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Kurringy (c. 1798–c. 1870)

by Grace Karskens

This article was published:

Kurringy (c. 1798–c. 1870), Aboriginal resistance leader, sailor, and sealer, was born in about 1798 on Dyarubbin (Hawkesbury River), Darug Country, probably in the vicinity of Marrang-ngurra (Richmond). His parents’ names are not known, nor is the name of his wife. If he had children, their names are not recorded either. He was known to Europeans as Cobborn (‘Big’) Jack and later as Black Captain or Captain. Apart from two sea voyages to New Zealand in the 1820s, he appears to have remained on Darug Country for most of his life.

Coming of age in a region of interflowing rivers, creeks, wetlands, and lagoons, Kurringy probably learned to paddle a swift, silent nawi (bark canoe). It is also likely that he learned to climb the huge trees of the river-flat forests, using a hatchet to cut notches in their trunks as toeholds to reach possums in hollows or honey-laden beehives; that he was multilingual, speaking Darug, Darkinyung, and probably other regional dialects, as well as English; that he, like other Aboriginal boys and young men, knew the many Aboriginal groups on Dyarubbin as well as the settlers, moving easily between them; and that he underwent initiation rites, which made young men narramang (young initiates) who were able to marry.

Some of Kurringy’s contemporaries were stolen as infants and brought up in settler households at Marrang-ngurra. Most returned to their own people and a number became resistance fighters, sailors, and leaders of their groups. Kurringy’s life followed some of these patterns, and it is possible that he, too, was a stolen child. He had a life-long relationship with the Gronos, a Welsh family that migrated to Australia in 1799. John Grono, shipbuilder, sailor, and farmer, wrote that he had known Kurringy ‘from his childhood’ (Grono 1839, cited in Dixson [1952], 100).

Relentless settler expansion on the Dyarubbin from the mid-1790s, as well as the loss of harvesting and hunting grounds, assaults on Aboriginal women, and the kidnapping of Aboriginal children, led to violent and effective Darug and Darkinyung resistance. Kurringy was a child of six or seven during the second phase of the frontier wars on Dyarubbin (1804–06), when warriors’ raids on settlers resulted in escalating violence via military reprisal and settler attacks. He was about sixteen when he became a resistance fighter in the third and final phase of the war for Dyarubbin that erupted in 1814. ‘Corriangii [Kurringy] alias Cobbon Jack … belonging to the Richmond district’ was included on a list of ‘hostile natives’ (Throsby 1816) compiled by Charles Throsby, surgeon and pastoralist, in March 1816. Throsby noted that these men were responsible for recent attacks and killings. Magistrate William Cox reported that Kurringy was among the ‘4 Most Notorious offenders in the district’ (Cox 1816, cited in Dixson [1952], 187). All four were included in a list of the ten most wanted warriors, published in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in July and August 1816. In November Governor Lachlan Macquarie announced an amnesty on the outlawed warriors on the condition that they ‘give themselves up’ (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 1816, 1). Narrang Jack and other well-known fighters, including Branch Jack and Mara Mara, surrendered, but there is no evidence that Kurringy was among them, and he appears to have lain low for the next few years.

Kurringy reconnected with the Grono family in the early 1820s. In 1822 he joined the sealing crew of the brig Elizabeth, twice voyaging with Captain John Grono to the seal colonies of New Zealand’s South Island. Aboriginal warriors gained prestige by sailing to distant places, often later becoming esteemed leaders of their people. Grono praised Kurringy’s apparent ‘propriety and submission’ and commended his bravery in saving a white man ‘washed from the rocks by a surf’ (Grono 1839, cited in Dixson [1952], 100). From this time on he became known as ‘Black Captain’—a possible name exchange with Captain Grono, expressing the strength of the bond between them.

In 1832 Kurringy was officially listed in the ‘returns of Aboriginal natives’ (the so called ‘blanket lists’) as the leader of the Cattai group—eight men, six women, and six children. However, while some of these people would be recorded on later government lists as living with other groups on the saltwater reaches of the Dyarubbin, Kurringy was recorded as living alone for much of the rest of the decade. One explanation for his apparent exile may be that he killed someone: the unnamed brother of George Bomwrang. Aboriginal Law was still in force on Dyarubbin as elsewhere in the colony at this time, and payback justice was necessary and inevitable. In late December 1835 Aboriginal people gathered on the road to Marrang-ngurra to witness the public execution of two unresisting Aboriginal men to expiate the deaths of Bomwrang’s brother and another Aboriginal man who had been killed. But Kurringy was not one of those facing justice; a man called Pat Cleary was killed in his stead. It was commonplace in Aboriginal Law for a relative or associate to stand in the stead of a guilty person. Pat Cleary must have been Kurringy’s kin.

Following the execution, and for the first time in the colony’s history, Aboriginal men were arrested for killing their countrymen. The two executioners, Bomwrang and Congomolang (also known as Jack Congo Murell), were tried for murder in what was seen as a test case for the reach and limits of British jurisdiction in the colony. The deliberations concluded that British law extended across the entire colony, including to Aboriginal people. Bomwrang and Congomolang were acquitted and returned to the river where, despite, or perhaps because of the payback execution of his kinsman, Kurringy appears to have been largely shunned.

Kurringy continued working for the Gronos and other settlers in the district, one describing him as ‘our best and carefulest shepherd’ (John McDonald 1839, cited in Dixson [1952], 101). Yet it was a marginal economic existence. No matter how honest and industrious they were and how hard they worked, Aboriginal people were regarded as lowly outsiders, a ‘dying race,’ and this made them especially vulnerable to economic downturns and natural disasters. In June 1839, in the prelude to the economic crash of 1840, Kurringy was finding it difficult to gain even a ‘very scanty livelihood’ ([Kurringy] 1839, cited in Dixson [1952], 99). He sent a petition to Governor Sir George Gipps, penned by a local scribe, requesting a boat so that he could make a living. Perhaps he recalled his younger days of paddling and fishing from light bark nawi. Seven local settlers vouched for his good character and reputation, but there is no evidence that his request was granted.

In the mid-1840s Kurringy featured in a letter the Reverend William Branwhite Clarke wrote to the naturalist Charles Darwin. By then he was once more part of a ‘tribe’ (Kohen 2006, 31). His continued presence on Dyarubbin is suggested in two incidental fragments in the diaries of William Grono, son of John Grono. William noted that Kurringy had taken shelter with the family at Grono Park during a flood in 1864 and that he had camped in ‘Captens Gule’ (Captain’s Gully) on the Long Swamp in present-day Maraylya in 1868.

Hundreds of Aboriginal people travelled to Sydney from all over New South Wales to see Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, in 1868, including Kurringy. Now aged about seventy, he had heard that the prince had given a boat to the Aboriginal people of the Cooks River, and he sought an equivalent gift for his people. Turned away empty-handed from Government House, he sent a petition to the governor of New South Wales, Somerset Richard Lowry-Corry, the fourth Earl of Belmore. Kurringy explained that the recent floods had ‘prevented most of his tribe from getting their usual employment from the farmers’ and that they were reliant for food on what they could hunt and harvest in the area’s remaining bushland—a ‘very uncertain subsistence’ ([Kurringy] 1868). Being ‘now very feeble,’ he wrote that a boat ‘would greatly facilitate his means and that of his tribe in getting a subsistence’ ([Kurringy] 1868). Lowry-Corry forwarded the petition to the colonial secretary who appears to have ignored it.

Kurringy’s death must have occurred sometime after 1868, but the date and his burial place are unknown. Darug memory is that he was buried ‘in the traditional way on his clan territory’ (Kohen 2006, 30). Having grown to adulthood on invaded and colonised land, he lived a life emblematic of the myriad ways Aboriginal people strove to survive, stay on Country, and maintain cultural and social affiliations in the face of dispossession, marginalisation, and complacent settler assumptions.

 

Grace Karskens is of Dutch, English, and Indonesian descent and was born on Darug Country. She consulted with Darug people in researching and writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Aborigines: Papers, 1833–35, including returns of Aborigines taken at Bathurst, Windsor, Strathallan, Janevalle and Brownlowshire, NRS-906-1-[4/2219]-4/2219.1. Reel 3706. State Archives and Records NSW
  • Dixson, William. Documents Relating to Aboriginal Australians, 1816–1853. [Bequeathed 1952]. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
  • Irish, Paul. Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2017
  • Karskens, Grace. The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009
  • Karskens, Grace. People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
  • Kohen, James L. Daruganora: Darug Country—The Place and the People. Blacktown, NSW: Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation, 2006
  • [Kurringy]. Petition of Currigan or Captain, an Aboriginal, Hawkesbury River, 6 June 1868. Colonial Secretary Letters Received, 1826–1896, 4/626, 68/2995. State Archives and Records NSW
  • Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. ‘Proclamation.’ 20 July 1816, 1
  • Throsby, Charles. List and Memorandum, 24 March 1816. Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, 4/1798. State Archives and Records NSW

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Grace Karskens, 'Kurringy (c. 1798–c. 1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kurringy-33725/text42214, published online 2024, accessed online 16 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cobborn Jack
  • Black Captain
  • Corriange
  • Kurrigan
Birth

c. 1798
Richmond, New South Wales, Australia

Death

c. 1870 (aged ~ 72)

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.

Occupation