‘jump up whitefellow’: meaning and origin

[Please note: This post contains language that some readers may find offensive.]

The Australian-English phrase jump up whitefellow, or white fellow, refers to the Aboriginal belief that light-skinned persons are reincarnations of dead Aborigines.

Robert Dawson (1782-1866), who had served as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company, mentioned both the belief and the phrase in The Present State of Australia; a Description of the Country, its Advantages and Prospects, with Reference to Emigration: and a Particular Account of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of its Aboriginal Inhabitants (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1830):

In the course of conversation with the natives […], I endeavoured to learn something more of “Coen,” their devil, or evil spirit of the woods. […]
I observed to Bungaree […], that coen, or debble debble, was a bad fellow I believed. “Murry bad pellow, massa,” he answered […]. “When he makes black fellow die,” I said, “what becomes of him afterwards?” “Go away Englat,” (England,) he answered, “den come back white pellow.” This idea is so strongly impressed upon their minds, that when they discover any likeness between a white man and any one of their deceased friends, they exclaim immediately, “Dat black pellow good while ago jump up white pellow, den come back again.” I endeavoured by every means in my power to ascertain whether they had any notion of the influence or power that sent these deceased friends to England and brought them back so transformed, but they could tell me no more than I have related.

In early use, the phrase often occurred in newspaper accounts of executions by hanging—as in the following from The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (Perth, Western Australia) of Saturday 16th October 1841:

The murderer Men-dik, an aboriginal native, suffered the extreme penalty of the law on Thursday last, at a spot about a mile distant from Major Nairn’s residence on the Canning River, near the place where the murder of the boy, Burtenshaw Cox, was committed.
[…]
The unhappy man betrayed no signs of fear on the road from Fremantle to the fatal spot […]. From the expressions he made use of on the road it was evident he was perfectly conscious that he was about to suffer death, but he consoled himself with the reflection that he would “by and by jump up white fellow,” an impression prevalent amongst the blacks, indeed the only idea they entertain of a future state.

According to The Inquirer (Perth, Western Australia) of Wednesday 20th October 1841, on his way to the gallows, the above-mentioned Men-dik

manifested on the road little or no appearance of fear; but, under the influence of his expressed faith in the belief that he would “by and bye jump up white fellow,” chatted and laughed as cheerfully as if nothing out of the ordinary course of his life was near about happening to him.

Likewise, the following is from the account of the execution of an Aborigine called Theremitchie, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Thursday 2nd November 1843:

He was perfectly aware of the fate which awaited him; but appeared to have the notion that he would soon “jump up, white fellow!”

This gave rise to the extended phrase jump up white fellow, plenty of sixpence—quoted for example in the following from the Launceston Examiner (Launceston, Tasmania) of Wednesday 5th November 1851:

Enthological [sic] Society, April 16.—Sir C. Malcolm, President, in the chair.—‘On the Superstitions of the Australians,’ by W. Miles.—The belief in resuscitation and transmigration—the metempsychosis of olden times—is common to every known tribe in Australia. The natives formerly believed that after death they became changed into some animal,—as, a shark, or bird, or quadruped:—but now, they believe that they return to earth after death as white men. A native who was executed at Melbourne consoled himself by saying—“Never mind, I jump up white fellow,—plenty of sixpence.”

‘Melbournensis’ explained the meaning of this extended phrase in The Aborigines of Australia, published in The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son), Volume V, 1877:

The commonly-received opinion with regard to the majority of the Australian aborigines is, that they have no idea of a Supreme Being. They make use of no prayers, and have no form of public or private worship. A singular belief with regard to the life which succeeds death seems to have been adopted by them since the coming of the whites. They think that when they fall down and die, they after a time “jump up white fellows.” It is said that a semi-civilised savage, when about to be hung for some crime in Melbourne, cried out: “Very good; me jump up white fellow; plenty sixpence.” He was consoled by the prospect of all the enjoyments which the money he should have as a white man would purchase for him.

This is the interesting first paragraph of The Aborigines of Australia, by ‘Melbournensis’:

As in the case of the North American Indians, the Australian aborigines have suffered from contact with the white man. Of the thousands that once roamed in rude freedom over the hills and valleys which Europeans have seized and made their own, not many hundreds now remain. The survivors generally live in the outskirts of the settlements, retiring before the steadily advancing wave of civilization. Before they accepted the gifts of the white man, and allowed him to take up his abode among them, the aborigines were, on the whole, a vigorous and healthy race. But the white man brought with him strong drink and civilised vice, with their natural result, manifold disease, and a blight fell upon the native population. Inured to hardship, they had flourished in their primitive wildness; but, like the beast of the forest, that will droop and die behind the bars of a cage, they became enfeebled in the midst of the restraints and enervating ease of civilisation, and rapidly disappeared from earth. Whole tribes have been swept away, of which even the name is no longer preserved. Strangers possess the lakes and rivers that once were theirs, and they shall never more hunt the opossum and kangaroo in the woods and over the plains of Australia. The individuals who live within the limits of the colonies are, in most instances, but degraded specimens of the race. To form a true idea of the Australian savage, we must seek him in the wilds to which no white man has yet penetrated, or judge him by the accounts of impartial travellers who were the first to become acquainted with his appearance and customs.

Another extended form of the phrase, go down blackfellow and jump up whitefellow, occurs for example in this editorial published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 15th May 1880:

“Only a Nigger.”

By rather a curious coincidence the last periodical meeting of the Society which “runs” the mission to the aborigines was held on the day that the Executive in its wisdom decided to “execute” the blackfellow who a little while ago shot one of his sable countrymen at Dubbo. The wretched aboriginal who is now cast for death is, like all other Australian blacks who have been so fortunate as to come into contact with civilization, a worthless, drunken creature. So far as can be gathered from the published reports and from the Ministerial apology for the projected execution which appears in the Herald, it would seem that two blackfellows on a station fell in love, after their dunderheaded fashion, with the same woman. Amongst white people it is sometimes noticed that a lady with two or even more suitors plays her cards diplomatically and keeps her lovers “at the end of a string” for a greater or less number of months or years. But in the case of this black woman it was otherwise. She manifested, or is said to have manifested, a pronounced penchant for the condemned blackfellow’s rival and ran away with him, which so enraged Albert the bad that he followed the pair with a gun and did the deed which he is destined to expiate with his life. If a white man had done such a thing—if, like Bertrand, he had first unsuccessfully tried to poison and then shot a husband who had a pretty wife—it might, provided he had plenty of money and friends, have been discovered that he was inebriated all the time, or that he was mad and ought to be sent to Gladesville or to Parramatta Asylum or to Darlinghurst, to live in cosy retirement, or to “nap” stones, or make cocoa-nut mats, or brew black-drughts and mutton-broth for sick lunatics or dyspeptic convicts. But as he was “only a nigger,” the sage people who had pardoned the North Shore villains and Gardiner, and merely imprisoned Williams and Bennett, the murderers of Constable Bowen, thought that it didn’t matter, and that it would be just as well to give Monsieur de Sydney and his assistant a free pass to Dubbo, and let them interview the blackfellow for a few minutes on one of these cold mornings. In June last, at Mudgee, they put a black to death for a crime which two white youths had committed in a perhaps worse form at Bathurst, so in order to be consistent and to keep to the precedent they had laid down it was necessary for them to see that the jealous, passionate Albert should “go down blackfellow and jump up whitefellow.”