Archibald Meston with spear and shield c.1900
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Keith Vincent Smith

The first blacks with whom the whites associated were those of Sydney and Botany Bay, followed by those of the Hawkesbury, Hunter, and Twofold Bay. To the dialects of those places we naturally turn for the earliest aboriginal words in use among the white men.

The most interesting vocabulary in my possession is one taken down from the lips of Bennilong, one of the two Sydney blacks who went to England with Gov. Phillip in 1792. Attached to this is another taken from a George’s River black named Walwarra, in 1803, by Thomas Jarrett Ives, who lived with the blacks and spoke their language.

Both vocabularies were printed at the Sydney GAZETTE office in 1809. In the Botany dialect I find the first record of the word “myall,” the name given to a stranger.

So wrote Archibald Meston in an article headed ‘Aboriginal Names’, printed in The Bulletin, Sydney, on 18 April 1896 (page 27). He listed several words from ‘Botany Bay’: boomerang, wombat, wommera, yarraman, wonga-wonga, gunya, waddy, woolaba (wallaby), wallaroo, heelaman, budgerie, corobberie (corroboree) and currajong.

When Meston’s son E.A. Meston reprinted the same text in ‘Mestonian Flashes’ (Cummins & Campbell’s magazine, August 1955, p.13), he deleted the words ‘in my possession’. The two manuscripts, if they ever existed, cannot be located.

Following the Bulletin article, Meston published varying dates for the printing of the vocabularies: 1808, 1809, 1810, 1812, 1814 and 1822. Meston said the ‘Ives’ pamphlet had 24 pages in one article and 36 pages in another. ‘Thomas Jarrett Ives’ was soon replaced by ‘James Ives’, apart from one instance, in which he is referred to as ‘Thomas Ives in his pamphlet of 1808’.
[The Queenslander, Brisbane, 14 March 1903, page 596]

Meston wrote (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 1912, page 8):

James Ives, who arrived in Sydney in 1800, lived for ten years among the aboriginals and spoke fluently the dialect from Port Hacking to the Hawkesbury River.


Over a period of 30 years Meston frequently quoted ‘Ives’ in the constant stream of articles and letters printed in newspapers throughout Australia, most often to refute or ridicule other linguists for their ‘grotesque blunders’. Were these variations caused by an ageing loss of memory, or did Meston set up “Ives” and his vocabulary as a “straw man” to be knocked down? Was he just a convenient fabrication?

Meston’s best explanation of the background of ‘James Ives’ occurs in an article in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, 6 November 1915, page 6), which, he said might ‘terminate the discussion on “Ben Buckler”, a placename at Sydney’s Bondi Beach.

In the year 1810 two men named James Ives and Benjamin Buckler left the penal settlement, and went away amongst the blacks of Botany Bay and Port Hacking, south, apparently, as far as Illawarra.
There is no evidence to prove they were free men or bond. These men lived with the blacks for ten years, and Ives could speak fluently the language from Illawarra to the Hawkesbury.
In 1822, a pamphlet written by Ives (who was an educated man) was published at the Sydney “Gazette” office, and contains the only reliable vocabulary ever written of the aboriginal language from Sydney north and south from the Hawkesbury to the Illawarra. Even over that area there was a common dialect, which differed, however, very considerably in the names of plants and animals.
 “Ben Buckler,” who was a Yorkshireman, was killed, (according to Ives), on the coast somewhere in the vicinity of Bondi, while standing on the edge of a cliff on a shelf of rock, which collapsed. For many years, it was known as “Ben Buckler’s Leap.”

After stating his arguments against the suggestion that the placename Ben Buckler was ‘a corruption of the native word, “Baalbuckalea”’, advanced by Hugh Wright, the first Mitchell Librarian at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, Meston continues:

It appears that Ives’ pamphlet, which consist of only 24 pages, is extremely rare. A copy was given to me by an old ex-convict 42 years ago, being obtained by him from the house of an officer to whom he was an assigned servant, somewhere on the Hunter River.
In my work on the aboriginals, to be completed in about two years hence, the whole of Ives’ pamphlet will be incorporated verbatim. The old man to whom it was given told me very seriously not to part from it, as I would “never see another.

On 7 July 1916 Archibald Meston penned a letter from Brisbane in reply to one sent by John Anderson Ferguson (1881-1969) on 23 June 1916. There is no record of the original letter from Anderson, who did not list the Ives leaflets in his Bibliography of Australia.

Archibald Meston, letter sent to JA Ferguson, Brisbane, 7 July 1916
MS 3303, National Library of Australia, Canberra


Elizabeth Street, Brisbane
J.A. Ferguson Esq

Dear Sir
Your letter of 23rd June received today —
You evidently refer to the small word [list] written by James Ives & published in 1814. at the “Sydney Gazette” office, a work of 36 pages entitled “Language and some customs of the Botany Bay Black Natives”, a Copy of which was given to me in 1870 by an old ex convict who told me there had been only ten copies printed & that I would have no chance of [page 2] ever seeing another.
Is there another copy?
And where?
Mine will be incorporated Verbatim in my forthcoming work on the Australian Aboriginals to be published — I hope — in the next two years.
Ives pamphlet is the only existing work on the Vocabulary of the old aboriginals from Broken Bay [Botany Bay?] & Illawarra. It is a remarkable work. Ives was evidently an educated man & fortunately spells all his words phonetically. He was Ten years among the blacks.
Only two pages are indecipherable.
It is printed on very rough paper.
Sincerely yours,
A. Meston

There was indeed a shortage of printing paper in Sydney in the period 1809-14, when inferior paper stock was imported from China. Some issues of the Sydney Gazette were cancelled and others printed on ragged, coloured paper.


Meston’s proposed book was never published. According to his obituary in the Daily Mail, Brisbane (5 April 1924, page 14):

He had a good knowledge of the different aboriginal dialects, and in years gone by he had made many notes of the meanings of aboriginal words. He claimed to be one of the few white men who had witnessed the “bora” ceremony.  He contemplated writing a book on the aboriginals, but like many others, with good intentions let the time slip by and nothing definite was accomplished.

Archibald Meston, 1921
 Benjamin Minns                                          Watercolour
Queensland Art Gallery

Archibald Meston, who lived from 1851 to 1924, was a fascinating and controversial character : a journalist, poet, explorer, botanist, historian, ethnologist, showman and politician. He was 27 years old when he became a member of the Queensland State Parliament.  He was Protector of Aborigines in southern Queensland from 1897 to 1903. Meston had a lifetime interest in the Indigenous people of Australia, particularly those in Queensland, and was familiar with many Aboriginal languages.

Born in Scotland, Meston came to Sydney with his parents in 1859. They settled at Ulmarra on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. Meston was also a muscular athlete, boxer, crack axeman and rifle shooter and, as he boasted, was skilled at spear-throwing. Tall and wiry, he affected a waxed ‘handlebar’ moustache and dressed like a dandy. He claimed (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March 1922):

I  have been among these [Aboriginal] people since seven years of age, in after years speaking their language, and being initiated in their Bora ceremony. I know all their laws and customs, and am skilled in the use of their weapons.


Bennelong, the Wangal man captured at Manly Cove in 1789 on the orders of Arthur Phillip, first governor of the convict colony of New South Wales, became the major informant of the Sydney coastal language to First Fleet officers.  

A vocabulary ‘taken down from the lips of Bennelong’, still exists. He gave the words  to master shipwright Daniel Paine, probably during the voyage home from England to Sydney aboard HMS Reliance in 1795. It is held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK.

A second Bennelong vocabulary in what Meston called ‘the old Beeal-Beeal dialect of Botany Bay’ [SMH 19 October 1921, page 11] , as well as the Georges River words attributed to ‘Walwarra’, would be a crucial addition to the dozen exisiting Eora wordlists. Who knows what they might contain? Meston said that only 10 copies were printed.

A ‘free man’ named James Ives was appointed a police constable at Liverpool [Sydney Gazette, 3 May, 1832], but was ‘dismissed for improper conduct’ one year later. [Sydney Herald, 20 May 1833]

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020