3. Melbourne Region Contact History

  1. Ethnohistory
  2. Resources Available to Aboriginal People
  3. Melbourne Region Contact History
  4. Monash Region Contact History


While it is outside of the scope of this project to document all of the details of Melbourne's Contact period, the most prominent aspects of the period are summarised. The Contact period in the Melbourne region was one of upheaval. The Kulin tribes, particularly the Woi wurrung and the Boon wurrung that occupied the Melbourne area, and the European squatters and settlers that had travelled from Van Diemens Land and New South Wales, had relationships that were filled with violent conflict, cross cultural misunderstanding and on occasion a mutual respect. The implementations of policies and laws imposed by a distant Colonial Government brought about their own impacts on the Kulin people as they had in other parts of the colonies. The implementation of Aboriginal missions, the Native Police Corps, the Aboriginal Protectorate and the later Aboriginal Reserves, all shaped the fate of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung during the contact period.

Aboriginal people in Victoria were believed to have been in contact with diseases that Colonists brought with them long before they were to see European people. Smallpox and venereal disease were thought to have significantly affected not only the population density but also the fertility rate of the tribal groups (Broome 1984: 27-28; Presland 2001: 103-104). The presence of smallpox has been debated by Barwick (1984: 103) who believed that this historical inaccuracy was due to a report of smallpox by EM Curr who had confused a native pox with the fatal European variety that had decimated large numbers of Aboriginal people in Sydney in the late 1780s.

The impact of introduced disease would soon be overshadowed by the presence of sealers on the coast, whom the Boon wurrung came into contact with from at least the late 1790s, the overlanders from New South Wales who travelled through the country of the Kurnai (the Gippsland Aboriginal Nation) and the ubiquitous squatters from the mid to late 1830s (Broome 1984: 17, 21). Christie (1979: 4-7) identifies the earliest contacts with European as those with sailors who were exploring the coast, or in some cases being shipwrecked on it, and sealers who temporarily camped on the coast. These coastal explorations were conducted in the late 1790s and early 1800s and while contact was not always the result, it is clear that the tribes who saw the new explorers knew a change was coming (Christie 1979: 4-7). The earliest contact with sealers would have impacted the social structure of the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung greatly as the sealers abducted and kept women from these tribes and Aboriginal women from Tasmania, for use as concubines and workers (Pepper and De Araugo 1985: 10; Wells 1986: 4: Murphy 2000). The missionary Langhorne (Thomas ML: 61) mentioned that tribes of the Western Port had the 'occasional affray' with sealers and he believed that this early contact had greatly reduced their numbers.

Squatters had their own impact, particularly as they claimed vast runs of land for stock grazing. Broome (1984: 23) notes that by 1845 almost all of Victoria was covered with squatting runs all of which were leased annually and considered to be Crown Land by the Colonial Government, denying Aboriginal land rights. Aboriginal names were sometimes applied to squatting runs (see footnote on Rev. Clow's run - Monash Region Contact History) and Broome (1984: 24) believes this naming was in some part an acknowledgement by the squatters of Aboriginal prior ownership. During the Contact period the squatters were often in conflictwith local Aboriginal people. The conflicts frequently arose out of cross cultural misunderstandings and prejudice against Aboriginal people. Squatters were often isolated and scared or apprehensive of the unpredictability of Aboriginal reaction to their presence.

Aboriginal people resisted the encroachment by squatters and their stock onto their traditional lands, resources and foods. Squatters failed to understand the impact their stock and fencing had on the Aboriginal peoples ability to survive from the land. They often sought revenge when stock was killed for food or as a reprisal. Squatters were in many cases deliberately removing or massacring the Aboriginal inhabitants (Broome 1984: 29-30; Clark 1996b in Clark 1998: 87-101; Presland 2001: 95). Presland (2001: 101) noted the hypocrisy of the European settlers who could kill off an Aboriginal food supply, such as kangaroo, for sport, but when Aboriginal people killed sheep for food because their native supplies were being depleted, they were usually jailed or shot. Not all relationships between squatters and Aboriginal people took this path, in some cases some understanding and empathy led to amicable relationships and mutual respect (see Monash Region Contact History for example).

The earliest attempt to settle the Port Phillip district was by a short-lived settlement at Sullivan's Bay near Sorrento under Lt. Col. David Collins. Collins was not satisfied with the Port Phillip District and decided to move on to Van Diemens Land. On 27 December 1803 when the settlement's inhabitants were being relocated, several convicts escaped. One of these was William Buckley, who in a vain attempt to reach the settlement at Sydney town ended up on the western side of Port Phillip Bay where he lived with a Wada wurrung clan for the next 32 years until the Port Phillip Association arrived at Indented Head in 1835 (Clark 1990: 280; Presland 2001: 44-45).

Batman arrived in 1835 to explore and purchase 600,000 acres of land for settlement by members of the Port Phillip Association from the Aboriginal people in the Port Phillip Bay area. Batman made a contract, or 'treaty' with eight chiefs from the Woi wurrung and Bun wurrung who signed and were paid in tomahawks, mirrors, scissors, blankets, knives and other items (Brownhill 1955: 5). Governor Bourke never accepted Batman's claim to the land as legal (Brownhill 1955: 7; Caldere and Goff 1991: 2). The lack of an official presence combined with the attempted treaty led the Colonial Government of New South Wales to view the Port Phillip Association as unauthorised trespassers (Caldere and Goff 1991: 2; Presland 2001: 89).

From 1836, as the new settlement on the Yarra known as Melbourne town began, conflicts arose between the settlers who now camped in the traditional lands of the Woi wurrung andBoon wurrung. In response to the conflicts, Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales, requested that William Lonsdale, Police Magistrate for the settlement, was to assist and support George Langhorne with establishing the first Government Aboriginal Mission at the present day Botanic Gardens, South Yarra (Cannon 1982: 153, 157-168; Presland 2001: 90-92). The Mission site was 362 hectares of land south of the Yarra River near a swamp and a hill where corroborees were known to have taken place (Presland 2001: 90-92).

Langhorne aimed to 'civilise' the local Aboriginal people via two main incentives. While all who attended the mission were provided with rations of food and clothing, adults were encouraged to work a few hours a day in exchange for additional rations, believing that this would teach them the value of earning food and clothing through their labour. Children were encouraged to stay at the mission and be educated in European classes for three meals a day. This attempt was more successful on the children as it was difficult to stop adults leaving to continue traditional movement through country (Cannon 1982: 153, 157-168; Presland 2001: 90-92). Influences from the settlers, particularly the rowdier undesirables, included the encouragement of Aboriginal people to drink alcohol and fight each other (Presland 2001: 93), an element of Contact that Langhorne could not control. As a result, and because of ongoing conflict between squatters and Aboriginal people throughout the settled areas of Port Phillip, it was decided that a Native Police Corps needed to be formed.

Examples of the successful use of Native Police such as that by G.A. Robinson in Van Diemens Land, led to the suggestion that a similar enlisting of Aboriginal people in Port Phillip be undertaken. At the same time as Captain Alexander Maconochie suggested the idea to Sir John Franklin, Christian De Villiers, who had worked with a similar native police force in South Africa, suggested the idea to Captain William Lonsdale. In 1837, after the establishment of Native Police at Port Phillip was officially sanctioned, De Villiers was appointed by Lonsdale to run the first Native Police Corps (Cannon 1982: 237-239, 244). Lonsdale, in a letter to the Colonial Secretary dated 25 October 1837, wrote of the Native Police:

"The men shall be chosen from one tribe and a position will be chosen in their own country to be approved of by themselves, but which must not exceed a days walk from the town". (William Lonsdale to Colonial Secretary 25 October 1837 in Cannon 1982: 245).

Three days later Lonsdale again wrote to the Colonial Secretary, stating that:

"as further proof of their [the Native Police] willingness to agree to our [the Colonial Government] desire, they on the first evening of being embodied, broke unsolicited their spears and other native weapons saying they would no longer be blackfellows" (William Lonsdale to Colonial Secretary 28 October 1837 in Cannon 1982: 245).

Twenty miles from Melbourne, 3840 acres along Dandenong Creek at Narre Narre Warren were selected as the site for the Native Police Reserve (Clark 1996a in Clark 1998: 80; Caldere and Goff 1991: 3). The site was approved by the Colonial Secretary and a large area was secured so that squatters were prevented from having land nearby and was secured as a reserve in early 1838 (SA Perry to R. Hoddle 10 January 1838 in Cannon 1982: 256). The men could work in the gardens, hunt and fish under supervision, but were to give up many traditional activities with the exception of tracking a necessary skill for police work. Another condition of joining up was that members of the Native Police were to distance themselves from Aboriginal people that did not belong to the Native Police as well as the lowest classes of white society that might have sought to corrupt them (William Lonsdale to Colonial Secretary 25 October 1837 in Cannon 1982: 245).

George Langhorne opposed the Native Police under De Villiers, whom he believed as "being totally unfit for the responsible duties entrusted to him" (Langhorne to Lonsdale 20 December 1838 in Cannon 1982: 257). Langhorne collected testimonials against De Villiers, claiming use of foul language, from surrounding pastoralists, including his own brother Alfred Langhorne and Robert Allan, a squatter who De Villiers had to remove from the reserve site with support from Lonsdale. Langhorne proposed himself as De Villiers replacement, and for a short time in 1838 after De Villiers resigned due to this pressure, Langhorne was granted leadership of the Native Police. Before long the Governor sent a memo in which he stated that it was inappropriate for a preacher or missionary to lead the Native Police. De Villiers requested reinstatement in April 1838 but was again subjected to Langhorne's complaints and resigned in 1839. After De Villiers second resignation, the Acting Governor passed charge of Aboriginal people in Port Phillip to the newly formed Aboriginal Protectorate, led by Chief Protector, G.A. Robinson (Cannon 1982: 251-252; 257-260, 263-264, 268; Presland 2001: 93-95).

The second attempt at forming the Native Police, under Henry Edward Pultney Dana was more successful than the first and lasted from 1842 to its disbandment in 1853 after Dana's death in 1852 (Bride 1969: 438). The headquarters were again situated at the Native Police Reserve at Narre Narre Warren. The Colonial Government saw the objectives of the Native Police as twofold. Firstly, to check and prevent Aboriginal aggression directed at European settlers and secondly, to 'civilise' young Aboriginal men. Dana's efforts were commended by La Trobe who noted in his correspondence that under Dana the Native Police organised and aided in friendly relations between Aboriginal people and European settlers (C.J. La Trobe to Sir J. Pakington 22 January 1853 in Bride 1969: 439-440).

Langhorne's Mission and the Native Police Corps implemented the Aboriginal Protectorate system as an alternative to the previous attempts to deal with Aboriginal people in Melbourne. It was believed that the Protectorate could begin a process of conciliationbetween the settlers and Aborigines in the Port Phillip District and that Robinson could encourage the Aboriginal people away from the settlement on the Yarra, as he had done in Van Diemens Land (Presland 2001: 96).

In 1838, Robinson was appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip Colony. He had four Assistant Protectors, each assigned a large portion of Port Phillip as their area of responsibility. Due to delays over financing of salaries, equipment and stores the Assistant Protectors did not begin until 1839 (Caldere and Goff 1991: 5). William Thomas, Assistant Protector for the Melbourne and Western Port areas, lived and travelled with the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung for many years and recorded details of the tribes in his journals, now one of the best primary resources available about these two groups.

Thomas's first Aboriginal settlement at Arthur's Seat in 1839 was not suitable and so a reserve of land at Narre Narre Warren, originally selected for the first Native Police Corps in 1837 under Christian de Villiers, was settled on and later used for a second Native Police Corps under Captain Dana (Caldere and Goff 1991: 7; Presland 2001: 46). William Thomas was assisted Dana in bringing together the second Native Police. In February 1842, they consulted with Billibellary, the Yarra tribe's chief or headman, about the formation of the Native Police. Billibellary consented to joining and recruiting fellow tribesmen, however in view of his status, Billibellary refused to ride a horse and would choose his own working hours.

When Billibellary died in 1846, Thomas noted that the Yarra's (Woi wurrung'stribal life demised very quickly without his leadership. Thomas believed the ultimate downfall of the Native Police was that the majority drank heavily and this led invariably to illness or violence followed by criminal charges (Thomas 1854 in Bride 1969: 404-405, 411-413). In 1841 an 882 acre camping reserve for Aboriginals from Western Port and the coast was established at Mordialloc Creek (Caldere and Goff 1991: 7). With the exception of William Thomas, who became the Guardian of Aborigines after Separation, the Protectorate system was shut down on 31 December 1849 by the Colonial government due to poor administration and increasing expenses (Presland 2001: 100; Caldere and Goff 1991: 7-8).

William Thomas recorded census details of the Woi wurrung (Yarra) and Boon wurrung(Westernport) groups throughout his appointment. The census details indicate the rapid decline in these two groups and contrasts this with the almost non-existent birth rate. In the period from 1850 to 1853 Thomas recorded 30 deaths (18 of these in 1852) in the Yarra and Westernport tribes, in the same period only two births occurred both in the Yarra tribe. Thomas notes the high number of deaths in 1852 and attributes them as eight murders, two executions of murderers, five deaths from sickness and three from drunkenness. He records that only five died by "visitation of God" while the rest were the result of violence and alcohol. In 1852, 59 people (39 Yarra and 20 Westernport) were counted in the census. During 1853 or 1854, Thomas had 36 Yarra, 17 Westernport and 2 Gippsland orphans under his supervision (Thomas 1854 in Bride 1969: 414-415 and Tables). These figures indicate the impact of the Contact period in the Melbourne area, particularly in the high number of deaths in 1852. Broome (1984:34) attributes as much as 90 percent of Aboriginal deaths in Victoria's Contact period to disease, malnutrition, alcohol and violence.

In 1860 Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines (CBPA), was established to replace the Protectorate. The Coranderrk Station at Healesville was the first Station to be established by the CPBA at a site selected by Barak and Wonga, leaders of the Kulin. In1886 the introduction of the Aboriginal Act meant that only people considered to be full blood, or half blood people over 35 years of age, were allowed to remain on the stations. This led to a decreased labour force on the stations, such as Coranderrk Station, which was regarded as a successful hop farming enterprise, and an increase in fringe dwelling Aboriginal people in the Melbourne region (Presland 2001: 105, 107). Although the majority of the Coranderrk residents were moved to the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Reserve in 1924, it remained in operation until the station was revoked in 1950 (Caldere and Goff 1991: 13-14).

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Last updated: 19 February 2015