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Lazarus Lamilami (1913–1977)

by Keith Cole

This article was published:

Lazarus Lamilami (1913-1977), by unknown photographer, 1971

Lazarus Lamilami (1913-1977), by unknown photographer, 1971

National Archives of Australia, A6180:15/7/71/17

Lazarus Lamilami (1913?-1977), Methodist preacher, was born probably in 1913 at Brogden Beach, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, son of Nangurulur and his wife Ngalmajulwun. Lamilami's parents belonged to the Maung language group of Aborigines whose territory included the Goulburn Islands and the adjacent coast of north-western Arnhem Land. Ngalmajulwun had been given in marriage to Nangurulur as recompense for an injury her people had done to his brother; that brother sailed with Indonesian trepang fishermen bound for Macassar (Ujung Pandang) in the Celebes (Sulawesi) and never returned.

Moving back and forward from South Goulburn Island to the mainland, Lamilami was reared in the customs of his people. He received an elementary education at the school founded (1916) by the Methodist Overseas Mission on South Goulburn Island. At the same time, like almost all his Maung contemporaries, he was initiated into full membership of the tribe. He trained as a carpenter and served for some years in the M.O.M.'s luggers which plied between Darwin and the missions along the north Arnhem Land coast.

About 1930 Lamilami married Magumiri in the Methodist Church, Goulburn Island. The marriage had been arranged by the elders according to Maung custom but it ended some five years later. Lamilami then sailed in naval patrol vessels sent to monitor Japanese pearlers operating in northern Australian waters. During World War II he lived on Croker Island where he built mission houses. In 1947 at South Goulburn Island he married Ilidjili in accordance with Maung rites; they were to have a daughter, Ruby (Nangurinyara), and two sons, Ronald (Ilugilug) and Lloyd (Dabidjara).

From 1947 Lamilami was employed as a carpenter at the mission on Goulburn Island. Involving himself in the work of the Church, he went on several tours for the M.O.M. and visited churches and centres in Australia where he spoke about his people and his life. His addresses, delivered in a 'slow, deliberate and well-modulated voice', were well received. He also became a visiting evangelist to the Maung. In 1964 the M.O.M. transferred him to the Croker Island mission as a builder and local preacher. Next year he was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. After studying in Adelaide, he was ordained on 5 November 1966. He was posted to Minjilang, on Croker Island, and won the respect both of his own people and the White missionaries. In 1968 he was appointed M.B.E. 'for service to the community'.

Genial, thoughtful and kind, Lamilami was a prominent figure in the traditional and religious life of Croker and Goulburn islands, and in the Methodist Church in the Northern Territory. He did much to promote harmony between Europeans and Aborigines, believing that they should 'walk hand in hand together'. His autobiography, Lamilami Speaks (Sydney, 1974), described the social organization and kin classification of his people, and gave an account of their traditional way of life. The book emphasized 'their struggle to retain their own heritage in the face of internal and external pressures that were intensifying all along the Arnhem Land coast'. To him, the availability of liquor and the prospect of uranium mining were fraught with danger.

In January 1977 Lamilami joined the staff of Nungalinya College, Darwin, as lecturer in Aboriginal studies; his teaching contributed to a cross-cultural understanding of Christianity. He was a member (1974-78) of the council of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra. Survived by his wife and three children, he died of septicaemia on 21 September 1977 in Darwin and was buried in Minjilang cemetery with the forms of the Uniting Church. Numerous Aborigines and Europeans attended his funeral on Croker Island, testimony to his friendship with people of different races. A plaque in his memory was placed in the Nungalinya College chapel.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKenzie, Mission to Arnhem Land (Adel, 1976)
  • K. Cole, The Aborigines of Arnhem Land (Adel, 1979)
  • E. Shepherdson, Half a Century in Arnhem Land (Adel, 1981)
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, Jan 1978
  • Uniting Church of Australia, Methodist Overseas Mission records (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Keith Cole, 'Lamilami, Lazarus (1913–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lazarus Lamilami (1913-1977), by unknown photographer, 1971

Lazarus Lamilami (1913-1977), by unknown photographer, 1971

National Archives of Australia, A6180:15/7/71/17

Life Summary [details]


Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia


21 September, 1977 (aged ~ 64)
Darwin, Northern Territory, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.