Life Summary





Alternative Names

Maggill, Eagle Hawk, Magill, Barabahn, MacGil, John McGill

Religious Influence



Indigenous leader, Indigenous tracker


Biraban (flourished 1819-1842), Aboriginal leader, was a member of the Awabakal or Newcastle tribe. From boyhood he was servant to an officer at the military barracks, Sydney, where he learnt to speak English fluently, and was given the name John McGill. He was taken to Port Macquarie in 1821, helped Francis Allman to establish the new penal settlement and proved useful in tracking escaped convicts.

He returned to Lake Macquarie and as Biraban or 'Eagle Hawk' he assumed ceremonial leadership amongst his people, being singled out as 'tribal king' of the district under Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Birabaan lived up to his responsibilities by maintaining good relations between Aboriginals and settlers.

When Rev. L. E. Threlkeld commenced missionary work at Reid's Mistake (Lake Macquarie) in 1825 Biraban became his principal assistant, and a 'mateship' based on mutual respect and affection developed between the two men. Biraban instructed Threlkeld in tribal lore and absorbed the principles of Calvinist Christianity. He gave daily instruction in the language and corrected the missionary's transcripts. After a year's work the language had been reduced to a written form and by 1829 the first draft of St Luke's Gospel had been completed.

Threlkeld commended Biraban's 'intelligence and steady application' to Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, who publicly honoured him at the annual conference with the Aboriginals at Parramatta in 1830 with a brass plate inscribed 'Barabahn, or MacGil, Chief of the Tribe at Bartabah, on Lake Macquarie; a Reward for his assistance in reducing his Native Tongue to a written Language'.

Biraban developed considerable enunciatory skill, and assisted Threlkeld to interpret in court cases involving Aboriginals.

Biraban did not long survive the closing of the mission in 1842. The missionary recorded a generous tribute by way of introduction to his A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language (1850). He was undoubtedly an outstanding Aboriginal person of his time, at once preserving his tribal integrity and assimilating himself to the ways of the European.

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