Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800

Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800

by Richard Broome

Early settlers saw Victoria and its rolling grasslands as Australia felix happy south land a prize left for Englishmen by God. However, for its original inhabitants this country was home and life, not to be relinquished without a fierce struggle. Richard Broome tells the story of the impact of European ideas, guns, killer microbes and a pastoral economy on the…  See more details below


Early settlers saw Victoria and its rolling grasslands as Australia felix happy south land a prize left for Englishmen by God. However, for its original inhabitants this country was home and life, not to be relinquished without a fierce struggle. Richard Broome tells the story of the impact of European ideas, guns, killer microbes and a pastoral economy on the networks of kinship, trade and cultures that various Aboriginal peoples of Victoria had developed over millennia. From first settlement to the present, he shows how Aboriginal families have coped with ongoing disruption and displacement, and how individuals and groups have challenged the system. With painful stories of personal loss as well as many successes, Broome outlines how Aboriginal Victorians survived near decimation to become a vibrant community today. The first history of black-white interaction in Victoria to the present, Aboriginal Victorians offers new insights into frontier conflict, attempts at control and assimilation, the Stolen Generation, and Aboriginal survival and identity in modern Australia. Based on consultation with Aboriginal communities and families, as well as a range of historical research, it is an even-handed and compelling account.

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Aboriginal Victorians

A History Since 1800

By Richard Broome

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2005 Richard Broome
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74115-484-9



Aboriginal people initially experienced the European adventure in Port Phillip (as pre-1851 Victoria was known) like puzzling fragments of a drama played out behind a screen. The Gunai probably spied the sails of Lt James Cook's Endeavour in April 1770, as he coasted off Gippsland north of Point Hicks, and were bemused by their novelty. The next generation of Gunai secretly watched the shipwrecked crew of the Sydney Cove struggling overland from Ninety Mile Beach to Sydney in 1797. The Gunai also watched George Bass's whaleboat coast Gippsland as far west as Western Port in 1798. Sealing and whaling ships wallowed past, occasionally to land and refresh. A century later, a missionary in Gippsland, Rev. John Bulmer, noted a song recording these mystical events of sails and men and guns:

mundhanna loornda kathia prappau There are white men long way off with great noise Muraskin mundhanna yea a main Guns there sailing about

First Encounters

In 1800 the Lady Nelson traversed Bass Strait, the first known European ship to do so. Two more explorations by this vessel found Lt Murray and his crew surfing the rip into Port Phillip Bay in February 1801. Boon-wurrung men, leaving their women and children hidden, met five crewmen on the sands near Sorrento — white-faced ghosts with strange cloaks — spirit men perhaps. The warriors were wary, but exchanged spears, an axe and a basket for shirts, mirrors, and a steel axe. Dancing followed but tensions ran high, as the British sought water, and the Aborigines queried the strangers' intent. Armed warriors hidden in nearby bushes alarmed the British. Panicked warnings led to spears flying and firing from muskets and the ship's cannon, wounding several Boonwurrung as they fled, the English shirts flapping on their backs. Murray termed it a 'treacherous and unprovoked attack', but the British were intruders on Boonwurrung land. In early March, the Boonwur-rung met Captain Milius of the Naturaliste alone on the Western Port shore in a more peaceful encounter. The Frenchman stripped, sang and danced to earn their trust. The Aborigines inspected his clothes, body, even teeth (for a sign, perhaps, of initiation) before hurrying away in disbelief. Milius considered them 'great children'.

The Boonwurrung faced the first large-scale invasion in 1803. A British convict settlement of 467 people under Lt David Collins disembarked at Sorrento in October 1803 to defend Bass Strait against the French. The Boonwurrung avoided the camp, which was inhabited by as many as the Boonwurrung numbered themselves. Wathawurrung warriors encountered the settlement's survey parties on the western shores of Port Phillip Bay. Nervous moments occurred at Corio Bay as warriors fingered the clothing and implements of the British. Spears, blankets and food crossed the cultural divide, but hostility also emerged. A remarkable incident occurred at the Werribee River as 200 shouting Wathawurrung, some with faces painted in red, white and yellow clays, bore down upon the surveyors, brandishing spears. Several carried between them, on their shoulders, a warrior wearing a reed necklace, a large septum bone and a massive coronet of swan's feathers. The alarmed Europeans fired. A Wathawurrung warrior fell, probably victim of a 19-mm lead ball from a 'Brown Bess' English service musket, which tore his flesh and bone. The charge halted and the Wathawurrung fled in panic at the deadly lightning from the strangers' eyes. After eight months, Lt Collins termed Sorrento an 'unpromising and unproductive country', and withdrew to establish a settlement in Tasmania at Hobart Town. The Boonwurrung picked over the camp for glass and iron and all the Bay people pondered the meaning of this visit.

Several escaped convicts remained behind in Boonwurrung territory. They split up and one of them, William Buckley, headed west around the Bay and survived in the most novel of ways. Buckley, a 195-cm ex-soldier from Cheshire and a convicted thief, was dying of exposure and starvation after failing to live off the land, when the Wathawurrung found him. They believed him to be Murrangurk, a deceased relative, transformed into ghost-like whiteness and strangely bereft of his former language and customs. They took him in, tolerated his oddness and gave him a wife. His tales of the Napoleonic Wars, of armies and horses, of England and London, must have awed them as the knowledge of a spirit traveller, but Buckley always remained a novice in terms of Aboriginal ways. He was assimilated in an extraordinary tale of survival and acceptance, passed down to us in reminiscences he related in old age.

The Kulin peoples of central Victoria had few contacts with Europeans for a further generation, although they picked up rare European flotsam and jetsam that floated the world's seas. Sealers and bark cutters occasionally watered in the Bay. The Geordy's crew clashed with the Boonwurrung during one such visit in 1815, killing one man. Buckley recalled that Wathawurrung saw two Europeans brought ashore, tied to a tree and shot, which horrified them, as they generally punished in less fatal ways. Buckley heard that some Wathawurrung had secretly boarded another visiting vessel to steal glass and iron. When the Frenchman Dumont D'Urville sketched sealers at Western Port in 1826, he drew an Aboriginal woman attending the sealers' hut. In 1833, nine Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung women and a youth, Yonki Yonka, were captured by sealers, and the women were taken as 'wives' to the Bass Strait Islands according to a story told in 1836 by Derrimut, a Boonwur-rung man. Yonki Yonka made it home in 1841 via voyages to Western Australia, and two female descendants of his did so in 1854.

Elsewhere coastal groups encountered or watched Europeans. The Gunditjmara observed and perhaps met bark cutters at Port Fairy as early as 1810, while whalers and sealers visited Wilson's Promontory, Western Port and Portland Bay in the decades before the 1830s. We know nothing of these interactions. Explorers and a temporary British garrison penetrated Western Port in 1826. Numerous Aboriginal groups saw or heard of Captain Charles Sturt as he voyaged the Murray in 1830, and Major Thomas Mitchell as he explored overland to Portland in 1835, leaving puzzling wagon tracks in the soil. Aboriginal people pondered these events in campfire discussions, and speculated on the scraps of iron and fragments from another world that filtered from the north via three great trading routes: that of the Kulin, of the Wergaia-speaking peoples to the north-west, and the Gunai of Gippsland.

Other things intruded from the north: invisible viruses and bacteria. The most devastating human virus of all, smallpox (variola major) had been endemic in Asia, Africa and Europe for possibly 5,000 years, having killed Pharaoh Ramses V in 1,157 BC. The disease spread through riverine populations of eastern Australia. Residents of early convict Sydney witnessed an outbreak that killed half the local Aboriginal population in 1789. Historians have debated that outbreak's origin and some have blamed the convict settlement for its introduction. However, smallpox was endemic in Macassar and across the Asian region for several millennia. European contagion certainly did not cause the south-east Australian outbreak of 1830. The weight of evidence suggests that smallpox occasionally spread from Macassan fishermen, who visited northern Australia annually from about 1720 to 1900 in search of trepang (sea slug).

The Asian variety was the most virulent of the various strains of smallpox. Classically, the disease began with raging headaches and high fevers and proceeded to a rash and pustules that covered the body after a week, especially the face, hands and feet, with either a thin spread, or a confluence of lesions in the more virulent forms. Once the pustules broke, the sufferer became even more infectious, and death followed in the second week. The survivors, weak, sore and debilitated, were incapable of caring for themselves for some weeks, particularly as the hard skin on the soles of the feet carried painful scabs for up to a month. Further deaths also occurred from pulmonary and other complications, and from subsequent malnutrition. Survivors were immune to subsequent attacks. The research that assisted smallpox's global eradication in 1979 indicated that it normally killed sufferers of all ages, but was lightest by far on 10–14-year-olds, and killed more women than men, especially pregnant women. It was endemic in populations over 200,000 where survivors were immune, but could infect and re-infect societies of small, scattered groups. In the Americas, it ravaged indigenous hunting peoples sporadically over three centuries after Cortes's conquest in 1518, killing between 30 and 100 per cent of tribal populations.

Smallpox leaves a unique signature by way of pitted marks upon the face. As Lt James Flemming and others observed Aborigines with pockmarked faces in 1803, it is likely the Kulin peoples of central and western Victoria were infected with smallpox in 1790 and then 1830 before they ever met a European. William Buckley remembered a 'complaint which spread through the country, occasioning the loss of many lives, attacking generally the healthiest and strongest, whom it appeared to fix upon in preference to the more weakly. It was a dreadful swelling of the feet, so that they [sufferers] were unable to move about, being also afflicted with ulcers of a very painful kind'. Indigenous skin diseases — such as yaws — could not kill. Thus Buckley's recollection of a 'loss of many lives', together with the 'ulcers' and his description of the state of the feet suggests smallpox.

Many Europeans recalled meeting pock-marked Aboriginal people in the 1830s and 1840s. George Haydon, a settler, noted many in early Melbourne were 'disfigured' in this way. Dr David Thomas recorded in 1839: 'I saw several Blackfellows of the Yarra, Goulburn, Geelong, and other tribes, all of them rather advanced in years, having pits of smallpox'. Settlers in central and western regions of the colony made similar comments. Only Gippsland was free of such observations, which reflected the customary sparse contact between the Gunai of Gippsland and other Victorian groups. Elderly Aboriginal Murray River men with pock-marked faces told a pastoralist, Peter Beveridge, in the 1840s that a pestilence travelled the Murray sent by malevolent sorcerers from the north. So dreadful was the loss of life that after a time the people were unable to bury their dead and simply fled. Beveridge recalled the elderly spoke of it 'with such an amount of loathing horror' as the only time large numbers of people died from one cause. The Wotjobaluk told John Bulmer it came down the river, and termed it thinba micka.

William Thomas, the Aboriginal Protector who recorded Aboriginal stories in the 1840s, wrote of the Mindye, the great rainbow snake that lived in the northwest and was controlled by one family. The Mindye could hiss and spread white particles from its mouth, from which 'disease is inhaled'. Thomas added that 'when the Mindye is in a district the blacks run for their lives, setting the bush on fire as they proceed, and not stopping to bury their dead or attend to any seized. Many drop down dead on the road'. In 1843 Europeans witnessed a gageed ceremony in Melbourne meant to ward off epidemics. This story and ceremony suggest the memory of an horrific incident of disease.

Smallpox infected Aboriginal people, except the Gunai of Gippsland, twice before Europeans arrived, perhaps halving the population each time. Women died at higher rates, impeding population recovery. It is likely that sealers, some of whom captured or bartered for Aboriginal women, introduced venereal bacteria as well. However, any infertility from syphilis was minute compared to the impact of smallpox on mortality and population recovery. Noel Butlin, an economic historian who studied smallpox and modelled its likely impact on the population of south-eastern Australia, believed a south-eastern Aboriginal population of 250,000 (perhaps 60,000 in Victoria) in 1788, was halved around 1790 and again in 1830. These new diseases assisted the European conquest.

Managing the Intruders

Most Aboriginal people shared the notion of a periphery, an afar place, from which strange things emerged and could be explained. Campfire debates drew on this idea as Aboriginal groups contemplated recent novelties: the Mindye (smallpox) was sent from the northwest; Murran-gurk (Buckley) travelled back from a land of the dead; iron and cloth came from a distant place. However, in 1834, sixty-four years after the first glimpse of Cook's sails, a deluge of new things began. The Henty family permanently settled the Gunditjmara's land at Portland Bay in November 1834 with their servants, peculiar livestock and a world of farm technology. In June 1835 John Batman surveyed the future site of Melbourne on behalf of some Van Diemen's Land (Tasmanian) adventurers, who formed the Port Phillip Association. Aboriginal people struggled to explain the increasing changes and fiercely debated how to manage them. While the numbers of intruders remained small and the indigenous economy was intact, Aborigines exercised considerable influence, but within a few years only marginal control was possible.

The Kulin watched Batman, a Ben Lomond pastoralist from across Bass Strait, as he walked the lands around the Yarra, pronouncing them the 'most beautiful sheep pasturage I ever saw in my life'. Batman came with his experience of Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land, seven 'Sydney blacks' as mediators, a treaty to purchase land (the only one ever offered in Australia's colonisation), and a promise to protect Aboriginal people. His fourteen associates were Hobart officials and educated men: capitalists with a humanitarian streak, who genuinely sought good relations with Aboriginal people, but also knew a treaty might win favour in London for their illegal settlement on the southern coast. After a week the Kulin chose to meet with Batman, who trod their lands with a hungry eye. Through the customary gestures and shared dialects of his 'Sydney blacks', Batman communicated his desire to purchase land in exchange for blankets, steel blades, mirrors, beads and 'a tribute, or rent, yearly'. His performance was respectful of the owners. Batman's land purchase document was ritualistic, being in the ancient form of a feoffment, which involved marking the land and exchanging a handful of earth. Land purchase had no meaning to the Kulin — for how could a clan sell its religious and social birth right to strangers who did not know the country, its stories, nor how to care for it. However, the Kulin had a notion of welcome and temporary usage for strangers by way of a tander-rum ceremony. Eight Kulin, whom Batman called 'chiefs', signed the treaties (there were two involving land around Melbourne and Geelong).

While land soon worth £150,000 to Europeans (3,000 times a shepherd's annual wage) was 'signed' for little in return, it was a deal freely done and one which had meaning for the Kulin, not as a purchase, but as a hospitality, and perhaps as an agreement regarding the use of resources. Besides, the Kulin knew the value of iron, since Batman had found some sharpened into a blade in a woman's dilly bag. We should see the acceptance of the treaty as a Kulin political strategy (as it was for Batman), and not simply as some white trick or swindle, as five of the eight signatories were Kulin clan heads, astute men who knew what they were about with strangers and were not adverse to killing dangerous interlopers. They had gathered, debated and decided to meet Batman and deal with him, not kill him. Batman and his men with white skins, who came in ships, possessed steel and wrote on paper, were exotic and were thus treated differently to Aboriginal strangers and enemies. That night Batman's 'Sydney blacks' staged a corroboree to the delight of the Kulin, who in turn presented Batman with possum-skin cloaks and weapons on his departure. While both parties acknowledged the treaties — Batman renewed his tribute on the first anniversary and the Kulin's descendants give it a positive significance to this day — the British government rejected them immediately, in order that the Crown's claim of 1770 to own Aboriginal lands would not be questioned.


Excerpted from Aboriginal Victorians by Richard Broome. Copyright © 2005 Richard Broome. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Richard Broome is Associate Professor of History at La Trobe University. One of Australia's most respected scholars of Aboriginal history, he has written many articles and books including Aboriginal Australians and Sideshow Alley.

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