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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Welch, Maria (1834–1909)

by Mandy Paul

This article was published online in 2020

Maria Welch (c. 1834–1909), Kaurna matriarch, also known as ‘Black Maria,’ was born a few years before the colonists arrived in 1836 on her ancestral homelands, which the newcomers called the Adelaide Plains. Her father was Tairmunda, also known as Williamy, and her mother was Mary; the name they gave their daughter has not been recorded. Maria’s older brother Ityamaiitpinna was among the first Kaurna people encountered by the colonists; they regarded him as a leader and called him ‘King Rodney’ (Gara 1998, 96). Ityamaiitpinna’s daughter and Maria’s niece, Ivaritji, was, in the 1920s, considered to be the last speaker of the Kaurna language, which has since been revived. Maria’s intermittent presence in the historical record is mediated by the attitudes of the period and reflects the shifting policies of colonial authorities. Unfortunately, what can be reconstructed of Maria’s life reveals more about the effects of colonisation on Kaurna people than her own world-view.

During the early 1840s Maria attended school at the Native Location (Piltawodli or ‘brushtail possum house’) on the banks of Karrawirra Parri (River Torrens). The school was opened in December 1839 by the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society of Dresden missionaries Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Schürmann. Students were taught religious studies, reading, and writing, and, notably, the instruction was in Kaurna. They also learned agriculture, trades, or domestic skills, as deemed appropriate to future employment. Maria was probably taught by Samuel Klose, another Dresden Society missionary. Later she spent two years as a servant of Eliza Grey, wife of (Sir) George Grey, governor of South Australia (1841–45), and may also have served in the household of Grey’s successor, Frederick Robe (governor 1845–48). She had a son, Charley, whose father was a colonist, in March 1850. In October she and Charley were sent to Poonindie Native Training Institution near Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula.

While little was recorded about Maria’s life in this period, and nothing of her views, she appears to have been used in public debates as an example of whether or not Aboriginal people could be assimilated into colonial society. Speaking at a meeting of the South Australian Church Society in January 1851, Archdeacon Mathew Hale claimed that Maria was well known, and that she had been ‘at one time held up as proof of the possibility, not only to civilize, but Christianize the natives’ (South Australian Register 1851, 3). However, by the time Hale was speaking, Maria was instead being ‘used as an argument on the other side of the question,’ because of her so-called relapse ‘into barbarism’ and fall ‘into a sinful course of life’ (South Australian Register 1851, 3). Apparently unwilling to conform to the strictures of life at Poonindie, Maria left the institution in March 1851, reluctantly leaving Charley behind.

In 1853, while living in the house of Mrs Brown at Port Adelaide, Maria appeared as a witness in a murder trial. A newspaper report described the nineteen-year-old as respectably dressed with fashionably curled hair covered in a net, and as speaking ‘excellent English’ (Adelaide Times 1853, 3). An earlier report had noted that she signed her deposition in ‘a clear legible hand’ (South Australian Register 1853, 3). Both accounts indicated that Maria’s residence was within earshot of the camp where both the deceased and accused had lived. Her parents also lived there, suggesting she remained in contact with them.

The establishment of Adelaide had taken a heavy toll on the Kaurna. In 1858 a ration depot was set up at Willunga, in the southern foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges, and among the Kaurna people moved there were Maria, her partner Sam Stubbs, their young son Arthur, and Maria’s older daughter, Selina. Four years later Sam, Maria, and the children were living in a cottage at nearby Kangarilla, and Sam was earning a living as an agricultural labourer. One of their neighbours wrote to the Adelaide Observer describing the household in favourable terms, and pleading that Sam be granted his ‘one engrossing wish … a few acres of the many miles of fair hunting grounds that once his fathers claimed’ (1862, 3). Nothing came of this appeal. In 1867 Maria, Sam, and their five children were living in South Australia’s mid-north. Sam junior, aged between four and five, died there in February, and the case went to court at Kapunda as his parents believed he had been deliberately killed at Anlaby station through injuries inflicted by traditional methods. The case was, however, dismissed.

Separated from Maria, Sam took Selina and the three younger children—probably Arthur, Frances, and another daughter who was known variously as Amelia or Millie—to Poonindie in 1870. Despite being acknowledged as a good worker, Sam was judged unsuitable for mission life by mission authorities and left in early 1871. Maria had gone to work at Nurney House, North Adelaide, as a domestic servant for Margaret Bagot, widow of Christopher Bagot, who remained an enduring friend. In March 1871 Maria moved to Poonindie and was reunited with her children. She may have briefly reconnected with her oldest son, Charley, who lived there until his death in 1872, the result of a boating accident.

In January 1872 Maria married Philip Welch, an Aboriginal man from Western Australia. The Welches lived at Poonindie for most of the 1870s and 1880s and are consistently listed in the quarterly population returns throughout this period with Millie, and often other children, in their care. On occasional recorded visits to Adelaide, both Maria and Philip stayed with Bagot. In 1875 a measles epidemic devastated Poonindie, infecting seventy-five people out of a total population of about ninety, and Maria’s daughter Frances was among the fatalities. Her oldest daughter, Selina, had married the Kaurna man Robert Power in 1871; she died in 1877. Amelia, her youngest daughter, married Emanuel Solomon, a man from Rapid Bay of Ramindjeri and European descent, in 1884; they had four children.

After more than a decade of persistent agitation against Poonindie by local farmers who wanted the institution closed and the land subdivided, the trustees relinquished the lease in 1894. In July, Maria, Philip, and two of their Solomon grandchildren were among those shipped to Point McLeay mission (later Raukkan). However, Philip soon returned to Poonindie, as he and John Solomon, Emmanuel’s brother, had been allocated Section 121, part of an Aboriginal reserve, in about 1897. They struggled to secure the resources needed to meet the conditions of their occupation permit and lost the block in December 1900.

Maria and Philip established themselves at Point Pearce mission, Yorke Peninsula. Now an elderly woman who had outlived most of her children, Maria continued to care for others. She was probably the ‘ancient woman’ of ‘the Adelaide tribe’ (Mulvaney, Morphy, and Petch 1997, 435) that Francis Gillen, postmaster and ethnologist, visited there in 1903. Survived by her husband, one daughter, and possibly one son, she died on 7 December 1909 at Point Pearce. Under the heading ‘Death of an Aboriginal Princess,’ she was eulogised as ‘the oldest surviving member of the Adelaide tribe’ (Register 1909, 7). This and the further claim that her death left her niece, Ivaritji, the ‘sole surviving member of the Adelaide tribe’ (Register 1909, 7), was only sustainable in the racist discourse of the time, as Maria’s grandchildren were among the many Aboriginal people of Kaurna descent living in South Australia.

 

Mandy Paul is of British and European descent. She was living on Kaurna land when she wrote this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Adelaide Observer. ‘The Aborigines.’ 4 October 1862, 3
  • Adelaide Times. ‘Supreme Court.’ 11 May 1853, 3
  • Brock, Peggy, and Doreen Kartinyeri. Poonindie: The Rise and Destruction of an Aboriginal Agricultural Community. Adelaide: Aboriginal Heritage Branch, Adelaide, 1989
  • Gara, Tom. ‘The Life and Times of Mullawirraburka (“King John”) of the Adelaide Tribe.’ In History in Portraits: Biographies of Nineteenth Century South Australian Aboriginal People, edited by Jane Simpson and Luise Hercus, 88–132. Canberra: Aboriginal History, 1998
  • Hale, M. B. The Aborigines of Australia, Being an Account of the Institution for Their Education at Poonindie, in South Australia. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, [1889]
  • Mulvaney, John, Howard Morphy, and Aalsion Petch, eds. ‘My Dear Spencer’: The Letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. Melbourne: Hyland House, 1997
  • Register (Adelaide). ‘Death of an Aboriginal Princess.’ 14 December 1909, 7
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 35/1
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 52/1
  • South Australian Register. ‘Coroner’s Inquest.’ 8 April 1853, 3
  • South Australian Register. ‘South Australian Church Society.’ 9 January 1851, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mandy Paul, 'Welch, Maria (1834–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/welch-maria-29703/text36775, published online 2020, accessed online 25 October 2020.

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