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Murray, Benno (Ben) (1893–1994)

by Philip Jones

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Benno (Ben) Murray (1893–1994), stockman, cameleer, linguist, and storyteller, was, by his own written account, born on 21 December 1893 at Hergott Springs (later Marree), South Australia, son of Bejah Dervish, Afghan cameleer, and Annie Murray. His mother was an Arabana-Thirari woman whose European name derived from the family for whom she worked as a maid. His father would achieve distinction as the leading cameleer on the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition (1896–97). The town’s Aboriginal camp was within sight of the Frome Creek’s tree line, where a Rain History or Dreaming site was the source of his totemic identity and his Arabana name, Parlku-nguyu-thangkayiwarna (‘Bank of Clouds Settling Down’). To Europeans he was then known as ‘Johnny Murray.’

In about 1897 Annie took her family to Muloorina station where her parents, ‘King Walter’ and ‘Queen Annie,’ lived. Here Johnny began his working life, strapped to a horse driving the rotating mechanism for a water pump, for two or three hours a day. His grandfather shared with him knowledge of the country and its mythology, taking him by foot as far as Stuart Creek to the north-west and Birdsville, Queensland, to the north. By the age of ten he had moved to Clayton station, part of (Sir) Sidney Kidman’s expanding pastoral empire, where Kidman’s daughters taught him the finer points of horsemanship. In 1906 he and his younger brother Ern went to Cannatalkaninna station. Paid just two shillings a week, they were overworked and badly mistreated. Their mother, who had moved to the adjoining Lutheran mission at Killalpaninna, convinced the boys to seek refuge there in 1908.

Baptised as Benno by Pastor Wolfgang Riedel, but known as Ben, he began a new life, learning to read and write and becoming a committed Christian. He would retain and read his copy of the Testamenta Marra, the first translation of the New Testament into an Aboriginal language (Diyari/Dieri, closely related to Thirari), for the rest of his life. At the mission one of his first assignments was as a rabbit catcher. From 1912 he was given increasing responsibility for the mission’s camel team, making and repairing saddles, and leading monthly supply journeys to Hergott Springs. His future seemed assured; it was a shock when the mission closed in 1915 for financial reasons. He had also observed anti-German sentiment as World War I began and felt some pressure to enlist.

After leaving Killalpaninna, Murray was sustained by his network of mission contacts. From 1915 he worked on several German-owned farms on the Eyre Peninsula, Yorke Peninsula, and the Murray River near Waikerie. During the Depression he became an overseer on road-making gangs in the Murray Mallee, joining the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes lodge at Alawoona. By 1934 he felt the pull of the north, and sought a position. Turned down by the Kidmans, with characteristic directness he visited Tom Barr Smith in Adelaide and secured a job patrolling the dingo fence on Murnpeowie station. Before leaving the city he visited an old mission friend, Ted Vogelsang, employed as an attendant at the South Australian Museum. He joined Vogelsang in assisting the ethnologist Norman Tindale with the translation of J. G. Reuther’s manuscripts; Murray’s first foray into linguistics.

On Murnpeowie Murray was among Diyari speakers again. He constructed a bush hut, but was away for months at a time on patrol with his brother-in-law, Gottlieb Merrick, and accompanied by three or four camels. In 1948 the fence became too difficult to maintain and his job ended. Murray recalled taking a mob of horses to Darwin at this time, via Alice Springs. He returned to Murnpeowie, where he was employed to shoot dingoes from horseback, but left the station in disgust after a year or two when a new manager shot his camels and horses. During the 1950s he worked successively at Mundowdna, Witchelina, and Myrtle Springs stations, primarily as a dingo shooter.

Murray had not married, although by his account he had resisted several offers. He valued his own company and his freedom. Technically he was subject to South Australia’s Aborigines Act (1934) and although never constrained by it, he applied for and was granted exemption on 10 September 1947. Retiring in 1959, he settled in the deserted town of Farina, soon becoming its sole resident. The old police station was his home and the rail link enabled him to ‘jump on the rattler’ and visit friends and family in Marree, to the north.

During this period Murray corresponded in Diyari and English with the mission fraternity and participated in several return visits to Killalpaninna. In 1965 at Marree and at Wilpoorina station he met the linguists Bernhard Schebeck and Luise Hercus. Impressed by his easy grasp of the Arabana and Wangkangurru languages and his storytelling ability, Hercus introduced Murray to the linguist Peter Austin (who was studying Diyari) in 1974, and to the historian Philip Jones in 1981. The result of their collaborations was a remarkable corpus of linguistic and historical data. Murray accompanied Hercus and Austin on several bush trips, identifying important sites and linking them with the mythological knowledge he had retained. Murray’s status among his own people was founded partly on that knowledge, but mostly on his integrity, good humour, and acute sense of justice.

Murray still worked occasionally as a dingo-shooter until a fall from a horse in 1974 put an end to his working life. After living with a nephew, Arthur Warren, in Marree for several years, he took up residence in his own cabin at the Wami Kata home for aged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at Port Augusta in 1979. The home provided him with the independence he relished. He continued to work with anthropologists, linguists, and historians, flying to Canberra in 1977 to assist Hercus and Austin with their work on the Diyari, Thirrari, and Arabana languages.

In his nineties Murray became popular for his storytelling, particularly for his tales of Gallipoli, which can be traced back at least to the 1940s. Unlike his bush tales though, these war stories seem to have emerged as a way of dealing with his close alignment with the German missionaries; he may have internalised graphic radio accounts of the Gallipoli campaign, relating these as his own experiences. He became known for these exploits, even leading an Anzac Day march (in a vehicle) at Port Augusta as he approached his centenary. On 26 August 1994 he died at Wami Kata, aged 101. He had spent his last years there among a fading generation of proud Aboriginal stockmen and women whose labours and goodwill had underpinned the bush economy.

Select Bibliography

  • Austin, Peter, Luise Hercus, and Philip Jones. ‘Ben Murray (Parlku-Nguyu-Thangkayiwarna).’ Aboriginal History 12, no. 2 (1988): 114–187
  • Murray, Ben. Interviews with Philip Jones, Port Augusta, 1988. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies Library
  • Murray, Ben. ‘Killalpaninna.’ Lutheran, 11 November 1985, 3
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Stevens, Christine. White Man’s Dreaming: Killalpaninna Mission, 1866-1915. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Murray, Benno (Ben) (1893–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-benno-ben-29929/text37054, accessed 9 August 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012