Remembering Coranderrk 150 years on

A group of men at Coranderrk Station, Healesville (image: Culture Victoria)
A group of men at Coranderrk Station, Healesville (image: Culture Victoria)

One hundred and fifty years on from the founding of Victoria’s most famous Aboriginal settlement, the indigenous administrators of Coranderrk want to turn the Healesville site into an attraction as famous as the nearby Sanctuary. Now a stage play showing in Sydney, Coranderrk hopes to have a museum of its story up and running in 2014.

Coranderrk shows the problems Aborigines faced at every turn as whites took their lands. From the time Batman and Pascoe launched settlements from Tasmania in 1835, Victorian black numbers plummeted from 10,000 to 2000 by 1863. The Kulin people were dispossessed by pastoral invasion and their culture torn asunder. Pushed to the fringe, they survived on small reserves like Coranderrk.

Coranderrk was founded on Woiworung lands in 1863 by John Green, a Scottish Presbyterian lay preacher. In 1843 Billibellary, Woiworung headman and signatory to Batman’s Treaty of 1835 approached William Thomas, assistant protector of Aborigines for Port Phillip district. “If Yarra blackfellows had a country on the Yarra…they would stop and cultivate the ground,” Billibellary told him. The Kulin made several requests until 1849 when Thomas told Kulin tribes they might get land due to “Earl Grey’s despatch”.

In 1847 Secretary of State for British Colonies Grey was considering the land question. He said land should be reserved “sufficient to allow of the natives being maintained upon it”. NSW Governor Fitzroy ignored the directive but Thomas persisted and in 1859 he met Billibellary’s son Simon Wonga. Wonga and others formed a deputation to meet Commissioner of Lands Charles Gavan Duffy where they presented Woiworong and Taungerong demands for land at Acheron River north-west of Melbourne. Duffy was sympathetic and ordered land to be surveyed.

Wonga, Barak, Thomas and Green met the secretary of newly formed Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in 1860 to request Woiworung land at Yering in the Yarra Ranges. Sympathetic whites assumed the onward march of British civilisation was inevitable but acknowledged original possessors whose land was shamelessly stolen. To “smooth the dying pillow”, missionaries wanted Aborigines on reserves segregated from whites where they could be “christianised and civilised”. The Central Board supported several stations including Coranderrk where Kulins would work land “like white men”. Pastoralists moved the Acheron River settlement to the Mohican Run and similar reserves were revoked because they were improperly gazetted or affected by settlers incursions or protests.

In 1862 Kulins secured land at the Yarra River – Badger Creek junction. It was a traditional site for ceremonial assemblies and part of a pastoral lease at Yering. Despite white claims, Green, his wife and 40 Kulins trekked to an area adjoining the reserve in March 1863 and named it Coranderrk after the indigenous flowering Christmas bush in the area. The Woiworong and Taungerong were determined to farm in European fashion. They wanted self-government and saw the Greens as helpers rather than masters.

Despite a lack of capital and labour, they made considerable progress. More Kulins moved in and children were born. Green was an outsider, young, idealistic and obstinate who identified with the downtrodden. The Kulins saw him as a blackfella and a guardian to protect them from white settlers. Despite success, Coranderrk was threatened after 10 years by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Protective legislation in 1869 gave the Board authority over blacks’ place of residence, as well as overseeing labour contracts, controlling property and assuming custody of children. It was several years before they took advantage of their sweeping powers, but the Kulin were uncertain of their tenure.

In 1870s board secretary Brough Smyth recommended hop-farming to supplement Board revenue. It led to major changes at Coranderrk with serious governance consequences and demands of resources of land and labour. Previously men worked independently and were rewarded for individual effort. Now they were forced to work on an enterprise controlled by whites and employed for little or no wages. Conflict between Smyth and Green led to Green’s resignation in 1874 much to Kulin resentment. The new board members were Melbourne establishment figures critical of segregated homelands. They were assisted by Smyth’s successor AWA Page, who was vain, authoritarian and vindictive. They claimed to know the blacks but were ignorant of Kulin culture.

It led to a decade long battle to break up Coranderrk. Kulins saw themselves as Aborigines despite adopting parts of British culture. They asserted Queen Victoria, the highest authority in the British state, had granted them the land. During the opening ceremony in May 1863 Aborigines had presented gifts to the Governor to give to the Queen and her children. These gifts, including possum rugs, spears, woomera, shield and waddy, were a traditional ceremony of reciprocity. The Kulins recalled this in 1878 when they told parliamentarians the land was given to them by Governor Henry Barkly “in the name of the Queen”. They made similar demands to pastoralists asserting they could work the land and make it pay. Green was worthy because he was their protector and also fulfilled obligations – a relationship no other whites would fulfill when he left. In 1875 they petitioned to have him back.

They rebutted the paternal attitude of the Board. “We are not children for the board to do as they like with us any longer,” headman William Barak said. Barak led a sophisticated campaign of lobbying, He kept up with government news and allies with word of mouth and delegations, often walking to Melbourne. Because Coranderrk was only 70 miles away, there were many accounts from Melbourne journalists, photographers, artists, writers, anthropologists, missionaries and officials interested in the plight of the Aborigines. Coranderrk loomed large in public discussion and white allies such as journalist George Syme and humanitarians Anne Bon and Thomas Embling were important in the propaganda war.

Their opponents attributed the protests to outside influences, unable to accept the Kulins could organise themselves. Their tactics included playing government authorities off each other. Their effective campaign led to two major inquiries, the 1877 Royal Commission into government policy on Aborigines and the 1881 investigation into management of Coranderrk. It seemed the Kulins had won the fight after it was recommended land be permanently reserved and the Board relieved of management.

However they came up against the 1880s policy of assimilating Aborigines and forcing them off their land. In 1881 the Argus wrote “the race is dying out” and “in time the Aborigines will wholly disappear from Victoria as they have disappeared from Tasmania”. Part of this policy was distinguishing “full bloods” deemed “untameable” from “half castes” who could be Europeanised. They began to remove half castes, who were the majority, from Coranderrk. To Kulins this was a disaster, what mattered to them was group membership. Kinship was reckoned socially not biologically. But even supporters like Bon and Embling accepted the distinction over long held fears of racial minorities like Chinese, who whites thought couldn’t be absorbed into settler society.

The new policy did not became law until December 1886 but was put into practice from 1882. Many left the reservation after government endorsement of Board proposals in 1884. In September 1886 those remaining protested against punitive clauses in the half-caste policy, which gave the Board power to remove Aborigines and stop rations and allowances. The Kulins petitioned the government over the racial discriminatory policy asserting the right to “feel free like the white population”. Premier Deakin removed illiberal clauses from the policy but the underlying principles were unquestioned as it represented the “unanimous wish of the country with regard to the half-castes”.

The following year the Board declared the Act marking the beginning of the end and leaving only a few older purebloods at the reservation. Most moved to Maloga on the NSW border, to traditional Yorta Yorta ceremonial ground near the Murray River where they kept up a strong memory of Coranderrk.

Coranderrk was eventually broken up and sold but remains the first example of sustained indigenous protest in Australia. In his Australia Day communication of 1972, vice-chair of NSW’s Aboriginal Land Board Kevin Gilbert remembered Coranderrk’s historical tradition to sound a battle cry for land rights.”Where detribalisation has occurred, we want all existing reserve and mission lands, which have a strong emotional tie for the people, to be restored and deeded to the Aboriginal people in perpetuity,” Gilbert said.

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