May we never forget what happened at Coranderrk Reserve.
Winter in Victoria. Every Saturday at 5am, I still dream I will throw snow chains in the back of my car, grab my skis and head for Healsville and the the cross country skiing at Lake Mountain. I love driving through the tall mountain ash forest near wild dog creek, over the black spur into a pristine world of white. The air crisp and clear, the only sound the swish of my skis and the gentle plop of snow falling from trees.
On the way home I deliberately divert down piccaninny lane (piccaninny means an Australian indigenous child) and slowly climb to a fenced area surrounded by tall trees. Opening the gate I quietly stand by Barak’s grave and gaze over rolling green hills towards where Coranderrk once was a thriving community. In the past, Coranderrk was a government reserve for Australian Aborigines in the state of Victoria between 1863 and 1924, located 50km north-east of Melbourne..
S0mething in the sound of the wind in the grass and the gently sighing of trees keeps drawing me back time and time again to this place. There is a sense of longing I can’t explain. I always knew some facts but I didn’t fully understand what had happened here, so when I had the opportunity to see the play Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country based on actual transcripts from the records of the 1881 Government Inquiry into self determination, I could not resist.
William Barak (1824-1903), Aboriginal spokesman, variously called ‘King William, last chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe’ or ‘Beruk (white grub in gum tree) belonging to the Wurundjeri Willum horde whose country lay along the Yarra and Plenty Rivers’. This is from his official biography
With his Gippsland-born first wife Lizzie, he was among the first group of Goulburn Aboriginals who settled at Acheron in 1859, hoping to have the area reserved. After much official indecision Coranderrk, near Healesville, was gazetted and he settled there permanently in 1863, in a ‘neat little cottage and garden, most tidy and comfortable’. Barak worked for a small wage on the station farm and acquired a few horses. Further schooling and religious instruction were undertaken; he could read but not write. He was baptized, confirmed, and took a second wife Annie ‘of the Lower Murray’ (Lizzie died before 1863) in a publicized Presbyterian ceremony in 1865. The fate of his family was typical of the time; two infants died of gastro-enteritis, David and Annie of consumption. When he married Sarah (Kurnai) on 7 June 1890 he was the oldest man at Coranderrk and only full-blood survivor of his tribe.
Following the reservation of the land, Barak and the Kulin together with the first managers, John and Mary Green, enthusiastically embarked upon the task of making Coranderrk their new home. Their vision was to make the station fully self-supporting.
However,soon vested local interests began to agitate to move Barak and his people off this land, and so began a sustained, sophisticated campaign for justice, land rights and self-determination. In collaboration with white supporters, the Kulin people used the legal and political system to force a Parliamentary Inquiry.
In the late 1870s when management of Aboriginal affairs came under vigorous public criticism Barak emerged as a respected spokesman. Until his death he was the acknowledged leader at Coranderrk and a liaison between officialdom and the native population.
His petitions and public appearances were important spurs to action, especially the government inquiry of 1881. Barak outlined a plan for autonomous communities under Coranderrk’s first manager, John Green:
‘give us this ground and let us manage here ourselves … and no one over us … we will show the country we can work it and make it pay and I know it will’.
Lisa Hill’s excellent review of the play and the book Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country from La Mama Courthouse Theatre Carlton Victoria Australia can be found at ANZlitlovers blog
Lisa says the play is unique because it’s based entirely on transcripts from the 19th century paper trail of an heroic struggle for Aboriginal self-determination. Having been dispossessed of their ancestral lands by European settlement, a small band of survivors from the Kulin Nation petitioned the colonial government for a land grant to set up the Coranderrk Reserve. There they created an award-winning farm and an impressive settlement.
The outcome of the Inquiry?
In the short term the inquiry marked a clear victory for the Corranderrk community, for they succeeded in publicly exposing and preventing the Board’s underhanded plans to close down Coranderrk. John Green was never reinstated as manager as they requested, but the despised Rev. Strickland was dismissed and living conditions improved. Finally in 1884, Chief Secretary Graham Berry ordered that Coranderrk should be permanently reserved as a ‘site for the use of Aborigines’. It was a short-lived victory, however. In 1886, the Victorian Government passed the infamous ‘Half-Cast’ Act, designed to push so-called ‘half-cast’ men and women off the reserves and facilitate their assimilation into the white population. The 1886 Act caused the breaking-up of families and separation of the younger, literate, generation from their Elders. As a direct result, Coranderrk was eventually closed in 1924.
Barak and the Coranderrk community’s fight for self determination should never be forgotten. Finally I am beginning to understand the sense of longing I feel when I stand on that high rolling hill in Healsville.
It’s a story every Victorian should know.
Many thanks to Jason and Karen Whitting for supplying the tickets and to Lisa Hill and Maureen Hanna for accompanying me. An excellent, thought provoking play, good company and plenty of strong coffee. What a great way to spend a Sunday in Melbourne