Native women digging murnong roots, Bellarine Peninsula. SOURCE: John Helder Wedge 1835

‘Extreme civilisation’ meets ‘absolute barbarism’

‘Extreme civilisation’ meets ‘absolute barbarism’

On the 18th of December 1840, after his first encounter with Aboriginal people outside of Melbourne, squatter Charles Griffith of Glenmore in the Parwan valley wrote in his diary: “Had a very warm argument at dinner on the subject of the treatment of the natives and of the injustice of Englishmen coming out and depriving them of their country… I conceive that by their lacks they have forfeited their original right…” Griffith, who tried to maintain a cordial relationship with the local clan also concluded: “The contact of extreme civilization and absolute barbarism must always be productive of an immensity of mischief.”

By the time Griffith arrived there had already been four years of ‘mischief’ and the Colonial office had responded in December 1837 by appointing George Augustus Robinson as Chief Protector of Aborigines with four assistant protectors. They had the following instruction: “It will be your duty generally to watch over the rights and interests of thenatives and to endeavour to gain their respect and confidence. You will, as far as you are able by your personal exertions and influence, protect themfrom any encroachments on their property and from acts of cruelty, oppression or injustice.”

In February and March of 1840, Chief Protector Robinson, visited sheep stations in the region and wrote in his diary:”At (Captain) Bacchus’ Head station found some Wadawurrung who I know. They appear to be well treated at this station.”

Large family groups of Wadawurrung from Geelong were also near Bacchus Marsh carrying their murnong digging sticks and drifting from station to station, “clamorous for food.” According to Captain Bacchus “all they wanted was ‘noorong’ (murnong).” Murnong (yam daisy), was a nutritious starch staple that had enabled the semi-sedentary lifestyle of the Aboriginal clans in the area for thousands of years. Sweet in flavour, it had been quickly grazed out by sheep.

The following quotes taken from Robinson’s diary while visiting the sheep stations paint a sorry picture of the Wadawurrung’s fate:

“… Saw many native huts about [Green Hills] station (Toolern Vale). These natives are enticed about the huts by the men for the sake of the women.”

“Came to Campbell and Dr Wilsone’s station where we met a party of native women and children, 16 in number… Some of them were suffering veryseverely from [syphilis].”

The disease proved fatal to some, and left others unable to provide for themselves. The birth rate dropped dramatically and the begging and pilfering soured relations with the squatters.

Henry Wilsone, who initially welcomed the appointment of protectors, wrote in a letter to his brother in August 1839: “The blacks have been very annoying to us having attacked our stations two times within the last six months and succeeded in carrying away guns,pistols, clothing, bedding and provisions;.. in fact we are left totally unprotected.”

In September 1839 he writes:“… the fools of protectors have informed them that if we dare meddle with them… we would be hanged.”

In June 1840 one of his huts was plundered again: “They robbed (the hutkeeper) of all they could carry away useful to them aswell as muskets, pistols etc… Nothing will do I am afraid but to shoot a good many of them.”

In the first week of September 1840, Edward Parker, Assistant Protector, visited sheep stations between Bacchus Marsh and Ballarat to investigate six ‘outrages’ committed by the natives on the ‘Upper Weirabee’, including Campbell and Wilsone’s station. His conclusion: “I found as usual that circumstances had been greatly exaggerated but obtained sufficient evidence to prove that a party of Aborigines have committed depredations– in two instances accompanied with some personal violence.”

In March 1842 Parker records in his diary: “… the result of nearly three years of observation, that nine out of ten of the outrages committed by the blacks may be traced, directly or indirectly to the sexual exploitation of the native women.”

Alcohol abuse further ravaged Aboriginal society. It was also rampant amongst the colonists – in August 1841 Dr Henry Wilsone died from liver failure caused by his alcoholism. The letters written to his brother provide posterity with glimpses of the emotional toll of squatting on the frontier.

On 26 September 1896, the citizens of the ‘Golden City’ of Ballarat turned out to bury Mullawalla, alias ‘King Billy’, erroneously considered to be the last of the Wadawurrung people. The Ballarat Star stated that Billy and his subjects, “once virtually owned all the land comprised of the City of Ballarat, so it can be considered only fair that six feet of ground should not be denied for his burial.”