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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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Simon Wonga - A Man of Destiny

Simon Wonga

As is customary in Aboriginal society, Wonga was identified early as a gifted child and was groomed for tribal leadership from an early age, as was his younger brother Munnarin and their cousin, Barak. Barak ultimately succeeded Wonga as Ngurungaeta (Headman) in 1874 when Wonga died. Both Wonga and Barak were of similar age and as thirteen and eleven year olds respectively, they had both been present when Wurundjeri Elders, including both their fathers, met Batman at Greensborough in 1835. At that time Barak’s father Bebejern was Ngurungaeta and when he died the next year in 1836, his brother Billibellari, Wonga’s father, became Headman. When Billibellari died in 1846, Simon Wonga was only aged 25, but was nonetheless asked by the Elders to become Ngurungaeta. Wonga had already demonstrated his capabilities to the satisfaction of the Elders and more than anyone else he had developed an understanding of how white people thought and behaved. It seems however that Wonga had asked for more time to learn whitefella ways before taking over actual day-to day leadership of the tribe. A virtual regency situation was therefore put in place while Wonga completed what he considered to be necessary tertiary level training, which he felt was complete by 1851.

Wonga had already some years before formed a close association with the Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, virtually by accident. When Wonga at age 19 in 1840 was on his final walkabout test in the Dandenong ranges, he severely injured his foot. After being rescued by his father Billibellari, a settler then transported Wonga to Melbourne in a dray to the home of William Thomas, who with his wife Susannah cared for Wonga’s wound for the next two months. This therefore gave Wonga the opportunity to accompany Thomas in his work and begin his understanding of how the whitefellas world operated. After Billibellari’s death in 1846, Wonga continued his quest to learn the white man’s ways and contracted out teams of Wurundjeri men and women to learn agricultural, building construction and cattle mustering skills. At a cattle run near Warrandyte the station owner was so impressed with Wonga’s leadership and skill at mustering he named the station ‘Wonga Park’ after him. Wonga’s skill at providing cost estimates for the work involved and organising his workers was highly impressive. At the time of the Warrandyte gold rush, Wonga secured a contract to harvest bark for a Richmond publican to build the first beer hut on the goldfields. Whilst doing the job the publican gave Wonga and his men some tobacco and food, but later deducted that from the agreed sum. Wonga immediately went to William Thomas and complained of a breach of contract. Thomas then threatened to sue the publican if he did not pay the full agreed amount, thus gaining immediate results.

It was at this time in 1851 at the age of 29, that Wonga finally decided he was now ready to fulfill his destiny as Headman of the Wurundjeri. He now knew that his people could no longer survive in a traditional tribal existence in the new world. They had to establish an economic base that would allow them to not just subsist, but to also generate revenue through trade. To do this they would need to gain a freehold grant of land, but before the search for land could begin, there was a need to appropriately draw the curtain on their previous tribal existence with one last great corroboree where all the traditional games were played to an audience of local settlers and gold miners. This last great corroboree at Pound Bend in Warrandyte in March 1852 therefore quite graphically marked the end of tribal times in the Yarra Valley. Simon Wonga had already formulated his plan to secure land and an economic base for his people, but it was to be frustrated for another decade. Finally, in 1863 Wonga and Barak led their people over the Blacks Spur Songline to their Promised Land at Coranderrk It was there that Wonga’s vision finally came into reality and Coranderrk over the succeeding decades was to become the most economically successful Aboriginal Mission Station in Australian history.

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