Compounding the vulnerability of a small speaker community was the fact that the Anaiwan language is strikingly different from its neighbours. In evidence to the Victorian Legislative Council’s Select Committee on the Aborigines in the late 1850s, historian, educationalist and civil servant G W Rusden, whose brother was a local squatter, discussed the relationship between the Aboriginal languages of New England and those of neighbouring districts:
Great similarity pervades the dialects spoken for several hundred miles on the east coast of New South Wales, while the language spoken on the table land (only eighty or ninety miles from the coast) is totally distinct from that spoken by the coast tribe ... [T]he natives of Moreton Bay can converse with tolerable ease with those of the Clarence River, and of Port Macquarie … while those in New England (on the heads of the Namoi and the Gwydir) though intelligible to one another throughout a vast tract of inland country [the New England Tableland], speak a totally different language from the one which prevails on the coast.
Although the Anaiwan language appears prima facie to be quite unique, it does in fact bear a masked relationship to its neighbours. Having said that, I would argue that the location and character of our language isolated it to a large extent from languages either side. Once the viability of Anaiwan was seriously threatened, speakers off the Tableland could not be relied upon to preserve it.
For several years after the invasion began, Aboriginal people in New England remained almost entirely independent of the fledgling white population and were still the region’s dominant language community. But by the early 1840s, English-speaking colonists had outnumbered Anaiwan speakers.
A growing number of our people were starting to live and work on stations, where they quickly acquired English from their employers and white co-workers who, almost without exception, did not bother to learn the local language. Children and young people were among those Aborigines residing primarily with the whites, more or less separated from their family groups and tribes. Even at this time, intergenerational transmission of language and associated traditional knowledge had begun to deteriorate.
My great-great-great grandmother Maria Quinn, born in about 1839, grew up in this period. She was the daughter of an Irishman, Maurice Quinn, and a local Aboriginal woman, Mary Ann. Maria’s younger sister Elizabeth is recorded as having been a speaker of Anēwan and Ambēyaŋ, and Maria would also have spoken these languages. Maria had children with an Aboriginal man from the Ingleba area by the name of Bungaree (aka James Dixon), who was born before the British invasion of the Tableland. Bungaree would have been a speaker of several other Tableland languages in addition to Ambēyaŋ.
The assimilation process was well underway by the 1850s, and so was Aboriginal acquisition of English. Following the general withdrawal of European workers from New England stations to the gold diggings, local Aboriginal people were employed to alleviate the resulting labour shortage in the pastoral industry. Presumably owing to the relatively small size of the Tableland Aboriginal population, their contribution was supplemented by the recruitment of many Aborigines from the coastal areas. With the influx of Aboriginal workers from the coast, Anaiwan now had to contend with the influence of less vulnerable neighbouring languages, which were beginning to gain a foothold on the Tableland.
By the 1860s, disease and warfare had reduced the region’s Aboriginal population by roughly half, leaving only about 250 first-language Anaiwan speakers, and many thousands of English-speaking colonists. Traditional society was fast deteriorating, and local people had come to be almost completely dependent on the coloniser for survival. Violent exploitation of Aboriginal people and their lands continued to erode traditional owners’ access to country, entrenching the conditions for rapid language decline.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, English had become the main mode of communication within the Aboriginal community. Most children were growing up speaking English as their first language, and learning only fragments of their ancestral tongue.