Melbourne, with its bay and river was an attractive site for a settlement to white Europeans. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal people had recognised the virtues the land had to offer for thousands of years prior and several major tribes called the land home. As much as the squatters runs of newly arrived white settlers were disruptive to Aboriginal people already living on those lands, they do not match the disruption caused to the Aboriginals’ way of life like the establishment of towns. The construction of houses, businesses and industry, combined with the luring temptations of the exotic new places caused permanent change to Aboriginal peoples’ way of life. How the change was handled, by whites and by Aboriginals, remains a much studied and debated subject.
When William Thomas, Assistant Protector for Aboriginals, arrived in Australia in 1839, he counted only 207 Aborigines in the Yarra and Westernport districts. This was down from 350 three years earlier. The Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, created in 1839 to ‘look after’ the Aboriginal population, proposed a policy of separation of whites and Aboriginals, but found this policy extremely difficult to enact. Traditionally Aboriginal people had lived in one place until the food supply ran out, at which time they would move on, only to return when the food supply had regenerated. White settlement greatly changed this way of life. In addition to seizing traditional lands, preventing free movement for Aboriginals, white settlers farming of crops and livestock provided a far too easy source of food for Aboriginal people. ‘Theft’ of white farmers crops and animals was common and obviously caused tension between the two communities. Aboriginal people found that not only was their movement restricted, but also that they had no reason to move as an abundant food supply was permanently in place in one site.
Unfortunately continued encampment on one site caused pressure on the local environment, degrading the campsites and aiding in the spread of lethal new diseases. In addition Aboriginal people quickly adapted to the new economy that white settlement brought. They sold feathers and skins from animals they had hunted, sometimes using firearms supplied by white settlers to aid the Aboriginals’ hunting. White settlers also discovered that Aboriginal camps could be places of sexual gratification, such relationships became quite common and provided another reason for Aboriginals to remain at the same camp as they received food, money and alcohol in return for their ‘labour’.
By the time white settlers extended their interests into the areas that became Northcote and beyond, the Aboriginal population had been greatly reduced. In some cases this was due to direct acts of violence by whites, but for many Aboriginal clans it was introduced disease, which caused epidemics amongst their numbers that had the most impact on their population. There were also instances of violence between clans, particularly when one clan was forced off their land by white settlers and onto the land of another clan. Long observed defensive instincts took over, with conflict often inevitable. Generally speaking though the settlement of Melbourne was less violent toward Aboriginal people than prior white settlement had been in Australia, particularly in New South Wales and Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land.
By 1860 it was rare to see an Aborigine in Melbourne, with only occasional appearances, often in large groups consisting of different tribes. In 1863, after much lobbying, the government created the 931-hectare Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. Officials saw it as a remote backwater where the Aboriginal people could slowly and quietly die out, but it became a success, selling crop and crafts to Melbourne throughout its 61-year existence. Despite its obvious usefulness and decades of lobbying, the Station always remained government land; never turned over to the Aboriginal people as compensation for all their lost land. This apathetic attitude of government was prevalent in its treatment of Aboriginals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, doing next to nothing to aid the displaced people and seeing Victoria’s Aboriginal population dwindle. In a survey conducted by Foxcroft for his 1936 book, he counted only 55 full-blooded Aborigines in the entire state.
Clark, Ian D. and Heydon, Toby (2004). A bend in the Yarra: A history of the Merri Creek Protectorate Station and Merri Creek Aboriginal School 1841-1851, Canberra (A.C.T.): Aboriginal Studies Press.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote side of the river, North Melbourne (Vic.): Hargreen.