Wurundjeri Story

William Barak: The history of one of the greatest men of this area...

By Professor Joy Murphy-Wandin is a Wurundjeri Elder

William Barak is my great, great uncle. He had two brothers and a sister named Annie. Sadly for William, none of his three children survived past the age of 14. David was the child that lived the longest. David I believe was actually born here on Coranderrk. Annie also had three children. The only surviving child was my grandfather, Robert Wandin. And so that is our connection with William Barak.

William Barak plays a very important role in our lives because he became the Ngurangaeta or the head person of the Wurundjeri people and the people here at Coranderrk. William Barak was not a very tall man from what I know. He was about 5 foot 8, but was very strong, had very, very, very strong facial features, and beautiful, almost bronzed skin. He was a very strong presence.

He was taught by his uncle, Dam Billibellary, who taught the ways of traditional practice, and taught him the ways of leadership. It was his Uncle Billibellary that said to him, "You will be the next head man of Wurundjeri". And so he became the head man after the death of his Uncle Billibellary. He shared that leadership with his cousin, Simon Wonga here at Coranderrk.

William Barak was actually not born on Coranderrk, but born down at a place, just near North Croydon, which is today called Brushy Creek. He was born by the creek and today the people of North Croydon have put a beautiful stone plaque dedicated to William Barak in a park so people can see it. It's really a nice place to reflect on when we drive past and I always make a mention of it to my children and my grandchildren in particular. So that connection of yesterday and today is very prominent down at Brushy Creek. And it remains a place where the generations following after William Barak will always remember him because of that association.

William Barak was also the man who said that this place Coranderrk would survive, that we would work out relationships with people. He became a skilled mediator. Today there are still very strong connections with the people in and around the Healesville area, and particularly a Swiss family, by the name of Deprury.

William Barak's artworks are shown today all over the world. The National Gallery of Victoria now has in its possession seven of his original paintings. The Museum of Victoria has two paintings. He did all his artwork with a frayed and chewed piece of stick. He would paint with ochre and charcoal, bringing out the colours in the charcoal, even producing a blue from a red, and a mix of pink and white pipe-clay. So some of his work is extremely beautiful. William Barak is known today, more as an artist, but he was the leader of Coranderrk.

William Barak believed strongly in the rights of his people. He was aware of the fact that Coranderrk was to be closed down. In fact, that was taking place when he was presenting and leading deputations to the Victorian Government in Melbourne. He would get people together, get them enthused, motivate them, and they would walk from here at Coranderrk all the way to Melbourne to present petitions. Many Aboriginal people helped him to write these petitions, including my grandfather Robert. He would literally hand this petition to the government, which would say things like "please leave us alone, give us our land back, don't take it away again". He pleaded with the government, to let his people be who they were on their own place.

He also made a very strong request to Queen Victoria at the time. This letter is actually documented, and although I don't know it word for word, it says something like "We are the people of Coranderrk, why do you keep taking things away from us? Please leave us alone. We are dying away by degrees. All we want to do is live and die at Coranderrk."

I don't think he ever received an acknowledgment of that letter. He certainly didn't get a response to the letter. Then ultimately in 1923 this place Coranderrk was officially closed down.

William Barak was also a man who could embrace any culture. He formed a beautiful relationship with a lady by the name of Anne Bon, a Scottish woman. Her husband had brought her out in the mid-1850s, and they built a property on Wappan Station in Mansfield. William Barak would have been travelling around with other elders as they did in those times when there were important social and political decisions to be made. They would join together as a team of leaders and go and meet on the most appropriate land. He met up with Anne Bon and their closeness came about because of loss in their lives. Anne Bon had lost a child then William Barak lost a child. William generously, very generously, invited Anne Bon to be part of this sharing of celebration of death. But she was very respectful and didn't actually attend ceremonies. She just stood aside and watched what happened. But by that she embraced the culture of Aboriginal people in a very spiritual and in a very special way. When her husband died, she had this beautiful monument made for him which probably stands about 10 feet tall. She had her husband's name and her child's name put on this monument. Their place at Wappan Station was eventually to be flooded and became the Eildon Weir. Anne Bon decided that she should move this monument, but at this time William Barak passed away. So Anne engaged some tradespeople to scratch from this monument her husband's name and her child's name, and re-inscribe it in memory of William Barak. And that monument is now in the Coranderrk Aboriginal cemetery.

I think it's important to say that William Barak and Anne Bon were probably the forerunners of reconciliation, and I think that's the way that it should be. I know that William had many other powerful relationships, but I would say that none were as powerful as a black and white person coming together in this way. Certainly, for a white lady, a Scottish lady who was an aristocrat, to have her much beloved families' names removed from a very special memorial was an extraordinary gesture of respect for William Barak.

William Barak also made very many other friends. He was the great entertainer at Yeringberg, the home of the DePury family who still reside here in the same place, just outside Healesville, near St Hubert's Winery. William would be asked to go along and throw the boomerang. He would perform dances, he would sing beautiful songs, and he would tell stories, all in his traditional tongue. He became such a very close friend of the DePury family that he was almost like their son.

Sadly William Barak passed away in 1903. He did say that when the wattles bloomed again along the Yarra River in August he would die. And this has been somewhat of a tradition. For two generations before him, members of his family passed away in August. My father passed away in August. My cousin passed away in August. I was born in August, so maybe I'm not meant to pass away in August. But there certainly has been this line of time, which says that generations of our family have passed away when the wattles bloom.