When it came to naming places in a land they confidently thought of as Terra Nullius, those Brits were a pretty prosaic lot. In 1770 Captain James Cook marked the eastern coast of Australia on his map as “New South Wales”, writing in his journal as he did so that the land he could see from HM Bark Endeavour looked for all the world to him like the Welsh hills. I guess the horizon can look like anything from a rolling deck when you’ve been chewing on sauerkraut for months.
With the arrival of a colonising fleet of convicts 18 years later, a new settlement was established and named after the British Home Secretary at that time, Lord Sydney Thomas Townshend, which is about the only thing we remember Townshend for these days. With the style set it is perhaps not surprising that about 50 years later, when it came to naming the town that was to become Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne was named after a now long forgotten British PM. If the people who actually lived there had had their way though, it might have been different. They initially wanted to call the ragged collection of tents and mud and wattle huts “Bearbrass”, the origins of which name have been debated closely by those in the know but which I have my suspicions may have been simple rhyming slang for something nearer the mark.
Locally, the name of Heidelberg expanded on this emerging pattern. It was named by canny land speculators during Melbourne’s first land boom under the impression there was a quid to be made by comparing the antipodean landscape to a town in Europe no one had ever heard of and which was not yet part of a Federated Germany. When it came to separating from New South Wales though, its little surprise that the names of the new colonies were hardly overflowing with inspiration. Victoria was named after a Queen in a faraway land while the land to the north was named – you guessed it, Queensland. Sheeesh.
All of which rather flies in the face of another sometimes overlooked truth. These places already had names and had done so for tens of thousands of years. The land on which Melbourne was situated was known as Naarm by the first nations, its river was Birrarung and the people were the Wurundjeri. The fact that the settlers called the river the Yarra instead of Birrarung stemmed from a little cross language misunderstanding since the term, yarra was a pronunciation of the shape the current made on the water, and not the name for the river itself. Even when they wanted to give the local names a try, there remained plenty of room for error.
The Bakewells appear to have been one instance of Port Phillip settlers willing to give local names a try. When they were casting around for a name for their farm to the north east of Naarm, a property that had been called from the first days of settlement “The Station Plenty”, “Yallambee” was the Bakewells’ choice. It was an Indigenous word the meaning of which has been given as, “to dwell at ease” although its exact tribal origins remain unclear. It was a popular Indigenous word in the settler community and was used as a place or property name several times under various spellings in Victoria and in the other colonies. Thomas Wragge would later change the spelling of “Yallambee” to “Yallambie”, it is said to avoid confusion with some one or all of these other “Yallambees”.
Indigenous words have found their way into use as European place names regularly across Australia, appearing to be exotic on the one hand while giving just a parting nod to the displaced tribes on the other. When Australia achieved its Federation in 1901, these First Australians were not recognized under the newly adopted constitution, a fact undoubtedly rooted in the racism present in that era but also for reasons that were cynically political. At the constitutional conventions that preceded Federation, it was argued that giving Indigenous Australians a vote would unfairly wait the power of the landed class of rural Australia as it was feared farmers would instruct easily manipulated Indigenous farm hands on the subject of who they should vote for at any election, making a mockery of the whole democratic process.
The lack of citizenship of Australia’s first citizens was to remain an embarrassing oversight and one that was not rectified until a 1967 national referendum allowed a change to the constitution, admitting First Nations people to full citizenship for the first time. The result of that belated referendum at 91% was the highest Yes vote ever recorded in Australia, but it does leave me to wonder, what were those other 9% thinking?
This was the era when A V Jennings were busy carving up the old Yallambie estate for subdivision and the time must have seemed right therefore to choose from a plethora of Indigenous words for use as street names. Most Yallambie streets from the Jennings era record some sort of Indigenous word. Tarcoola meaning river bend, Aminya meaning quiet and Kardinia meaning sunrise to name but a few.
In addition to his Yallambee property, John Bakewell maintained interests in several other pastoral properties including a vast run at Western Port, his so called “Tooradin Empire”. The name Tooradin is another Indigenous word and means “river monster”. The first attempt at European settlement of this area had taken place in 1826, partly in response to Hume and Hovell’s glowing report of land they had explored three years earlier having arrived at Port Phillip Bay while believing, due to an error of navigation, that they were at Western Port. Located east of Melbourne, Western Port creates confusion to this day in those unfamiliar with the Victorian coast. Named by George Bass in 1798 while exploring the entrance to the Strait that would later bear his name, the port was at that time the furthest point charted west of the existing settlements.
The short lived Western Port settlement of 1826 was not a success but then the whole point of the exercise in the first place had been to obstruct a possible attempt at settlement by the French. The site chosen on a peninsula at what is now the sleepy, holiday hamlet of Corinella was all about British occupation of a strategic and easily defensible location. Soil fertility and availability of fresh water was not considered.
An ongoing French interest in Australia had been demonstrated across a long period by successive expeditions of exploration and another, led by Nicolas Baudin in 1803 managed to chart most of the southern coast line of Australia. Baudin called the coast he explored “La Terre Napoleon”, naming coastal features in French and, like the British, not stopping to make enquiry of the traditional owners. In a letter to the English King’s representative in Sydney, the aptly named Governor King, Baudin wrote however that:
“To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals.”
Baudin’s words reflect the Enlightenment principles which, in the early years at least, drove the French approach to Pacific exploration. Nicolas Baudin died on Mauritius on his return voyage to Europe but already a more pragmatic attitude was developing in France. Although the words are possibly apocryphal, Napoleon is supposed to have said of the explorer, “Baudin did well to die. On his return I would have hanged him”, apparently for failing to contest Britain’s territorial claims.
Today, place names like La Perouse in Sydney, the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia and French Island in Western Port itself all offer a glimpse of what might have been if Britannica had for one moment ceased to rule the waves during the Napoleonic era but it would be the British names that eventually stuck on the map. It might seem now like these explorers were playing some sort of pin the tail on the donkey, but the process of naming implied ownership. La Trobe University’s Lucy Ellem, writing about the Bakewells’ Plenty River farm in a 2016 unpublished paper, “Plenty Botanical”, states that, “The right to name is the right to own. In naming lies possession… The process of naming, which Adam began, guided the Bakewells’ creation of a new Eden, an artificial paradise, in a land of plenty.”
And at Yallambie, a word with a pleasing Indigenous feel, that means to dwell at ease.