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Ray Raiwala (1907–1965)

by Jeremy Long

This article was published:

Ray Raiwala (c.1907-1965), Aboriginal leader and soldier, was born about 1907 into the Miltjingi clan of the Glyde River area of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. As a youth he made occasional visits to the Methodist mission station that was established in 1923 at nearby Milingimbi in the Crocodile Islands. The American anthropologist Lloyd Warner wrote a vivid account of how Raiwala (Raiola) successfully defended a friend from attack during a clan feud 'in the interior country' probably in the mid-1920s.

In February 1927 Raiwala was at Milingimbi during the Sunday-morning service when Rev. T. T. Webb was assaulted and James Robertson, a lay missionary, speared. He appeared as a crown witness at the trial of the three men who were charged, and each was sentenced to three years gaol. Two years later he was charged as the 'leading spirit' in the killing at the mission of a 'self-proclaimed medicine man' reputed to have used sorcery to cause the death of several people. Raiwala and three others were found guilty of murder by a Darwin jury in May 1930 and sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted to imprisonment for life. The trial aroused official concern about the way in which the criminal-justice system dealt with Aborigines who felt morally obliged to wound or kill others. Proposals for a 'court of native affairs' were considered, and legislation was passed removing the mandatory death sentence and allowing consideration of 'native law and custom' in Aboriginal murder cases. The four men were released from Darwin Gaol and Labour Prison in February 1934.

Raiwala returned to Milingimbi, where he helped to build a new timber church. About this time he married Mary Burramullagalli; within eight years he had entered into two more tribal marriages. He met the anthropologist Donald Thomson who, from August 1935, used the mission as a base for his investigations (for the Commonwealth government) into the situation of the Aborigines of eastern Arnhem Land. Thomson recorded that Raiwala, a lightly built man of middle height, had a reputation as the 'greatest single-combat fighter in Arnhem Land', and engaged him as a guide and interpreter for his patrol from Milingimbi to Blue Mud Bay. He acknowledged that the 'success of this journey owed much to the faithfulness and devotion' of Raiwala: he was always cheerful and kept the others—who were ill at ease away from their own territory—in a happy mood by his manner. Raiwala accompanied Thomson on visits in his vessel the St Nicholas to Groote Eylandt and Roper River, and on an overland patrol up the Wilton River. When Thomson turned back to the Roper in December and left to make his first report to the government, Raiwala parted from him with 'real tears . . . streaming down his face' and continued on foot to the north coast.

Thomson came back in June 1936 to find Raiwala waiting on board the St Nicholas in Darwin harbour. Together they made a long voyage, visiting communities in western Arnhem Land, and calling at Milingimbi and Yirrkala. Raiwala and his wife accompanied him on overland patrols to investigate killings in the Arnhem Bay area. From October 1936 to July 1937 Thomson was mostly based in Raiwala's country. Raiwala instructed him in the life and techniques of the goose-hunters of the seasonally flooded Arafura Swamp.

In September 1937 Thomson left Milingimbi for Melbourne. Less than five years later he returned as a flight lieutenant, Royal Australian Air Force, on secondment to the army to organize an Aboriginal guerrilla unit. Raiwala, his first recruit, enlisted in Darwin on 6 February 1942. They sailed east at once in the ketch Aroetta to make a reconnaissance of the Arnhem Land coast. Raiwala landed near the Blyth River and gathered young men from the Cape Stewart to Glyde River area. They formed No.1 Section of Thomson's 'Special Reconnaissance Unit', under 'Corporal' Raiwala's command. Two more sections were formed, comprising men from the Arnhem Bay and Caledon Bay areas. During March, Thomson trained them at Roper River for guerrilla fighting, reconnaissance and scouting. After moving to Katherine, they came back to the Roper. Raiwala led a patrol to choose a site for an outpost at the river's mouth and another overland around Blue Mud Bay. He rejoined Thomson at Trial Bay. Most of the men began to return to their communities, but Raiwala stayed with Thomson, making sea patrols in the Aroetta. He was discharged from the army on 7 May 1943 when the unit was disbanded.

Thomson later wrote that 'valuable service was rendered by Raiwala, whose loyalty never flagged and who carried on anti-Japanese propaganda in his language'. Raiwala had been his 'constant companion', and had 'set an example of loyalty and selfless devotion to duty'. In 1963 an application to the Department of the Army led to 'this fine soldier' receiving his war service medals.

Following World War II, Raiwala remained in touch with Milingimbi. Early in 1949 he inadvertently occasioned a lengthy search when a rumour reached the mission that he had been murdered. A patrol travelled on foot from Milingimbi to Mainoru station in the wet season, only to learn that Raiwala had reached Mainoru two months earlier. He had collapsed during a hard journey across waterless country and, had it not been for his wife's success in finding water, the couple would have perished.

Raiwala preferred living independently of the missions and spent the 1950s with his family at Lee Bros' timber-mill on the Cobourg Peninsula. In 1963 he and his first wife, then living at Bagot, Darwin, were accorded full citizenship status when their names were removed from the Northern Territory Administration's register of wards. He died on 21 February 1965 in Darwin and was buried at Rapid Creek; his three wives survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • W. L. Warner, A Black Civilization (NY, 1937)
  • E. Shepherdson, Half a Century in Arnhem Land (Adel, 1981)
  • D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (Melb, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1963
  • A1, items 1933/6965 and 1936/327, A432, item 1933/1958, F1, item 1946/677 (National Archives of Australia)
  • AWM 54, item 741/5/9 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jeremy Long, 'Raiwala, Ray (1907–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Raiola, Ray
  • Raiwalla, Ray

Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia


21 February, 1965 (aged ~ 58)
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.

Military Service