This is the second in a four-part series that explores colonial impacts on local Aboriginal peoples based on original diaries and texts. Read Part 1 here.
Excluded from their native soil
After his arrival in the Port Phillip District in January 1839, Assistant Protector Parker spent several months in Melbourne familiarising himself with his task and with the Aboriginals coming from and going to Melbourne. Parker had been assigned the North West district which can be roughly described as the territory from Bacchus Marsh north to the Murray and from the Mount Macedon ranges west to the Pyrenees.
We will now follow Parker into this territory without roads or towns, where Aboriginal people outnumbered colonists, leaving behind a pregnant Mary Parker and their six children in a slab hut on Jackson’s Creek between present day Sunbury and Gisborne. After one such trip he reported that:
“…all the settlers whom I met with on the journey were of the opinion that the Aborigines were necessarily greatly distressed for food, owing to the destruction of the “murnong”, a tuberous-rooted plant formerly covering the plains of this country, but now entirely cropped off by the sheep and cattle. They expressed their earnest hope that the government would make suitable arrangements for supplying the Natives with food, as it was only under the pressure of hunger that they were disposed to meddle with flocks.”
Murnong, or yam daisy, was the primary starch staple for the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung. They were dependent on it to get them through the cold winters on the flanks of the Great Dividing Range. By the time Parker wrote his first official report covering the period up to February 1840, he seemed to be less convinced that all the squatters restricted themselves to “earnest hope”:
“…the rapid occupation of the entire country by settlers and the consequent attempts made to deprive the Aborigines of the natural products of the country and even to exclude them from their native soil… The very spots most valuable to the Aborigines for their productiveness, the creeks, watercourses and rivers are the first to be occupied. It is a common opinion among the settlers that the possession of a squatting license entitles them to the exclusion of the Aborigines from their run.”
On some of his trips later in 1839, he had pressed on past Mount Macedon into the area between present day Kyneton and Mount Alexander where he was following up reports about violent conflict between squatters and Aboriginals. The attitude of some of the squatters appalled him and he wrote:
“Are the territorial rights of the Aborigines to be set aside by violence?… I feel it my duty to assert the right of the Aborigines to the soil and its indigenous productions, unless suitable compensation be made for its occupation by reserving and cultivating a sufficient portion for their maintenance.”
Despoiled, denied the right of humanity
Meanwhile on the southern slopes of the present day Wombat forest, conflict was also increasing. Robert Von Stieglitz, who occupied the Ballan run – which included the Werribee River flats to the east of Daylesford Ballan Road, wrote in a diary entry in September 1839 after the stealing of “five fine ewe lambs”:
“since then all our servants are armed and are desired to shoot anyone they see attempt it again or touch them… soon a regular affair will settle the business and clear our part of the country of these regular cannibals.”
In February and March 1840, Chief Protector Robinson was on horseback visiting sheep stations partly together with Parker. Large family groups of Wadawurrung people from Geelong were near Bacchus Marsh carrying their murnong digging sticks and drifting from station to station “clamorous for food”. Robinson wrote in his diary:
“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.”
After riding further west:
“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 very severely from [syphilis].”
The disease proved fatal to some, and left others unable to provide for themselves. The birth rate dropped dramatically, and begging and pilfering further soured relations with the squatters.
At the end of his first year in the colony Parker concluded there was only one solution for keeping Aboriginals and colonists apart:
“Concentrated and their wants provided for, they might soon be brought under such restraints as would guard them against injury, and secure the property of the colonists from depredation. But left in their present state, to be beaten back ‘by the white man’s foot’; to be excluded perforce from lands which many of them unquestionable regard as their own property, and from scenes as dear to them as our native homes to us, despoiled, denied the right to humanity, classed with and treated as wild dogs, I can entertain no other expectation but that they will be driven to more frequent depredations, and exposed to more rapid and certain destruction.”
Cahir, Fred. My Country all gone. The White men have stolen it: The Invasion of Wadawurrung Country 1800-1870. Australian History Matters, Ballarat. 2019. Available from Daylesford Museum.
Clark, Ian D. Squatters Journals. The Latrobe Journal No. 43. Autumn 1989.
Morrison, Edgar. A successful failure. First published in three volumes 1965-71, republished Graffiti Publications, 2002. Available from Daylesford Museum.
Next week: Part 3: Outlaws in their native land
Arie Baelde is a local resident and agronomist who has an interest in local history.