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:
LAST OF HER TRIBE
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”