to the board to complain of the lack of food in 1878 and again in 1881. Following another inquiry into Coranderrk, Louisa returned to the station in 1882 and was left briefly in charge of the dormitory.

Legislation in 1886 forced 'half-castes' under the age of 35 off the reserves and Louisa's family was again exiled from Coranderrk; they sought refuge at Maloga mission in New South Wales. She pleaded to return to Coranderrk but the board claimed that the family was Tasmanian and refused re-entry. In 1889 Louisa and her children moved to Cumeroogunga reserve, on the New South Wales side of the Murray River, opposite Barmah. She again requested to return to Coranderrk in 1892 and was denied. In 1895 'half-castes' were excluded from Cumeroogunga, forcing the family to settle in a makeshift camp at Barmah. In 1903, at the age of 67, Louisa asked for the rations to which she was entitled by age and ancestry. Again the board refused 'for the reason she is a half caste of Tasmania'. She later returned to Cumeroogunga, where she died on 6 September 1925. Out of affection, local children covered her coffin with violets. A church-going Presbyterian, Louisa was strong minded, hardworking, known for her kindness and love of children and for her humour, audacity and courage.

Select Bibliography

  • R. B. Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria (Melb, 1878)
  • D. E. Barwick et al, Metaphors of Interpretation (Canb, 1985)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • D. E. Barwick, Rebellion at Coranderrk (Canb, 1998)
  • album of 156 photos by Frederick Kruger, 1876-78 (Museum Victoria).

Citation details

Laura Barwick, 'Briggs, Louisa (1836–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/briggs-louisa-12816/text23133, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012