Coranderrk Aboriginal Station is located on the Yarra Flats, bordered by the Yarra River, Badger creek, Watts River and the slopes of Mount Riddle.
It was established for the Wurundjeri people but was also home to other people from the Kulin Nation, an alliance formed by five language groups – Woi Wurrung (Wurundjeri), Boon Wurrung, Wadawurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung (Jaara) and Taungurung.
Uncle Simon Wonga
Uncle Simon Wonga was born in the 1824 near Healesville to Wurundjeri Nurunggaeta (head man), Billibellary. He displayed leadership qualities from a young age and was identified as a future leader. His father was one of the Wurundjeri men who met with John Batman and signed the 'Batman Treaty' – which Uncle Wonga, along with his cousin Uncle William Barak also witnessed. After injuring himself in a hunting accident, Uncle Wonga was cared for by William Thomas (Assistant Aboriginal Protector) and his son and they developed a close friendship. Uncle Wonga helped them understand the Wurundjeri way of life, their traditions, culture, language and beliefs while Thomas taught Uncle Wonga how European society worked.
Uncle Wonga became Nurunggaeta at the age of 22 following his father’s death in 1846. Uncle Wonga used all the knowledge he had about European society and his friends in the settler community to fight for his people when they were being treated unfairly.
Uncle Wonga was one of the first Aboriginal leaders to try and regain the land settlers had taken and is remembered as a great man.
This episode of the documentary series 'First Australians' directed by Rachel Perkins focuses on Uncle Wonga and Uncle Barak and their struggle for Coranderrk.
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company Artistic Director Rachael Maza on the 2017 National tour of CORANDERRK.
VICTORIA, 1881: the men and women of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve take on the Aboriginal Protection Board in a pioneering fight for justice, dignity and self-determination.
Coranderrk is born
In early 1863, Uncle Wonga and Uncle Barak followed their songlines route in the Dandenong Ranges and settled in a traditional camping spot close to Badger Creek, the Yarra River, Watts River and Mount Riddle. Uncle Wonga then formed a group to travel to Melbourne to request ownership on the site they had settled on. The group provided gifts to Governor Henry Barkley and Uncle Wonga delivered a strong plea in Woi Wurrung language. Because of this moving appeal, they were granted 2300 acres to use as a reserve in June 1863.
Coranderrk officially opens
The reserve was named Coranderrk after the Christmas Bush – a white flowering summer plant which is native to the area – and John Green, a friend of Uncle Wonga’s, was appointed manager. It quickly grew to become Victoria’s biggest reserve with 105 residents. Due to the leadership of Uncle Wonga, Uncle Barak, John Green and others at Coranderrk, the reserve became a thriving farming community that was able to operate independent of government.
The majority of missions and stations in Australia were built around systems of oppression, separation and paternalistic control. John Green was different to most mission managers and believed that the Kulin people should be allowed to determine their own needs and manage their own affairs. This approach meant residents were able to maintain many of their cultural practises traditions while living in a government reserve.
Coranderrk’s existence was a result of Uncle Wonga and his strong determination as well as love for his people and their survival.
Uncle Jack Charles talks about his involvement in 'Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country,' in which he plays the role of William Barak, November 2011.
Uncle William Barak
Uncle Barak succeeded his cousin Uncle Wonga as Nurunggaeta of the clan in 1875 after Uncle Wonga passed away.
He was born in 1824 to Bebejan and Tooterie at Brushy Creek in the Yarra Valley, now known as Wonga Park. Uncle Barak spent most of his life at Coranderrk and was devoted to its cause. He was known to be highly intelligent, charismatic and mild mannered.
Uncle Barak was also a skilled artist, creating many paintings reflecting his Wurundjeri culture while at Coranderrk. Uncle Barak was a strong leader and advocate for his people – often successfully negotiating and building relationships between Wurundjeri people and Europeans.
Petitions to Government
After becoming Nurunggaeta, Uncle Barak’s leadership was put to the test when Coranderrk came under threat of closure. The Protection Board was under pressure to subdivide the land and shift residents away from their homes to a remote spot on the Murray River. This was strongly opposed by the residents of Coranderrk.
Uncle Barak’s nephews were skilled writers and assisted him in forming series of letters and petitions to the Government. In an interview that year, Uncle Barak famously said
Me no leave it, Yarra, my country. There's no mountains for me on the Murray.
Uncle Barak also led a large group of people on a walk to Parliament House – recreating a walk he had previously done with his cousin, Uncle Wonga, when they had sought permission to establish Coranderrk.
In the meeting at Parliament, Uncle Barak was able to convince the Government not to shut Coranderrk down. This shows that Uncle Barak was able to adopt peaceful yet persuasive ways to fight for Country. However, following this meeting the quality of life at Coranderrk deteriorated due to the Board’s mismanagement and with funding cuts Coranderrk began to sink into poverty and disrepair
In 1881 Uncle Barak organised a third walk to Melbourne after Coranderrk was once again being threatened. He led 22 men along the 60km journey from Coranderrk to Parliament House. They met with Premier Berry, who personally agreed with their requests, but did not believe Parliament would. As a result Berry appointed a Board of Inquiry to investigate the conditions and management of Coranderrk.
The Parliamentary Inquiry into Coranderrk was the first time in Victoria that an official commission was created to address Aboriginal people’s calls for self-determination and land. It was also one of the few times Aboriginal witnesses were called to give evidence on matters concerning their lives. The Inquiry attracted major public and political interest and was reported closely in the media.
For those who called Coranderrk their home, this inquiry was of huge importance – this was their last chance to ensure that they could stay at their home and protect their culture. Losing Coranderrk would mean moving to unfamiliar Country and the effects of this would be devastating.
The Inquiry lasted two and a half months. In this time it held twelve hearings (two were held at Coranderrk), examined 69 witnesses (48 European and 21 Aboriginal) and asked 5,349 questions. It was not a fair playing field, with the conservative commissioners preferring the statements of white witnesses. It also did not help that members of the Board were included as witnesses. The Aboriginal witnesses gave evidence and delivered their testimonies with composure and dignity. Despite accusations that they were being influenced by outsiders they presented a united front. Their fundamental demands were for self-determination:
We want the Board and the Inspector, Captain Page, to be no longer over us. We want only one man here, and that is Mr. John Green, and the station to be under the Chief Secretary; then we will show the country that the station could self-support itself - Uncle William Barak
The Inquiry report was published in 1882. Following its recommendations, Coranderrk was made a permanent reserve by Premier Bell. For the time being the hard work to protect Coranderrk had paid off.
In passing the Aborigines Protection Act 1886, the Colonial Government inflicted huge harm to the Aboriginal Community by separating those who were ‘half-caste’ (meaning they had one Aboriginal and one European parent) and those who were ‘full-blood.’ Those who were considered ‘full-blood’ were allowed to continue living on reserves and missions while ‘half-castes’ would be removed and forced into society to 'assimilate'. It was hoped that eventually this would cause the populations of the reserves and missions to decline so that they could eventually be shut down.
Despite all the work put in by Uncle Barak, Uncle Wonga and the residents of Coranderrk, this Act meant most of the young people of Coranderrk were forced to leave the station. This led the upkeep and running of the station being left to an ageing population. Uncle Barak sadly passed away in 1903, causing another huge blow to the Coranderrk community.
Due to the decline in numbers the government began arguing for its closure and in 1924 Coranderrk was officially shut down. Residents were encouraged to move to the Lake Tyers Mission, however a group of people refused to leave their homes and instead lived the remainder of their lives on Coranderrk.
In 1998, with help from the Indigenous Land Corporation, the descendants of the Coranderrk community were able to buy back a small portion (0.81 km²) of the land that was taken from their ancestors. It was also added to the Australian National Heritage List on 7 June 2011.
Coranderrk remains to this day a place of huge significance for Wurundjeri and other Kulin people.
Sources used in writing this article:
- Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, Only Melbourne
- Wurundjeri Tribe Council
- National Heritage Places - Coranderrk, Department of Environment and Energy
- Coranderrk Mission, State Library of Victoria
- The 1881 Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry, Minutes of Evidence Project
- William Barak: King of the Yarra, Culture Victoria
- Simon Wonga, Aboriginal Victoria.