HSV Lecture 2015 – A brief history of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve

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A brief history of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve

HSV Public Lecture by Dr Gary Presland at Balwyn Library on 26 February 2015

Dr Presland introduced his talk by saying the Coranderrk reserve was important in the history of this part of Australia, and it was therefore important to know about its story.

Coranderrk was well known for over sixty years, as it was open to visitors up until 1924 when it was closed. Visitors came to appreciate Aborigines and their culture. Once it was closed people tended to forget about it and its contribution. Presland then described how the settlement came to be established and its importance in the larger story of Aboriginal Victoria, in particular, the actions of Indigenous people within those events.


William Thomas, as a Protector or guardian of Aborigines (1850–60) was an advocate for the clans in the local Melbourne area. He acted in the courts as an interpreter. This period coincided with the gold rush, when there was a rapid increase in the white population and a corresponding decrease in the number of Aborigines.

A Central Board was set up to watch over the interests of Aborigines in June 1860. It set up local guardians and to some extent allowed Kooris to maintain a mobile way of life. It was during the decade of the 1860s that in addition to Coranderrk (1863) other ‘missions’ or reserves were established, including Lake Tyers Reserve (1861) and Ramahyuck (1862). These were mostly run by church organisation, on behalf of the government.

Coranderrk, 1863 to now

Confronted with dispossession and falling numbers, the Wurundjeri elders lead by Simon Wonga petitioned Protector Thomas in 1859 to secure some land at the junction of the Acheron and Goulburn rivers. This was strongly opposed by a powerful squatter, Hugh Glass. However, after further petitioning the Kulin Aborigines, with the assistance of John Green, Inspector for the Board of Protection for Aborigines acquired land on Badger Creek near Healesville, a traditional camping site for them, in 1863. They called the site ‘Coranderrk’, their name for a white flowering plant indigenous to the district, known to whites as Christmas Bush (Prostanthera lasianthis).

The Coranderrk Station ran successfully for many years, growing and selling wheat and hops, along with craft items. It was also an area for traditional cere-monies and practices. It was a demonstration of the Kulin to assert their identity and be an agent for change. The original 2,500 acres grew to 4,850 acres, but this was gradually whittled away, as nearby white farmers made claims over the Coranderrk land. Over the succeeding forty years, the Kulin defended their presence at Coranderrk and their right to self-determination. In this they were led by William Barak who became their principal spokesman, a position sorely needed in the face of threats from local squatters, and even from the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA). Local settlers tried to have the residents moved to another site.

The passing of the 1869 Aborigine Protection Act administered by the BPA significantly diminished the rights of Aborigines, determining where they could live, how much the earned, and how much money could be spent on their services. But the greatest threat was created by the amended Aboriginal Protection Act of 1886, the aim of which was ‘absorption’ via the separation of full-blood from ‘half-caste’ Aborigines. All half-castes were considered legally ‘white’ and could no longer reside on the station. This banishment of half-castes under the age of 35 years halved the estimated Aboriginal population of 844. More significantly it greatly reduced the viable labour force as mostly only old people were left in the reserve. Thus Coranderrk could no longer rely on the labour of younger men and it declined.

Coranderrk then required effective political action and the Kulin adopted new strategies with protest marches and petitions. In the end Barak confronted the BPA to protest against the dismissal of Green as manager. Despite that, by the last decade of the 19th century the BPA took over control of every aspect of indigenes on reserves, where they were virtually wage slaves with controls on their lives, on travel, and on marriage between full-blood and mixed race Aborigines. This gave the Board the ammunition to close the reserves and by 1923 only two were left – Coranderrk and Lake Tyers. The Aborigines Act 1890 allowed the BPA to transfer Aboriginal to state care. This was the beginning of the stolen generation.

In 1998, a part of the reserve was returned to the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council, when the Indigenous Land Corporation purchased an area of 0.81 square km.

Report by Howard Hodgens and Rosslyn Ives