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The Manbarra are an Indigenous Australian people, and the original inhabitants of Palm Island Queensland.


The Manbarra language constitutes the fourth class of the Herbert River languages, according to Robert M. W. Dixon.[1] The surviving vocabulary of the Manbarra language, mainly collected by Ernest Gribble in 1932, indicates that it had a roughly 50% lexical overlap with Nyawaygi. Little information was conserved regarding its grammatical structure.[2] Another language was also spoken on the island, Buluguyban which was mutually intelligible with Manbarra,[3][4] and may have been a dialect name, like Mulgu, Wulgurukaba, Coonambella, and Nhawalgaba.[1]

History of contact[edit]

It is estimated that there were about 200 Manbarra people at the time of James Cook's visit in 1788. By the end of the 19th century they numbered about 50, apparently because many had left the island to go fishing for bêche-de-mer with Europeans.[5] In 1909 the Queensland Chief Protector of Aborigines visited the island, apparently to check on the activities of Japanese pearling crews in the area, and reported the existence of a small camp of Aborigines.

Dreamtime mythology[edit]

The primordial creative serpent of the Manbarra dreamtime legends, a carpet snake named Gubbal,[6] is said to have slithered down the Herbert River, and, swimming across the sea, to have disintegrated, leaving pieces of his back as Palm Island and his head as Magnetic Island.[7]

Recent events[edit]

Tambo (Kukamunburra),[8] a Manbarra man was shipped by the showman R. A. Cunningham to the USA in 1883, in response to a call by P.T. Barnum for specimens of savage races to be put into a display in his traveling circus act. He died the following year in Ohio.[9] His mummified remains were first put on exhibition in a dime museum[8] and then stored in the basement of a Cleveland funeral parlour and were only discovered a century later when the business closed down. The Manbarra community appealed for the repatriation of his remains and they were duly restored to the people in 1994. His reburial there according to traditional funeral rites that had fallen into abeyance for decades played an important role in the cultural renewal and reconsolidation of Manbarra identiy, and also that of the Bwgaman.[10][11]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ a b Dixon 2002, p. xxxiii.
  2. ^ Dixon & Blake 1983, p. 435.
  3. ^ Watson 2010, p. 25.
  4. ^ Tsunoda 2006, p. 39.
  5. ^ Downes 2004.
  6. ^ Watson 2010, p. 19.
  7. ^ Watson 2010, p. 24.
  8. ^ a b Watson 2010, p. 142.
  9. ^ Poignant 2004.
  10. ^ Roginski 2015, p. 5.
  11. ^ Hubert & Fforde 2005, p. 114.