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Magdalena Mulun (c. 1871–1913)

by Laurie Allen

This article was published:

Magdalena Mulun, is in the middle row, on the far right, of this group of early Christian converts, c.1898

Magdalena Mulun, is in the middle row, on the far right, of this group of early Christian converts, c.1898

Magdalena Mulun (c. 1871–1913), Aboriginal community leader and Christian, also known as Mulon or Mulu, was a Guugu Yimidhirr woman born in about 1871 in the vicinity of Wabalumbaal (the Endeavour River), North Queensland. Mulun is the Guugu Yimidhirr word for quandong, a rainforest tree (Elaeocarpus spp); Magdalena was added at her baptism in 1895. Her mother’s name was Dodogoi (d. 1897) and her sister Mulgal was baptised as Nelly in 1909. Nelly married Ngamboibogo (Billy), and both she and Magdalena were aunts to Dalma, Maria, and Bertha Delego.

Cookstown (later Cooktown) was established at the mouth of Wabalumbaal in October 1873. Born about two years earlier, Mulun experienced firsthand the European invasion and subsequent colonisation there. Although many of the conflicts that followed settlement occurred on the road to the Palmer goldfields in the west, massacres are also reported to have occurred at Indian Head and on the McIvor River, both of which lie to the north of Cooktown in the heart of Guugu Yimidhirr country.

A temporary Aboriginal reserve was established on the north side of Wabalumbaal in 1881. In 1886 Bavarian Lutherans established the Cape Bedford Mission there, with stations at Elim and later Hope Valley. As a teenager, Mulun was one of a number of children brought by their parents to the new mission, apparently for the food, shelter, and elementary schooling it provided. Few boys could be induced to stay at the mission for any length of time; however, a small group of about ten girls came to reside there permanently and form a fledgling community. As the eldest of these girls, Mulun became their informal leader and spokesperson.

The children at the mission learned to read and write in Guugu Yimidhirr (which had been transcribed earlier by the missionaries), and the girls helped in the missionaries’ houses and in the garden. It was routine for the girls to be confined to a dormitory each night and to have limited access to their families. Initially, the missionary Wilhelm Poland supervised them closely at Elim while the senior missionary, Georg Heinrich Schwarz, attempted to establish a second station at Hope Valley. This arrangement was altered in 1890 after the older girls, including Mulun, secretly invited Guugu Yimidhirr boys into their dormitory at night. Thereafter the older girls were periodically sent to Hope Valley to stay with Schwarz.

Towards the end of 1890 Mulun began to show serious interest in Christianity, asking Poland questions related to his Christmas sermon, with others following her lead. Afraid that potential converts would backslide, Schwarz reacted with extreme caution to these overtures, eventually baptising Mulun’s niece in 1892 when she seemed at the point of death; she received the new name Maria, and later wrote that, during her illness, Mulun had comforted her with food and drink. In 1893 the local police magistrate Henry Chester requested that a number of the mission girls be sent to work at Cooktown as domestics. The missionaries, who wanted more time to convert them, insisted that the girls must go voluntarily: none would. This was a brave response, as the mission’s government subsidy was already under scrutiny, and was subsequently suspended. On 2 June 1895, Mulun and four others were baptised, bringing the total number of converts to six. By 1898 there were fourteen converts, all young women.

Mulun, now Magdalena, was of marriageable age; however, no Aboriginal men had been converted, and the missionaries were reluctant to allow her to marry someone who had not been baptised. Unperturbed, Magdalena occupied herself with letter writing. In 1898 she wrote to the new northern protector of Aboriginals, W. E. Roth, thanking him for his visit to Cape Bedford and inviting him to come again: ‘You will of course come again by-and-by,’ adding, perhaps archly, ‘by that time you will perhaps understand our language’ (Roth 1901, 32). After the mission was devastated by Cyclone Mahina in 1899, she wrote to William Parry-Okeden, Queensland’s commissioner of police, asking him to request the ‘men of the Queen [i.e. Parliament]’ (Roth 1901, 32) to replace the mission’s sailing boat, which had been destroyed. Parry-Okeden complied, and sent a fishing net as well. Three further letters to Roth explained various aspects of Guugu Yimidhirr culture: plait-work, marriage, burial, and foods. Roth later published all five of Magdalena’s letters, which were written in Guugu Yimidhirr, with translations, in The Structure of the Koko-Yimidir Language (1901).

At the same time as she was writing to Roth, Magdalena was also writing to Poland’s sister Marie in Germany. This correspondence continued for years and at least one example, from 1904, has been preserved. In this letter Magdalena wrote that both her parents were now dead, and that she was alone, apart from her sister, Mulgal. She also informed Marie that Poland and his family were planning to return to Germany. When the Polands took this planned leave in 1905, Magdalena wrote to them too. Guugu Yimidhirr people had been engaging in correspondence from as early as 1891 and their output swelled considerably while the Polands were in Europe. Yet, Magdalena’s efforts remain remarkable for their breadth of themes, variety of recipients, and for what they reveal of her resilience, commitment to her language, and culture.

Three marriages between female converts and young men who, although not converts, agreed to support them in their faith had taken place on the mission in 1901. Other marriages followed so that, by 1905, there were fifteen families in residence. Magdalena remained unmarried, her energies focused on other pursuits. She was in charge of the girls’ dormitory, and also looked after the young children, teaching them Bible stories and the Lutheran catechism. On Sundays another single woman, Wauudatai (Clara), worked alongside her, so that, in effect, they became unpaid missionary assistants.

When she was about forty, Magdalena married Butchan, the brother of her sister’s husband, Ngamboibogo, who was about twenty years her junior. After two years of marriage, Magdalena contracted tuberculosis and died in 1913. A fortnight before her death she was given Holy Communion, a privilege normally denied Aboriginal Christians by Schwarz. While she may never have received the recognition of the German missionaries or their wives, or of later male Aboriginal leaders, she was a vital carrier of the mission’s message to the Guugu Yimidhirr. By accepting the restrictions of mission life she received a measure of protection from the effects of colonisation, as well as a Western education, status, and purpose, that would have been difficult to find elsewhere in colonial Queensland at that time. In addition she became both an advocate for the vulnerable community and a spokesperson for her generation, her literary compositions circulating far beyond the limits of her own time and place.


Laurie Allen is of British and German descent. He met with Guugu Yimidhirr people on their land prior to writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Haviland, John, and Leslie Haviland. ‘“How Much Food Will There Be in Heaven?” Lutherans and Aborigines around Cooktown.’ Aboriginal History 4, no. 2 (1980): 119–49
  • Kirchliche Mitteilungen aus und über Nordamerika, Australien und Neu-Guinea. [Various items 1889–1907.] Copy held on ADB file
  • Pohlner, Howard J. Gangurru. Milton, Qld: Hope Vale Mission, 1986
  • Roth, Walter E. The Structure of the Koko-Yimidir Language. Brisbane: Government Printer, 1901.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Laurie Allen, 'Mulun, Magdalena (c. 1871–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Magdalena Mulun, is in the middle row, on the far right, of this group of early Christian converts, c.1898

Magdalena Mulun, is in the middle row, on the far right, of this group of early Christian converts, c.1898

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mulon
  • Mulu

c. 1871
Wabalumbaal, Queensland, Australia


1913 (aged ~ 42)
Cooktown, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Key Places