Volume 9, Issue 1
While doing an internship over the summer I came to learn of the value of Parliamentary Inquires as sources of evidence and information. Evidence from disparate witnesses is brought together into one transcript and, what’s even better, it’s all in layperson's terms!
One such Inquiry has been put to excellent use by the Minutes of Evidence Project. The project is “a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, education experts, performance artists, community members, government and community organisations that sheds light on the little-known history of the 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry”.
One of the outcomes of the project is the play Coranderrk: We will show the country, the script of which consists entirely of excerpts from the transcripts of the Coranderrk Inquiry.
Coranderrk is a deeply affecting snapshot of the way colonisation played out in Victoria in the 19th century, told through the lens of the Coranderrk station and in the words of individuals involved. This brings the process of colonisation to life and provides the audience with a deeply personal insight into what colonisation really feels like: the fact that it involves real and beautiful people whose hopes and dreams are ruthlessly and mercilessly crushed.
This was further emphasised by the location of this particular performance – it was performed on the very land where the Coranderrk station once stood.
Due to European diseases, warfare, murders and the disruption of traditional food supplies, the Aboriginal population of what became Victoria plummeted from around 60,000 people at the time of colonisation, to around 1,800 people at the time of the Coranderrk Inquiry in 1881.1
In spite of this, in the 1860s, through careful diplomacy and political activism, Aboriginal people won for themselves a number of locations in Victoria where they hoped to regain some security and autonomy.2 Though this was just thirty years after the colonisation of Victoria, incredibly these locations comprised only about 0.03 per cent of Victoria’s land mass.3
One of these locations was Coranderrk, just near Healesville and a short drive from Melbourne. Under the leadership of Ngurungaeta (headmen) Simon Wonga and William Barak, the station quickly became a vibrant and self-supporting community, selling crops on the market and even winning the ‘first order of merit’ for its hops at the Melbourne International Exhibition.
Though the white-government retained control of the stations through a Central Board, at Coranderrk this control was initially not tight. In the play, the white manager of Coranderrk in its early years, John Green, states that he “always reasoned with the aborigines. I made that law with their own sanction. If the aboriginal is put into the question, he will strive to keep his own law… I always treated them as free men, and reasoned with them.”4
However, when in 1869 the ‘Central Board’ became the ‘Board for the Protection of the Aborigines’, this all changed. Departing from earlier non-coercive policies, the new Board was awarded ‘very large powers’,5 which were to be used, in the case of Coranderrk, to sell the land to settlers who coveted it and to move the Aboriginal inhabitants on elsewhere.6
This new white-government policy is summarised in Coranderrk through the evidence of Edward Curr, a member of the newly constituted Board. Asked why he did not consult with the Aboriginal inhabitants before recommending their removal from Coranderrk, he said it was for their own good. The exchange goes on:
“Are they not men?”
“No, they are children. They have no more self-reliance than children.”
“If they offend against the law are they punished like children?”
“No, like men.”7
The attempt to control and remove the Aboriginal inhabitants of Coranderrk from their home was what sparked the “Coranderrk rebellion” and forced the Parliamentary Inquiry.
Ultimately Coranderrk was closed and white settlers were moved in. A statement made by William Barak forces the audience to wonder what might have happened, however:
“And we don’t want any Board nor inspecting Capt. Page over us—only one man, that is Mr. Green, and the station to be under the Chief Secretary; and then we will show to the country that we can work it and make it pay, and I know it will.”8
Astoundingly, Aboriginal people continue to face precisely the same problems they faced in 1881. Colonising forces continue to deny Aboriginal people the opportunity for self-determination and autonomy. Nicolas Rothwell, the Northern Australia correspondent for The Australian, writing last year on the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention, stated that “the idea [behind the intervention] was simple: disempower to empower; limit economic freedom to set free people’s minds.” He goes on to say that the intervention is just one part of the effort “to break the political power of the large Aboriginal land councils and gain easy access to indigenous land”.
And Edward Curr’s sentiments were echoed recently when broadcaster Alan Jones said that Australia needs another stolen generation to “protect” Aboriginal children. What he didn’t mention is that Aboriginal children are already being taken away at higher rates than at the peak of the stolen generations.
Coranderrk is a story of past atrocities committed. It is also a reminder that we must do all that we can to stop those atrocities which we are still, right this minute, in the act of committing. If we don’t, another audience 100 years from now will again be wondering, what if they’d been allowed to show the country?
In 1998, 200 acres of Coranderrk land was returned to the Wurundjeri people and the land is now managed by Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation.
Now, almost 100 years after Coranderrk was closed, indigenous and non-indigenous people are working together to rebuild Coranderrk, not as a museum, but in a 21st century way.
Duncan Wallace is a third-year JD student and Chief Editor of De Minimis
1. Richard Broom, ‘Aboriginal Victorians’, pg 91
2.Richard Broom, ‘Aboriginal Victorians’, pg 124
3.Richard Broom, ‘Aboriginal Victorians’, pg 126
4. Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry (1881), <http://www.minutesofevidence.com.au/static/media/uploads/coranderrk_moe_digitized.pdf > 
5. Richard Broom, ‘Aboriginal Victorians’, pg 130
6. Richard Broom, ‘Aboriginal Victorians’, pg 169
7. Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry (1881), <http://www.minutesofevidence.com.au/static/media/uploads/coranderrk_moe_digitized.pdf > 
8. Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry (1881), <http://www.minutesofevidence.com.au/static/media/uploads/coranderrk_moe_digitized.pdf > pg 99