One of the intriguing items in the Spoken exhibition is titled “A letter to the Commissioner of Police from Magdalen Mulun of the Cape Bedford Mission” per Dr Roth Cooktown 23 March 1899.
While State Library holds a scanned copy, the Queensland State Archives have the original item which they kindly lent for the exhibition. It includes the handwritten notation from Roth on the front cover “She is speaking Koko-yimidir – the local Cooktown language (WER)”.
The letter is quite remarkable in that it is possibly the first written text in an Aboriginal language of Queensland. In 1898 Roth was appointed as the first northern protector of Aboriginals under W. E. Parry-Okeden. Based at Cooktown, his main brief was to prevent the exploitation of Aborigines, particularly in employment and marriage. He was also responsible for the regulation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in the bêche-de-mer industry. Roth had a scientific background and had trained as a physician and anthropologist and published numerous articles on the Aboriginal people of North Queensland. Many of these were compiled into his publication Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines; others were submitted for journal articles for publication by organisations such as Royal Society of Queensland.
Roth included a general translation which is written in the style of a formal English letter which finishes with a request for Parry-Okeden to make ‘a speech to the men-of-the-Queen (Government) to obtain a boat for us’.
Roth studied Koko-Yimidir as he called Guugu Yimithirr and published a bulletin article though the Home Secretary’s Department. As seen by the cover below, Roth drew upon the knowledge of the Lutheran Ministers Schwarz and Poland. This particular bulletin is No 2 of 18 such documents published on a range of ethnographic topics of the culture and customs of Aboriginal people in North Queensland.
Dora Gibson from Hope Vale provided further information on Magdalen who was from one of the well-known and influential families on Cape Bedford Mission. Magdalen was one of the most talented pupils at Elim school and become proficient in writing Guugu Yimithirr. She took a lead in the community and provided information to Roth on local knowledge, including language.
State Library extends an invitation for all Queenslanders to see the Magdalen Mulun letter and explore the many stories of Spoken: celebrating Queensland languages.
Indigenous Languages Coordinator, State Library of Queensland
State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Webpages
State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Map
Jarjum stories: A kuril dhagun showcase focusing on children’s books and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. 19 October 2019-10 May 2020.
Spoken: celebrating Queensland languages: A major exhibition exploring the survival and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages throughout Queensland. Join in the many talks and events to celebrate the rich and diverse languages spoken today. 21 November 2019-19 April 2020.
References and Further Reading
Roth, W. E.(1897) Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines. Q 572.9943 rot
Roth, W. E. (1898-1903) “Reports to the Commissioner of Police and others, on Queensland aboriginal peoples 1898-1903.” FILM 0714
Roth, W. E. (1901-1910) North Queensland Ethnography: Bulletins 1-18. NAT 306.089 rot
W E Roth, JOL Negative No: 158695
Queensland State Archives
Series 7328 Item 271655 A letter to the Commissioner of Police from Magdalen Mulun (of the Cape Bedford Mission) for Dr Roth. Cooktown 23 March 1899. 5031/1899