Survival of the Fittest
Without help from the Wadawurrung People, many miners found it difficult to survive.
During both the squatting and gold mining eras, many Europeans depended on Wadawurrung bush knowledge and local foods to survive. Without developing relationships with Aboriginal People, the first Europeans would have had a very difficult time dealing with the Australian landscape.
While trading bush survival skills, possum-skin cloaks (much warmer and more efficient at keeping you dry than a woollen blanket) and providing food for the early European arrivals was partly motivated by money/trade, it was also about developing kinship (family) relationships between the Wadawurrung People and the early settlers. This was part of an ancient cultural practice of caring for visitors to your country and developing a friendly relationship based on reciprocal gift-giving. To most Europeans however, trade was purely business and they failed to see that they had any responsibilities towards local Aboriginal People.
“For many days [his landing party had been] without rations; but by kindness of the friendly natives, had been well supplied with the roots on which they chiefly subsist, and which my people assured me they found nutritious and agreeable.”
Early colonist John Batman, 1835
“Eugene von Guérard, artist on the Victorian goldfields … depicts Wadawurrung People offering possum rugs for sale to white miners on their way to the goldfields. Of particular interest is the centrality of the Wadawurrung men and women. Unlike many depictions of Aboriginal people during the nineteenth century, peripheral players cast off to the background or figures relegated to the sidelines, Von Guérard has focused the activity around confident Aboriginal salespeople who are clearly directing the business deal. The white ‘consumer’ desiring to purchase the possum rugs is painted in the subservient pose, kneeling down, whilst the Aboriginal ‘manufacturer’ assumes an upright, dominant demeanour.” Ballarat historian Fred Cahir, 2012.
“They [the Wadawurrung] were as a fairly general rule clad – the men particularly – either in cast off clothes that they picked up, or in a vast blanket of sixty possum skins joined together with rough seams, in which they are draped in the antique manner.” Famous gold rush photographer and miner Antoine Fauchery, c.1850.
“Every settler, when riding through the bush, carries either a kangaroo-rug or a blanket fastened before him on his horse, so that, wherever he goes, he is provided with his bed; and as it is not an uncommon circumstance for one to lose himself in the bush, and be obliged to sleep at the root of a tree, he then finds his rug or blanket very useful.” Katherine Kirkland, early settler who lived just outside Ballarat in the 1830s-1840s.
“For many days [his landing party had been] without rations; but by kindness of the friendly natives, had been well supplied with the roots on which they chiefly subsist, and which my people assured me they found nutritious and agreeable.” Early colonist John Batman, 1835