MICK WOIWOD - Historian and Author
Coranderrk: the Truth
Barak vs the Black Hats of Melbourne - why this story should be told
The 19 Kulin gentlemen who visited Sir Graham Berry March 1886 bearing gifts, Barak is third from left in middle row. Their wives were specifically refused entry. State Library of Victoria
It is now ninety or more years since the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve at Healesville was compulsorily closed yet in all of those years, until now, its core story of deception and intrigue has never been told.
In residence for the sixty years prior to the station closing had been the last hundred or so of the Kulin people. The Kulin people had, since the beginning of time, known the Yarra and Goulburn Valleys as their beloved home country. They had bestowed upon their country the wonderful names we still use today. They gave us melodious names such as ‘Warrandyte’, ‘Mooroolbark’, ‘Moorabbin’, ‘Tarrawarra’. Their harmonious association with their country came to a grinding halt in 1835 with the unprecedented appearance of our European forebears from distant lands across the seas.
Within eighteen years of the first appearance of white people in Port Phillip, nine out of every ten Kulin people were dead - men, women and children. When it was almost too late, the government began searching around for solutions as to where to move the few survivors.
Immensely rich from the gold that had been dug from the Kulin hunting grounds and the wool shorn from the sheep which grazed their carefully nurtured grassland, the government had come to understand its First People as an embarrassing reminder of precisely how its wealth had been accumulated.
And so, it had decided to hide them away on reserves in the back country and appoint managers to soften the pillow of those it had come to see as a dying race. The land chosen for the surviving Wurundjeri and Taungurung of south-central Victoria was some 4,850 acres of forest land straddling Badger Creek at the foot of the ranges. This land was called ‘Coranderrk’ after the plant which grows profusely in the area.
Not surprisingly, after their twenty-eight arduous years of dispossession, the survivors had set to with a will. They were determined to prove their worth by transforming their forest land into one of the best agricultural stations in the Yarra Valley. Before long, the settler world came to see this improved land as being too valuable to remain in the hands of what it had continued to view as a despised race.
In 1875, the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA) which had been set in place to protect Aborigines dismissed its duly appointed manager, John Green. This was because Green, together with his wife Mary, had dealt with their Coranderrk people as equals. The BPA then made plans to move the Coranderrk residents up into the harsh desert country in the far-off Mallee.
Enter the Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta William Barak. As a twelve year-old in 1835, Barak had watched as the invaders waded ashore. In 1876, had admitted to shooting five of the precious deer that had become a problem to neighbouring white landowners. These deer had and released by the ‘Black Hats’ of Melbourne for their fellow gentry to hunt at their leisure.
In admitting that he had shot the deer, Barak explained that he had done so at the behest of local landowners who had been unable to track any themselves. Regardless of the legitimacy of Barak’s actions, the ‘Black Hats of Melbourne’ - with their eyes firmly set on Coranderrk as a possible future breeding station for their crazy imports - proceeded with their plan to remove the residents to a remote location in the Mallee.
Four-square in their way had stood William Barak who, despite his lowly Blackfella status, had influential admirers and supporters in the Whitefella world. Opposed to him in Melbourne had been the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria who had bred and released the deer shot by Barak, although they were unable to bring charges against him. The Society believed him to be a threat to all the other exotic creatures which they had been busily releasing into the period’s then pristine bush despite the fact that these creatures were potentially vermin in the local ecosystem.
Recognising the need for immediate action, the ‘Black Hats’ in the Acclimatisation Society met clandestinely. They reached an agreement to apply separately, then combine, to take over total control of the BPA as concerned citizens. In effect, this was the most outrageous scam ever perpetrated in Victorian race relations against a sovereign people. Despite individual Members of Parliament being aware of the subterfuge, Melbourne’s class structure, at the time, had been such that none dared point an accusing finger at gentlemen agreed to be going about their day to day business.
Meanwhile back in Coranderrk, night meetings had been taking place in Barak’s rustic slab home. A decision was subsequently made to embark on a series of deputations into the BPA’S Melbourne Offices and if needs be into Parliament itself. These were highly effective delegations timed to block every successive move by the highly manipulative BPA to close Coranderrk.
Unable to break through, the BPA appointed a succession of managers instructed to run Coranderrk into the ground. During this period, the station’s residents were to experience enormous indignity. For example following the dismissal of John Green, its first manager, the station was no longer provided with medical supervision. In the first year following Green’s dismissal, Coranderrk was forced to watch as, one by one, thirty-one of its 142 residents died of measles and normally innocuous lung infections.
Read about how William Barak had led his people through the hard years when few in the settler world cared whether the colony’s First People, living further up in the Yarra country, lived or died.
Learn about how, regardless of their long struggle, the Board set up to protect them n 1925 made a unilateral decision to close Coranderrk and expel its people into the uncaring world around them.
Take with you on your journey the ‘Certificate of Exemption’ (left) which was issued to all those expelled from their home stations across Victoria. This certificate supposedly allowed Victoria’s proud First People to move freely in that outer world – once their paradise home – provided they assimilate into ‘White Australia’ and live like white men.
The story of Coranderrk, as it was forced to run its outrageous course over the following fifty years, is the story of an outrageous scam perpetrated by a powerful Melbourne elite against a people who, having lost all, had again given their all but have never since been recognised.
The true story of Coranderrk is the story of a sovereign people with a proud record equal to that of any in the mainstream who have spent time in foreign climes fighting for King or Country.