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The Manbarra, otherwise known as the Wulgurukaba, are Aboriginal Australian people, and the traditional custodians of the Palm Islands, Magnetic Island, and an area of mainland Queensland to the west of Townsville.

The Manbarra people were forcibly moved off the Palm Islands in the 1890s by the Queensland Government, and hundreds of people drawn from many Aboriginal nations on the mainland were moved to an Aboriginal reserve on Great Palm Island in 1914, becoming the Bwgcolman people, who inhabit the island today.


The name "Wulgurukaba" translates to "canoe people".[1]


Wulguru/Manbarra was one of two Nyawaygic languages and constitutes the fourth class of the Herbert River languages, according to Robert M. W. Dixon.[2] 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.[3] Another language was also spoken on the island, Buluguyban which was mutually intelligible with Manbarra,[4][5] and may have been a dialect name, like Mulgu, Wulgurukaba, Coonambella, and Nhawalgaba.[2]


Norman Tindale estimated the range of Wulgurukaba tribal territory at about 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2), which covered both the islands off Townsville - including the Palm Islands] and Magnetic Island - and the hinterland west of Townsville to an extend of about 20 miles (32 km) (from the Ross River, eastwards nearly to Cape Cleveland.[6]

History of contact[edit]

It is estimated that there were about 200 Manbarra people at the time of James Cook's visit in 1770. 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.[7] 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 Aboriginal people.[6] Most Manbarra people were forcibly removed to the mainland in the 1890s.[8]

The last survivor of the Wulgurukaba band resident on Great Palm Island died in 1962.[6]

Dreamtime mythology[edit]

The primordial creative serpent of the Manbarra dreamtime legends, a carpet snake named Gubbal,[9] 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.[10]

Recent events[edit]

Tambo (Kukamunburra),[11] a Manbarra man was shipped by the showman R. A. Cunningham to the United States 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.[12] His mummified remains were first put on exhibition in a dime museum[11] 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 identity, and also that of the Bwgaman.[13][14]

Native title[edit]

In July 2012, a six hectare section of Magnetic Island was granted to the Wulgurukaba people under freehold native title. The Queensland government also stated it would grant trusteeship of a further 55 hectares (140 acres) to the Wulgurukaba Yunbenun Aboriginal Corporation.[15]

The Manbarra have not been given legal status as traditional owners of the Palm Islands, as the people known as the Bwgcolman, drawn from over 40 tribes on the mainland and Torres Strait Islands, were forcibly moved to the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement from 1918 onwards, and it is their descendants (the "historical people", who now inhabit the island.[16]

Alternative names[edit]



  1. ^ "About - Townsville Naidoc". Townsville Naidoc. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  2. ^ a b Dixon 2002, p. xxxiii.
  3. ^ Dixon 1983, p. 435.
  4. ^ Watson 2010, p. 25.
  5. ^ Tsunoda 2006, p. 39.
  6. ^ a b c d Tindale 1974, p. 190.
  7. ^ Downes 2004.
  8. ^ Watson 2010, p. 31.
  9. ^ Watson 2010, p. 19.
  10. ^ Watson 2010, p. 24.
  11. ^ a b Watson 2010, p. 142.
  12. ^ Poignant 2004.
  13. ^ Roginski 2015, p. 5.
  14. ^ Hubert & Fforde 2005, p. 114.
  15. ^ News 2012.
  16. ^ Garond 2014, p. 59-61.
  17. ^ Cassady & Johnstone 1886, p. 426.