The Terra nullius dream

“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.” How often have you heard these words spoken before a public event? They are de rigueur at my son’s school at every assembly and public gathering but when I asked him what he could tell me about Eddie Mabo’s fishing rods he looked at me with bewilderment. As another Australia Day dawns and we once again remember the time in 1788 when the Indigenous people of Sydney Cove watched the sails of the convict ships enter Sydney Harbour, and muttered “Crikey” to themselves, what do those words really mean and how much of what we say is just lip service? The Yallambie days of yore that I have been writing about in these posts was not of course the first history of our district. There is another, earlier history dating back thousands of years, knowledge of which W. E. H. Stanner once described as “the great Australian silence”.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia
A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia

When the land that was to become the suburb of Yallambie was sold at public auction as Portion 8 at the first Crown land sales in 1838 it was assumed the land belonged to a Queen, then in the first year of her reign, sitting on a throne on the other side of the world and that it was hers by right to dispose of. It took a split decision by the best legal minds in Australia sitting on the High Court of Australia in 1992 to finally change that perception. I don’t know enough about the subject to write about it authoritatively but it seems appropriate on this day to write in a general way about the Wurundjeri, the tribe of indigenous Australians who before European settlement once occupied much of the present location of Melbourne.

The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.
The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.

According to the explorer and anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who with his father William visited “Yallambee” in October 1852, the Wurundjeri tribal territory was generally agreed to be all the area drained by the Yarra/Plenty River basins. It has been written elsewhere that at Yallambie the Wurundjeri occupied a more or less permanent summer camp, above a deep pool in the Plenty River that could be relied upon to never run dry even at times of the worst drought: “At that time Aborigines had a permanent camp above that long, straight, deep stretch of river below Tarcoola Drive”.

A "deep pool" on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
A “deep pool” on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

Archaeological studies by Banyule City Council and the MMBW have identified some evidence of pre contact civilization along the lower reaches of the Plenty River, from scarred trees to artefact scatters and possible mound sites. It is a fragile jigsaw puzzle that continuing research will add to although sometimes that puzzle can take an unexpected turn. Some years ago a newspaper reported that a skeleton had been found in a Montmorency backyard, just upstream from Yallambie and on the other side of the river. The police were called, it being believed that evidence had been found of our very own Montmorency, “Midsomer Murders”. They went away soon afterward when it became apparent that the skeleton was of Indigenous origin and of great age, proof if proof be needed of the long occupation of the area by native people.

Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: "Heartland of the Wurundjeri william".
Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: “Heartland of the Wurundjeri willam”.

A few years ago at the suggestion of my wife and I, Banyule Council installed a sign on the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River at Yallambie marking the presence of the first Australians in this locality. It’s a fine looking piece of sculpture shaped a bit like a native shield propped between two logs. I’ve heard it suggested that horse shoe loops on a river were good hunting grounds for Indigenous people. They could chase game into the bend and corner their quarry on steep banks. Perhaps the sign is a little inappropriately placed however and might have been better located upstream, near the permanent waterhole that the Indigenous people are said to have occupied as a camp. A second sign describing the Colonial history of the Wragge and Bakewell farms on the river flat would have been a better option for the location chosen. But that’s another story.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek. The waterhole where Indigenous people are said to have occupied a camp.
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

The story of John Batman’s infamous 1835 “Treaty” with the Wurundjeri people is well known. Teachers told us about it in school but if you were too busy considering the aerodynamic capabilities of the latest folded piece of exam paper, I would recommend Rex Harcourt’s enormously interesting book “Southern Invasion, Northern Conquest” (Golden Point Press, 2001). It contains what I think is the clearest account in print of the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and the events leading up to it. The rejection of the Treaty by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of Terra nullius upon which British possession of Australia until Mabo became based.

The infamous "Batman Treaty"
The infamous “Batman Treaty”

The location of the signing of Batman’s “Treaty” remains unclear. Most probably it was on the Merri Creek downstream from Rushall Station where High Street now climbs the artificial embankment to Northcote. I’ve walked there along the Merri Creek Trail with Harcourt’s book in hand and that’s my favourite for it matches John Batman’s description very nicely. However, there have been several other sites suggested including the intriguing theory put forward by H. G. Turner in his “History of Colonial Victoria” that the Treaty was signed on the Plenty River at Greensborough, just a little upstream from Yallambie. The eight Wurundjeri elders who placed their crosses on Batman’s ludicrous document on that day in 1835 almost certainly had no idea what they were signing. They were not the owners of the land that Batman and his Port Phillip Association were attempting to purchase. The land was held in common by the Tribe and was not the property of any one man to dispose of. Possibly they thought they were participating in a gift giving ceremony of friendship. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )
John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )

The world that the settlers brought to the Plenty River and the place that Indigenous people soon occupied in it is illustrated in the following account of the gentleman squatter Captain John Harrison on the Plenty River at Yan Yean. Written by his son in 1927 it tells of contact with Indigenous people in 1837-1843 but it might equally well have described the world of Edward Willis and John and Robert Bakewell when they occupied their land on the lower reaches of the Plenty River. According to Isabel Ellender who reproduced this description in her 1989 report “The Plenty Valley Corridor”, Harrison “was typical of many of the early settlers encountered by the Aborigines of the Plenty Valley in the 1830s”.

“The blacks in the district (the Plenty Valley) belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe and were considered rather dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house, the quadrangle was full of them… the blacks evidently thought only women and children were at home, for presently they became very cheeky, knocking at the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father… suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in a most miraculous manner… But we could hear a great jabbering going on down at the potato patch… and there, we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them and were six or seven feet long, and about thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.”

Bear's Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.

Near the head waters of the Plenty River lies a curious colonial building historically known as “Bear’s Castle”. I can remember my late father telling me of it when I was a wide eyed schoolboy. In his role as an inspector for the MMBW, my father was responsible for the water supply of a wide area, at one time ranging from the Heidelberg depot to the Yan Yean Reservoir. Bear’s Castle he told me had been built in the “olden days” to defend farmer Bear’s farm from marauding tribes. I don’t think he quite believed the legend himself and more than likely the “Castle” was built as a garden “folly” in the style of the English Picturesque. But it makes a good story all the same. It’s not easy to get permission to visit the “Castle” today as it lies within the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir. I last saw it nearly two decades ago. Bear’s farm itself lies somewhere out in the middle of the reservoir, under about 30,000 megalitres of water.

The writer at Bear's Castle, 1997
A hairy bear at Bear’s Castle: the writer at Bear’s folly in 1997

The Wragge family of Yallambie are known to have had many dealings with Indigenous people, if not at Yallambie, then at their Riverina properties. The Wragge’s are believed to have collected several Stone Age weapons and tools, Indigenous artifacts that had been ploughed up in their farm fields. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1997) said of the native people of the Riverina that: “The bond between Aborigines and their country has never been fully understood by white people. The tact and friendliness of Charles Sturt, when he explored the Murray in 1829-1830, probably prevented trouble along the river above its junction with the Darling. People met by Joseph Hawdon south of the Murray (between Echuca and the Loddon River) in 1838, when there had been reports of native hostility, showed mixed reactions to the intruders. There was curiosity, alarm and astonishment. Some were not welcoming, others attempted to pilfer the explorers’ goods. In the early 1840s, Edward Curr rode over country along the lower Edward, Wakool and Niemur Rivers, which was unoccupied by Europeans, without any trouble from Aborigines, but he stressed the fact that he was careful, especially with the Moira blacks on the northern side of the river. Less than forty years later a new Aboriginal generation could no longer oppose the advance of white settlers. Numbers had decreased steadily as they fell victim to diseases caught from the whites, and as they were occasionally shot. They largely abandoned their health-giving, traditional hunting and fishing to hang about the settlers’ huts, miserable and underfed, hoping for hand-outs from the newcomers. The pressure of white occupation resulted in listlessness among many of the Aborigines, and loss of interest in life”. Later still, many Indigenous people worked on the Wragge sheep stations as labourers, roustabouts and shearers, employees of white men on land that their forefathers had occupied for uncounted generations. Call us eccentric but where other couples would have chosen to lounge on a Queensland beach sipping gin and tonics, my wife and I spent our honeymoon plodding through paddocks in the Riverina in pursuit of this history visiting the old Wragge homesteads. At one of them I remember the modern day homesteader (not a Wragge descendant) showed us openings in the doors and walls of the original, free standing dairy, apertures which she claimed were rifle slopes, a sure sign of the dangers encountered by the original settlers of the district. I thought they looked like ventilation holes.

Phillippa Sutherland recently produced a very nice looking booklet for the Banyule Council called: “Banyule, Heartland of the Wurundjeri Willam”. It is freely available from the Council service centres and contains this final, delightful story of the Wurundjeri dream time, adapted by Sutherland from S. Wieneke, ‘When the Wattle Blooms Again’.

Frances Derham, 1894-1987
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Once, the water of Birrarung (Yarra River – ‘river of mists’) was locked in the mountains. This great expanse of water was called Moorool (‘great water’). It was so large that the Woiworung had little hunting ground. This contrasted with the Wathaurung’s and Bunurong’s hunting ground, the flat which is now Port Phillip Bay. Mo-yarra (‘slow and fast running’) was the headman of the Woiworung. He decided to free the country of the water and cut a channel through the hills, in a southerly direction, until he reached Koo-wee-rup (Western Port). However, only a little water followed him and the channel gradually closed up. At a later time, the headman of the tribe was Bar-wool. He remembered Mo-Yarra’s attempt to free the land. He knew that mo-Yarra still lived on the swamps beside Koo-we-rup. Each winter he saw the hilltops covered with feather-down which Mo-Yarra plucked from the water birds sheltering on the swamps. Bar-wool resolved to free the land. He cut a channel up the valley with his stone axe, but was stopped by Baw-baw, the mountain. He cut northwards, but was stopped by Donna Buang and his brothers. Then he cut westwards, through to the hills to Warr-an-dyte. There he met Yan-yan, another Woiworung. Yan-yan was busy cutting a channel for the Plenty River in order to drain his homeland of Morang. They joined forces and the waters of Moorool and Morang became Moo-rool-bark (‘the place where the wide waters were’). They continued their work, and reached Warringal (Heidelberg-Templestowe flats – ‘dingo-jump-up’). There they rested while the waters formed another Moorool. When Bar-wool and Yan-yan set to work again they had to go much slower because the ground was harder and they were using too many stone axes. They cut a narrow, twisting track between the Darebin and Merri Creeks, looking for softer ground. At last they reached Port Phillip. The waters of Moorool and Morang rushed out. Woiworung country was freed from water, but Port Phillip was inundated.” A charming story that in an uncanny way echoes what we know of the landscape from the geological record. The course of the Plenty River was changed 8000 years ago when volcanic eruptions in the west deposited a basalt flow that the river was then forced to cut a path through, creating Greensborough’s Plenty Gorge. The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the end of this basalt plain. The river bed at Yallambie and downstream until its confluence with the Yarra River in View Bank, follows the original course of the river across older, sedimentary beds. In prehistoric times when water levels were lower, the first Australians saw Port Phillip Bay as a game filled, grassy plain with the prehistoric course of the Yarra River cutting a route across it to the sea. I am told that the ancient river bed is still there, underwater somewhere at the bottom of the Bay. It has been modified to form the shipping channel so recently and so controversially deepened and is used by vessels entering the relatively shallow waters of Port Phillip enroute to the Port of Melbourne. So on this Australia Day, if you get the opportunity to take a dip with your inflatable kangaroo in the “True Blue” waters of Port Phillip or to play a game of beach cricket on some Peninsula shore line, remember for a moment a time before 1788 and 1835. A time when the first Australians hunted real kangaroos out on the grassy plains of Port Phillip where holidaying Aussie fishermen now pull in flathead and snapper. Those grassy plains are long gone now, as are the native camps of the plains and the Plenty River. They exist now only in a time of Dreams.

Frances Derham
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

7 thoughts on “The Terra nullius dream”

  1. I’ve just come across your site and its great. I’ve done some research on Lower Plenty for VCAT & Lot 2a which has led into Greensborough Historical Society formation – I’d be interested to discuss further


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