Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History Revisited - Red Kangaroo & the Bundarra mob: an epic tale of warfare in prehistoric New England

The year is about 1720. The place a major bush camp outside what is now Gunnedah. The smoke from the camp fires drifts into the dusk air. Overhead, the stars are beginning to appear. The visiting envoys sit silent, waiting patiently. The warriors have been in council all day, and it is time for decision.

The trouble had begun some months earlier. The powerful Tablelands’ mob from the Bundarra-Kingston area had been raiding for women in Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) speaking lands. They left the strong Nammoy River mob alone, but had struck at the Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela (Manila) River mobs with considerable success, seizing women and killing the warriors who had opposed them. Finally, both groups sent envoys seeking help from the Nammoy to get their young women back. The Nammoy could keep the Bundarra women taken, although if many were taken, perhaps the Nammoy would share.

Lit by the fires, Gambu Ganuuru (Red Kangaroo in Gamilaraay), the Nammoy warrior chief, moved to the centre of the gathering.

The Red Kangaroo was then about forty and had been war chief since the age of nineteen. At over 190cm, he was a tall well built man whose body carried the scars of past battles. Now he summed up. The prize of the Bundarra women was not of great concern, but it was “another thing to have this Bundarra tribe come raiding so close to our territory. We are strong now, and we have to break any strong tribe who is a danger to us. Do you agree with me that we fight the Bundarra warriors to prove whose tribe is the ruling tribe, first and last?”

There were ninety warriors in the war party that now assembled. The Red Kangaroo led the forty strong Nammoy party, while Goonoo Goonoo war chief Ilparra commanded the fifty warriors from Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela, with Maneela war chief Mooti second in command.

There was no chance of a surprise attack, for throughout the one hundred kilometre journey small Bundarra parties gathered on all sides, spying on them and driving away the game they needed for food. Finally, a bigger force than theirs came to give battle on a long granite sand-flat through which ran a wide stony creek.

Ilparra was killed early by a spear through the throat, with Mooti taking command of the combined Goonoo Goonoo/Maneela force. For two hours, neither the combined force nor the Bundarra warriors that opposed them could gain ground. Realising that the Nammoy warriors were getting too far ahead and out of touch with Mooti’s party, the Red Kangaroo ordered his men to turn to take the party fighting Mooti on its flank.

The main Bundarra party that had been fighting the Red Kangaroo called out three times. At this pre-arranged signal, those opposing Mooti ran back to the main Bundarra group. Mooti and his warriors pursued, ignoring Red Kangaroo’s calls for them to join him. In the following fighting, Mooti was killed and his warriors broken into small groups.

The position was now desperate. Red Kangaroo’s party were outnumbered, had thrown nearly all their spears, while the Tablelands’ spears would not fit into the Kamilaroi spear throwers. “Gather and break their spears”, the Red Kangaroo told his party. “We must make it across to that pine scrub where they will be forced to fight hand to hand.”

Using his powerful voice, the Red Kangaroo coordinated the fight against the still larger but more disorganised Bundarra forces. Fighting as individuals or in small groups, the Bundarra warriors finally broke and ran. Kibbi, their great war chief, was killed by the Red Kangaroo’s spear.

Red Kangaroo and his warriors came the main Bundarra camp. Only old men and women were there. “Go tell your warriors to bring their women and children back to this camp”, the Red Kangaroo said. “No warrior who comes back will be harmed.”

Under the peace terms now imposed, the stolen women were returned, while five women each were given to the Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela tribes. Thirty four young women and five young boys and girls were taken by the Red Kangaroo and his warriors for the Nammoy tribe.

I hope that you have enjoyed this tale from New England’s more distant past. If you would like to learn more, Ion Idriess’ Red Chiefgives a gripping fictional account, while Michael O’Rouke’s Sung for Generations provides a detailed analysis of the source material for all the Red Kangaroo stories.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

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