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Bussamarai (c. 1795–1852)

by Pat Collins

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Bussamarai (c. 1795–1852), Aboriginal resistance leader, also known as Possum Murray, Eaglehawk, Billy, Old Billy, and Combo, was from the Mandandanji language group. The Mandandanji nation’s homeland is crossed by the Balonne and Maranoa rivers north of St George, and large creeks such as the Tchanning, Bungil, and Muckadilla (Upper Cogoon River) in south-central Queensland. The towns of Surat, Roma, and Mitchell are on their homeland. It is likely that Europeans derived the name Possum Murray from Bussamarai. Eaglehawk may have been a title denoting a high-ranking, intertribal warrior and leader. Bussamarai’s birth date is unknown, but his sobriquet ‘Old Billy’ and his extensive influence suggest that he was over fifty-five when he died.

Bussamarai was probably present when Sir Thomas Mitchell and Edmund Kennedy crossed Mandandanji land near present-day Muckadilla in 1846. Mitchell named the area ‘Fitzroy Downs.’ His friend Allan MacPherson took up most of the downs as Mount Abundance station, stocking the land with thousands of sheep and cattle between late 1847 and mid-1849. Bussamarai’s exploits were first recorded by Gideon Lang, a writer, squatter, and land speculator who took up Mandandanji land in 1850. Lang never met Bussamarai but heard about him from Roderick Mitchell, the land commissioner at Surat, and others. Lang described Bussamarai, whom he called ‘Eaglehawk,’ as a ‘man of most versatile talent’: he ‘was not only a great orator but [also] a diplomatist and a general’ (Lang 1865, 27). According to Lang, Eaglehawk/Bussamarai ‘had sufficient influence and ability to induce five entire tribes to combine and attempt the expulsion of the whites from the country’ (Lang 1865, 27). Mitchell told Lang about a corroboree that Bussamarai had composed and directed close to the township that was witnessed by settlers and around five hundred Aboriginal people. Featuring Aboriginal performers acting as cattle and armed white men on horseback, the corroboree depicted a fatal fight, which the Mandandanji won after being attacked for killing cattle. The corroboree may have been intended to narrate (or even to celebrate) their recent victory to Aboriginal observers, or to signal that the conflict was concluded, thereby preventing the escalation of further tensions. However, the settler audience may have interpreted the message as ‘leave the land or lose your stock and die.’

During the period 1848 to 1849, the Mandandanji, presumably led by Bussamarai, targeted all the stations on and near their land. They started with a series of fatal attacks on stations east of Surat, killing at least two white men. In early 1848 over three hundred Aboriginal warriors, led by a ‘powerful man … [with] sundry marks on his person’ (Bunce 1857, 211), drove three thousand sheep off Frederick Isaac’s Dulacca station to the Grafton range where they held them in well-made bough yards. They were tracked and attacked by squatters and station hands, including Daniel Bunce, who recorded that two of Isaac’s station hands were killed in the affray. Most of the sheep were recovered. Led by the same strong, scarified man, the Mandandanji forced squatter James Blythe off their land in 1848 and attacked MacPherson’s Mount Abundance station several times. At the latter property they killed seven white station hands and teamsters. During a post-attack hunt led by MacPherson, two of his Indigenous workers, Charley and Friday (who was also Mandandanji), also died. In June 1849, fearing further attacks, MacPherson removed his sheep from Mount Abundance, leaving Paddy McEnroe and ‘a sufficient amount of men’ (MacPherson 1879, n.p.) to care for his cattle. That month an alliance between neighbouring Indigenous groups, the Mandandanji, Yiman, and Barunggam peoples, was reported by Frederick Walker, local commandant of the native police. Around 150 men had sought to repeat an earlier attack on John Dangar’s station, but were repelled by the native police.

Between January 1850 and August 1851, Commissioner Mitchell, with assistance from visiting native police, attempted to quash the resistance of the Mandandanji, and bring security to the few Europeans who remained on Mandandanji land. Violence continued and it was the Mandandanji who suffered the most, with many killed in a massacre near Yuleba Creek in March 1850. From August 1851 native police patrols on Mandandanji land increased.

The following year Bussamarai acted as an intermediary between his people and colonists. The explorer Hovenden Hely arrived at Surat in April 1852 to lead a search for the missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Hely engaged Bussamarai, whom he called ‘Billy,’ as a multilingual guide and interpreter, even though he knew ‘he had the name of being the ringleader, Chief, and greatest scoundrel in the Mount Abundance Country … the head and prime mover of all the depredations & murders committed there’ (Hely n.d., 215). While Bussamarai was away with Hely’s party, Richard Dempster, a notorious native police sergeant, led a series of attacks along the Lower Balonne. These included the massacre of six Aboriginal people at Yamboucal, adjacent to Surat, in 1852 for which Dempster was suspended. Perhaps word of this reached Bussamarai, as he left Hely’s party and travelled back to Surat in early July. Hely recorded: ‘This looks bad—very bad … there is I imagine an attack meditated upon us’ (Hely n.d., 215). On or about 14 November, Bussamarai, accompanied by a number of Mandandanji and Yiman, confronted McEnroe at his hut near Yalebone Creek. When Sergeant James Skelton and his troopers arrived unexpectedly, and McEnroe, who had an Aboriginal family, supposedly said that Bussamarai was going to kill him, the police fatally shot Bussamarai and five others. Some weeks later Walker told Lieutenant George Fulford that Bussamarai should not have been shot as the relevant evidence was only hearsay. Among Mandandanji Bussamarai is remembered as an important leader who fought to defend their land.

 

Pat Collins is a European man with strong connections to Aboriginal land near Muckadilla and Eulo.

Select Bibliography

  • Bunce, Daniel. Australasiatic Reminiscences of Twenty-Three Years’ Wanderings in Tasmania and the Australias: Including Travels with Dr Leichhardt in North or Tropical Australia. Melbourne: J. T. Hendy, 1857
  • Collins, Patrick. Goodbye Bussamarai: The Mandandanji Land War, Southern Queensland, 1842–1852. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2002
  • Hely, Hovenden. ‘Hovenden Hely Diary of His Journey in Search of Leichhardt, 3 January-15 September 1852.’ Unpublished transcript, n.d. State Library of New South Wales. Copy held on IADB file
  • Lang, Gideon S. The Aborigines of Australia in Their Original Condition and in Their Relations with the White Men. Melbourne: Wilson and Mackinnon, 1865
  • MacPherson, Allan. Mount Abundance, or, The Experiences of a Pioneer Squatter Thirty Years Ago. London: Fleet Street Printing, [1879]
  • Queenslander. ‘Aboriginal Placenames.’ 22 February 1913, 14

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Pat Collins, 'Bussamarai (c. 1795–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/bussamarai-29700/text36772, accessed 8 December 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Possum Murry
  • Eaglehawk
  • Old Billy
  • Combo
  • Bussamerai
Birth

c. 1795
Roma, Queensland, Australia

Death

14 November 1852
Surat, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

shot

Cultural Heritage
Occupation
Properties