Warning: this biography includes a reference to sexual violence that may distress readers. If you feel triggered or upset by the content, we encourage you to use your discretion as to whether you should continue reading.
A resilient leader know as Granny Louisa
Louisa Pepper-Connolly, affectionately known by her family and community as Granny Louisa, was a Brataualung woman who lived in a time of adverse government policies that tried very hard to destroy Aboriginal culture and families. She showed the greatest of resilience in these hard times and still managed to pass down her knowledge to her community, her children and her grandchildren who she helped raise (due to their mother’s early death).
Louisa’s life story is one of enduring and prevailing over significant challenges and trauma that demonstrate the harsh reality of Australia’s past treatment of Aboriginal people.
As a young child, Louisa experienced the ‘big hunts’ that pursued Aboriginal people. Her mother Mercawan was raped and ‘that was where the colour changed’ according to her grandson Phillip Pepper in his book You Are What You Make Yourself To Be.
Louisa’s family was from Port Albert in Gippsland. They were living at Yarram and the swamps when Louisa lost her mother, who was killed by squatters. From this event, Louisa herself still had pellets in her when she died.
Following the death of her mum, as a young girl Louisa was taken in by a Dr Arbuckle and she took on his last name for a short time.
Later, in a search for her own people, Louisa settled on the Ramahyuck Mission in Gippsland. Ramahyuck was established in 1862 by Reverend FA Hagenauer on a site near Maffra. It was one of three Aboriginal missions established by Moravian missioners in Victoria. The local farming community opposed the mission being in this location, so it was later moved to the Avon River near Lake Wellington in Sale. That was where Louisa met and married Nathaniel Pepper, from the Wotjobaluk Tribe of the Wimmera region, and they had four children.
Louisa and Nathaniel Pepper continued to live on Ramahyuck Mission. While Nathaniel helped preach the Bible at Ramahyuck, Louisa oversaw the Ramahyuck Orphanage. She was known as the Keeper of the Gunnai Languages, was a health and childcare worker, and for many years acted as a nurse and midwife for the Gippsland Aboriginal Community. She played an important role in holding together family and cultural traditions, especially when this cultural knowledge and language was not allowed to be practiced on the mission.
Louisa nursed Nathaniel in bad health until his death circa 1877. Sometime after Nathaniel’s death Louisa married John ‘Jack’ Connolly and became known as Louise or Louisa Pepper-Connolly, as well as Granny Connolly. Louisa had another four children at Ramahyuck and also remained in charge of the orphanage that housed up to 20 children at a time because tuberculosis, or ‘consumption’ as it was then referred to, had taken its toll on the Gunnai and other Aboriginal people.
In 1886, the Government assimilation policy had come into effect. Better known as the Victorian Half-Caste Act 1886, its aim was ‘to provide for the protection and management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria’. Louisa’s family was deeply impacted by this legislation. In 1889 her son, Percy Pepper, was removed from her and sent to an orphanage in Brighton on the pretence that he would receive an education. Instead, this separation from his family aimed to weaken kinship ties and Percy remained at this orphanage for seven years until he was sent to Lake Boga near Swan Hill to be an apprentice baker.
In 1890, Louisa and Jack Connolly and other remaining family members were forced by government legislation to move from Ramahyuck Mission to Stratford, located approximately 20 kilometres away. Percy Pepper reunited with his family in 1898 when he returned to Gippsland.
This period was most traumatic for Louisa and her community. Her services were still very much needed by the Ramahyuck residents and other Aboriginal people, as she could speak four of the five Gunnai Clan Languages, and because of her knowledge and understanding of cultural birthing practices, health and wellbeing.
Louisa’s stories have been recorded in her grandson’s book, You Are What You Make Yourself To Be. In Louisa’s traditional cultural stories including How to Discipline the Young, the Water Hole Near Seaspray, the Massacres of Port Albert and Stealing Girls, Louisa told of how men came and stole her and another young girl from their tribe’s camp at Port Albert and how the white kangaroo would take them back home. She talked about the Buheen, the clever bloke of the tribe, and how ‘they would get him to sing in Language, the one who took the girls away, how they sang this bloke right to the camp and how they would punish him’.
Her descendants still have some of the Gunnai Languages and stories along with traditional cultural knowledge to pass down to the new generations.
Louisa has been recognised by a stone monument in the main street of Bairnsdale. She features in The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture and is also in the online Australian Women’s Register.
Louisa’s legacy includes a history of Aboriginal–European relations in Gippsland, particularly the effect of government policies, memories of traditional lifestyle and customs, life on the Ramahyuck Mission, and being the Keeper of Gunnai Languages and oral stories. Such stories are a very important cultural legacy for Gunnai people and for Victoria.
Louisa’s story demonstrates a lifetime of holding fast to her identity and culture, and finding strength and resilience in difficult circumstances for herself and her family. She is honoured for showing the resilience of Gunnai Elders.
Reviewed 03 May 2021