09 Oct Part 4: The Lake Moniboeng Naming Story – can the Lang brothers lead us to the truth?
In Part 3 of this story, we discovered how the currently accepted spelling of Lake Monibeong came into being in the 1940s.
In this fourth and final piece of the tale, we’re going to go right back to the beginning again, to see whether any clues exist that might help us determine how certain we can be that the original spelling adopted for the Lang Brothers’ run – Lake Moniboeng – is the most phonetically accurate version of the spoken Aboriginal name for the lake.
Gideon Scott Lang (1819-1880), pastoralist, was born on the 25th of January 1819 at Selkirk, Scotland. He left school at 16 and for the next five years worked in turn on a farm, in a counting house and in a bank. In 1839 his brothers, Thomas, a doctor, and William (1823-1877), trained as a farmer, migrated to Melbourne and took up land on the Saltwater River near Melbourne; in 1841 Gideon Scott Lang joined them. (Note: for a longer biography – which unfortunately has a couple of minor errors I have identified – see this page at the Australian Dictionary of Biography). By the early 1940s, the Lang Brothers were the first squatters to take up runs on the Discovery Bay coast of Victoria.
But don’t be fooled by what may sound like an average education and limited life experience before arriving in Australia and travelling to the remote Portland settlement coast. It turned out that Gideon was quite a talented individual. He eventually authored a number of articles and books – one called “Land and Labour” was written during his time in the South West and published in Melbourne in 1846. After moving from the Portland District to take up land in New South Wales, he also went on to become a member of parliament in that state in the 1850s.
So, you might ask, why does all this matter?
Well, the reason we are focussing on Gideon is because it turns out that he also went on to produce another book in 1865, a reproduction of a lecture he gave in Melbourne called “The Aborigines of Australia“, summarising his experiences with Aboriginal people in the various parts of Australia where he had lived since his arrival in Melbourne in 1841. In this lecture he goes into considerable detail of his experiences, that show he had the type of attention to detail we are looking for that might help settle the naming issue once and for all.
For example, citing a few references from his book in 1865, he said:
- “Twenty years ago, the firm to which I belonged took up some country to the westward of Portland, in the bend between the Glenelg and the ocean, occupied by one tribe, the members of which had had scarcely any intercourse with white men, many not having even seen them.”
- “My brother, Mr. William Lang, and I, so soon as we had acquired sufficient knowledge of the dialect of the Glenelg blacks, carefully examined Bully, whom I have already mentioned, as, being a man of great intelligence and influence, he was certain to have been initiated into their mysteries, if they had any.”
- “It has been asserted that the tribes have no organisation, and that it is impossible to make any arrangement with them, but I have always found that those who have been among blacks and assert this, have never troubled themselves about them. Sir George Gray is clear and explicit upon this point, and is supported by every man whom I have consulted and who has made himself acquainted with their manners and customs. I have not only found a tribal organisation to prevail, but made use of it in the Glenelg country.”
He also made a general statement about the lack of consideration for Aboriginal people in the manner that land was being settled in Australia:
- “When the country is occupied there is no provision or arrangement whatever made for the location of the blacks, or the reservation of ground for their subsistence; everything being left to the discretion of each individual squatter.”
In the book there are also a small number of Aboriginal place names and word references. One locally relevant example that caught my attention was the following:
- “There is also the nurp, a sort of strawberry, which grows in large quantities over the sand-hills on a run which I took up on the Glenelg. All the neighbouring tribes had the right to go there, and did so in large numbers when the fruit was in season.”
I think that these particular passages are of interest because they confirm some key issues of relevance for our investigation, namely that Gideon Lang was one of the white settlers to have first contact with Aboriginal people in the vicinity of Long Swamp, where he picked up a basic understanding the local language and sought a harmonious existence with the local people. Based on his writings, we discover that he took a degree of interest in Aboriginal people and sought a level of understanding that was uncommon for that era. We also know that the first squatters in Victoria commonly named their runs using Aboriginal words, often based on a prominent geographic feature in their holding (Cahir 2012 – see details and link below).
On the basis of all these things that we do know, I think it is safe to say that the Lang brothers probably spelled the name of their run with more regard for phonetic correctness than we may have previously assumed. So while we may never know precisely how the word Moniboeng was spoken by local Aboriginal people at the time of first contact – I think we can safely say that this spelling probably represents the closest thing written English could provide at the time to do the original name justice.
So – what do you think – after all these years, should we change the spelling on all the signs and maps again, just one last time?
References (to read a pdf of these in full, please click on the link below):
Cahir, F. (2012) ‘Why did squatters in colonial Victoria use Indigenous place names for their sheep stations?’ in Clark, I., Hercus, L. and Kostanski, L. (Eds.) Aboriginal History Monograph Series, ANU E-Press and Aboriginal History Press: Canberra.