Louisa Briggs

Louisa Briggs (1836-1925), Aboriginal leader, was born on 14 November 1836 on Preservation Island, Bass Strait, the second daughter of Polly Munro and Robert Strugnell, who in 1818 as a seventeen year old chimney-sweep had received a seven year sentence of transportation. Polly was a daughter of Doogbyerumboreoke, a Woirorung woman from Port Phillip, and James Munro, a sealer permanently settled on Preservation Island. Louisa grew up in a stable island community, learning to read but not write. At seventeen she married John Briggs, the son of another Aboriginal woman and a seaman turned sealer.

About 1853 they went to the Victorian goldfields, where the first of their nine children was born. For some years they worked as shepherds in the Beaufort district and in 1871 shortly after Louisa bore her last child, they were admitted destitute to Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. Coranderrk had been created an Aboriginal Reserve earlier at the request of Louisa's Woiworung and Bunurong relatives, but was then under control of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and producing hops. John was employed as a ploughman but left after a dispute about the Board's failure to pay a cash wage to all workers. The family was readmitted in 1874, again in need.

On Coranderrk Louisa acted as nurse and midwife. She was appointed matron in 1876, the first Aboriginal to replace a European on salaried staff. By ability, position and hereditary right she became spokesperson for the residents, though her letters to the Board had to be written for her. The Board's policy of bringing Aboriginal orphans from elsewhere in Victoria to Coranderrk and using the profits from hops for their support, kindled the simmering resentment over poor wages, culminating in rebellion. That the newcomers had no traditional claim to reserve land, was an additional grievance. After initial success in securing the reappointment of the popular first manager, Louisa fought the Board's plans to sell Coranderrk, and remove Coranderrk residents to other reserves. She gave evidence to the 1876 inquiry but after further complaint was forced off the reserve. She was then a widow. With her younger children she moved to Ebenezer Aboriginal Station where she became a confidante of the missionary, but her children objected to conditions there. She wrote complaining they were starving.

After a week-long strike and another inquiry in 1881 which recommended dismissal of the manager and permanent retention of Coranderrk, Louisa and her family were reunited. Her sons were refused permission to take up land on Coranderrk as selectors but it became a statutory reserve and thus 'permanent'. Louisa was reappointed matron but another woman was placed over her; she later was in trouble for taking sugar and hops to make beer. Under an 1886 Act 'half castes' under 35 years of age were expelled from reserves. When Louisa's adult sons were forced off, she followed. Unable to earn a living from shepherding, in 1885 the family entered Muloga Mission, on the New South Wales side of the Murray, and from there removed to nearby Cumeroogunga Reserve in 1889. Louisa's later years saw her move to Barmah where she was refused rations 'for the reason she is a half caste of Tasmania', then back to Cumeroogunga, where she died in 1925. She was a strong-minded, hard-working woman, a regular church-goer, remembered for her humour, audacity and courage.

Heather Radi

Diane Barwick, 'This Most Resolute Lady' in Metaphors of Interpretation ed Diane Barwick 1985.