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Coomee Nulunga

Coomee Nulunga (also known as Maria/Moriah)


Coomee Nulunga was a Murramarang woman, born on Yuin country on the South Coast of NSW in the late 1820s. She remembered how her grandmother talked of seeing the ‘great white birds’ arrive decades earlier, a description of what Lieutenant James Cook’s ship would have looked like from the shore as he sailed up the eastern coast in 1770.

Coomee witnessed the arrival of British settlers in the 1830s and 40s and watched as they cut down hundreds of red cedar trees to send to market in Sydney and then thousands of eucalypts to build their slab huts and fences. Areas where Aboriginal people had once camped, hunted and travelled through were gradually fenced off by the new settlers, forcing the Murramarang people into smaller and smaller areas. Eventually a section of the south side of Ulladulla Harbour was the only designated ‘blacks camp’ that had a source of fresh water.

To survive, some Murramarang people took up jobs on local farms and in timber felling and milling. Others left for more remote localities. By the late 1800s, the few dozen aboriginal people camping in Ulladulla were often older or with a disability and were expected to rely on the charity of the colonial government and local settlers. Blankets, flour and other supplies were distributed on designated days, often only once a year.

In her younger years Coomee Nulunga lived in a bark hut on the western foreshore of Burrill Lake with her partner, known locally as ‘Billy Boy’, where they caught and traded fish for flour and tobacco. Their obvious high status among the Murramarang encouraged the British settlers to call them ‘King Billy’ and ‘Queen Maria’. From Burrill, they would walk up and down the coast to visit kin and occasionally a route across Mt Kingiman to see the highland people near Braidwood.

After Billy Boy died, Coomee Nulunga lived in Ulladulla in a hut in the ‘blacks camp’. Her determination to live her own life and take and use what she knew to be hers by right made her very well-known and respected throughout the entire district. She was reputedly a tall woman, with a bone through her nose and, as she walked, she smoked a clay pipe and carried a stout stick. She would never accept an offer of a ride in a buggy or cart.

Coomee sold brooms she made from tea-tree or cabbage-tree palms. She also hawked fish and oysters around the farms, mostly in exchange for eggs, bread or tobacco. When she heard of a new baby being born, she would go to the house and demand a shilling, as a fine for having a baby on her Country. It was always paid.

When interviewed by Broda Reynolds for the Sydney Mail in 1911, Coomee Nulunga was described by Reynolds as ‘The Queen of the South Coast’. Although in her 80s by this time, Reynolds discovered she had an excellent memory of many happenings over the previous 60 years. She told her of her meeting with NSW Governor Harry Rawson of whom she approved and also of Lord Chelmsford, of whom she did not.

Coomee allowed Rawson’s daughter to take her photo. She was also photographed by Edmund Milne in the early 1900s. Milne had a memorial gorget (designed to worn hung around the neck) made for her inscribed:




Memorial gorgets were often presented in the late 19th century to people who were thought, by non-Aboriginal people, to be the last living member of a particular ‘tribe’. According to Broda Reynolds, Coomee sent the gorget back, saying it was too heavy to wear.But of course, Coomee was not the last. There were many Murramarang people still living along the South Coast. To this day, descendants of Coomee and her “tribe”, the Murramarang people,  live on the South Coast and continue to practice their cultural traditions with the same sense of pride and belonging.

Milne also recorded Coomee’s comments about the terrible effects of British colonisation on her people, which he transcribed as:

Where my people? — a pause — dead all dead — Coomee soon die too — then all gone. … Why my people die? Wha’ for you wanter know? … Me tell you. Long tam ago me lil’ picaninny, plenty black feller sit down longa big camp. Him eat native food all same like old wild myall feller; him fat — what you call big, strong; him skin shiny, native food good, ver’ good. You white feller come ’long — sit down — black feller him try lib it all same white feller; wear um clothes — eat white man tucker — drink white feller grog all tam he get him; lay ‘bout camp; no clim’ oller tree look for ’possum. Him skin get hard, what you call dry up; him get plenty sick — tumble down — soon die — grog kill ‘em ver’ quick — ver’ soon — all — die — me see’um never — no more.”

(from National Museum of Australia)

Coomee Nulunga died in 1914.

Some settlers’ memories of Coomee Nulunga

May Home (1897-1986) was born in Milton as the fifteenth child in the family. Her father, John Home, was a dairy farmer in Milton and used to make a butter run down as far as Eden. Her family were strict Baptists and did no work on Sunday (not even cooking), with the exception of milking the cows and polishing shoes. She passed on to her children how “Maria” (Coomee) used to mind her because her mother was pretty busy with the other fourteen children. As a tot she used to talk about her white mother and her black mother. It seems that Coomee called at nearly every farm and dwelling and sometimes performed such a service in return for gratuities received.

Ida Dixon (nee Turnbull born Croobyar 1895) remembered Maria (Coomee). “She was a dear old soul. Used to walk barefooted all the way from Ulladulla to Croobyar School where my father was resident-teacher with 70-80 pupils. My mum, Emma, was very fond of her. Maria used to arrive with a bag of oysters slung over her shoulder and balanced the load with her walking-stick. She had a trek of about five miles, I’m sure. In exchange for the oysters Mum would give her eggs, butter and fruit or whatever she wanted at the time”


Warden Head Lighthouse, Ulladulla

Coastal shipping was the lifeblood of small towns like Ulladulla in the late 19th century but it was also a dangerous business. Beneath the blue waters off the South Coast lie dozens of shipwrecks, often driven onto reefs during an East Coast Low, like the Walter Hood on 26 April 1870 in Wreck Bay, 12km north of Ulladulla.

Originally erected on the stone pier on the south side of Ulladulla Harbour in 1869-1872, after much local criticism that the lighthouse was ineffective in that location, it was dismantled and moved to Warden Head by Banks and Whitehurst in June-December 1889. Local bullock teams hauled the heavy iron plates from the harbour to Warden Head. The rebuilt lighthouse on Warden Head then completed a triangle with lighthouses at Montague Island (1880) and Green Cape (1883), necessary for sea navigation.

Designed by Edwin Orpen Moriarty and prefabricated by Joseph Mather of Sydney, the lighthouse is 12.1m above ground and 3.3m diameter at ground level, with a splayed base buried a further 2.3m deep in concrete foundations. There is a similar lighthouse at Wollongong Harbour.

Built from 16mm thick iron plate with butted, back-plated and rivetted joints, gunmetal decorative lantern framework and a copper-sheeted roof, the lighthouse has three timber floors connected by iron ladders and an iron railing balcony. An elevated arched door was rivetted shut when the lighthouse was relocated from the harbour. The round porthole windows are an unusual feature in Australian lighthouses. In the 1920s there was a windvane on top, since removed.

The fixed white oil lamp (visible for 19km) was converted to an automatic flashing acetylene lamp in 1920, and then electric power in 1964. Today, the group flashing of 2 every 10 seconds light extends 28km from Warden Head Lighthouse, still guiding ships at sea.

In 1890 a cottage was built next to the lighthouse for William Gambell, the first lighthouse keeper and his family, with a dome-covered water tank alongside. You can still see the dome of the tank today but the cottage itself was sold, dismantled and rebuilt in Milton after the lamp was automated in 1920.


Digitising our MUHS Collection

Milton Ulladulla Historical Society has been part of an exciting new project, funded by Create NSW and managed by Shoalhaven City Council to create digital records of our collection. Local and regional collections have such a wealth of place-unique historical information, and it’s important that everyone everywhere can access that information. By digitising our documents, photographs and objects as part of a new online catalogue, we can open up our resources to all.