Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Unaipon (1835–1907)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

James Unaipon (c.1835-1907), Aboriginal leader, was born at Piwingang, a Murray River lagoon (west of present-day Tailem Bend), South Australia. His clan was the Wunyalkundi, of the Potawolin language group, part of the Ngarrindjeri confederation. The black swan, Kungari, was his totem. During the boy's childhood his family moved to nearby Wellington, which became a focus for Ngarrindjeri and European interaction in the 1840s. As a youth, he absorbed his people's traditions through initiation, ceremony and tribal fighting, losing an eye in a spear fight. Bearded and 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) in height, he was taller than most Ngarrindjeri.

Initially he adopted the name James McPherson, after a Wellington publican for whom he probably worked. In 1861 he was baptized by the Scottish Free Church missionary James Reid as his first Christian convert. Taught by Reid (whose surname he then adopted), he became one of the first Ngarrindjeri to read and write. The two James Reids sailed in the missionary's small boat to Aboriginal camps along the Murray, in the lakes and to the Coorong, South Australia. After Reid drowned in Lake Albert in July 1863, George Taplin considered training the missionary's assistant as his own evangelist. Arriving at Raukkan, Point McLeay Mission in 1864, intending to 'work and improve himself in reading, writing', James became known as Ngnunaitpon, his Potawolin name, later anglicized as Unaipon.

Taplin's attempts to erase traditional initiation, sorcery and burial rites faced dogged resistance from tribal elders, and Unaipon's support was influential. The missionary allowed him to begin 'scripture readership' among lakeside camps, supplying him with a boat for this purpose in 1869 and paying him a wage. The results were mixed, as Taplin's moral code was rigid and Unaipon's privileged status was often resented. But Taplin later described him as 'a steady Christian . . . a nucleus around which those who were impressed by divine truth would rally'. Unaipon's marriage on 27 July 1866 to Nymbulda, a Karatindjeri clanswoman and daughter of the traditional Yaraldi leader Pullum ('King Peter'), was the mission's first Christian wedding. The union, a victory for Taplin, cemented James's status in his adopted community. He and Nymbulda were to have nine children, the fourth being David Unaipon. Their surviving children all attended the mission school.

Aside from his evangelical role, James had special status. Reid's sponsor Henrietta Smith of Dunesk, Scotland, corresponded with Unaipon, whom she regarded as her own convert. Having earlier purchased land for South Australian Aborigines, she transferred this interest to Point McLeay mission in the late 1860s. She also paid for a small stone cottage for Unaipon and a writing desk, and vested a lifetime annuity of £100 in his name. In translating Christian gospels into the Potawolin language and as an ethnographic informant, Taplin relied heavily upon Unaipon, whose contributions underpinned the former's publications.

In 1871 Unaipon was appointed the first Ngarrindjeri church deacon, assisting Taplin to administer the sacrament. His advocacy of literacy—as much as the traditional tendi (inter-clan forum)—helped to underpin the increasing demand by Ngarrindjeri church councillors for a greater role in mission affairs. Until 1879 Unaipon continued to undertake lengthy evangelical tours to outlying Ngarrindjeri camps, walking 120 miles (200 km) or more. He also worked in the mission school as an assistant teacher, cook and librarian, and as shepherd, boatman, labourer and rabbiter until ill health forced his retirement in the late 1880s. He then became reliant upon the small annual interest from his annuity. When the mission's funds were embezzled in 1892 the authorities agreed to pay him an equivalent allowance.

Like other Ngarrindjeri, Unaipon took his family to the Coorong by canoe during school holidays. Periodically he also canoed back to Wellington. In 1895, following tension with mission authorities over dwindling privileges for 'full-blood natives', he returned to camp life and moved to Goolwa, supporting his family by selling game. In 1898 he applied unsuccessfully to lease land near Wellington, where he had hoped to spend his final years. A respected leader of his people, he died at Point McLeay on 24 October 1907. His wife and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Taplin, The Narrinyeri (Adel, 1874)
  • G. Taplin, The Folklore, Manners, Customs, and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines (Adel, 1879)
  • G. Jenkin, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri (Adel, 1979)
  • R. Linn, A Diverse Land (Meningie, SA, 1988)
  • R. M. and C. H. Berndt, A World That Was (Melb, 1993)
  • Aborigines’ Friends’ Association papers, SRG 139 (State Library of South Australia)
  • G. Taplin journal (State Library of South Australia)
  • Frederick Taplin letterbooks (South Australian Museum Archives).

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Unaipon, James (1835–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 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
  • McPherson, James
  • Reid, James
  • Ngnunaitpon, James

Piwingang, South Australia, Australia


24 October, 1907 (aged ~ 72)
Point McLeay, South Australia, 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.