Fire was fundamental to the survival of everyone, however one culture used it to protect trees, while the other used it to destroy them.
Trees were a valuable resource and fire a powerful tool used by both Wadawurrung and European people; however they used them very differently.
Although not easily visible to the early European settlers around Ballarat, it is argued that the landscape was being carefully managed by the Wadawurrung People to provide them with all of their food, clothing and shelter. Fire was thought to be an ally in making plants and animals abundant and convenient. Trees provided the Wadawurrung People with tools, bark for shelters and habitat for game animals like possums. They were also used in ceremonies, provided landmarks to define territory, afforded a comfortable place to give birth, marked graves, and produced important medicinal products.
The Europeans saw trees as a resource to be cut down to provide the huge quantities of timber required to build mines and homes. Local trees were also chopped down to fuel the huge boilers needed when Ballarat’s gold workings became steam-powered. This dramatic change to the local environment made it impossible for Wadawurrung People to continue their traditional lifestyles. When individual Wadawurrung People tried to claim payments for the loss of their land and trees, they were ignored by those in positions of 19th century authority. Forced to find ways to participate in the European economy or starve, some turned to begging and stealing to survive.
“On one occasion, when a black fellow had taken a square of bark from a tree in front of our hut, I remonstrated with him for mutilating the tree; he very quietly asked me if it was my tree, which i thought at the time was a little rough on the usurper.”
Settler Alfred Joyce, near Newstead, c.1850.
“The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, … every feature of Nature is annihilated.” Miner and author William Howitt, 1855.
Miner Morley Roberts emphasised Aboriginal presence in the gold towns, rather than in the bush or on the fields themselves: “King Billy was given to strolling up and down the streets of Ballarat when that eviscerated city was merely in process of disembowelment, before alluvial mining gave way to [steam powered] quartz crushing.”
“On one occasion, when a black fellow had taken a square of bark from a tree in front of our hut, I remonstrated with him for mutilating the tree; he very quietly asked me if it was my tree, which l thought at the time was a little rough on the usurper.” Settler Alfred Joyce, near Newstead, c.1850.
Katherine Kirkland, an early settler who lived just outside Ballarat in the 1830s-1840s wrote: “We were now in the Boning Yong (Buninyong) district, which takes its name from a very high mountain, on the top of which is a large hole filled with water. It is quite round, as if made by man, and there are fish and mussels in it.” Curiously there is no longer a lake on Mt Buninyong.
Catherine McK notes in her biography about her gold rush experiences between 1851 and 1873 that Aboriginal people had caught: “bandicoots, wattlebirds and blackfish from the creek … [near the Daylesford diggings until] men with guns and dogs came from the mining towns and camps, and soon the wild game was exterminated, even on the rough ranges.”
Andrew Porteous, the Honorary Correspondent at Carngham (near Ballarat), advised the Aboriginal Protection Board of the local Wadawurrung clans’ keen intentions to obtain some land for themselves on their traditional lands, stating that: “A number of the tribe have requested me to apply to the Government to reserve a block of land near Chepstowe for their use, where they might make a paddock, and grow wheat and potatoes, and erect permanent residences.”