Wadawurrung People seemed strange and exotic to early settlers, just as the Europeans seemed strange and exotic to them.
During the 1850s immigrants arrived from all over the world hoping to find a better life on the Victorian goldfields. They came from places such as America, Canada, China, Germany, Russia, France and Italy, but mainly they came from Britain – England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These new arrivals found a fascinating country where the local plants and animals seemed strange and exotic. To them the Aboriginal People were also strange and even frightening.
For the local Wadawurrung People the new immigrants were just as frightening and strange. It was reported in the local newspaper that a Wadawurrung man almost lost his mind upon seeing a European man play a trombone, as he thought the musician was swallowing it.
Many Europeans were fascinated by Aboriginal culture and enterprising Wadawurrung People soon realised Europeans would pay to be entertained by performances of traditional Corroborees. Europeans regularly flocked to theatres, the shores of Lake Wendouree, and local sports grounds to watch Corroborees. Such ritual performances were remarkably different to anything these people would have seen in Europe or China. While there were local Wadawurrung People and travelling Aboriginal People from other parts of Victoria who made money performing these Corroborees, there were however, often enterprising Europeans involved in the organisation of these events who made the greatest profits.
PLAY THE AUDIO: Gold rush photographer and miner Antoine Fauchery, circa 1851.
“The aboriginal corroboree and display of fireworks at the Copenhagen grounds on Monday evening drew together a large number of persons, and the novel entertainment proved a decided success.”
A report (The Ballarat Star, 21st February 1865, p. 6) on the Grand Corroboree by Fifty Natives.
Advertisement from The Ballarat Star 20th February 1865:
Grand Corroboree by Fifty natives
THIS EVENING, MONDAY 20th INST.,
Also, Extra Exhibition of FIREWORKS and Balloon Ascent. For the Benefit of Professor Prescott. Grandest Gala Night of the season.
A report (The Ballarat Star, 21st February 1865, p. 6) on the same Corroboree: “The aboriginal corroboree and display of fireworks at the Copenhagen grounds on Monday evening drew together a large number of persons, and the novel entertainment proved a decided success. Aboriginal habits in their most primitive style were displayed by about thirty-five natives, from various tribes around Ballarat, including about a dozen lubras [Aboriginal women], who were nearly naked and daubed over with paints of every hue in the most hideous fashion, though no doubt after approved aboriginal style. Without offering any comment upon the propriety or otherwise of the corroboree, it may be stated that it afforded amusement to the number of persons, between five and six hundred, who assembled to witness it. A plentiful supply of coloured fire added to the savage appearance of the scene, and after it was concluded some beautiful fireworks were displayed. Professor Prescott, the lessee of the grounds, purposes on a future evening to allow the natives the use of the grounds for another corroboree, they receiving the proceeds”.
“The population too would astonish a few, here we have representations of nearly all the nations on the face of the globe, not the least wonderful of which is the Aboriginal nation. I have frequently been present at their corroborees, and their skill in throwing the spear and boomerang is wonderful. I saw the boomerang thrown yesterday, it went completely out of sight and in about 5 minutes returned at the feet of the thrower.” George Wakefield, surgeon on the Ballarat diggings, 1st May, 1856.
“It was I think, the first time music was heard on the diggings. An agreeable sensation for all, and particularly novel for the natives. Coloured men, women and children were laughing, foaming, twisting in a general fit of epilepsy. [Only one man] kept his dignity, and neglecting the varied ensemble of the orchestra, all his attention was fixed on the trombone … it was this mechanism [of the trombone] above all that aroused the lively interest of the observer … The full extension of the instrument did not over-astonish the black man, but when he saw it drawn back by the instrumentalist’s hand, go up again, diminish and reduce itself to its simplest proportions he completely lost his head; he touched the brass with his black quivering hands then he came back to the Alsation, on whose person he devoted himself to the most minute researches, opening his coat, thrusting his hands everywhere, but finding nothing. Suddenly he stopped, enveloped in a fiery gaze the musician and the trombone now all of one piece, then struck his forehead and cried, ‘he is swallowing it.’ And he ran away, waving his arms in the air, and showing signs of the most dreadful despair.” Famous gold rush photographer and miner Antoine Fauchery, c.1851.
In 1867, the Buninyong Council wrote to Andrew Porteous, the local Guardian of Aborigines in the Ballarat District, informing him: “the Council has determined on getting up a grand corroboree of the Natives on the occasion [his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Buninyong]. I have therefore to beg that you will be pleased to secure as many of the aboriginals as possible for that purpose; every care will be taken of the Blacks whilst in the locality.”
Famous gold rush photographer and miner Antoine Fauchery, noted that Aboriginal people were: “Divided into nomadic tribes made up of fifteen or twenty individuals, they are seen now in the bush, now in the towns, and still more frequently on the diggings, which they visit by preference.”
William Simkin wrote this about Wadawurrung Corroborees in the 1860s: “Some of the gentlemen visitors would give the king of the tribe a part cast off dress suit of clothes namely a swallow tail coat and belltopper hat, and after the performers had sung and danced, the king would go around collection with his hat … they were liberally supported.”
“A CORROBOREE – During the past few days the town of Smythesdale has been infested by a numerous gang of aborigines-men, women, and children. On Tuesday and Wednesday they went about the town in quest of sixpences, tobacco &c., and announcing a grand “corroboree” to come off on Wednesday night, as it accordingly did, in the presence of a hundred spectators or more. The savages were in their war paint, and looked sufficiently frightful as they danced and shrieked round their fire… The thing was kept up till an advanced hour in the morning.” From page 7 of The Argus, 28th April 1863.
“During the last few days a number of aborigines, probably about two hundred, have arrived on Ballarat from Port Fairy, Mount Elephant, Mount Cole, the Hopkins, Warrnambool and the Wimmera, for the purpose as they state of seeing the towns and each other … During the whole of Monday they infested the principal parts of the town and levied contributions in money or otherwise on the white man. Towards evening they made preparation for a corroboree in the Copenhagen grounds … and were a considerable time in getting the music to a proper pitch … Steam however was got up at last , and away they went to the intense delight of some 500 persons, who were present to witness the performance … While the dancing was going on King Wattie procured a tin can, and fulfilled the not very dignified position of tax-gatherer in-chief, but up to nine o’clock he did not appear to have been very successful in inducing the invader to acknowledge his right to impose taxes when he liked.” From The Ballarat Star, Tuesday 12th March, 1861.
“In leaving the place [where the corroboree was held] we stumbled on the mia-mia of King Billy…The old man seemed grieved at the revelry and debauch which on all hands surrounded him, and was evidently taking no part in the noisy performance. The princess did not imitate her father’s taciturnity, but at once with all the volubility of a female tongue proclaimed that the whole district of Ballaarat was at one period the patrimony of her sire.” A report from The Ballaarat Times, 1857.