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Forgotten Aboriginal hero of Cape York exploration

Galmarra, known as Jackey Jackey was the real hero and the sole survivor of Edmund Kennedy’s exploration of Cape York Peninsula in 1848. The first leg of the expedition was to traverse along the east coast from Rockingham Bay (north of Hinchinbrook Island) to Albany Island at the tip of Cape York Peninsula. In the manner typical for the colonial period Jackey Jackey was known under his English nickname, no one bothered to learn about his real name and family. A reference to his homeland in the Muswellbrook area in Hunter Valley, suggests that he could have been a Wonnarua or Geawegal man.

We don’t know under what circumstances Galmarra was persuaded to join an expedition so far from home. He was probably aged 15 at the time, but highly valued for his hard work, excellent bushcraft and prudence. When conditions quickly become tough, men were falling sick and discomfort turned into deprivation, Jackey was the strongest and most reliable member of the expedition. He was one of the five men of the advance party, attempting a desperate march north for a distance of about 1000 kilometres, to reach the Albany Island to meet the supply ship. He and Kennedy nearly completed this arduous journey. Entangled in the swamps of Escape River they were attacked by local Aborigines. Galmarra nursed mortally wounded Kennedy, who died in his arms only 30 kilometres from their destination.

Subsequently Galmarra guided a rescue party which failed to recover Kennedy’s remains. However, Thomas Wall’s remains were eventually recovered and buried on Albany Island. Wall, who frequently collected specimens for the Australian Museum and accompanied Kennedy on his earlier expedition to Victoria River in 1847, perished on this occasion.

Galmarra (Jackey Jackey) was honoured for his fortitude and loyalty to the explorer. Sir Charles FitzRoy, the governor of New South Wales, supposedly presented him with a silver breast-plate in recognition of his achievements and service. This breast-plate somehow made its way to the Australian Museum where it was displayed for public viewing, according to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 October 1868 and in the 1960s acquired by the State Library of New South Wales.

Galmarra, scornfully named by his colonial masters Jackey Jackey, lived in society hostile to indigenous Australians. Tragically, attracted to drinking, he died in an accident on an overland journey near Albury in 1854, aged probably 21.

A copy of his portrait, a lithograph made by artist Charles Rodius in 1849, is kept at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.