Guboo Ted Thomas

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Guboo Ted Thomas
Born Edwin Thomas
29 Jan 1909
Jembaicumbene, Braidwood,
South Coast,
New South Wales, Australia
Died 19 May 2002 (aged 93)
South Coast,
New South Wales, Australia
Spouse(s) 2 wives 1 partner
Children 12 children
Parents William “Bill” Iberia Thomas
& Mary Gwendoline "Lino" Ahoy

Guboo Ted Thomas (29 January 1909 – 19 May 2002) of the Yuin people was a prominent Aboriginal (koori) elder (leader), He lived a full life, including touring Australia with a gumleaf orchestra during the Great Depression of the 1930s, playing rugby league and getting banned for fighting a referee, yet growing to become an Elder campaigning for protection of sacred sites on the South Coast, who went to the United Nations in New York, who urged the World Council of Churches to accept indigenous religions, and who met the Dalai Lama. Guboo loved a "cuppa" (cup of tea), had a sense of mischief, enjoyed being doted on by women, and his favourite saying was: "Always remember, the best is yet to come!".[1]

Guboo's work in developing mutual respect and understanding, and in the renewal of the Spirit and the Dreaming, was prolific and ongoing. In his own words:
The earth is our mother.
When I die I'm going down there.
When you die you're coming too!
And what are you doing for the earth-for the mother?

Guboo wanted Aboriginal spirituality, the Dreaming, to enrich the lives of all Australians, and devoted the rest of his life to being a catalyst for a worldwide return to selfless ancient values. He became a member of the Baha'i faith, emphasising the spiritual unity of humankind of all religions. In 1984 the then 75-year-old began travelling the world teaching the Dreamtime, the heart of Aboriginal spirituality.[2] For the remainder of his life Guboo held "Renewing the Dreaming" Camps around Australia and overseas,[3] for which he was well respected. However among his own people he was not without his critics, some of whom felt that he had discovered the perks of being a new-age guru to the white community. Unfortunately he also sometimes upset the actual traditional owners of the land where his ceremonies were held, by not always respecting their sacred sites, and by violating local Aboriginal laws.[4]

Guboo's accomplishments speak volumes about his commitment to Australia, and his Aboriginal community:

  • Through his work with the Institute of Aboriginal Studies an invaluable record of sacred sites along the New South Wales coast was established.
  • In 1979 the then seventy-year-old elder first came to public attention when, largely through his efforts, the New South Wales Premier Neville Wran ordered a cease to logging on the Mumbulla Mountain south of Bermagui. This led to a significant land rights settlement in New South Wales.
  • The seventy-nine-year-old's 1988 re-enactment for the Australian Bicentenary of his own childhood 350-kilometre Dreamtime walk of seven decades earlier, with a group of koori kids from broken homes, demonstrated a personal vision guided by hard work, spirituality, respect and love for the land.
  • Ever the gentle activist, the ninety-three-year-old will be last remembered for sitting in a wheelchair and clapping two sticks together. He was participated in a protest at Sandon Point near Wollongong demonstrating against a development threatening Aboriginal sites and the area's natural beauty.


Guboo Ted Thomas was born in 1909 under a gum tree at Jembaicumbene[5] in the Braidwood area of the South Coast of New South Wales. He was born into the Yuin people, which he always maintained was a Nation made up of many individual tribes. Ted is a contraction of his birth name Edwin; and Guboo, the name he was best known for, was his tribal name meaning "good friend". Guboo was son of William "Bill" Iberia Thomas, a tribal elder, and Mary Gwendoline "Linno" Ahoy. Although he was the third of 10 children he was recognised as a future spiritual leader by the elders of the Yuin before he was 10.

Guboo knew most about his father's family, and it was from his father's family that he drew his strong bonds with the Aboriginal community. His father William "Bill" Iberia Thomas (1888-?) and his grandfather Peter Thomas were both tribal elders. His grandmother Hannah (Nyaadi) McGrath was a [medicine woman] who took him along on her healing rounds, and told him Dreamtime stories. His father, grandfather and uncles instructed him in sacred rites, male ancestral laws and Yuin customs . He was eventually chosen by them to be given special knowledge and to become the future elder and spiritual leader of the Yuin Nation.

From his mother's family Guboo had a very eclectic background that he knew little about. His part-aboriginal mother Mary Gwendoline "Linno" Ahoy (1887–1959) had a Chinese father, and is most remembered for this by her children and grandchildren. Guboo also knew that she had French blood as her mother's surname had been de Mestre, his French great-great-grandfather Prosper de Mestre (1789–1844) was a prominent businessman in Sydney from 1818 to 1844, and whose father Colonel Andre Charles de Mestre (c. 1756–1794) had been a French soldier whose head had been removed by a cannonball in Martinique; his Australian-born great-grandfather Etienne de Mestre (1832–1916) was the horse trainer who owned and trained Archer the horse that won the first and second Melbourne Cups in 1861 and 1862; his Aboriginal great-grandmother Sarah Lamb, and his part-aboriginal grandmother Helen (Ellen) de Mestre (c. 1850–1934) would have been proud to see the part that Guboo has played in Aboriginal affairs during his lifetime; and his Chinese grandfather James Ahoy was a market gardener in the Braidwood area at the time of the gold-rush who moved back to China leaving his family behind. What would Gubbo have thought of his maternal forebears if he had known about them? Given his commitment to the aboriginal land rights struggle his feelings probably would have been ambivalent considering some of them owned large tracts of land in New South Wales that had been taken from his Aboriginal people. Guboo grew up on the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve where he attended the tiny local school until he was eight. Guboo would say of this time: "All I was taught at school was to knit, sew, make little johnnycakes and tend a garden. In those days, no-one bothered to teach the Aboriginal children the three Rs." Withdrawn from school by his parents, his education in his "Dreamtime culture" then began. When he was nine, his father, uncle and other Yuin elders took him on their Dreamtime walkabout from Mallacoota on the Victorian border to the Hawkesbury River and showed him all the sacred sites for which he would later be responsible. During his early years he also watched as his grandfather called in dolphins to help them catch fish, and called in killer whales to help them catch whales,[6][7] his grandfather even being called by the killer whales at night to join a hunt.[8]

Always hardworking, As a teenager he had toured with a Hawaiian performimg troupe. As a teenager and a young man he was a member of the Wallaga Lake Gumleaf Band that toured southern New South Wales and Victoria, and performed at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. The Gumleaf Band played at football dances, and on the back of trucks at district shows, gymkhanas, and sports picnics on the beach. He used these trips to visit Aboriginal missions from Victoria, up the New South Wales coast into Queensland, and inland over the Great Dividing Range. He would visit the old people to learn more about their customs and beliefs, tour their sacred sites and talk to them about protecting the land and the Great Spirit that sustained it.

The band included 7 of Gaboo’s family including his father and uncles and 3 of his brothers. It was an Aboriginal group that performed traditional dances with sticks and spears. It also included step dancing, tap dancing, hula dancing, and Māori influences, burlesque, clowning, and singing. They were a dance band that made music with gum leaves, an accordion, ukuleles, guitars, fiddle, and drums.[9][10] Guboo played the guitar, so very different from the traditional instruments that Guboo played in his later years of the clapping sticks and didgeridoo.[2]

After his music career Guboo then took work on various jobs around New South Wales including jackarooing, collecting shellac, cutting railway sleepers, working in the timber industry, as leader of an Aboriginal work-crew at Warragamba Dam, and as a union delegate at a Botany foundry. Most of his working life, however, was spent as a commercial fisherman on the South Coast applying that special knowledge given to him by his elders, except that "the middleman made all the money".

58-year-old Guboo, along with all other Aboriginal Australians, finally became an Australian citizen following the 1967 referendum.[11] After the referendum, the no longer young Guboo Guboo sold his fishing-boat after 25 years to devote himself to the responsibilities handed to him by his beloved elders. He moved back to Wallaga Lake with his family. In the early 1970s Gaboo and his wife Ann and other tribal Elders joined Pastor Frank Roberts' New South Wales Aboriginal Lands and Rights Council. This experience strengthened Gaboo's commitment to Aboriginal land rights and culture. "Land rights, self-determination, and cultural identity" became his catch-cry. His activism began by hitchhiking to Canberra to urge the Government to make the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Mission into a reserve and to seek protection of the sacred sites. Before long he began working with the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, recording all the Aboriginal sites in coastal New South Wales. His work with the Institute of Aboriginal Studies was groundbreaking and became the basis of all future land claims along the South Coast. He attended land rights marches in Wollongong, and land rights meetings in Sydney. In 1977 he played a significant role in the establishment of a New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council to co-ordinated the land rights campaign. In 1978 he helped prepared land claims which were presented to the New South Wales Government. After five years of demonstrations and lobbying, the Wallaga Lake community received its title deeds, and he proudly accepted them. If only Guboo had been alive to see the ownership of a much greater area, of the former Wallaga Lake National Park and the rest of the Gulaga National Park, be restored to the area's original owners, the Yuin people, in May 2006.

In 1978 Guboo became alarmed about forestry operations on nearby Mumbulla Mountain threatening sacred sites. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, with the help of Guboo Ted Thomas, commenced an Anthropological and Archaeological investigation of Mumbulla Mountain. This investigation supported the claims of the Yuin people, and determined that Mumbulla Mountain is significant to Aboriginal people.[12] Yet several politicians still claimed there were no sacred sites and dismissed Guboo's claims as 'idle fantasies'. In 1979 the then seventy-year-old elder first came to public attention when, largely through his efforts, the New South Wales Premier Neville Wran ordered a cease to logging on the Mumbulla Mountain south of Bermagui. However the campaign for Mumbulla Mountain was not yet over. His pertinacity, saw him not give up. He knew when to fight, and when to negotiate. He believed that he would win the battle, and he did. After five long years the victory was a significant land rights settlement for the Aboriginal people.

Around this time, he began espousing a spiritual message, believing that the noisy protests and marches only aggravated racism. He wanted to build bridges, bringing people together through a mutual love and respect for Mother Earth. His work of restoring people's unity with the land had just begun. He wanted the Dreaming to enrich the lives of all Australians and devoted the rest of his life to being a catalyst for a worldwide return to selfless ancient values. He went to the United Nations, and he asked the World Council of Churches to accept indigenous religions. His teachings took him around the world many times, with not a penny in his pocket, and made him friends among many cultures. He met spiritual and religious leaders, like the Dalai Lama, who would later contact him when passing through Australia. For the next 20 years he held "Dreaming camps" around Australia and overseas to teach and pass on his knowledge, to renew the Dreaming of these places and restore sacredness to the landscape. He spent each January at Blue Gum Flats, in the Budawangs, behind Pigeon House Mountain (Bulgarn). Thousands of people from around the world came to meet him in the deep wilderness and to seek a spiritual relationship with nature.

Back in 1988, the year of the Australian Bicentenary, the seventy-nine-year-old had re-enacted his own childhood 350-kilometre Dreamtime walk of seven decades earlier. The walk went from Mallacoota on the Victorian border to the Hawkesbury River, and took six weeks. Guboo walked with a group of koori kids from broken homes who still recall the walk with awe.

Guboo envisioned a nation that has put internal conflict between white and black Australians behind it in the realisation of a truly unified Australian identity with a respect for Aboriginal culture and love of the land as its bedrock. Apart from those in his immediate family, it was a message that fell flat among his own people. While Guboo went on to work tirelessly to bring black and white together in love and unity, his own people mistrusted him for most of his remaining life.

He shared the Dreamtime stories from his childhood with all who would listen. His birthday present for his 90th birthday in 1999 was the performance of a puppet show "Dreamtime Stories of the Yuin Tribe" performing a Dreamtime story as told to Guboo by his grandmother "Granny Tungii" the medicine woman.[13]

Ever the gentle activist, in February 2002 he was participated in a protest at Sandon Point near Wollongong demonstrating against a development threatening Aboriginal sites and the area's natural beauty. The ninety-three-year-old will be remembered for sitting in a wheelchair and clapping two sticks together. He also identified some "sacred stones" in Thomas Gibson Park at Thirroul but Wollongong Council took more almost two years before they arranged for him to come from Wallaga to the site and identify them in early 2002. Guboo was then too unwell to walk the site in order to re-locate and identify them and the site was later approved fro residential development

Active in what he saw as his life's work till the very end, in his last days he was participating in a study about Indigenous kinship with the Natural World in New South Wales.[7]

He died at 93 years of age on 19 May 2002, just before that year's Reconciliation Week celebrated the rich culture and history of Australia's kouri citizens.