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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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Poster Details

William Barak

Australia’s leading civil rights figure of the 19th Century


William Barak was born at Brushy Creek in present day Wonga Park, named after his cousin Simon Wonga who preceded Barak as Ngurungaeta (Headman) of the Wurundjeri. Both Wonga and Barak had been present as 13 and 11 year olds in 1835 when John Batman met tribal Elders on the Plenty River. Whilst Batman thought he was purchasing land, the Wurundjeri considered it a Tanderem Ceremony, where guests are invited to share the bounty of the land whilst also sharing the responsibilities of stewardship. The motivation of the Wurundjeri in offering to share the land was due to the literal decimation of their population in the smallpox holocausts of 1789 and 1828 and help was needed in managing the Birrarung Estate. The Wurundjeri were however soon to be massively disappointed when the incoming stream of white people showed a complete ignorance on any principles of ecological management.

Driven from their traditional lands and prevented from conducting annual burning off to regenerate food sources and prevent bushfires, the remnants of the Wurundjeri were forced to either live in poverty on the urban fringes, or in camps along the Yarra such as at Bolin-Bolin Billabong and Pound Bend in Warrandyte. Both Barak and Wonga meanwhile set about gaining an education in the ways of the white man with Barak attending the government’s Yarra Mission School from 1837 to 1839, then joining the Native Mounted Police in 1844. In this role Barak soon found fame as a blacktracker and was often employed to track lost children and fugitives. With gold being discovered at Warrandyte, Ballarat and Bendigo in 1851 many troopers and officers left the Native Police and with the death of its Commander Henry Dana in 1852 the Native Police Force collapsed. Barak then joined his cousin Simon Wonga who had succeeded his father as Ngurungaeta when Billibellari died in 1846. Wonga and his brother Munnarin had overseen the organising of last great corroboree of the Kulin Nation at Pound Bend in Warrandyte in March 1852 and had resumed working on a cattle run at Wonga Park whilst planning and lobbying to gain a grant of land for his people. It was here at Wonga Park (named after Simon) that Barak joined Wonga and Munnarin where they first met John Green, who was to become instrumental in the ultimate founding of Coranderrk.

It took until 1859 until Wonga was finally successful in his petition for a grant of land on the Acheron River in the Upper Goulburn. Wonga, Munnarin and Barak then led the remnants of the Kulin tribes on a march from Melbourne to Acheron to claim their land. However it was not long before they were cheated out of their land by powerful local squatters Hugh Glass and Peter Snodgrass who had enormous parliamentary influence. The Kulin were forced on to cold and miserable land at Mohican before finally being able to gain a promise of land in the Upper Yarra area. Wonga and Barak then led the remaining 30 of their people over the Blacks Spur Songline to Healesville in February 1863. The politically savvy Wonga and Barak then made sure the deal was clinched by leading a deputation which walked all the way from Coranderrk to Governor Barkly’s residence in South Yarra on the Queen’s Birthday, May 24th 1863. They bore gifts to the Prince of Wales and ‘The Great Mother Queen Victoria’. The Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, then successfully pressured the government to grant Coranderrk to the Wurundjeri in June 1863.

With John Green appointed as Superintendent, Wonga and Barak set about establishing crops of wheat, vegetables and hops and a large herd of cattle. By the time Barak succeeded Wonga on his cousin’s death in 1874, Coranderrk had already established itself as the most economically thriving Mission Station in Australia. However this did not prevent repeated attempts by the Board of Protection of Aborigines to close Coranderrk and sell it off. Many times Barak and other Elders repeated their walks from Coranderrk to Parliament House, by-passing the bureaucrats and going straight to the parliamentary decision makers. This strategy was also accompanied by clever use of the newspapers of the day and aided by Barak’s growing national and international fame as an artist, singer, storyteller and keeper of his people’s culture. With his charismatic and dignified persona Barak became an Australia wide leader for the civil rights of Aboriginal people and in his later years became an internationally feted celebrity. He died on 15th August 1903 and lies at rest in the Coranderrk Cemetery.

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