• Liam Carroll

Where did the Name “Ku-ring-gai” Come From?

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned the accompanying photos contain images of deceased persons.

Jack Mulingat "Lightning" Cook (second from left) and family on Guringai Country, 1881

On the Northern Beaches, our eastern border is clearly signposted by the South Pacific’s azure blue, our southern fringe marked with a huge rocky head, resplendent Sydney Harbour and medieval drawbridge, but it’s the name of our north-western National Park frontier that has come under close scrutiny thanks to Robert Syron, an Australian Rwandan War veteran, recipient of the ANZAC Peace Prize, registered Aboriginal owner of Worimai/Guringai Lands in Port Stephens, Dungog and Gloucester, and a Guringai Biripai Worimai warrior. We sat down with Bob to learn where the word “Ku-ring-gai” came from and what its meaning actually is.

G’day Bob!

G’day Tawny.

You’ve dedicated thousands of hours to researching the word “Ku-ring-gai”. Why?

In 2017 I saw a story published in the Newcastle Herald, “Guringai and Awabakal Native Title claim from Sydney to Newcastle”. The claim being made was that Guringai People had Native Title rights from north of Newcastle, in Maitland, all the way to the Northern Beaches, down to Mona Vale and across to Hornsby. That instantly rang alarm bells because it’s simply not correct. I thought, where are they getting “Guringai” from? My Country is Guringai and we are very much north of the Hunter River. What’s going on here? I started researching what might have led to all this confusion, and this is where the word “Ku-ring-gai” started to show up as a piece of the puzzle.

What did you find?

The misunderstandings and misnomers can all be traced back to two things; 1. John Fraser, an influential man in late 19th century Sydney who fancied himself a cunning linguist; 2. Speed and Sound – First Australians spoke far too quickly for the boat people arrivals to keep up, and they had great difficulty picking up the subtle, nuanced differences between C, G, and K sounds.

You’ve lost me.

Well, it goes like this. There were lots of early white settlers with extreme dedication to accurately recording the array of First Australian languages, tribal groups, clans, regions, and they did an amazing job. In many ways it’s thanks to them that my very own Guringai history can be traced back to 1826, to Port Stephens, and to my great, great, great grandfather, Jack Mulingat (‘Lightning’) Cook (Pictured top left back row). If you check the record books though, there are all manner of individual tribes, languages, regions, and NONE of them have the name “Ku-ring-gai.”

So, what does Ku-ring-gai mean then?

It can mean, “a good camping place for the Koories” (Ref: J.F. Mann 1884-1907). It can describe, “the Senior Man of an Initiation Ceremony of the Yuin People, south of Sydney” (Ref: Native Tribes of South East Australia). Or, alternatively, in the Kutthung language it means “black duck.”

How then did this name become associated with the vast expanse of north-west Sydney? John Fraser was determined to name the region and he felt a self-ordained authority on correct language use, writing to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1890, “When the municipalities of the North Shore combine and adopt the native name of their district” He goes on to give an etymological masterclass “The C should give place to K, for C in English is a redundant letter, representing the sound either of K or of S, and should not be used here in our native words.”

A Guringai Warrior from Port Stephens area

The fact these “words” represent tribes and people who’d lived here for tens of thousands of years doesn’t strike John as important?

It doesn’t seem to, which is bizarre because his writings show he was very much aware of local tribe and language names, writing specifically, “I know the Guringai tribe occupy the whole of the east coast from the Hastings and the Manning down to the Hunter.” But then, knowing specifically Guringai people are nowhere near north-western Sydney, he perhaps just liked the sound of it, so he threw a K in front, instead of a G, hoped no one would notice and here we are, the name stuck for over a century, despite having no connection to the region and to the unique, individual groups of people who’ve lived here for thousands of years.

He just made the name up?

He just made it up.

Why is this so important for you to set straight?

Because it changes and affects everything of what the true Guringai have always known regarding our culture, language, location and teaching.

What’s the latest in terms of proper name recognition for your People?

7 Aboriginal Land Councils from Sydney to Port Stephens are in support of my findings, and many Councils from Sydney to Newcastle have corrected their council websites, as well as many schools, private business educators, and government departments also making changes to acknowledge Guringai are north of the Hunter River NSW.

How do you feel now knowing your research has played such a crucial role in correcting this historical, linguistic mistake?

It’s a great feeling that people are reading the evidence and research I have collected over many hours of reading old transcripts, but it’s also great to see real change being made, the truth being acknowledged, and the 19th century mistake indeed being corrected.

Learn more about the Guringai People here.


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