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Tulaba (1832–1886)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

Tulaba (c.1832-1886), Aboriginal leader and anthropological informant, was born near Bruthen, East Gippsland, Victoria, son of Bembinkel, of the Bruthen clan of the Brabiralung division of the Kurnai people, and an Aboriginal woman Mary McLeod. Bembinkel was a brother of Bruthen-munji, one of the last fully traditional senior Brabiralung elders, who died about 1862. Before the first stage of his initiation Tulaba (also spelt as Toolabar) was called Burrumbulk; he possibly never proceeded to his final initiation stage. He was also known as Karlbagwran and later as 'Billy McLeod'; his nickname 'Taenjill' meant incessant talker.

When he was a boy, Tulaba was taken by the pastoralists Archibald and John McLeod and raised on their properties, within his traditional territory. An able horseman and drover, he visited Melbourne in 1861 to guide the missionary J. Bulmer to Lake Tyers. During the 1860s Aborigines were pressured to settle at Lake Tyers and Ramahyuck missions, but except for sporadic visits, probably when unemployed, Tulaba avoided mission life.

In 1866 A. W. Howitt settled at Eastwood on the Mitchell River near Bairnsdale, successfully growing hops. He provided a bark hut for Tulaba, his first wife Kitty (Thanaberrang) and infant Anne (d.1873), his sole issue. When Kitty died he married Mary Bruthen (1819?-1884), a Bairnsdale clan widow. The couple became identified with Eastwood, Mary as domestic help and informant through Howitt's wife and Tulaba as foreman of the enthusiastic indigenous hop-pickers. Summer harvesting provided congenial communal opportunities, within regional kinship networks. Outside the hops season, Tulaba stripped stringy bark.

Because the McLeods never interfered with Aboriginal ritual life and Howitt positively encouraged it, modified traditional ceremonies continued on settlement fringes. From about 1870 the latter's burgeoning anthropological interests concentrated upon Tulaba, who spoke English. This relationship preceded Howitt's association with Lorimer Fison and L. H. Morgan. Tulaba accorded Howitt kinship status, calling him 'brother' while Howitt called Tulaba's wife Mary 'wife', a device promoting reciprocity. For information provided, Tulaba expected food, clothing or payment; no initiation ceremony was involved.

Becoming the most prominent of Howitt's more than twenty Gippsland informants, in 1873 Tulaba supplied the key enabling Howitt's comprehension of the kinship system: following difficulty with abstractions, Howitt imaginatively asked him to arrange matchsticks to indicate the generational relationships and terminology of named individuals centred around him. This mode of interrogation became Howitt's standard. He compiled a circular genealogy to enable investigation of 'terms of consanguinity and affinity', printed in 1874 by the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines. The genealogical table that was provided used Tulaba as the exemplar, so 500 copies citing his model circulated around Australia.

In 1884 Tulaba was active in the jeraeil, a male, regional initiation ceremony sponsored by Howitt, which had last been held under Bruthen-munji's control during the 1850s. This revival of traditional ceremonies caused the missionaries concern, for religious reasons and because people deserted the missions and their work. It also worried Tulaba, who challenged Howitt's right to witness secret rituals, but Howitt overcame his scruples.

Bearded and adaptable, Tulaba was slightly built, 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm) tall, weighing 130 lb. (59 kg). He died of cancer on 16 October 1886 at Lake Tyers mission where he was buried with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • R. B. Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria (Melb, 1878)
  • L. Fison and A. W. Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Melb, 1880)
  • M. H. Walker, Come Wind, Come Weather (Melb, 1971)
  • P. Pepper with T. De Araugo, The Kurnai of Gippsland (Melb, 1985), B. Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines (Syd, 1989)
  • D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Anthropologist as Tribal Elder’, Mankind (Sydney), 7, no 3, 1970, p 205
  • Howitt papers (Museum Victoria)
  • Fison collection (St Mark’s Library, Canberra).

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Tulaba (1832–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 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
  • Burrumbulk
  • Karlbagwran
  • McLeod, Billy
  • Taenjill
  • Toolabar

Bruthen, Victoria, Australia


16 October, 1886 (aged ~ 54)
Lake Tyers, Victoria, Australia

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