Correcting Some History

Preamble:

The item that follows, a book review by Ron Turner provides an insight into some of the Australian history that perhaps we are not familiar with or not interested in. This subject could well be described as “The Elephant in the Room” when it comes to understanding what really happened during the early settlement years.  That is it is not “fake news” but by and large contained in the diaries of early explorers, naturalists and pastoralists.
What has both amazed and educated me is that many accounts in these early documents have never really seen the light of day in our schools and other places of learning.  At a personal level, I grew up in the Dandenongs and frequently traveled in and around Healesville, chasing rabbits, fish, visiting the Healesville Sanctuary and  passing through this area on-route to other destinations.  However I do not remember my parents, relatives or other acquaintances ever mentioning that there was a significant Aboriginal Mission at our doorstep.
It may be that they were as ignorant of this history just as I was, or perhaps as was often the case in that era that such things were not discussed openly and if they were discussed it was in hushed tones.  Both Ron and I have been traveling a similar path in more recent years attempting to educate ourselves on this aspect of history.  Ron and I first rubbed shoulders with each other when he was Ranger in Charge of Fraser National Park on Lake Eildon  near Alexandra.  At that time I was the District Officer for the Soil Conservation Authority based in the township of Alexandra.  That was of course in the olden days, I first moved to Alexandra in 1971.  Yes, that was last century actually.
Ron and his wife Yvonne are now located at Gympie in Queensland and one of his particular skills is writing.  Amongst other things of course.  Apart from several interruptions we have managed to maintain contact and our friendship ever since our first meetings. Please take some time to read his review and inwardly digest some of the comments and implications.
Two other books you may consider having a look at along the same theme if this wets your appetite are: Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe. 1994.  Also The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage. 2011.  I have recently attended talks by both these authors and they tell amazing stories.
Here endeth the sermon.

Book review by Ron Turner: BARAK Vs the Black Hats of Melbourne

ISBN 978-0-9871574-7-8     Gympie Library ANF 994.52 WOIW

Having lived and worked in Victoria for many years, it was actually the sub-title of this book that drew my attention: The untold story of how the Black-hats destroyed Coranderrk.

Mick Woiwood, the author, is a Koorie descendant of the Wurundjeri people who previously inhabited the south central Victorian area; they were formerly known as Kulin. He draws extensively on scores of official documents and photos held in Archives and the State Library of Victoria, but writes from an Aboriginal perspective. Maps are provided to help define lands granted to the Kulin

This book reveals new information on why and how the land permanently protected by the Victorian Parliament for use of the Kulin peoples at Coranderrk, near Healesville, was disposed of almost sixty years later.

Perhaps the most influential white person who brought about this destruction was Robert Brough Smyth, Secretary of the Board for Protection of Aboriginals, or, as the Kulin came to know it, the ‘Board for the Destruction of Aboriginals’. I knew of this man. He had written the two volume Aborigines of Victoria I had consulted whilst working in the Lake Eildon area. I now know his was not an altruistic approach towards the Aboriginals, rather being more interested in gathering anthropological and ethnological data. His desire was to stand tall among his peers in recording his scientific study of this ‘dying race’. Having obtained the required information he then dispensed with the man solely responsible for establishing Coranderrk.

I was unaware these Kulin people had moved onto the 1857ha Acheron Station, just south of Alexandra, where we lived in 1962, and later schooled our children. This station had been abandoned by the white owner as being useless for European stock. A deputation of seven of the Elders called on Thomas Mc Combie, MLA.) They had become aware of a Government enquiry into conditions of the Aboriginals and now actively sought this land. McCombie was one of the many influential white people who stood as a champion for the Kulin.

Nearby squatters were not positively disposed towards having Aboriginal neighbours. They succeeded in having the Kulin moved onto the higher, poorer and colder Mohican Station further south near Buxton.

John Green was appointed the first Manager of Coranderrk. He had studied medicine and religion. He was a God fearing evangelist, independent of established religions, a person who led by example. Living among the Kulin with his family, he fought for them to be allowed to settle at Coranderrk, moving with them through the dense forests. (The Blacks Spur was later named after their chance meeting with gold seekers cutting their way through trackless forests. As a family, we travelled this route frequently; our boys loved this road calling it the ‘Tree Fern Road’.)

Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve was gazetted in 1863, and enlarged three years later to 1959ha. Green was demonstrably successful in encouraging the Kulin peoples become independent using methods untarnished by class, caste or creed. His vision was to make the Kulin the equal of any in the settler world.

Motivated by Green and his wife and called by a bell at eight in the mornings, tasks were allocated and all able bodied adults who toiled collectively. At ten the bell again tolled; this time it summonsed children to school. Fridays were set aside for collection of firewood; Saturdays was for hunting in nearby forests. Almost 7ha had been cleared and cultivated by 1865 with ‘nine acres of wheat, two of oats, three of potatoes and one of cabbages, carrots and onions’. They had 50 cattle and calves providing milk, butter and meat. No outside European labour was used.

A village, school, church and flourishing crop fields evolved. In 1870, 4.5 tonnes of tobacco were sent to the Melbourne markets. In 1871 they commenced clearing river flats, preparing to grow hops. Ten thousand, six metre long poles had to be cut and transported to the site, where 30,000 cuttings were planted. By 1873, they had built two oast houses to dry the 11,000 bushels of hops the inhabitants picked. By this time, there were 61ha cleared plus 233ha enclosed by three-rail fencing for grazing. In 1876 their livestock numbered 331 mixed age cattle, plus horses and pigs. There were 23 slab and bark covered huts including dormitories for outside orphans, plus 13 other assorted farm buildings, and even a water powered sawmill.

Given a chance, the Kulin children were intelligent. School achievements were a 100% mark in 1872 and again in 1874, the highest in the Victorian school system. Other achievements were 93% and 96%. The Elders were described in1858 as a body of intelligent and industrious men. In 1876 they were described as ‘able to read, write and argue, and put forward their opinion on various subjects in a most intelligent manner’, and, ‘quite as intelligent as many members of parliament’. Many times they walked the 65kms to Melbourne to meet politicians, even the Governor. Editors of the two leading newspapers received them courteously and printed their stories. They had accepted Christianity; marriages and baptisms were celebrated; the dead were buried in coffins. Green was often congratulated on the prevailing standards at the station by a medico who visited four times a year; white people at nearby Healesville came to Green for cures and relief. The station was a demonstrable success.

Many other white people supported them strongly, not the least being John and Anne Bon of the Wappan Station, near Mansfield who received them hospitably, also welcoming them as shearers. (Once again, this was my ‘back yard’! My recommendation to add part of their former station to a national park where I worked was accepted.)

Smyth had initially been ebullient at the success of Coranderrk.  By the 1870’s he had, however, obtained from Green and the Kulin the primary source information required to allow him to proceed to have the Government print his books. Green was too good to be allowed to stay and disprove the accepted theory the Aboriginal race was dying out. Others were brought in to manage the station.

Smyth was found guilty at two government enquiries held into mis-treatment of his own white staff; this eventually forced him to leave Victoria under a cloud. He had close links with and was a supporter of the aims of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria. A century later, Smyth’s biographer referred to him as a half-mad bureaucrat, Woiwood claims.

Enter the Black Hats, the squatters who had become rich by grazing lands from which the original inhabitants had ‘disappeared’. These newly rich lived in mansions around Melbourne. They considered the Victorian landscape ‘dull and boring’ and formed the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria in 1857 to promote introduction of a wide variety of animals and plants. By 1875, deer they had introduced may have already become a nuisance in the Yarra valley. Adjacent white settlers rewarded the Kulin handsomely for stalking and shooting seven of the animals.

Among the members of the ASV was Albert leSouef, the Black Rod for the Victorian House of Parliament. Whenever there was a move to treat the Wurundjeri more equitably, the ASV was forewarned and moved quickly to thwart any proposals contrary to their gentlemanly aims. As Oscar Wilde once said, the gentry were unspeakable people in pursuit of the uneatable. Within days of confirmation of the deer being shot, senior members of the ASV sought appointment and were accepted to the BPA. The Kulin stood in the way of the ASV and were to be dispersed across Victoria.

The resounding success of the Kulin people at Coranderrk went into reverse. How the BPA achieved their aims makes sad and shameful reading.

I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this book outlining why Coranderrk was closed, and how and why the Healesville Sanctuary and Soldier Settlement obtained the land. Particularly disgraceful was the denial of the application of Aboriginal returned servicemen who had fought during the war, yet denied land to settle on; land that had formerly been given to them.

However, some light hearted moments appear in ‘Barak’:

Woiwood gives the account of a naturalist offering a large sum to the Kulin at Coranderrk for capture of a live platypus. The men were playing a game of cricket and – in the best English tradition – could not be dissuaded from completing the game.

I have long been proud to be part of the crew of a Lightweight Four, winning our rowing event on the Yarra in the first Moomba, in 1955. Now, I read Kulin descendants were asked for a suitable word to signify the spirit of ‘getting together and having fun’, as Moomba is still commonly referred to. Woiwood advises the actual meaning of the word is loosely ‘Up your bum’.

Another descendant, Burnum Burnum, was rowed ashore from a sailing ship on Australia Day, 1988, landing beneath the White Cliffs of  Dover, in England. Reading from a Charter, he said:

I, Burnum Burnum, being a nobleman of ancient Australia, do hereby take possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal People.

In claiming this colonial outpost, we wish no harm to you …

Henceforth, an Aboriginal face shall appear on your coins and stamps to signify our  sovereignty over this domain.

We do not intend to souvenir, pickle and preserve the heads of 2000 of your people, nor to publicly display the remains of your Royal Highness, as was done to our Queen Truganinni for 80 years. Neither do we intend to poison your water holes, lace your flour with strychnine or introduce you to highly toxic drugs …

Coranderrk Pic
The Aboriginal Settlement at Coranderrk, 1865.  Photographer, carl Walter. Engraver Frederick Grosse.  Courtesy: State Library of Victoria.
Book review by Ron Turner: BARAK Vs the Black Hats of Melbourne.
ISBN 978-0-9871574-7-8     Gympie Library ANF 994.52 WOIW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Correcting Some History

  1. My ancestors, Edith Brangy and Thomas Bamfield both testified at the Coranderrk enquiry. I grew up in Box Hill and Belgrave, also not knowing about the injustice that happened here – the constant and ever present threat of eviction to satisfy the land greed of neighbours And the constant struggle for autonomy. At the enquiry, Edith reveals that she didn’t have shoes in the winter, so, I grabbed my family and headed out to Coranderrk from Woy Woy NSW, and camped beside Badger Creek in the coldest part of May last year without shoes . I needed to know rather than imagine, what that meant for her.
    This story telling is important. It’s our collective history.

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    1. An amazing connection to Coranderrk.
      A bit of a change of climate from NSW to Badger Ck, burrr!!!
      I actually saw the Coranderrk Play when it was held in Wodonga a couple of years ago. Again very sobering history especially as the players used all historical records in their performance. A good example of truth telling as the records of what happened could not be disputed as being made up or an exaggeration.
      I was in the old Belgrave territory last Sunday and had some Indian Street food from a little Cafe there. Somewhat changed from my days living at Silvan, although the old Cameo Theatre is still alive and well.
      I have gone through a whole gambit of emotions in realizing how little of the local history I knew, let alone the bigger picture stories. Lots of anger, frustration and sadness associated with what I didn’t know and now many of the same feelings about why it is taking so long to set the records straight.

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