A people torn apart by bloody dispossession and disease

By Tony Wright

Gunditjmara man Walter Saunders.Credit:Justin McManus.

The ancient rhythms of life of those Aboriginal clanspeople who hosted the annual gatherings of tribes within the shadow of the volcanic hump of Mount Noorat, north of what is now Terang in Western Victoria, were smashed on a bloody dawn in 1839.

Several kilometres north-east of Noorat, on a sheep spread then called Strathdownie, a band of armed squatters and shepherds, led on horseback by a man named Frederick Taylor, ambushed an encampment of Aboriginal people and murdered almost all of them.

There was no fight. The Aboriginal people – men, women and children, including babies – were asleep.

Genuine investigations took place after the attack, which was unusual for that lawless time when a silence prevailed among squatters as clans were being destroyed across Victoria to make way for sheep.

John Clarke at Lake Keilambete, with Mount Noorat in the background. Credit:Justin McManus

One of the survivors, a man named Wangegemon, whose wife and child were killed, told Wesleyan missionaries and the assistant protector of Aborigines, Charles Sievwright, of massacred bodies thrown into a waterhole and afterwards burnt, the bones taken away in sacks.

Thirty-five people were slaughtered.

Before disappearing to British India to avoid the outside chance of being prosecuted, Taylor argued that his shepherds had reported sheep had been stolen by Aboriginal people, and he was simply defending his property.

Most of the histories written of the atrocity suggest the Tarnbeere Gundidj, a single clan of the Djargurd Wurrung people, was virtually wiped out.

Aboriginal oral history suggests something worse.

“That place where those people were murdered was already like a refugee camp,” says John Clarke, a Girai (also spelled Kirrae) Wurrung man of the Eastern Maar, whose recent ancestors lived at the Framlingham Aboriginal Settlement near Warrnambool, a place where survivors of massacres lived in the late 1800s, bringing their stories with them.

“There were three or four mobs [clans] camped together.” Some were from the neighbouring Girai.

The implication is that some of those murdered had already fled previous assaults or threats by white settlers and were desperate enough to leave their own Country to band together in the hope of safety.

The replacement of Aboriginal people by sheep and cattle on their tribal lands was terrifyingly swift in Victoria.

The first European settlement in Victoria was established on the coast at Portland by 1834. Melbourne got its start in 1835, and news of wide plains perfect for pasture began to spread at the end of 1836 when the surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell, having completed an expedition south, brought word back to Sydney.

By 1842, squatters had claimed most of western, central and northern Victoria.

Gippsland, the home of the five tribes of the Gunaikurnai Nation, was next, when a Scot, Angus McMillan, assembled his feared “Highland Brigade” and began murdering First Nations people, sometimes entire clans.

Here was the darkest of ironies. McMillan and his Gaelic-speaking Highlanders had themselves been victims of “clearances” in Scotland, removed from their clans’ traditional lands by wealthy landowners and replaced with sheep.

The total Indigenous population of what became Victoria before the European invasion of the 1830s has long been contentious.

Anthropologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown estimated the number, in 1930, at just 11,500.

In 1983, the economic historian Noel Butlin proposed a number of 60,000 to 90,000, based on the richness of the land.

A gathering in the mid-1800s, as depicted by English-born artist Samuel Thomas Gill. Credit:State Library of Victoria.

Whatever the precise figure, the Aboriginal population of Victoria crashed.

The historian and author James Boyce, in his book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, laid it out plainly.

“Not 30 years after the founding of Melbourne, only about 200 people remained from all five of the clans that made up the once populous Kulin nation, and the population decline across Victoria was at least 80 per cent,” he wrote.

It was, wrote the historian Richard Broome in Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800, “one of the fastest land occupations in the history of empires”.

Edward Micklethwaite Curr, who managed his father’s squatting properties in central and northern Victoria from 1841 to 1850, wrote of the occupiers that “no body of men ever created so much wealth in so short a time”.

The Victorian invasion was illegal from the start. The British government, having just banned slavery across its empire, was infused with evangelical, humanitarian fervour.

Aboriginal life near Upper Mitta Mitta, with Bogong Ranges in the background, in the mid-1800s, as depicted by the lithographer George Appleton.Credit:State Library of Victoria.

The British House of Commons select committee into the condition of aborigines in the empire would declare in 1837 that the “native inhabitants of any land have an incontrovertible right to their own soil; a plain and sacred right”.

The authorities of the colony of NSW, furthermore, had stuck since 1788 to a policy of restricting settlement to a tight radius around Sydney. The colony’s land to the south, the Port Phillip District, was all but blank on a map.

And yet, when those hungry for land came across the Bass Strait from Van Diemen’s Land in the mid-1830s, hot on the heels of their champion John Batman and his risible “treaty”, and simply occupied and claimed vast tracts of Victoria as their own, no British finger was lifted to prevent it.

Instead, in July 1836, the NSW authorities of governor Richard Bourke passed a law called an Act to Restrain the Unauthorised Occupation of Crown Lands. In fact, it authorised the occupation of land if the occupier first obtained a licence.

Effectively, those granted a licence would be the wealthy and the well-connected. Ex-convicts or those judged to be of the “poorer classes” would be evicted.

For just £10, those deemed acceptable – the new squattocracy, or perhaps the original 10-pound Poms, though most of them were Scots – could legally take over land that had been occupied for thousands of years.

The evangelical secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Glenelg, initially declared himself opposed, partly because it would expose “both natives and the new settlers to many dangers and calamities”.

He was right. But within six months, in a letter to Bourke, Glenelg reversed his opinion, and declared he was looking forward to the Port Phillip District becoming a centre of trade amid “the sanguine ardour of private speculation”.

And so began the invasion of Victoria dressed up as a legal settlement.

In the far south-west, clans of the Gunditjmara and associated peoples of the Dhauwurd Wurrung language group, affronted by the invasion, launched guerilla raids on colonisers. They speared cattle, raided settlers’ huts and drove flocks of sheep into their tribal citadel within volcanic lava fields as a form of reparation for stolen hunting grounds.

“The country might as well be in a state of civil war, as few but the boldest of the Settlers will move from their home stations,” the Portland Mercury reported in 1842.

The squatters called on the services of the feared Native Police Corps – most of whom were recruited from the distant Kulin Nation – to avenge stock losses with gunfire and a policy of taking no prisoners.

One of the squatters, Alexander Browne, writing under the nom de plume of Rolf Boldrewood, later named this period the Eumeralla War, after a river bisecting the ground of conflict.

The First Nations warriors given colourful names by colonists: Cocknose (whose Indigenous name was Tykoohe), Jupiter (Tarerer), Cold Morning (Partpoaermin), Bumbletoe, Jacky and The Doctor.

Cocknose and Jupiter were of the Nillan Gunditj from near the volcano known as Budj Bim (or Mount Eccles), whose people were subjected to massacre by gun and poisoning by arsenic in flour.

Cold Morning came from the Cart Gunditj territory on Mt Clay, a forested hill above a place called the Convincing Ground, north of Portland.

Walter Saunders is descended from the adjoining coastal Kilcarer Gunditj – almost all of whom were believed to have been wiped out by whalers in the Convincing Ground Massacre of about 1833 – and their neighbours the Gilgar Gunditj from the river country to the east around Tyrendarra.

He tells of his people’s memory of a mysterious end to the Cart Gunditj.

“Our story, handed down, is they were rounded up by settlers, taken to a big depression in the land above the Surrey River, a sort of sinkhole, and taken away in the night on bullock carts,” he says. “They just disappeared. We don’t know where they went.”

The outcome of the Eumeralla War, with guns ranged against spears, was inevitable. The Gunditjmara uprising was all but over by 1847.

Some white men with blood on their hands became unimaginably wealthy, and thus respectable, and lived in baronial mansions while Aboriginal people starved. It was the same story in numerous districts of Victoria.

If those involved in the theft of Aboriginal land had missed the British select committee’s declaration about the original inhabitants’ sacred rights, the first resident Supreme Court judge for the district of Port Phillip, John Walpole Willis, laid it out for all prepared to listen in 1841.

Hearing a case in Melbourne of alleged murder against a man named Bonjon, of the Wadawurrung Balug clan in the country around what is now Geelong, Willis declared Aboriginal people should be considered the rightful owners of the land, with “laws and usages of their own”, and that Europeans should be considered invaders.

“In this instance, the colonists and not the Aborigines are the foreigners,” he declared. “The former [colonists] are exotics, the latter Indigenous; the latter the native sovereigns of the soil, the former uninvited intruders.”

The wars being waged on the frontiers demonstrated Aboriginal people were “neither a conquered people, nor have tacitly acquiesced in the supremacy of the settlers”.

But Willis’ 8000-word opinion did not proceed to judgment – Bonjon was released – and it faded into obscurity.

As Victoria in 2021 becomes Australia’s first jurisdiction to move towards a treaty, via its Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, it is worth recalling that Willis lamented that no treaty had been made with Aboriginal people before white settlement and “no terms defined for their internal government, civilisation, and protection”.

Instead, the trauma experienced by the people of the world’s oldest continuous culture, isolated on the continent of Australia for perhaps 65,000 years – and certainly in Victoria for more than 35,000 years – has not properly healed in almost two centuries since.

Massacres, though widespread, numerous and regularly covered up or claimed by whites to be self-defence against “depredations”, were not the main cause of the destruction of Victoria’s Aboriginal population, however.

Archaeologist Dr Gary Presland, in his book First People: The Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip and Central Victoria, estimated disease accounted for up to 60 per cent of Aboriginal deaths across the Port Phillip area.

This came on top of an epidemic of smallpox that is thought to have spread south from Sydney and killed perhaps one-third of Victorian First Peoples even before Europeans (other than sealers) had arrived.

Apart from diseases such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, measles, chickenpox, influenza and pneumonia – all of which were capable of killing Aboriginal people, who had no immunity – venereal disease spread by European men caused immense suffering among Indigenous women.

Syphilis killed in ghastly ways, but gonorrhea often rendered women incapable of having children. In many areas, population plummeted through lack of births.

Annie Baxter (later Dawbin), whose husband in 1843 took up a squatting property at Yambuk, near Port Fairy, detailed in her diary the suffering of one Aboriginal woman among the many who caught venereal disease from white shepherds. The disease rotted away the woman’s palate, and the shepherds plunged her into a “tub of sublimate, used for sheep dressing, after which she fell into a rapid decline”.

After the unnamed woman died, Baxter wrote a lament.

“Man (I mean white man) in this instance, as in many more, has been only the means of making this poor woman’s condition worse than it originally was; all she knew of him was to bring her to that fearful state in which she suffered and eventually died.”

By then, the sheep and cattle of pastoralists were eating hunting grounds bare across Victoria, and their hooves were compacting the previously porous soil to the point that abundant staples such as murnong, or daisy yams, were on their way to near-extinction. Water sluiced across the hard ground, turning creeks and rivers into torrents that ripped at their banks.

Batman’s arrival on the shore of the Yarra River in May 1835 had set colonisation in terrible motion.

Admired by supporters as a man of vision, Batman had a history of murdering Aboriginal people in Tasmania and was suffering such advanced syphilis that his nose was rotting away. His Tasmanian neighbour, the artist John Glover, described Batman as “a rogue, thief, cheat, liar, murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”.

This, then, was the man who sat down by “a lovely stream of water” – probably the Merri Creek near its junction with the Yarra at Dights Falls – with a group of Kulin elders from several clans to “negotiate” the transfer of hundreds of thousands of hectares of their land to his Port Phillip Association.

In return, Batman’s so-called treaty – drafted by a prominent Tasmanian lawyer, Joseph Tice Gellibrand – promised “the yearly rent or tribute of 100 pairs of blankets 100 knives 100 tomahawks 50 suits of clothing 50 looking glasses 50 pair scissors and five tons flour”.

It was preposterous. The Kulin elders did not speak English and their laws could not allow the transfer of land. Nevertheless, Batman’s “treaty” and reports of fabulous pasture land were all the spur needed for Europeans to hasten to Port Phillip.

The following year, 1836, Thomas Mitchell ventured south from NSW into what is now called the Western District of Victoria. There he found seemingly endless grassed plains and open timberland – the result of thousands of years of careful tending by Aboriginal hunters of game and gatherers of numerous species of vegetables and tubers.

The soft plains, covered in kangaroo grass, were so forgiving that the tracks of Mitchell’s bullock wagons remained visible to those who followed him for many years. He called the whole area “Australia Felix”, meaning “happy, or lucky, south land”.

However, he had little meaningful contact with the Aboriginal people. The most notorious meeting was at what Mitchell named Mount Dispersion on the northern bank of the Murray River, about 80 kilometres south-west of what is now Mildura.

There a party of Mitchell’s men, claiming to fear an attack, shot dead at least seven Aboriginal men and continued shooting as victims sought safety by swimming the Murray. “It was difficult to come at such enemies hovering in our rear with the lynx-eyed vigilance of savages,” Mitchell wrote later to governor Bourke. “I succeeded, however.”

Mitchell happily commandeered the domed and substantial houses of absent tribal families as he travelled south. On August 30, 1836, having left Portland – where Mitchell had been astounded to discover a European settlement of whalers and farmers – he noted in his journal: “We encamped on the rich grassy land just beyond [a river he named the Surry] and I occupied for the night a snug old hut of the natives’.”

Given his descriptions of this “Australia Felix”, there is little wonder he caused a subsequent rush of squatters, many of whom saw the First Peoples as annoyances to be cleared away.

Historians in recent decades have peeled back more than a century and a half of long silence to record lists of known massacre sites in Victoria, and the titles of their work leave little to the imagination.

Jan Critchett called her 1988 book concerning early black-white relations in Western Victoria A Distant Field of Murder. Ian Clark called his 1995 book Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803-1859.

The barely whispered truth was known all along by those whites who came to take the land. Soon after Frederick Taylor and his henchmen had “cleared” the original inhabitants of the Strathdownie spread at a place that would become known as Murdering Gully by Mount Emu Creek, a Scottish immigrant named Niel Black bought the 17,612-hectare property and renamed it Glenormiston.

While travelling to inspect the property, Black confided to his diary on December 9, 1839, how land was settled in this wild west, and why he, who had little taste for blood, was attracted to this particular sheep station.

“The best way [to procure a run] is to go outside [the existing limits of settlement] and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives right and left,” he wrote. “The natives who have not been brought into subjection have a strong propensity to spearing and killing sheep and cattle, and the settlers agree that lead is the only antidote that effectively cures them of this propensity. When a few are shot, the rest become timid and are easily kept at bay.”

Ian Clark reported that Black kept Aboriginal people at bay by pulling down any Aboriginal dwellings he found on his run and by leaving gunpowder as a warning not to return.

And Frederick Taylor, who had gone to India? He returned and switched his attention to Gippsland. By 1846 the superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles La Trobe, informed the colonial secretary that all charges against Taylor over the massacre at Murdering Gully had “ended in satisfactory disproval”.

For the next 13 years, Taylor held licences for land in Gippsland, where he continued a campaign of “dispossession” of the Gunaikurnai people, according to Broome’s Aboriginal Victorians.

Victoria’s quest for truth and justice, we might reflect, does not come before time.

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