The Bible for the first Australians: L.E. Threlkeld’s translation work

Reverend Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, 1788-1859 [ambrotype portrait]. Image courtesy State Library NSW

Lancelot Edward Threlkeld began his career as an actor with the Royal Circus in London. When he moved to Devonshire with his wife Martha, he was influenced by the local vicar to become an itinerant preacher and then to apply to the London Missionary Society for missionary service. He set sail in 1816, but his wife became ill and they spent a year in Rio de Janeiro before arriving in Sydney in 1817. Martha died in 1824, and later that same year Lancelot married Sarah Arndell, daughter of surgeon and landowner Thomas Arndell. Appointed missionary to the Lake Macquarie district, Threlkeld moved to a station near the lake called Bahtahbah. After a disagreement with colonial chaplain Samuel Marsden over his expenditure, Threlkeld was threatened with dismissal and a return to England. However, a land grant from Governor Darling allowed him to remain in the Toronto region on the other side of the lake. He established a mission and spent the next ten years working with a local indigenous man, Biraban, to learn the language with the aim of translating the Bible and preaching the gospel.

 

Biraban had already had extensive dealings with the colonial settlers – he worked as a servant to an officer in the military barracks in Sydney and then assisted with the establishment of a new penal settlement in Port Macquarie. He developed a close working relationship with Threlkeld, and assisted him in not only translating words, but also conveying theological concepts in a way that the local people would recognise.

Threlkeld and Biraban assembled a dictionary and grammar of the Awabakal language, as well as a translation of the gospel of Luke. Although Threlkeld thought highly of Biraban, and commended him to the Governor, he does not give him much official credit when these works were published.

Throughout Threlkeld’s time at Lake Macquarie, the indigenous population dwindled from thousands, down to a mere handful. This was not simply migration or disease, but deliberate murder and massacres committed by white settlers, many of whom did not consider the Aboriginal people to be human beings. By contrast, Threlkeld’s evangelical faith led him to consider his fellow residents as humans with souls to save. Although Threlkeld was powerless to stop the slaughter, he saw the devastation firsthand and recorded these events in the annual reports of his mission. He is now remembered for his advocacy and support of Indigenous people, as well as his pioneering linguistic work.

The Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators, among others, have continued the work of giving the Indigenous people of Australia the Bible in their own language. Additionally, the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre continues to promote the Awabakal language in the Lake Macquarie district, as well as developing language preservation software used to preserve indigenous languages around the world.

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