3. Aboriginal Background

  • 3.1 Ethnohistory
  • 3.2 Resources Available to Aboriginal People
  • 3.3 Melbourne Region Contact History (1790s to 1850s)
  • 3.4 Contact History within City of Monash
    • 3.1 Ethnohistory

      The information used to establish pre-settlement Aboriginal spatial organisation is mostly based on observations made by Europeans during the initial period of Contact and subsequent settlement of the study area region. Early historical accounts of Aboriginal land use within and surrounding the study area are scant, with most information provided by Assistant Protector William Thomas, the Police Magistrate of the Port Philip District, Captain William Lonsdale and Christian de Villiers. A detailed study of the ethnography and historical literature has been presented in Fels (1990a, 1990b) and summarised by Snoek (1987) and Rhodes (1989, 1990, 1993). In this section, only a summary of relevant ethnographic Aboriginal occupation of the Dandenong Valley area is presented.

      The two main Aboriginal language groups of the Port Phillip region of Victoria were the Boon wurrung and the Woi wurrung. The Bunurong (Western Port) and Woiworung (Yarra) tribes belonged to the inter-marriage network and language ties group known as the Kulin, which inhabited areas around Melbourne. At the time of Contact the Kulin nation was made up of the Bunurong, Woiworung, Jajowrong, Taunguong and Wathaurung 2 (Presland 2001: 40).

      Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Woi wurrung occupied an area which extended from inland of the Werribee River in the south west, Mount Macedon in the north west, Mount William in the Great Divide to the north and across to Mount Baw Baw in the east (Clark 1990). Their southern boundary was the watershed of the Great Divide and Bunurong clans. This group of people had common language and social practices, and at the time of contact, was thought to have comprised seven clans, each with their own clan estate. At the time of European settlement, Dandenong Creek north of Dandenong appears to have been the approximate boundary between Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung 3.

      The territory of the Boon wurrung is thought to have extended to Werribee River in the west, Dandenong Ranges to the north and Tarwin River east of Wilson's Promontory (Clark 1990, G.A. Robinson Journal 1844 in Clark 1998). Early estimates of Aboriginal population numbers relied on observation by Europeans. An 1839 census of the Boon wurrung by Thomas suggested that at the time of colonisation, this tribe comprised of approximately 500 persons or 'six square miles per person' (Thomas ML 9: 47). Robert Jamieson wrote in 1853 that there were about 300 Aborigines on his Cape Schank Run in 1838.

      Intermarriage and exchange of goods between the Kulin tribes is known to have occurred (McBryde 1978; Sullivan 1981:36). Kulin people often met for interclan gatherings, such as that recorded in 1844 when groups of Woi wurrung people were camped on the site of the future M.C.G., and a group of Boon wurrung was camped on the site of the future Government House (Presland 2001: 47; Cotter 2001: 4). The Bunurong held meetings every three months and corroborees were held at full and new moons (Thomas ML 21: 97). Notices of planned gatherings were distributed to neighbors via message sticks, and during these inter-tribal gatherings marriages were arranged, and disputes settled. Howitt (1904) also claimed that clans/tribes would always camp according to the direction of their country at these large gatherings.

      Greenstone from the Mt William quarries in the Woi wurrung territory appears to have been transported or traded into the Boon wurrung territory (McBryde 1984). Within the Kulin, some tribes were more likely to exchange wives or hold corroborees with certain other tribes. The Boon wurrung had ceremonial links with, and most often married, members of Taungurong and Wathaurung tribes (Gaughwin 1981:59). However, these alliances did not prevent warfare or reprisals between the tribes (Thomas ML 1, 23 March 1839).

      Assistant Aboriginal Protector Thomas, and early settlers in the Western Port region have recorded aspects of the seasonal movements by the Boon wurrung through their territory. Gaughwin (1981) considers that the Boon wurrung continued their seasonal exploitation in a circular pattern from Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula for a short period after European settlement. One of these seasonal routes passes through Dandenong and along a similar alignment to the South Gippsland Highway (Gaughwin 1981: 75). This trip was thought to take about one month with an average stay of one to two nights at each campsite while the resources within a 10 kilometre radius were exploited (Sullivan 1981:37). During these travels Thomas observed that 'Blacks seldom travel more than 8 or 9 miles per day' (Thomas PRO Letter 3 July 1840). It must be noted that ethnohistorical information of movements made by Aboriginals during this time, apart from reflecting an already disrupted population, would also be dependent on the seasonal exploitation and availability of resources.

      The study area is likely to have been an area where territorial rights existed for at least two clans, one Boon wurrung and the other Woi wurrung. It is important to remember when looking at clan boundaries identified through historical records and subsequent mapping that this documentation was done at a specific period in time, and one of great upheaval, and usually by European observers. The recorded boundaries therefore, may not accurately reflect the accumulated knowledge of specific rights and obligations that each clan had over territories nor does it account for the fluidity these boundaries may have had through time. Presland (2001: 39) notes that because boundaries were often social in context they:
      "cannot accurately be rendered on paper [and when drawn on a map] become fossilized".

      Finding focus areas for clans is often subject to these problematic issues as well as the differing recording methods of recorders of the information. For example, several local historians refer to the Boon wurrung as the tribe that lived in the Parish of Mulgrave (Priestly 1979: 18-19; Early Waverly Pamphlet nd; Waverley Historical Society 1988) even while others reported that James Clow's homestead on the eastern side of Dandenong Creek was being camped at by both Yarra and Westernport tribes (City of Waverley 1993: 5; Clow in Bride 1969: 107). As Clow was the first European squatters on this side of Dandenong Creek this may indicate that both tribes were sharing resources along the Dandenong Creek. In addition to this Sullivan records that groups of Boon wurrung people hunted lyrebirds in the ranges to the northeast of their clan territory (Sullivan 1981: 24). These examples indicate that reciprocal hunting and gathering rights probably operated in this area where Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung boundaries converged.1839).

      The specific clans likely to have traditional rights and obligations in the City of Monash area are the Ngaruk willam of the Boon wurrung and the Bulug willam patriline of the Wurundjeri-Balluk clan (Woi wurrung) (Clark 1990: 367, 384; Presland 2001: 37). William Barak, last headman of the Woi wurrung, identified the land from Gardiner's Creek to Dandenong, south of the Dandenong Ranges 'half bad country' (Barwick 1984: 117), which is a term sometimes used for a shared area.

      At the time of contact the approximate locations of the Ngaruk willam at "Brighton, Mordialloc, Dandenong and between Mounts Eliza and Martha" and the Wurundjeri-Balluk generally occupied the Yarra River catchment, with the Bulug willam patriline territory extended "south [from the Upper Yarra River] to Dandenong, Cranbourne and the swamps at the head of Westernport Bay" adjoining Boon wurrung territory in the Cranbourne/Dandenong area (Clark 1990: 384, 386).

      The Bulug willam clan belonged to the Waa (or crow) moiety (Barwick 1984: 120) and the moiety of the Ngaruk willam was Bunjil (or eaglehawk) (Clark 1990: 368). The meaning of Bulug willam is given as "Swamp dwellers" and Ngaruk meant stones or rocky (Clark 1990: 386; Barwick 1984: 117). The Bulug willam clan head at the time of European contact was Mooney Mooney/Old Murray (ca 1773-1840) who is claimed to have guided Batman's June 1835 party to a winter camp where the "Treaty" was negotiated. Mooney's son, Bolete (ca 1819-1845) was a member of the Native Police Corps (Clark 1990: 386). Tukulneen or Old George the King, was retired due to old age as head of the Ngaruk willam when Europeans arrived in this area, but was recognised as second in command to Billibellary (Jika Jika) (Barwick 1984: 117).1839).

      De Villiers identified the Native Police Reserve at Narre Narre Warren as being within the territory of the Bulug willam clan (Barwick 1984: 120). Members of Woi wurrung who first chose the site for the Aboriginal Protectorate Station, described the area as 'Nerre Nerre Warren where all black fellows sit down'; (Thomas Journals, 1840-1843). Thomas stated that 'the Western Port tribe's (Boon wurrung) visits to Narre Narre Warren are but transient ... they feel no way satisfied with the location' (Fels 1990a: 4), which was within Woi wurrung land.

      One of the first Europeans to investigate Dandenong Creek and the Dandenong Ranges during the initial period of contact was Botanist Daniel Bunce (1859). In approximately 1840 (date uncertain) when the first squatting runs such as James Clows' were already established, Bunce made a journey to Mount Dandenong. Accompanying Bunce on this short journey was Derrimut (from Werribee District), Yammabook and Benbow. These Aboriginals were from different clans than those who traditionally occupied the Dandenongs, however they still had strong cultural links to the area. During this journey, [the principal aim of which was to collect botanical specimens], a number of local Aboriginals were encountered. In a detailed account of the journey Bunce described the construction of camps, hunting and gathering methods, game preparation and consumption, social practices, including the differing roles of men and women and various types of bark removal. Bunce's short journey serves to highlight the wealth of resources available to Aboriginal people in the Dandenong Ranges, and the exceptional knowledge they had of the landform and its resources.


      2 - The spelling of Aboriginal language groups and clans varies according to the source used. For example Presland (1994) uses the spelling Woiworung and Clark (1990: 379) chooses to use Woiwurrung but identifies approximately 70 variants used in historical texts, including names such as Port Phillip Aborigines and Yarra Yarra Tribe frequently used by early Colonists.

      3 - Clark (1990: 363) notes 66 variants on the spelling of Bun wurrung, he began to use Boon wurrung (1996c) after Blake (1991) noted that Boon was closer to the correct pronunciation.

      3.2 Resources Available to Aboriginal People

      The resources available for Aboriginal subsistence in the past would have been rich. The study area and surrounding region contains a variety of productive ecological zones such as riverine, mountainous, lacustrine and terrestrial that would have been attractive for hunter-gathers.

      It is likely that areas associated with water bodies and drainage systems were the focus of exploitation by Aboriginal people within and near the study area. The Dandenong Creek, its tributaries and floodplain as well as Scotchman's, Gardiner's and Damper Creeks would have formed part of the focus of pre-settlement Aboriginal exploitation and habitation. Within the riverine ecological zone, there would have been variations in staple species diversity and abundance, and this in turn would have influenced site location and visitation frequency (Walsh 1987). Campsites would have been situated on elevated dry and sheltered ground adjacent to Dandenong Creek from which its wetlands as well as the other creeks, forest and heath ecological zones in the study area could be exploited.

      Gott (2001: 1-8) identifies plants utilised by Aboriginal people in the various vegetation communities of the City of Monash. Plants that were utilised in heath vegetation included Scrub She-oak (Allocasuarina paludosa), Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata) and Common Beard-heath (Leucopogon virgatus). In the open forest, Aboriginal people used species such as Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis ssp. viminalis), Messmate Stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua), Red Stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) and Black She-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis) and Kangaroo grass (Themeda trianda) (Gott 2001: 1-8; Gott nd: 2-4).

      Plants such as murnong, bracken and tree ferns provided staple foods for Aboriginal people, while medicines could be made from species such as Blackwood (Acacia mearnsii) and wood or bark from Silver Wattle could be used to manufacture implements. The Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung practiced the regular burning of the forest understorey to regenerate staple foods such as Murnong, or Yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata). Grazing in the study area has largely depleted Murnong, however some survives in the Damper Creek reserve (Gott nd: 4). In 1873 Aboriginal people in the Melbourne area were observed as eating murnong:

      'Their natural food consists of the meat of the country when they can kill it, but chiefly roots, of which the favourite is a plant very much like dandelion. This they roast or eat raw' (Winter 1837 in Bride 1968:395).

      The underground stems, or rhizomes, of the bracken fern were "roasted in hot ashes and beaten into a paste with a stone to break up the hard fibre" (Gott and Conran 1991: 25; Zola and Gott 1990: 37). The stem of the tree fern was split and the starchy pith was taken out and eaten (Gott and Conran 1991: 40; Zola and Gott 1990: 36). Open forest trees such as, Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and the Late Black (Acacia mearnsii) and Silver wattles (Acacia dealbata) had a variety of uses. As a medicinal plant, the bark of Blackwood was used to ease rheumatism by heating and infusing with water, string for fishing was obtained from fibre in the inner bark, with spear throwers and shields manufactured from the hard wood of the tree (Gott and Conran 1991: 50).

      The wood of the Silver wattle was used for stone axe handles. The gum of both Silver and Late Black Wattle could be mixed with ash to make a waterproof paste for repairs of canoes, or as food eaten plain or dissolved with flower nectar and water as a sweet drink (Gott and Conran 1991: 44; Zola and Gott 1990: 38). Found also in the forest, were the ripe fruits of the Kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare) and Cherry Ballart (Exocarpos cupressiformis) that were eaten, while the wood from the Cherry Ballart was also used to make spearthrowers (Gott and Conran 1991: 31, 37). The forest would have provided habitat for a number of land and arboreal mammals that would have been exploited for food, sinew, fur and skin, such as possums, kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emu and echidna.

      The creeks in the study area were not only important sources of fresh water, but also aquatic animals, such as fresh water fish, eels, crustaceans and waterfowl. Plants found along and within creeks, such as reeds and rushes provided both food and fibre. It is probable that stone or fibre traps for fish and eel were constructed along all creeks in the area. Evidence of similar stone structures was noted along the Maribyrnong River on the western side of Melbourne in the early Contact period (Popp 1979 in Vines 1997). The roots (rhizomes or tubers) of the Cumbungi (Typha orientalis), Water ribbon (Triglochin procerum) and Common Reed (Phragmites australis) were harvested and cooked in earth ovens (Gott nd: 5; Gott and Conran 1991: 8-9). In the case of the Cumbungi, after being cooked, the centre part of the rhizome was knotted then chewed to extract starch and the remaining fibre was used for string (Gott and Conran 1991: 8).

      Members of Aboriginal clans rarely numbered more than thirty during their day-to-day activities, only forming large groups for particular social functions or to exploit abundant seasonal food resources. Eels were obtained during autumn from locations such as the Carrum Swamp and other wetland areas along the Dandenong Creek and other nearby waterways and enabled large and/or extended campsites. Exploitation of the low-lying flood plain area and Dandenong Creek banks would have been greatest during summer. During the winter months when the Dandenong Creek flood plain would often have been inundated, higher and drying grounds would have been preferred campsite locations (Rhodes 1993).

      Swamp, Manna and Red Gum trees were common along watercourses and within flood plain areas of the region. Because of their smooth bark and large size, they were commonly used for the manufacture of bark and wooden implements by Aboriginal people (Edwards 1972: 31). Apart from the manufacture of implements and access to food and medicinal resources, the bark from these trees would also have been removed for other ceremonial and social non-utilitarian purposes. The red gum forests that dominated the pre-settlement landscape from Dandenong to Cranbourne (Carrum Swamp) are known to have been an important bark and wood resource area, as evident by the high numbers and wide variety of recorded Aboriginal scarred tree sites.

      Some stone resources used by Aboriginal people in the past would have been available in areas near the study area. Silcrete and basalt were favoured stone materials for the manufacture of stone implements. These materials would have been readily available from nearby sources that have been documented to the west and east of the study area. Quartz and quartzite river pebbles were also readily available from rivers and creeks within or near the study area. Extensive deposits of a variety of ochre were present within the shire, later forming a substantial industry in paints and may have been an important trade item for local clans. This ochre would have been well known and probably well utilized by local Aboriginal groups during the pre-contact period.

      The Woi wurrung tribe had specific rights or custodianship over the Mount William greenstone quarry near Lancefield. This provided the Woi wurrung clans with material for axe heads and considerable economic and cultural influence by controlling access to the site and distribution of the stone. Stone from the quarry was exchanged through a barter system of other prized possessions such as a possum skin cloak, which would be exchanged for three or four greenstone axe blanks. The value of the stone was evidently high as a cloak often contained as many as twenty-eight skins and took considerable time and effort to make. Billibellary (Willam Barak's uncle) who was chief of the Wurundjeri willam clan, was the last custodian of the Mount William quarry prior to European settlement of the area (McBryde 1984, Barwick 1984).

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      Last updated: 22 February 2011

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