William (Billy) Turbane

On the 16th anniversary of the former PM’s apology to Australia’s Stolen Generation I sat at my dining table listening to the tv reports about the failures of the Closing the Gap policy, and the fact that four of the targets were actually getting worse. Sadly, not news to me and from working in a sector, and living in a community, that sees Indigenous disadvantage day in and day out I was immune to the disappointment of yet another failure in Indigenous affairs, but on the wall in front of me was one of the strong foundations of my resilience, identity and cultural pride that inspires me to keep moving forward. That wall has a picture of my grandfather William (Billy) Turbane, and a painting of his Mandandanji Country and his yuri (Dreaming/totem), the buruda (Red Kangaroo). When I feel overwhelmed with stories of Indigenous disadvantage I look to this wall, and other pictures of my Old People prominently displayed in my home, to replenish my spirit. As the child of a traditional Mandandanji woman (no white heritage) and a Scottish man, my Grandfathers life story fills me with pride, it inspires me and grounds me in my identity as a child of a mixed race heritage.

Even though I knew of my Aboriginal history since childhood I wasn’t fully aware of the other side of our heritage, except that the man grandfather called his father was a Scottish Bank Manager, and it is where our surname, Turba(y)ne came from. From a mixture of my Mum’s (and aunts & uncles) recollections from her father, to my own research, I was able to uncover linkages. A few years ago I came across some descendants of the Scottish man that had a pivotal role in my family’s history and we did a DNA test. This did not return a biological link which could have been the end of that a oral history shattered by the result of a DNA test that yielded no connection. A historian would look at the discrepancies in spelling, and other inconsistencies and could dispute any connection…. but the oral history was key for me.

My grandfather recounted stories to his children  of David Turbayne, the man he called his father, and the children he called his brothers & sisters. I have even come across records of interactions between David’s wife, Janet Turbayne (after David had passed away) and one of my uncles from my grandfather’s earlier marriage. So it could be that David may not have been my grandfather’s biological father, but he had helped raise him alongside his own children, even giving him his surname, which indicates he had played a significant part in Billy’s upbringing. David passed away in 1890, my grandfather would have been a young man around 18 at the time. From oral recollections by that time Billy had been become an articulate, educated young man who had learnt to live easily in two worlds.

Mr David Turbayne

Pioneer and Pastoral Manager - Roma district

Billy was the only Aboriginal child in the district that carried David’s surname, and there are even historical records that show his surname spelt as Turbayne. A key point, as many Aboriginal people where named for the pastoral stations they were born on and examples of that can be found across Australia, but also illegitimate Aboriginal children were known to carry the surname of their fathers, and there are many examples of that too. Billy was well educated but as it’s not known how he was schooled one can only assume it was under David Turbayne’s tutelage and care. There are oral accounts of Billy being known as a bush lawyer who could articulate himself very well.  Sadly, this didn’t prevent him from being sent to the Taroom Aboriginal Reserve in 1912, as a direct result of ‘Living under the Act’.

Billy Turbane was known to never back down from authorities, even though he was shipped off to two Missions in his lifetime, and was ordered to live on them for over 30 yrs. During this lifetime of living on Missions, Billy and his wife Jane never lost sight of who they were as Aboriginal people, or where they came from. They instilled a strong sense of pride and identity in their children, embracing both their ‘black’ and ‘white’ heritage. In 1946 they were granted an ‘exemption’ and once off the Mission they returned to Country with their daughter (my Mum).


Exemption certificates dictated conditions for Aboriginal people which included not being allowed to associate with other Aboriginal people, amongst other things. As would be expected this is not something my grandparents adhered to, and living amongst their own people upon their return to Country is what they did. Exemption certificates are the reason why I’ll never access supports created to ensure equity in business, education or employment outcomes for Indigenous people as it requires me to produce a Confirmation of Aboriginality. I refuse to ask anyone for a useless piece of paper that identifies me as Aboriginal because my mother once had a useless piece of paper that dictated she could NOT live as an Aboriginal person. Also, from an early age Mum reinforced my capability to compete with anyone on my own merit, especially when it came to my education so I’ve never felt the need to access supports because I’m Aboriginal. I have no judgement of people who do, I just choose not to.

Throughout all his life experiences William Turbane proudly maintained his sense of identity as a Kunggari-Mandandanji and Scottish man and did not harbour any feelings of inferiority to white people. He spoke to his children of his father and step-siblings, and even named his daughter after one of his step-sisters, Isabel, it’s where my name comes from. Biologically a DNA test was unable to prove my connection to David Turbayne but it is the oral history that has the most value to me. I’ve known the story of my Scottish great grandfather since I was a very young child and it’s a cornerstone of my identity and is a part of my life that I’m as equally proud of as my Aboriginal side. Whether we are connected by blood or not.

Isabelle West – Turbane