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Kaawirn Kuunawarn (1820–1889)

by Jan Critchett

This article was published:

Kaawirn Kuunawarn (c.1820-1889), Aboriginal leader, also known as 'KING DAVID', chief of the Kirrae wurrung, or 'Davie', was born at Lake Connewarren, Victoria, son of Carrowan, head of the Conewurt (Gunaward) clan. The youngster was later named after the noise the swans made when he robbed their nests.

A young adult when Europeans moved into the area, Kaawirn Kuunawarn became clan leader on his father's death in May 1841. A shepherd and general worker for James Dawson and Patrick Mitchell on Kangatong station from about 1845, except for short absences to attend to tribal business, he was employed on wages under a written agreement. Dawson wrote that 'the services were performed with the strictest fidelity'. Aborigines continued to observe their own customs. In early 1859 'Davey Kinconnawanen' and others were charged with the murder of an Aborigine Smiley Austin, but the case did not proceed to trial because 'no evidence had been or was likely to be obtained'.

King David moved to Framlingham Aboriginal station when it opened in 1865. His first wife having died about 1868, on 14 May 1879 at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station he married with Anglican rites Mary Phillips ('Queen Mary'), widow of 'King Billy' of Ballarat, who had one son. Alcohol was sometimes a problem at Framlingham, but King David was not mentioned in this regard, except for an incident in 1885. After striking his wife when he and others were intoxicated, he was brought before the Warrnambool Bench, but the case was dismissed at the station manager's request when the men promised to sign a total abstinence pledge.

King David was one of the chief informants for—and a photograph of him appeared in—Dawson's Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia (1881). The author wrote that information was obtained from the 'united testimony of several very intelligent aborigines'. Of this group, it was 'the sedate old chief' who, if any levity were shown, 'reproved the wag and restored . . . attention to the matter on hand'.

Impressive looking, with white hair, moustache and beard, his image was often reproduced in the nineteenth century, featuring in an album of Victorian kings and on cartes de visite. He was also photographed by J. Harvey of Belfast (Port Fairy). King David was the obvious choice when Dawson sought someone to pose before the obelisk in Camperdown cemetery over the grave of Wombeetch Puyuun ('Camperdown George') in memory of the extinct tribes of the area. The resulting photographs were used in articles in the Australasian Sketcher (7 April 1886) and the Australian Town and Country Journal (7 August 1886).

King David was also the inspiration for the main Aboriginal character in Louis Bayer's opera about colonial life, Muutchaka or The Last of his Tribe, an individual who showed all the superior qualities of human nature that the composer believed to be widespread among the Aborigines before the destructive effects of European invasion. The opera was first staged at Camperdown in May 1887 and has been produced at least twenty-nine times since.

On 4 September 1889 the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines reaffirmed its decision to close Framlingham Aboriginal station, despite the desire of the Aborigines to stay on at least part of the land. Predeceased by his daughter, Kaawirn Kuunawarn died there on 24 September. William Goodall, Framlingham's manager, notified Dawson by telegram: 'Old Davie (Hissing Swan) dead. Idea of his leaving home killed him. Buried on Thursday'. Dawson reproduced the wording in the Camperdown Chronicle, adding: 'my faithful friend of forty years, as honest a man as ever breathed, sacrificed to the greed of a race of men, who, not satisfied with having deprived him and his friends of their hunting grounds, now seek to turn them, in their old age, out of their established homes and associations'. To the Hamilton Spectator's Warrnambool correspondent, however, Davie was a 'very violent old rascal . . . and a few broken heads were saved, to his womenkind especially, when the gin-soddened, possum-gorging old warrior was laid hors de combat'. Appalled at this final 'kick at the dying lion', Dawson responded that King David had been an exemplary worker on Kangatong for over twenty years and that there was little need to defend his character, given that 'his enemies and slanderers' were 'straining every nerve' to rob the Aborigines of the little they had left.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Critchett, Untold Stories (Melb, 1998)
  • Camperdown Chronicle, 26 Sept 1889, p 2, 8 Oct 1889, p 3, 15 Oct 1889, p 2
  • Hamilton Spectator, 5 Oct 1889, p 4
  • VPRS 12, unit 12, item 7, VPRS 937, unit 32, bundle 6, 1859 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jan Critchett, 'Kaawirn Kuunawarn (1820–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hissing Swan
  • Hissing Swan
  • King David
  • Davie

Lake Connewarren, Victoria, Australia


24 September, 1889 (aged ~ 69)
Framlingham Aboriginal station, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.