Fr Malachy Mara, Guestmaster at Tarrawarra for two decades, relished conducting groups of visitors on “grand tours” of parts of the monastery.
His accompanying patter varied little from occasion to occasion. As he and his party hung over the fence to admire Fr Mark’s veggie garden, he would gesture south-easterly beyond the Yarra and announce: “Three hundred Aborigines are buried over there!” His reference was to Coranderrk, the former Aboriginal station on the outskirts of what later became Healesville.
It is doubtful whether he, any of our community, or the general public, knew anything much of the Coranderrk story then. Ethel Shaw, who grew up there, during the 26 years her father was manager at Coranderrk, wrote her forty page account, Early Days Among the Aboriginals in the 1940s. The literature has slowly grown. Aldo Massola’s Coranderrk: A History of the Aboriginal Station appeared in 1975. Diane Barwick followed with Rebellion at Coranderrk in 1998. Giordano Nanni and Andrea James used the transcript of the 1881 Parliamentary Inquiry into Coranderrk to produce the verbatim play We Will Show the Country in 2013. The text is accompanied by valuable supporting biographical and historical material. The play has been performed in various places, including Coranderrk itself. Further material is to be found in Emily Fitzgerald’s Welcome to Wurundjeri Country: the Wurundjeri History of the Yarra (2014). Most recently Mick Woiwod’s passionate Barak Versus the Black Hats of Melbourne (2017) revealed more of the inspiring and tragic story as the Indigenous people struggled to hold on to the small remaining part of their ancestral lands against the dirty tricks of the Victorian Inculturation Society.
Yes, there are 300 Aborigines buried there. The story?
The 1835 arrival of John Batman and his party at Port Philip, his declaration “this is the place for a village”, and his “treaty” with the Indigenous Elders of the area, spelt the end of the life-style and culture of the five clans of the Kulin (Woiwurrung speaking) people and their occupancy of the land around the Bay and Yarra that had lasted tens of thousands of years. Lieutenant Governor La Trobe issued orders in 1842 banning Aboriginal people from Melbourne. By 1842, seven years after settlement, Victoria had been occupied by over 12,000 settlers, 100,000 cattle, and one and a half million sheep. Billibellary, the ngurungaeta or clan head, requested in 1843 that some land be reserved for the Woiwurrung clans. His request was refused. With the discovery of gold in 1851, the population skyrocketed.
A Select Committee on Aborigines, in 1859, recommended the establishment of several reserves. Over the following years, six were set up: Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ebenezer, Ramahyuck, Lake Tyers and Coranderrk. Simon Wonga had succeeded his father Billibellary as ngurungaeta in 1846, and it was he who led a deputation of seven Wurundjeri (Yarra tribe) Elders to petition the Aboriginal Protector, William Thomas, to secure land for the Kulin at the junction of the Acheron and Goulburn rivers in 1859. Soon after this station had been established, Hugh Glass, the most powerful squatter in Victoria, had them removed from the Acheron to Mohican Station, a miserably cold site which had been abandoned because it was unsuitable for agriculture.
A Central Board to Watch Over the Interests of Aborigines operated 1860-1869. John Green was appointed Inspector for the Central Board in 1861. Green was already a steadfast, trusted friend and supporter of the Aborigines. In 1863 Simon Wonga, William Barak (future ngurungaeta) and John Green led 40 Wurundjeri and Taungurong (Goulburn River), and Bunwarrung over the Black Spur to squat on a traditional camping site on Badger Creek. They petitioned the government for ownership. An area of 9.6 square kilometres was gazetted on 30 June 1863. It was called Coranderrk at the suggestion of the Aborigines. John Green, with his wife Mary, assumed management of the station without pay. There were about 100 at Coranderrk by 1866. The Government reserved another 2,500 acres for them on the site. They built a village and operated a very successful hop farm.
In 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed and the Central Board was renamed The Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA). What had originally been a relatively benign relationship turned sour when the BPA, it seems, was infiltrated by members of the Victorian Inculturation Society who coveted the Coranderrk land for their own plans of introducing, for hunting purposes, all the European pests that subsequently ran wild. Green was harassed into offering his resignation as manager of Coranderrk, and a number of hopeless appointments followed.
Tension and struggle ensued. In 1874 the Kulin began their protest against Green’s removal. Wonga died the next year and William Barak became ngurungaeta and spokesperson for the Coranderrk community. Barak led, on foot, a first deputation of seven from Coranderrk to the BPA’s Collins Street Offices in 1875. They were treated arrogantly and ordered back to Coranderrk. The following year a second deputation went to Parliament itself. After attempts to foil their visit, James MacPherson, the Chief Secretary (Premier), received them and reassured the deputation that there was no intention to remove them. A Royal Commission into the management was held in 1877, and a Parliamentary Inquiry in 1881. In 1881 Graham Berry, another sympathetic Chief Secretary, declared after a third deputation, “The Kulin shall not be removed”. He finally fulfilled the residents’ wishes by permanently reserving 4,850 acres.
It was a short-lived victory. In 1886 the Aboriginal Protection Law Amendment passed both Houses and all “half castes” were required to leave the reserves. Around 60 were ejected from Coranderrk. Only 15 able-bodied men were left to work the hitherto successful hop gardens. Coranderrk reserve formally closed in 1924, though five older people refused to leave.
A carload of the Tarrawarra community drove over to Coranderrk cemetery on 15 August 1978 to conduct a prayer service on the 75th anniversary of William Barak’s death. Dot Peters, a Healesville Aboriginal Elder, invited Dom David Tomlins, in late 1999, to be part of a small group that planned and prepared a prayer ceremony that combined Indigenous and Christian elements. This became the context for a Reconciliation celebration, BYO picnic with Coranderrk descendants, in Queen’s Park, Healesville, in March of 2000.
On 7 June 2011, Coranderrk was added to the Australian National Heritage List.