Censoring Tettawonga

Student activity
seven little australians papers
Task No. 1

Tettawonga's Lost Story

Ethel Turner - Seven Little Australians, 1893

In small groups, discuss what you know about the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians over time. Share these ideas with your class.

As a class, read the first seven lines of the book, Seven Little Australians, together. 

Look closely at this section of that text:

“In Australia a model child is – I say it not without thankfulness – an unkown quantity. It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together…”

As a class, discuss the following questions:

  • Is Australia a young land?
  • Who is being ignored by the assertion that Australia and its people are young? 
  • What might this manuscript and this section of text reveal about the period of history in whichSeven Little Australianswas written?

Discuss the historical context of the book.


You may be surprised to hear that there is a section of the story that was removed from the book for almost 100 years, from 1897 to 1994, without acknowledgement during this period. Towards the end of the book, the Woolcot children visit Yarrahappini station, where their grandparents live. During their stay, they take a picnic with Mr Gillet, who works at the station. Whilst they are on their picnic, Mr Gillet tells them a story that he heard from Tettawonga, an Aboriginal stockman who also works on the station. It is this story that the publishers of Seven Little Australians removed from the book for almost 100 years. The story talks about Tettawonga’s ancestors, and recounts how the Kookaburra got his laugh. 

Read the following, which is part of the omitted story.

“Once upon a time,” said Mr Gillet (Judy sniffed at the old-fashioned beginning), “when this young land was still younger, and incomparably more beautiful, when Tettawonga’s ancestors were brave and strong and happy as careless children, when their worst nightmare had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring their race, when – “

“Oh, get on!” muttered Pip impatiently.

“Well,” said Mr Gillet, “when, in short, an early Golden Age wrapped the land in its sunshine, a young kookaburra and its mate spread their wings and set off towards the purple mountains beyond the gum trees. They rested at night and for a time during each day to feed on worms, lizards, bush mice, and grubs, which were then the only food eaten by a kookaburra. One day, as they flew across a bilwy – which is a small stream, Miss Judy – they were much alarmed to see a great wipparoo – Tettawonga’s name for a snake, Pip – lying on a log. Its head was erect, its mouth wide open, and its neck very much inflated, and just above the monster’s head, fluttering and screaming wildly, hovered a beautiful little bird that the kookaburra at once recognised as the jeeda, the little blue wren. The wiparroo seemed to be doing all he could to terrify the little creature, now almost exhausted from fear and excitement. Nearer and nearer it flew, gazing madly into the glittering eyes of the serpent, and at last, with one piercing cry, fell helplessly into its gaping jaws. The kookaburra were very grieved to see so sad an end of the poor jeeda, and flew away swiftly from the sight of the dreaded wipparoo. Soon, however, they saw him gliding hurriedly through the grass, doubtless homeward-bent with his dainty supper. On the way there was a log burning slowly away, and the wipparoo, seeing it, lay down beside it, being very drowsy, and slept the sleep of the unjust.

“In his dreams he saw the jeeda again hovering above him, and, suddenly raising his head high in the air, he opened his terrible jaws – when lo! Out fluttered the beautiful little bird, and quickly flew away, safe and sound.”

“Good iron,” Bunty said, “Go on; it’s better’n ‘Jonah and the Whale’.”

“The kookaburras were so delighted at seeing the jeeda’s wonderful escape that they burst into a fit of loud laughter – the first time ever a bird was heard to laugh. Then the great red sun, that Tettawonga and all the Koories call Euroka, sank down behind the orange-flaming mountains, and the world grew grey.

“A tall young Koorie who was coming that way saw the wipparoo, and with one blow from his strong nulla-nulla, which, being interpreted, meaneth a club, cut its head from its body.”

“I’d have swung it round my head and cracked its back, like Tettawonga does,” Pip said. “Are you sure he didn’t, Mr Gillet?”

“I wouldn’t take an oath either way,” said that gentleman, “seeing the Koorie is by now gathered to his forefathers, and therefore not available as a witness. To continue: the kookaburra slumbered all night in a ti-tree hard by; but when the sun crept up the sky again they woke with a laugh on their lips – beaks, I should say, Miss Judy – remembering the escape of the jeeda from the merciless wipparoo. And ever since then, so strongly did the incident tickle their risible faculties, at sunrise and sunset, and occasionally between whiles, these particular birds burst into the cachinnations of laughter you are all familiar with, and whenever they see a serpent they catch it with their strong beaks and kill it as the Koorie did.”

This section of text can be read in the original manuscript, which forms part of the collections of the State Library of NSW, by clicking on the collection item below.

Discuss the following questions:

  • What is the effect of including the line “Oh, get on!” muttered Pip impatiently, in the context of the recent discussion about whether Australia is a young land?
  • Why might this section of the book, Seven Little Australians, have been removed?
  • What was the effect of removing this section from the book?
  • What changed in Australian society between 1897 and 1994, when this section was put back into the story? 
Task No. 2

Extension Activity

How he died and other poems / by John Farrell.

Look closely at the poem, NO*. (see the collection item below), written by John Farrell and published in 1887 in the book, How he died and other poems.

Consider the following:

  • How do works such as this, by John Farrell, contribute to the collective amnesia about Indigenous history of the late 1800s? 
  • Can you find any other poems or narratives from this period in Australian history that carry similar ideas? 

You can read more about John Farrell in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.