Aboriginal Victoria

The area now known as the City of Darebin has traditionally been a significant area for Aboriginal people. 

Of the more than 700 language groups that inhabited Australia, 38 different language groups are represented within Victoria.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names and images of deceased persons.

Wurundjeri country covers most of the area now known as greater Melbourne and includes the City of Darebin.

Wurundjeri boundaries

Figure 3: Wurundjeri 'boundaries'.

Wurundjeri Dreaming stories tell us that;

"Bunjil [the eaglehawk] made the mountains and rivers, man and all the animals, and passed on to men the knowledge of how to make weapons and how to behave amongst one another."

Within the Woi wurrung language group there are multiple clans, one of which is the Wurundjeri Balluk clan. This clan can be further subdivided into four distinct family groups, each headed by a Ngurungaeta (Woi wurrung word, pronounced na-run-getta), or headman. The family group most likely to have lived on the land now known as the City of Darebin is the Wurundjeri Willam clan, whose Ngurungaeta was Billebillary. This land may have also been used by the Bebejan family group, as they were based around the Heidelberg area.

Traditionally, summer months may have been spent on the banks of the Yarra River and the Merri and Darebin creeks. The proximity to both creeks may have been important as they were reliable water sources despite the lack of rainfall during summer months.

These water sources may have also been important sources of food as they were well inhabited by platypus, water rats and fish. Silcrete outcrops at Mount Cooper (now part of the Bundoora Park area) may have been utilised as a source of materials for making stone tools. The name Bundoora is also significant. It is thought that the suburb of Bundoora is shortened from Keelbundoora, which was the name of a young boy who was present at the signing of the Batman Treaty.

You can also read the Story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Darebin in PDF format.

The area now known as the City of Darebin has traditionally been a significant area for Aboriginal people.

Traditionally, summer months may have been spent on the banks of the Yarra River and the Merri and Darebin creeks. The proximity to both creeks may have been important as they were reliable water sources despite the lack of rainfall during summer months. 

These water sources may have also been important sources of food as they were well inhabited by platypus, water rats and fish. Silcrete outcrops at Mount Cooper (now part of the Bundoora Park area) may have been utilised as a source of materials for making stone tools. The name Bundoora is also significant. It is thought that the suburb of Bundoora is shortened from Keelbundoora, which was the name of a young boy who was present at the signing of the Batman Treaty.

In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia. It was during this trip that Cook declared Australia as terra nullius or 'no one's land'. Eighteen years later, on 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillips landed in Sydney Cove in order to establish a British penal colony.

These new comers were completely different from anyone the Gadigal people of the area had encountered. It has been suggested that because the British settlers' skin was so much lighter than that of the Gadigal people, and subsequent Aboriginal groups, they were assumed to be spiritual entities. In any case, the British settlers were not welcomed to the land with a tanderrum ceremony.

Victorian Aboriginal clan members from the Gunaikurnai area of Gippsland and the Bunurong area of Western Port may have seen these and other European ships off the coast during this era. However, the first official attempt to develop a colony in Victoria occurred in 1803.  Prior to these attempts, settlement along the Southern Coast was deemed illegal by the New South Wales Government. Despite multiple attempts by both British and French explorers (each of which was abandoned) people of the Wurundjeri clan may not have had direct contact with Europeans until the 1830s.

When exploration did move to the south, into the area now known as Victoria, some 40 years after the first fleet's landing, explorers noted signs of smallpox within the Kulin nations (particularly within the Wathawurrung clan). This is despite people of the Kulin Nations not having any direct contact with British people. Smallpox, which Aboriginal people had no immunity to or treatment for, is said to have halved the Aboriginal population in south-eastern Australia in 1790 and again in 1830.

In 1835, on behalf of Tasmanian pastoralists, John Batman entered Port Phillip Bay and surveyed the lands around the Yarra River. A week after his arrival, he presented a treaty of sorts to the Ngurungaeta of the Kulin Nations. Batman's treaty proposed the purchase of 600,000 acres of land around Melbourne and Geelong in return for an initial 'payment' of:

  • 20 pairs of blankets
  • 100 knives
  • 30 tomahawks
  • 200 handkerchiefs
  • 30 mirrors
  • 50 scissors
  • 100 pounds of flour,
  • 6 shirts.

While signatories of Batman's treaty did so freely (if they did in fact sign), they would not have had the same understanding of 'purchase' as Europeans did. As discussed in earlier sections, Aboriginal people would have had an understanding of reciprocity, cooperation, respect and short-term use of resources.

Despite Batman's attempts to purchase the land of Melbourne, Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales, deemed that any treaty or bargain for land where there wasn't an official presence was 'void, and of no effect against the rights of the Government'. However, it soon became clear to the New South Wales Government that the increasing number of European squatters present in Victoria demanded a government presence.

From 1835 onwards, change occurred rapidly for the Wurundjeri Willam people. In 1837, Robert Hoddle surveyed the land now known as Northcote as part of the street planning system. In 1839, the Government sold most of the land now known as the City of Darebin (Northcote, Fairfield, Alphington, Reservoir, Preston and Bundoora). By 1840, all of the land within Darebin had been sold to European graziers or land prospectors. 

European settlement and the concept of land ownership and boundaries led to Aboriginal dispossession of land. Wurundjeri people were no longer able to move through their traditional lands freely. Access to traditional hunting and gathering grounds were now closed off and natural resources were lost due to animal grazing and land clearing for housing and roadways.

Despite attempts to maintain traditional ways of life, the loss of traditional lands and food supplies, meant that Wurundjeri people sought out food and other resources such as blankets within the growing city centre of Melbourne. At first, European settlers and Aboriginal people lived in close proximity due to their mutual curiosity. However, European customs such as the use of alcohol and differences in European law and Aboriginal lore gave rise to increasing racial tensions. These tensions, coupled with the European desire to 'civilise' and 'protect' Aboriginal people, gave rise to new laws and gave the Aboriginal Protectorate Board (established in 1860) statutory powers.

Prior to 1901, each of the six colonies of Australia (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania) were responsible for creating laws for its people. In 1869, the Victorian government became the first colony to pass laws relating to Aboriginal people.

The Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 (Vic) allowed the Aboriginal Protectorate Board to regulate Aboriginal people's employment, marriage, social life, aspects of daily life, and where they lived. This law also meant that the Governor could order the removal of any child from their family to a reformatory or industrial school, a practice that continued until approximately 1970.

Removal of children was undertaken under the guise of protection. It was hoped that children could be given a Christian education which would allow them to assimilate into the non-Indigenous population. The impacts of this practise have been devastating not only to those children who were removed, but also to the family and community from which they were removed. Some of the major impacts (to individuals) of removal include the loss of family connection, culture and language; experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse; long term mental health issues (including grief and loss of identity); and denial of parental or caregiver attachment. There was also a major mental health impact (including grief, guilt and a mistrust of authorities) which affected the families of Stolen Generations and subsequent generations.

The Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 (Vic) also saw many Aboriginal people moved to Aboriginal missions, reserves and stations.  Many people were not given a choice of which Mission or Station they were sent to live at, particularly those who were forcibly removed, and resulted in families being separated across different missions. In some instances, Aboriginal people were moved farther from their traditional lands than was logistically necessary (e.g. Yorta Yorta people [covering an area which included Echuca and Shepparton] were sent to the Coranderrk mission [Healesville]). It could be assumed that this practise was established to further isolate people from their traditional lands, language groups and family. It was also during this time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were forbidden to speak their native languages. It is thought that these regulations were implemented as settlers' and Mission managers were fearful of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people communicated about in their own languages and to further accelerate their assimilation into the non-Indigenous population.

In 1886, the Aborigines' Protection Act 1886 (Vic) came into effect. Commonly referred to as the 'Half-caste Act', this law gave way for Aboriginal people who were of mixed descent and under 34 years old to be removed from the Reserve system. This Act resulted in further dislocation and separation of families. People removed from the Missions and Reserves were to be supported with provisions for up to seven years.

On January 1 1901, Australia became an independent nation and the Australian Constitution came into effect. The Constitution:

"establishes the composition of the Australian Parliament, and describes how Parliament works, what powers it has, how federal and state Parliaments share power, and the roles of the Executive Government and the High Court".

The Constitution included two clauses regarding Aboriginal people. The first, section 51 [xxvi], allowed states to retain their power to make laws regarding Aboriginal people. While the other, section 127, stated that Aboriginal (and Torres Strait Islander people) would not be counted in 'reckoning the numbers of people'. This decision was made as it was thought that states that were home to large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations would be given an unfair advantage in terms of federal Government funding and support.

Laws specifically designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continued to be enacted until 1957 with Acts removing (Aborigines Act 1910 [Vic]) and reinstating (Aborigines Act 1915 [Vic]) the distinction between Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people of mixed descent. 

Despite managing every aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's lives, missions sooner or later fell into mismanagement or became impracticable. Pressure from neighbouring farmers demanding more land for their livestock, resulted in the Government selling off parcels of Reserve and Mission land. This move, coupled with the removal of people of mixed descent, and thereby a large part of the labour force, made missions and reserves impracticable and consequently resulted in closure. At the same time conditions at missions and reserves, such as Cummeragunja, were of major concern for residents. Conditions such as overcrowding and a lack of sanitation and rations resulted in deaths of some of the people who lived there.

Despite the Government's position of controlling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives, many settlers supported the rights and entitlements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One such activist was Anne Bon. Anne acted on behalf of Aboriginal people and became good friends with Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta William Barak during his travels.  With the death of William Barak's son, Anne began petitioning the Government to conduct an inquiry into the management of Coranderrk mission. Until the time of her death in 1936, Anne Bon continued to advocate, and assisted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in self-advocating, for their civil and human rights.

Throughout the 1920s, the population in what is now known as the City of Darebin flourished. Reasons for this growth included the introduction of faster transport options between the municipality and Melbourne (electric trams and trains became operational in the area, as well as increased wages and affordability of cars and petrol).

The housing boom post-World War I also helped bolster the population as War Service Homes for returned servicemen were established. At the same time, the State Savings Bank began approving loans for people wishing to purchase their own home.

The 1920s and '30s in particular saw Aboriginal people reclaim their right to live in Melbourne and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations were formed across the Eastern seaboard. It has been proposed that the movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards major cities may have been partially due to the mismanagement and closure of country missions, and the implementation of the Aborigines Act 1915 (Vic), which removed Aboriginal people of mixed descent from missions and stations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have equally been drawn to Melbourne in the pursuit of the work and social opportunities that the city afforded.

As the Aboriginal population established themselves in Melbourne's working-class suburbs of Fitzroy and Northcote, so too an Aboriginal community life was developed. These communities comprised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across Australia and gave way for the first pan-Aboriginal political movement – The Australian Aborigines League.

Founded by William Cooper, and other influential Aboriginal people, in 1932, the League pushed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be given full citizenship rights. The Australian Aborigines League was also successful in fundraising, welfare work and educating the wider population to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's concerns.

In 1938, members of the Australian Aborigines League and other prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from Melbourne, including Lady Gladys and Sir Douglas Nicholls, attended the first national gathering of Aboriginal activists in Sydney. The 26th of January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of English occupation in Australia and was dubbed the Day of Mourning. This event is noted as a turning point in Aboriginal people's fight for equality, both in citizenship status and within the community. Furthermore, the Day of Mourning marked the beginning of the modern Aboriginal political movement.

During the war years, the Australian Aborigines League was less active while many 'white' organisations and groups were concerned about the welfare and betterment of the 'Aboriginal situation'.

Post-war, there was a shift to a more combined approach (Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people campaigning together) as people appeared to be more concerned with human rights issues following the World War II Holocaust.

One such organisation that began with this combined approach was the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL). The VAAL, established in 1957, took up the work of the Australian Aborigines League after Sir Douglas Nicholls travelled to, and noted the condition of people living on, the Warburton Ranges Mission. Aboriginal people who lived on the mission were removed from the mission due to the inception of the Woomera Range Complex, established by the British and Australian defence forces as a long-range weapons testing facility.

By 1969, partly due to the influence of the American Black Power movement, the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League became the first Aboriginal-run organisation to assume community control of Aboriginal affairs. This move clearly marked a move towards self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As a welfare and activist body, the League is acknowledged as the 'mother' of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations many of which have remained in close proximity to the League's home in Northcote. 

During the 1920s, the Aboriginal population within Darebin also began to boom. While the reasons for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people moving to Darebin aren't certain, one of these reasons may include the proximity of the City of Darebin to the CBD and the suburb of Fitzroy (a hub for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people).

Northcote, in particular, was close to noxious industries which may have kept housing costs low. It has also been suggested that the Aboriginal Protection Board designated these areas for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander settlement. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now had freedom from living on Missions and Stations they may have still been told where to live under the Aboriginal Protection Board's control.

A family history or connection within the City of Darebin may have also bought more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to live in the area. The kinship structure holds great importance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. People may feel comfortable or safe in and around Darebin as this is where they have grown up or they may have kinship connections within the municipality.

The City of Darebin has also become home to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. These organisations may be another reason that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have chosen to live or come to work within the City of Darebin.

Many people, from diverse Aboriginal countries and the Torres Strait Islands work, live and study in Darebin. Each person with their own story, culture, and history. It is important that we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that the City of Darebin covers, the Wurundjeri people, and the diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from other clans who call the City of Darebin home. Irrespective of the reasons why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have come to live, work and study in Darebin, our community is much richer for having them here.

Read about Aboriginal Australia.