The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
You may never have heard of Graham Berry, but he was one of the most creative and controversial Australian politicians of the colonial era. Born in 1822, he was three times the premier of Victoria, but he is now almost unknown. He should be recalled for his daring and fascinating career, but even more for an enduring influence on the nation’s politics.
Berry’s significance lies partly in his identity and appeal. The son of a servant, he was apprenticed as a linen draper aged 11. He emigrated from England to Victoria during the gold rush of the 1850s, setting up as a grocer in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.
The Australian colonies were unusually precocious in their extension of democratic rights to working-class men, and Berry was among the first to exploit these opportunities. But his opponents mocked him for his Cockney accent and his low status: “tradesmen” were still widely thought ill-suited to high office.
As I detail in my book about him, Berry responded by attacking the “snobbery” of his opponents and the self-interest of squatters and merchants. He proudly declared his identity as the “embodiment of human labour”. His supporters called him a “self-made man”.
The rhetorical appeals worked. Berry blazed a path for the language of “class” to play a central role in Australian democracy.
The grocer-turned-politician was the leader of a movement for “protectionism”. He argued taxes should be applied to certain categories of imported goods, especially manufactured goods. This would stimulate new industries, he said, and create good jobs at high wages.
Leading political economists attacked the doctrine. Berry was its most eloquent advocate as a platform speaker, newspaper editor and parliamentarian. He passed the first clearly protectionist tariff as Victorian treasurer in the early 1870s. He entrenched the system as premier in later decades.
He also travelled to New South Wales to spread the creed, arguing that protection against “cheap and underpaid labour” provided an impetus to national unity. Berry called the federation of the Australian colonies behind a great tariff wall “the great dream” of his life.
His protégé, Alfred Deakin, would advance that dream, but Berry’s earlier campaigns were the foundation of later success.
Berry also reshaped the practice of politics. He first emerged as a major public figure as an “out of doors” speaker in mass gatherings in central Melbourne at the end of the 1850s. Even when these turned violent – one climaxed in an attack on Parliament House and on several parliamentarians in August 1860 – Berry continued to support the rights of the citizenry to meet “where they liked, when they liked, in as great numbers as they liked”.
He equated “agitation” in the “body politic” with the “circulation of the blood in the human body”. To the extent that Australian democracy is active and contentious, it adheres to a tradition Berry fought to establish.
Berry also considered organisation to be central to political life. In 1877, he founded Australia’s first mass political party, the National Reform and Protection League. That party developed a network of more than 150 branches across Victoria, overseen by a central office. It had a common “platform” (an unfamiliar term at the time), its candidates were pre-selected and its parliamentary members met as a caucus and were expected to vote as a bloc.
As president, Berry campaigned for the party across the colony. This was widely seen as an importation of “American” methods of “stump oratory”. It helped to win Berry a stunning majority in 1877 and inspired widespread emulation. Australia’s “party democracy” begins with Berry.
As premier, Berry’s plans for legislation were frustrated by the power of the upper house, elected at that time by a small number of men who possessed substantial property. Berry sought to reshape the Victorian constitution and break the power of the upper house. The London Times likened its key passages to a “revolution”.
The episode precipitated a political crisis that ran from 1878-81. It generated a wider debate on what democracy should be.
From a contemporary perspective, the limits of Berry’s democratic vision are perhaps most striking: he supported women’s franchise (and voted for an unsuccessful bill in 1873) but did not make gender equality central to his political campaigns.
He supported the claims of Aboriginal people at the Coranderrk reserve against the attacks of the Aborigines Protection Board, but he also supported the so-called “Half-Caste Act”, which helped to threaten and fracture Aboriginal communities across the colony. Berry showed no interest in Aboriginal political organisation or capacity for self-government.
Berry also understood “protection” in racial terms and sought to exclude Chinese people from the colony.
These policies exerted a considerable influence on later Australian politics.
Recognising and examining these significant limits, contemporary democrats can nonetheless draw inspiration from other aspects of Berry’s career: a driving determination; a refusal to be bound by convention; and an understanding of democracy as an incomplete project, never a settled state.
Those frustrated by the limits of our own democracy might profit from a close examination of Berry’s life.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In 1839, George Augustus Robinson arrived in Melbourne as Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, bringing with him a select group of Aboriginal guides from Tasmania, including a woman called Truganini. He could never have foreseen the dramatic and tragic consequence.
Sometime in August 1841, Truganini left Melbourne with her new husband Maulboyheener travelling toward Westernport, working for food and shelter at stations along the way.
On September 4, they were on James Horsfall’s Ballymarang station, where they were joined by their companions, Peevay, his wife Plorenernoopner, and Maytepueminer, wife of their friend Lacklay who had gone missing. All five were on a mission to find out what had happened to Lacklay, last heard of heading into Lower Westernport in May 1840.
On a mission
Negotiating the mangroves at the top of Westernport was torturous. The Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp spread for miles to the north and east making it near impossible to find a way through. Truganini and her companions were obliged to make a wide detour around it to find higher ground, where they followed the course of the Lang Lang River to the coast, where massive tide fluctuations had created an extensive inter-tidal zone providing a rich harvest of scallops, mussels, oysters, abalone, limpets, marine worms, crabs and burrowing shrimp.
Despite the evidence of long-standing occupation in the exposed shell middens, the place was empty. When Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie first sailed from Launceston to the eastern shores of Westernport in 1835, they had found the Boonwurrung owners had been extinguished by the cumulative effect of encroachments from Van Diemen’s Land, endemic warfare with the Kurnai from Gippsland and attacks by sealers who “stole” women, all compounded by epidemic disease.
On September 15, Anderson and Massie became aware that Truganini, Maulboyheener, Peevay, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer had established camp on their pastoral lease on the Bass River. The two squatters knew members of the group very well from their time working for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, where Anderson had been a bookkeeper and Massie the engineer. If anyone in Lower Westernport knew what had happened to Lacklay, it would be these two squatters.
While at Anderson and Massie’s station, the five almost certainly heard the same information they’d given to Assistant Protector William Thomas when he had come looking for Lacklay — known to him as Isaac — in the previous year: that he was last seen in the company of settler who lived at the end of Westernport Bay. Further inquiries by Thomas established the man in question was the skipper of a cutter that had sailed away from the far eastern tip of Westernport Bay. On board where a woman and her three children, plus Lacklay and an unnamed German man as the crew.
The night they sailed, a heavy squall had swept in from the Tasman Sea and the boat was presumed to have capsized, with everyone drowned, though no bodies or pieces of wreckage had been recovered. Thomas was not convinced, noting in the margin of his journal “the death of Isaac supposed”.
Thomas was right to have reservations about this narrative of death by drowning. The truth, only established 176 years later, was that the cutter did not capsize, but sailed all the way to the remote whaling port of Kororareka in New Zealand. At the time, there was no conceivable way that anyone in Port Phillip could have known the boat had managed to sail across the Tasman Sea.
Lacklay’s disappearance was left to speculation. A story that made much more sense than drowning was that he had been shot by a settler, a narrative everyone in Port Phillip was familiar with. Truganini and Maulboyheener had heard that version of the story too, and now were in Lower Westernport to investigate.
After a leisurely stay at Anderson and Massie’s run, the five moved off on September 29. They crossed the Powlett River and made camp close to the home of William Watson. He was the sole settler below the Bass River, having very recently arrived with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Walter Ginman, in May 1841. Watson was employed by a consortium of investors to work the seam of coal that Anderson had discovered. He had sunk a shaft into the coal seam near the mouth of the Powlett River, where he built a rudimentary hut just above the high-water mark.
Watson welcomed Truganini and her friends, giving them tea and sugar and even lending them a kettle. On October 2, the fourth day of their visit, Watson and Ginman departed for the mine, and the five approached the hut and lingered in the yard until Mrs Watson came out to give them some more tea and sugar.
Some time later, the women began to scatter the bark from their shelters and pack up their belongings, while the men went to the hut to return the kettle.
Once the men gained entrance to the hut, the tone of their interactions suddenly shifted. The reasons why would only become clear much later.
Peevay went to look for Watson’s guns, while Maulboyheener took Mrs Watson and her daughter by the shoulders to propel them outside. There Truganini and Maytepueminer pulled them into the bush and pointed them in the direction of safety at Anderson and Massie’s station. Meanwhile, Peevay and Maulboyheener systematically stripped the hut of food staples, blankets, clothing, an axe, two guns and a supply of buckshot. After setting fire to the hut, the five loaded up their plunder and followed the river towards the coast.
Early that evening, Peevay and Maulboyheener lay concealed in the low coastal heath watching Watson and his son-in-law returning from the mine. When the two men came into range, they fired a volley of shots from several guns, hitting Ginman in the calf and slightly wounding Watson in the foot and elbow. Hobbling towards their hut, the two men saw their home was a smouldering ruin and their wives had vanished. It was well after dark when they reached Anderson and Massie’s station and found their wives unharmed. The next day, Massie supplied Watson with a brace of firearms and two of his workers for a search party.
Peevay and Maulboyheener must have known that Watson would come looking for them, and that he would likely shoot them on sight, yet they lingered at the Powlett River mouth for another four days.
Blood on the beach
Staying low, with the heath to provide cover, the five kept careful watch for Watson’s search party. From a high point on the sand dunes, they had an excellent view of the flat country to the north and east, the direction they knew danger would come from. They managed to avoid detection until the evening of October 5, when Watson caught a glimpse of Maulboyheener standing on a high dune. Several shots were fired, failing to wound Maulboyheener, although a bullet came close enough to make a neat hole in the coat he was wearing.
Alert to the danger from Watson’s party, Truganini’s group failed to notice six unarmed men approaching from the south, walking along the beach to Watson’s mine in the late afternoon on October 6. The six men had walked overland from the whaling station at Lady’s Bay, on Wilson’s Promontory, more than 50 miles away. Two of the whalers, known as Yankee and Cook, had set out to locate the miners while their companions entered the hut to rest. Minutes later, two shots rang out in quick succession.
Maulboyheener and Peevay had each fired, first one then the other, in such quick succession there was no time between to reload with powder and shot. Having seen the two men fall, Maulboyheener kept watch from the top of the dune while Peevay, Truganini, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer went down to the beach to check the fallen. Lying on the beach were two men they had never seen before: a shot had hit one in the head, killing him instantly, while the other had entered the second man’s side, leaving him grievously wounded and in agony.
The four returned with this terrible information to Maulboyheener, who pulled up a couple of strong tree roots and went alone to the beach to dispatch the wounded stranger with heavy blows to the back of his head. Watching from above, the three women cried in distress.
They were not the only ones watching. Having been woken by the gunshots, two more whalers, Robbins and Evans, stepped outside the hut to look about. They saw a party of four or five people, with what looked like two guns visible on a high dune some 200 yards away. The whalers could not distinguish whether these figures were male or female, but they observed some of the group going down to the beach, leaving a person with a gun watching from above. When they returned, the one who had been watching went down to the beach alone.
Believing they had seen a group of miners hunting birds or kangaroos, Robbins and Evans concluded there was no reason to be alarmed and went back inside to sleep. Waking about an hour later, Evans was disturbed to see his companions Yankee and Cook had not returned. This time he went to search for them. He was a few yards from the hut when Watson’s search party materialised, with their guns aimed right at him. Evans talked quickly and established that none of these men had fired the shots he’d heard earlier.
Alarmed, he enlisted Watson’s party to help search for Yankee and Cook and found their bodies on the beach, their blood staining the sand. Yankee was already cold, with a bullet wound behind his ear. Cook had a deep wound in his side and had been bludgeoned on the back of his head.
‘What could make you do it?’
It was another six weeks before the five were captured before dawn on November 20, in the coastal heath just south of the murder site. The search party was led by Land Commissioner Frederick Armand Powlett, after whom the river was named. It was comprised of 18 soldiers and policemen, reinforced by four settler volunteers with seven Kulin men as trackers.
Once caught, Truganini, Peevay and Maulboyheener were taken by Powlett to point out the exact place of the murders. On locating the spot, Truganini explained only one shot had been fatal and Maulboyheener had used sticks to beat the wounded man’s head.
“What could make you do it?” Powlett demanded. “We thought it was Watson,” Maulboyheener volunteered, and then fell silent.
Truganini and her companions arrived in Melbourne in chains on November 26. They were taken to the watchhouse, where committal proceedings commenced almost straightaway. Statements were taken from the whaler Evans, from Watson and his wife, from Powlett and members of the search party.
When the display of damning evidence concluded, Maulboyheener made a garbled attempt at a defence. Watson had tried to kill him, he explained, and when he saw the whalers he thought it was Watson and had fired his gun.
On December 2, Robinson and the Methodist minister Reverend Joseph Orton went to speak with the accused men. Peevay remained silent, but Maulboyheener gave an explanation for their otherwise inexplicable actions. Both Robinson and Orton separately recorded in their journals how Maulboyheener explained that James Horsfall of Ballymarang station had told them Watson had in fact killed their friend Lacklay. The men were sentenced and publicly hanged on January 20, 1842.
Black Saturday was a day like no other; it will be forever remembered in the history of bushfire disasters in Australia. The fires burned about 300,000 hectares in a single day; 173 human lives were lost and more than 2,000 houses were destroyed in one afternoon.
Australia was shocked at the scale of the destruction. Questions were soon being asked about how this could happen in the modern world, what could have been done to reduce the loss of lives and physical destruction, and what can be done to stop this happening again.
The many reports, studies and inquiries in the ten years since Black Saturday have created a new regime for assessing and dealing with fires. While this has meant many improvements in how we communicate and coordinate in the face of bushfires, I believe it has also resulted in an overemphasis on accountability and technology at the expense of effective fire control.
As days passed and the fires were still being fully controlled, attention turned to capturing information about the fires so we could better understand what had happened. Victims and people affected by the fires were interviewed by journalists and social scientists, welfare workers and counsellors, friends and family. Nobody, at the time of the fires, had full knowledge of what had happened, so the collective knowledge pieced the puzzle together.
Fire scientists and meteorologist were also trying to capture as much information as possible about the fires and what drove them. This was a unique opportunity to collect information about fire and weather that could never be reproduced in experiments.
Within a few days of the fire, the Victorian premier had announced a royal commission to investigate the cause of the fires, the factors leading to the unprecedented level of death and destruction, and the institutional response before, during and after the fires. The commission ran for 18 months, heard from 434 witnesses, cost more than A$90 million and produced 67 recommendations.
Unfortunately, the close scrutiny of fire and land management agencies has led to greater emphasis on following standard processes and recording all actions and information used during fire events. This has led to a lot of time and resources being allocated to accountability at the expense of effectiveness in reducing bushfire impacts. This is clearly not a deliberate intention of the various agencies, but is the reality of a highly political and litigious world.
Another unintended development has been the increased reliance on technology for both fighting fires and communication. Many people in the bushfire-prone areas demand reliable access to warnings and fire developments, so there has been a rapid expansion of the mobile phone and internet networks across Victoria. However, just because people have access to such information does not ensure that they will respond in ways that emergency response agencies expect.
Other technology such as bigger, stronger fire trucks and the use of aircraft for water bombing has reduced the extent of dry firefighting techniques – that is, controlling fire using firebreaks, hand tools and backburning with little or no water used. This has increased the number of fires growing to damaging sizes and escaping control lines.
This failing has not been fully recognised. Partly, that’s because any “technology” is easily taken by the media, public and politicians as an improvement, when in fact it may not be.
The lessons we’ve yet to learn
Since Black Saturday, use of the concept of “bushfire risk” has been growing. This makes it clear that bushfires in Australia are a constant threat and the risk is never zero.
The “risk concept” allows public agencies, private groups and communities to reduce bushfire risk to a level that they can afford and are willing to accept. However, how bushfire risk is assessed and communicated, and how trade-offs are negotiated, still has a long way to go if bushfire risk is to be a truly “shared responsibility” as the royal commission recommended.
Another complication is that public agencies have a regular turnover of staff. This makes it more difficult to establish trusted relationships between public agencies and private individuals.
An event like Black Saturday will occur again. The terrain, vegetation, climate and weather patterns in southeastern Australia ensure that. Climate change will increase this risk.
When it does happen again, the extent of what we learned from Black Saturday will be judged by the impact of that event. We should not expect there will be no loss of lives and property in future massive blazes, but we should expect it will be significantly less than Black Saturday.
Black Saturday, ten years ago today, was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy. It claimed 173 lives and more than 2,000 homes, and prompted a royal commission that made 67 recommendations, including 15 relating to the Country Fire Authority (CFA). All but one of the 67 were accepted by the Brumby government in 2010.
The CFA owes its existence to a series of earlier bushfire tragedies, but its birth was far less straightforward than is widely believed, and back then the government of the day was much slower to act on the advice it received in the aftermath of disaster.
January 13, 2019, was another significant bushfire anniversary: 80 years since the 1939 Victorian “Black Friday” fires. Before Black Saturday this was Australia’s worst bushfire tragedy, with an official death toll of 71.
In 1939 there was no CFA, and bushfires were fought by local volunteer fire brigades, with no statewide organisation responsible for managing bushfire danger.
In the wake of Black Friday, Premier Albert Dunstan’s Country Party government also established a Royal Commission, chaired by Leonard Stretton, to investigate the bushfires. His report was tabled in state parliament on June 28, 1939 – less than six months after the fires – and it continues to earn praise as a model of comprehensiveness and clarity. One of its recommendations was to establish an authority with overall responsibility for bushfire management in Victoria.
Not so fast
It’s widely believed that this recommendation led directly to the formation of CFA. In truth it did not – the CFA was not established until December 1944.
You might ask why it took so long to implement such a clear recommendation. The answer is a sad indictment of the Victorian politics of the day, which also has parallels with government reactions to today’s environmental issues.
Stretton’s report was attacked savagely in the Victorian Parliament. Deputy Premier and Minister for Forests Alfred Lind – whose department was criticised strongly in the report – led the charge. None of the report’s recommendations were acted upon. The Labor opposition was incensed at the lack of action and moved a motion of no confidence in the government, which was defeated on party lines. And that, it seemed, was the end of the matter.
But it wasn’t, because the environment itself intervened. The summer of 1943-44 followed a severe drought in Victoria. The fire season began with a grass fire on December 23, 1943, in which ten members of the Wangaratta volunteer fire brigade died. In January 1944, raging grass fires claimed more than 20 lives and destroyed many homes across several regions of Victoria. In February, a fire near Morwell in Gippsland spread to the Yallourn open-cut coalmine; the nearby power station was threatened and there were blackouts across the state.
All told, there were 51 bushfire deaths that fateful summer, leading to public outcry over the lack of action just a few years before. Dunstan and Lind decided there was no alternative but to ask Stretton to chair a second Royal Commission, this one inquiring into the circumstances of the Yallourn fire. The resulting report made several pointed references to the previous, ignored, Royal Commission findings.
Times had changed, and World War 2 was at its peak. War-related manpower needs meant that there were fewer volunteer firefighters available, and power outages were seen as interfering with war-related industrial output. The government came under intense pressure to mitigate future bushfire danger by establishing an agency with legislated statewide responsibility for fire management.
After protracted negotiations with competing interest groups – notably the Country Fire Brigades Board and the Bush Fire Brigades Association – Stretton’s recommendation was finally realised when a bill to establish the CFA was passed on December 6, 1944. The board of the new authority met for the first time on January 3, 1945.
From its inception, the CFA has been the subject of controversy, most recently when the current Andrews government proposed converting it to an all-volunteer fire service, with professional firefighters moved to another agency. The necessary legislation has so far failed to pass the state parliament’s upper house. Politics, it seems, continues to determine how our fire services are delivered.
Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).
These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)
Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).
Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.
Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.
The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.
The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.
These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.
The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.
Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.
And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.
The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.
Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.
Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.
Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.
However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.
Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.
The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.
Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.
This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.
In the forests of Watti Watti Country of north-west Victoria, you can find trees, typically ancient river red gums, with their branches trained by the Watti Watti people to form rings. There is little knowledge about these marker trees beyond the community, and they are currently afforded little in the way of formalised heritage protection.
Watti Watti (sometimes spelled Wadi Wadi) Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls describes family and community connections to the river red gum forests along the Murray in the following way:
Often we visit to pay respect to the sacred sites that are earthed on the land among the red gum trees. In the forest are some really old red gum trees that are known as markers and often can be seen near a heritage site. These huge old red gum trees have massive trunks and big branches that are joined together to make a ring.
These significant trees would have had their young, supple branches fused together using string woven from cumbungi reeds. The binding process trained the branches to grow in the form of a ring shape over time.
The number of rings in an individual tree varies. Sometimes there can be up to four rings in a single tree. My research on ring trees aligns with the goals of the local Traditional Owners, who are working to educate and build knowledge in the area.
There are other, more well known cultural practices in various parts of the country that involve trees, such as “dendroglyphs”, also called “carved trees”, that had decorative patterns engraved for ceremonial purposes.
Other examples are scar trees that had sections of bark removed to make canoes, shields, coolamon (or carrying) vessels and for the construction of other timber objects.
The role of ring trees
Watti Watti Elder Uncle Doug Nicholls has explained to me that ring trees demarcate boundaries and mark special areas on Country. The trees mark significant cultural locations in the landscape and have been found at “water junctions and inlets, campsites and burial grounds.”
Knowledge of these important places which the ring trees mark could then be conveyed to visitors to Country involved in trade and ceremony. A defining feature of the Watti Watti landscape is the mighty Murray River (miilu is the traditional language term of this area for river), its tributaries, and associated floodplains.
Water remains an important story associated with the ring trees, including “cultural flows” – the right to water for cultural purposes. Elder Aunty Marilyne Nicholls has explained that the ring trees all hold stories and have spiritual and cultural significance.
There is one ring tree that is recognised by the broader community and even sign-posted. It is located in the township of Koraleigh on the New South Wales side of the state boundary. Its context has been disrupted by colonisation, cut-off from the broader environmental and cultural landscape, and is flanked by a road and a paddock.
Due to the disruption of its context, this tree has become a single “site”, rather than part of the wider cultural landscape – isolated and dislocated from its complete story. It is now a stranger in an agrarian landscape. The tree is no longer alive, impacted by the drought and lack of access to the river, although its heart-shaped ring remains visible.
Connecting past and present
Many ring trees that can be found in the forests of the Watti Watti landscape have been killed because of the colonial practice of ring barking. Ring barking describes the forestry practice of cutting into a tree’s trunk to kill it and was used for opening the land up for grasses and to source timber for paddle steamers. While we don’t know how long the Ring Tree making practice has been taking place, it is likely that it halted during colonisation, which proved destructive to the continuation of cultural practices.
However, ring trees continue to play an extremely significant role for the Watti Watti community. According to Uncle Doug Nicholls, ring trees form a recognised place where important cultural ceremonies can take place.
Building knowledge and understanding in the broader community of these trees is important for their future protection. While formal heritage processes enable one avenue for protecting culturally significant sites, such as listing earth ovens and middens in the forests, Watti Watti Traditional Owners have been working to foster collaborations and space for dialogue about culture.
In the 1990s, the Indigenous Land Corporation, the federal agency which assists with Indigenous land acquisitions, purchased the Tyntyndyer Homestead in Swan Hill which is built on the traditional lands of the Watti Watti. Listed on the Victorian Heritage Register this colonial homestead has two stories to tell – a colonial one and a much older one – the story of the Watti Watti people.
This homestead provides a place for the coming together of Watti Watti Traditional Owners, as well as others in the community who support the goals of preserving the colonial heritage of Tyntyndyer Homestead.
The ring trees exist beyond the curtilage of this property. However the homestead is a focal point to connect with and tell the stories that weave through and across the landscape that is Watti Watti Country, and are manifest in the ring trees.
The Vikings are in Melbourne. It is hard to see anything “Vikings” without thoughts of the seafaring thugs who invaded or raided much of coastal Europe and beyond. As Viking scholar Judith Jesch has reminded us, that is essential to what the word originally meant: Norse-speaking people who got into surprisingly small ships and went in search of adventure, very often violent.
The television series Vikings goes out of its way to show how its characters did some pretty amazing things in their rovings – just surviving those sea voyages must rate high on the list – but mostly we know about them because they plundered far from home, to great effect. From 793 until 1066, or thereabouts, many people feared a visit from the Vikings more intensely than they feared their own rulers.
Jesch has also explained how the word broadened its meaning, even at the same time as Vikings became increasingly caricatured in poplar knowledge (think the Terry Jones movie Erik the Viking). “Vikings” can now mean all people from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and many other colonies across the North Atlantic who lived during “the Viking Age”.
The Melbourne Museum’s exhibition takes this broader sense of the word and uses it against that other, narrower one. Brought to Melbourne by the Swedish History Museum, which owns the collection, it explores the lives of the Vikings as much more holistic than just the adventures of those Norsemen who went a-viking.
The approach will disappoint some people. There are weapons on show, some of them remarkably elegant for all the ravages of time, but none are better preserved than the bent sword from a burial mound in Sweden. Archaeologists reckon it was bent precisely to render it useless for violence – to prevent its misuse in the afterlife.
There are boats, both original and reconstructed. Compared to the palpably seaworthy wonders of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, though, the standout here is a half-ship plotted in the abstract by its rivets — the planks have all perished in the boat’s burial site, but the rivets that once fastened them have been suspended in their true positions in mid-air. It offers a haunting impression of the boat that once was.
Still, these are not displays to get the adrenalin pumping. The interactives will not push you to imagine yourself in armour, screaming from behind a wall of shields on some stricken hillside, mead in one hand and great axe in the other.
Instead, this exhibition focuses on domestic life, economy, religion and technology. Nobody should imagine that any visiting show at a museum can do comprehensive justice to even one of those four, but this one gives us plenty of concrete evidence if we wanted to imagine Swedish and similar communities in the Viking Age.
It shows us the basics of Scandinavian clothing, for example, which is so essential for imagining the people in those countries. Its displays of jewellery remind just how fine the silver and gold smithing traditions of Germanic Europe were — for example, a filigreed pendant depicting Mjölnir (“Mealgrinder”), Thor’s hammer.
The Mjölnir pendant is also an example of how this exhibition explores the religious and spiritual dispositions of the Vikings. The gradual progression of Christian conversion through Scandinavia and Iceland meant that some southern communities were converted long before the recognised Viking Age began. Others in the north held to their faith in the Aesir (one of two tribes of Norse gods) until well into the 12th century.
What we miss in that story of incremental northwards progression, though, is how varied and often contradictory the local beliefs were. There may have been as many different schools of Aesir worship as there were settlements across the Norse-speaking lands. Certainly, during the period of Christian conversion, many people practised a dual worship — keeping the old gods alive, even though the new God forbade it.
There is a wealth of riches in the exhibition, as you might expect, which could be chaos if it lacked a strong logic of curation. Importantly, then, elements of the curation speak with great depth. The collectors have clear points to make, and they use the exhibits to make them.
A case in point is the questioning, rather than definitive, discussion of hair combs. Archaeologists have curiously found such apparently mundane items in most of the Scandinavian burial sites. Were they for carrying into the next world, for a final grooming of the dead person before burial, or something else entirely? If we cannot understand those combs, how can we understand the worlds they joined?
This emphasis on the social and everyday is quite different from many other Viking exhibitions – in English-speaking countries at least – which have tended to focus on the martial vigour of those people who repeatedly invaded “us”. A recent example was the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, which cast them as fighting fanatics for their religion, a medieval precursor of Daesh or ISIS.
Here, the curators are trying first and foremost to redirect our attentions. War was only a part of the Viking life, and only for a segment of Viking society at that. Anyone who wears a horned helmet to see this exhibition may feel an urge to take it off.
On July 25 1882, Inspector Frederick Secretan, the head of Victoria Police’s Detective Branch, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In the wake of the Kelly Gang fiasco, during which Ned’s infamous band of outlaws had managed to elude the police until the bloody shootout at Glenrowan, a royal commission had been called to inquire into Victoria’s police force. Secretan’s detectives had been singled out for particular criticism. Now, as he fronted the commissioners, the inspector sought to explain the methods he deployed for detecting crime in Melbourne and across Victoria.
The anxiety and sense of impending chaos that accompanied the 1850s gold rushes had led to the early adoption of plain-clothes policing in colonial Victoria. Unlike in Britain, where detectives were discouraged from wearing plain clothes and liaising with criminals, Melbourne’s gumshoes were to move across the colony, detecting crime and weeding out offenders. Lacking scientific modes of inquiry, they relied on their ability to conduct surveillance and to establish relations with informants, or “fizgigs”.
By the 1880s there were 28 detectives in the colony. Seven were based in country districts, one serviced the post office, four were clerks and 16 were deployed on outdoor duty across Melbourne. The metropolitan force, Secretan explained, divided the city into spheres of influence, with the numbers of detectives apportioned accordingly. Ideally, Secretan suggested to the commissioners, 38 detectives would be deployed across Victoria, “including one Chinese”.
Secretan’s Chinese detective, and one of the men who had been briefly involved in the hunt for the Kelly Gang, was Detective Fook Shing.
Like tens of thousands of his countrymen, Fook Shing had journeyed from China to Australia during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Leaving troubled Guangdong, via the British ports of Hong Kong and Singapore, he appears to have arrived at South Australia (probably to avoid the poll tax implemented to deter Chinese arrivals at Melbourne) and to have walked overland to the goldfields.
On the Bendigo diggings, Fook Shing served the colonial government as a local “headman” (a “Chief of the Chinese” as he put it) and took a leading role in community life – being active in Chinese societies, running a successful theatre and brickworks. Wealthy, connected and well represented in court, he kept a pistol under his pillow for when extra-legal methods were required to protect his followers.
For the (heavily Irish) Victorian police force, who relied on interpreters of mixed quality, were befuddled by Chinese names and struggled to identify Chinese criminals, men like Fook Shing proved invaluable on the goldfields. During the 1860s, as the Chinese in Victoria increasingly left the gold country and congregated in Melbourne, particularly around the city’s growing Chinatown in Little Bourke Street, Fook Shing was formally appointed to the Victoria Police.
For the next 20 years, Fook Shing served as Melbourne’s Chinese detective.
From his home, just off Little Bourke Street, he policed the Chinese community and visitors to the area. Among his colleagues he was regarded as a “trustworthy member of the service” who could “always be relied upon” and impressed with his “intimate knowledge of the Chinese criminal class” in Melbourne.
This support was mirrored up the chain of command. Superior officers paid tribute to his performance in the line of duty and awarded a number of gratuities in acknowledgement of service.
But the work of the Chinese detective was hardly confined to Melbourne. Fook Shing could regularly be found on assignment in country Victoria. There he was given “every facility” by local authorities, who (in the words of one goldfields constable) found him “in a position to give all necessary information and point out any further steps” for tracing Chinese criminals.
Word of his arrival in country towns spread quickly among local Chinese criminals and suspects. In 1875, for instance, the Chinese detective asked the murder suspect An Gaa: “You know Fook Shing?” The accused replied that he did, having been warned of the detective’s impending arrival by his fellow Chinese prisoners in Castlemaine Jail.
‘A civilised specimen’
At much the same time, Fook Shing served as guide for colonial and foreign observers seeking to understand the Chinese and their coming to Australia. “We need no magic horse or flying carpet to take us into China,” the great colonial author and journalist Marcus Clarke reflected in 1868.
All we do is turn down Little Bourke-street and our friend F – S –, once a Mandarin, now a distinguished member of the detective force, will point out to us the ‘manners and customs’ of his countrymen.
A decade later, in a two-part feature entitled “Melbourne Illustrated”, the London Graphic illustrated newspaper surveyed all the usual marks of colonial progress: the port, the commercial exchange, the university, the public library and gardens, and (of course) the racecourse.
Finally came a reflection on the “Anti-Chinese Movement” and a visit to Chinatown. “The Chinese question is the topic of the day”, the author informed his metropolitan audience, reflecting on the strong racial anxiety that the presence of the Chinese in Australia had evoked since the gold rushes, “and it may interest you as well as the Australians … We had as our guide Fook Shing, the Chinese detective, whose portrait I have taken as being a civilised specimen of a Chinaman.”
But just as he was etched into contemporary impressions of colonial Victoria, Fook Shing also confronted anti-Chinese racism and discrimination. Despite his impressive record over 20 years, and in contrast to a number of less accomplished white colleagues, the Chinese detective was never promoted above his entry rank of detective third class.
Opium and information
At times he endured poor relations with both uniformed policemen and fellow detectives. Colonial newspapers, meanwhile, regularly critiqued his gambling and his opium smoking, reporting his appearance in the gambling houses and opium dens that grew up along Little Bourke Street to service the community. “The Chinese Detective”, The Age declared in January 1873, while complaining about the lenient sentences being handled out to illegal Chinese gamblers, is “himself an inveterate gambler”.
While they disliked the sensational media attention, Fook Shing’s superiors were rather less concerned by these apparent moral failings. In fact, they quietly accepted them as essential to policing the Chinese – and helped to pick up the tab. After interrogating An Gaa, for instance, Fook Shing submitted a receipt for funds “spent obtaining information”.
“The amount charged,” Secretan noted when organising Fook Shing’s reimbursement, “is principally for opium supplied to the Chinese … I know opium is necessary to obtain anything from the Chinese at all.”
On occasion, Fook Shing appears to have carried his investigations beyond Victoria. In October 1875 the Chinese detective travelled to Sydney in pursuit of Ah Hon for “larceny of opium” and successfully ensured the offender was committed for trial.
While it was quietly approved by the Victoria Police’s top brass, Fook Shing’s drug use eventually took a heavy personal toll. By the 1880s, his health declining, he was utilised as an interpreter, before eventually being retired unfit for further service in 1886. A decade later, having anglicised his name, Henry Fook Shing was laid to rest in Melbourne Cemetery.
In recent decades, the importance of Australia’s commercial relationship with China and increasing migration from China to Australia have helped to spark renewed interest in the historical links between the two countries. As stories like Fook Shing’s remind us, colonial Australia was not simply an outpost of Britain, it was also a society intricately connected to China.
Towards the end of the 1850s, perhaps as many as one in five men in the colony of Victoria was Chinese; by the end of the 19th century Melbourne’s Chinatown was among the most well-known in the world.
As he trawled the streets of Marvellous Melbourne and traipsed across the countryside on behalf of the Victoria Police, Fook Shing played a vital role in mediating between the colonial state, white settlers and the first generations of Chinese migrants to arrive in large numbers and to make their homes in Australia.
To understand why, we might turn our attention to the great social and economic transformation that occurred after the discovery of gold (by Europeans) in Victoria in 1851. Archaeological excavations across Melbourne have uncovered masses of rubbish dating back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s.
Artefacts recovered from sites within Melbourne show that the city’s Gold Rush era occupants were incredibly wasteful. You might think that 150 years ago, Victorians would have been thrifty and mended their belongings or sold them on secondhand. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
Working-class people living in Melbourne’s CBD were throwing out so much stuff that the weekly rubbish collections couldn’t manage all their trash. Residents were stockpiling rubbish under floorboards, in hidden corners of the backyard or digging holes specifically for it.
Cesspits (old-fashioned long drop toilets) were closed across the city in the early 1870s, leaving large empty holes in the ground. Residents took the opportunity to fill them with their surplus rubbish. Many of these rubbish dumps remain under current city buildings and have been found and recorded in cultural heritage management excavations.
Analysing the contents of all these rubbish dumps, it’s clear that people were discarding dinner sets and replacing them with more fashionable designs, buying and chucking out junk jewellery, and throwing out glass bottles in vast numbers in spite of industrial-scale local recycling operations. Sound familiar? They were even using “disposable” clay pipes, a Gold Rush era equivalent of our disposable coffee cups.
Another surprising find was a rubbish pit dug in the backyard of a draper shop and filled with piles of seemingly perfectly good clothes and shoes. Perhaps they had gone out of fashion? Excess, it seems, is in Melbourne’s bones.
You are what you own
The discovery of gold brought a massive increase in population, new wealth, unprecedented access to a global network of consumer goods and great opportunities for social mobility. No one could be sure of your social background in the chaos of this rapid change. The old working, middle and upper class hierarchy became less relevant and it was possible to move up the social ladder.
How, then, did people communicate their status? Through stuff. Cultural capital refers to how people play the “culture game”: their accent, their clothes, their possessions, their manners, their interests. The argument goes that status is determined by the expression of cultural values and particular behaviours rather than wealth alone.
Everyday choices of consumer goods became powerful in carving out a new position and a better life in the new city. Your home, your furniture, your tableware, your drinking glasses, your clothes, all became vital markers of your place in society. You were no longer constrained by your situation of birth.
Melbourne society was reinvented and a new, much larger and more diverse middle class emerged. One that had a new system for determining status based largely on what they bought.
Why do we buy and why can’t we stop?
As a globalised world grapples with the problem of fast fashion, fast consumerism and a throw away culture, with massive landfills and climate change, the question of why we consume is more important than ever.
You might want to consume and waste less. But old habits die hard and it’s important to understand why we consume before we are able to make significant changes to our wasteful habits.
Social mobility might not have the currency that it did in the gold rush era, but we are still purchasing to communicate something. What we buy announces our position in the world and our values. Our possessions place us within one group and distance us from another just as they did in the Gold Rush era.
As the slow movement, anti-consumerism and concerns over sustainability gather pace, a new brand of cultural capital may emerge. A cheap polyester jumper and a disposable coffee cup may become a sign of inappropriate excess. A minimal wardrobe of ethically produced clothes and a reusable coffee cup could become the ultimate marker of status.
Burying what is discovered in order to preserve it because it is too expensive to do otherwise – I can’t say I’m a fan of doing that. I understand the reasoning behind it, I do, but surely our history needs to be preserved in a manner that people who are outside the elite, rich, know, etc, can also have an opportunity to embrace and cherish it. Burying it again, it is pretty much gone forever and will not be able to be viewed again. I think it is a tragic loss.
Post your thoughts on the practice in the comments – would be interested to hear them.
The link below is to an article reporting on a shipwreck buried again for preservation in Australia.