Keith Vincent Smith
Nunberri (Nambré), from Numbaa on the south shore of the Shoalhaven River on the New South Wales south coast, was called Charcoal by Alexander Berry (1781-1873), a former East India ship’s surgeon turned successful Sydney merchant.
‘Charcoal was my regular boatman’, wrote Berry, who in June 1822 asked the young Aboriginal man, lame in one leg after a cartwheel accident, to sail with him to the Shoalhaven, where he established Coolangatta farm, near Nowra. ‘Next morning he was rugged up in sailors cloathes [sic] and appointed pro forma Mate of the cutter Blanch’, wrote Berry in Recollections of the Aborigines (London 1838, page 433).
Two of Berry’s men were drowned when a boat was swamped in the surf at Crooks Haven. Although lame, Nunberri was a strong swimmer and easily reached the shore. Berry recalled:
This tragical adventure upset all my arrangements, & therefore I immediately put spades into the hands of my men and their first operation was to cut a canal between Crook haven & Shoal Haven River.
The Natives all this while kept aloof. We went one morning to the banks of the Shoal Haven River & observed some Natives on the opposite side. Charcoal immediately stripped himself and held up his hands, when they launched their Canoes & came over to us, & from this time forward the other natives gradually began to show themselves.
Berry returned to Sydney in the Blanch with a motley crew, consisting of the young explorer Hamilton Hume, Wajin, chief of Shoalhaven, Yager, chief of Jervis Bay, and ‘Charcoal’. ‘I got safe to Sydney with my singular crew after a tedious passage occasioned by fowl [foul] winds’ wrote Berry.
Nunberri (c.1803-1840) was also called Jem, Jimmy, Jeremy, James or Jim Charcoal. He is sometimes confused with an Indigenous man named Charcoal Will (or Bill Charcoal) from Bulli, who later lived at Wollongong.
The German-born artist, Charles Rodius (1802-1860) drew a chalk portrait of Nunberri, Chief of the Nunnerahs, now in the British Museum, London and a crayon version, titled Nambré, Shoalhaven Tribe, now in the National Library of Australia, Canberra. He produced several copies of the lithograph shown here in which Nunberri wears a gorget or breastplate in a series of images of Indigenous people who camped in the Sydney Domain.
In October 1836 the Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker met Nunberri at Alexander Berry’s farm. In A Narrative of a visit to the Australian Colonies, published in London in 1836 (page 443) Backhouse wrote:
At the foot of the Cambewarra mountains, we met half-a-dozen Blacks, dressed in blankets, and in the old clothes of Europeans. One of these sons of the forest had an expressive countenance, and remarkably fine features; he spoke English tolerably, and said that he went occasionally, as a seaman, on board a vessel belonging to A. Berry.
Nunberri’s daughter Maria, born on 22 November 1837, was baptised on 28 August 1838, sponsored by Hannah Fowler. She received a blanket at Numba in 1840. In his Recollections Alexander Berry wrote:
Charcoal, whom I had appointed mate of the Blanch, after a few trips tired of being well cloathed [sic] and well fed, and after a few trips left the vessel, but he left it as a friend and used to occasionally visit Shoal Haven. After some time he married a young woman of the place.
In later years Nunberri / Charcoal revealed a ferocious temper. According to Berry he beat his wife so badly that she died and avoided facing a payback punishment ritual by making a speech saying how he loved her and by the gift of ‘a fine new blanket from Sydney which he laid at the feet of his father-in-Law and requested him to accept’.
When the Broken Bay leader Bungaree was ‘savagely beaten in a drunken broil [brawl]’ about Christmas 1819 he was brought to Alexander Berry’s cottage, Crows Nest House (which gave the Sydney suburb its name), suffering from a head wound and a fractured arm. Berry treated the wound and gave instructions that Bungaree should be taken care of in his kitchen.
There he remained for several days until he recovered from the bruise—the moment however he was able to move he escaped from the house as from a jail—and [disencumbered?] the arm from the wound—some weeks after he came back—on examining his arm I found that the ends of his fractured bones had healed without uniting—giving the appearance of a joint—and it remained for the rest of his life.
[Alexander Berry, 1838, pages 557-8, quoted in Keith Vincent Smith, King Bungaree, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1992]
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Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018