People Australia

  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Kerwalli (c. 1832–1900)

by Ray Kerkhove

Kerwalli (c. 1832–1900), south-east Queensland headman, also known as Gairballie or King Sandy, was said to be of the ‘Moreton Aboriginal tribe’ (Brisbane Courier 1888, 4). He may have been related to Dalaipi, headman from the Pine Rivers area north of Brisbane. His first wife and granddaughter were both called Sarah. After his wife Sarah’s death he married Margaret Catchpenny, a well-known Aboriginal busker. Many south-east Queensland Aboriginal families claim descent from him.

In 1862 Kerwalli became the leader (‘captain’) of Queensland’s first Aboriginal timber team, some forty-five Aboriginal men, women, and children who worked for colonists Tom Petrie and William Pettigrew cutting and hauling timber around Buderim and Mooloolaba (Sunshine Coast). Eventually the team expanded their work to Noosa and the Blackall Ranges, with Kerwalli accompanying Petrie to locate timber in the Mary River – Wide Bay region. In this same period Kerwalli, who travelled with the Gneering (a timber-hauling steamer) to sell fish he had caught, appeared at corroborees and in photographs in Brisbane, for which he received some payment. He continued timber work until 1880 in the Maroochy district.

Interviewed by the naturalist James Whitelaw Craig in 1875, Kerwalli famously remarked that white people had taken Brisbane from him and in exchange had given him a breastplate. In 1877, prior to the first inter-colonial shows, a series of medallions were made in several Australian capitals to mark the dethroning of local Aboriginal headmen and the success of the colonies. One was cast with Kerwalli’s image and the inscription ‘Sandy: Ex: Rex: Queensland.’

In the 1880s and 1890s, Kerwalli was usually based around Toorbul, Sandgate, and Redcliffe, from where he would walk, or sometimes catch the train, to sell oysters and fish in Brisbane. Being so often in the heart of the city, he became a well-known and much-loved character. In 1880 he helped the police in their search for a body in the Brisbane River.

Numerous photographs, drawings, paintings and even a sculpture were made of Kerwalli at professional studios in Brisbane and at camps such as Enoggera between the 1860s and 1890s. This included work by the renowned Swedish-born artist Carl Magnus Oscar Fristrom.

In his last few years, Kerwalli lived in Wynnum. There Henry Wyat Radford, assistant clerk to the Queensland Parliament, regularly sought his advice on local placenames. The name of the mountain that overlooks the city, Coot-tha, as well as other local placenames, were related by him. Queensland’s first protector of Aborigines, Archibald Meston, identified Kerwalli as one of his main informants. He died in Wynnum in 1900.


Brisbane Courier. ‘The Brisbane Courier.’ 18 June 1888, 4.

Brown, E. R. ‘William Pettigrew 1825 –1906 Sawmiller, Surveyor, Shipowner and Citizen: An Immigrant’s life in Colonial Queensland.’ PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2004.

Colliver, Frederick Stanley and Frank Woolston. Aboriginals in the Brisbane Area. Brisbane: Department of Community Services, 1985.

Craig, James Whitelaw. Diary of a Naturalist: Being the Record of Three Years’ Work Collecting Specimens in the South of France and Australia, 1873–1877. Edited by A. F. Craig. Paisley, Scotland: J. and R. Parlane, 1908.

Kerkhove, Ray. Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane. Salisbury: Boolarong, 2015.

Petrie, Constance. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences. Brisbane: Watson, Ferguson & Co., 1904.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ray Kerkhove, 'Kerwalli (c. 1832–1900)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gairballie
  • King Sandy

c. 1832
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


1900 (aged ~ 68)
Wynnum, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.