The Wadawurrung People participated in the European economy through trade.
The economy practised by the Wadawurrung People for thousands of years involved trading skills, tools, weapons, clothing, and permission to utilise the food resources on the country of a different nation to one’s own. Much of this economic interaction was based on the notion of reciprocal gift-giving; as part of maintaining healthy relations with family and neighbours, you gave and received gifts.
In contrast, the imported European economy was based on trading gold for money and money for goods. Initially, Wadawurrung People found this notion baffling but gradually they realised they could no longer survive using their traditional hunting and gathering methods. Forced from their traditional food sources, they began to develop an understanding of European ways and soon learnt what traditional products might be appealing to the Europeans. Food such as eels, fish and emu eggs were traded but the most expensive and sort-after item was the gloriously warm possum-skin cloak, which Europeans were prepared to pay up to a month’s wages for. The miners were quick to learn that during the cold, damp Ballarat winters, a possum-skin cloak would keep you alive.
“The tribe still continue to make possum rugs, and if steady, might make a good living by it, as they generally get 20 shillings to 30 shillings for each rug, which they can make in 14 days. ”
Andrew Porteous, Honorary Correspondent for the Aborigines in the Ballarat District said in 1866.
Andrew Porteous, Honorary Correspondent for the Aborigines in the Ballarat District said in 1866: “The tribe still continue to make possum rugs, and if steady, might make a good living by it, as they generally get 20 shillings to 30 shillings for each rug, which they can make in 14 days. The women also employ themselves in making baskets and nets, which they sell to the European. They sometimes offer fish for sale, with the proceeds of which they supply themselves with rations, and sometimes with clothes, such as hats, handkerchiefs and some of them with boots… they have been travelling amongst the stations, only a few calling for rations… they still fish when fish can be got, and hunt the opossum, and make rugs of the skins.”
Walter Bridges, a miner at Buninyong near Ballarat in 1855, described how a local clan of Wadawurrung People carrying possum-skin rugs approached his wife and made a request, framed within the ties of reciprocity of neighbours, for some steel needles and thread: “So up they come yabbering good day Missie you my countary woman now. My mother had to be the spokesperson the Blacks said You gottum needle Missie you gottum thread … Then the Luberes [women] some jabbering along behind carring the swag in nets with pups that could not walk, others possum skin rugs the Blackfellows make.”
James Nisbet, relating his experiences of encountering Aboriginal people (presumably Wadawurrung) at Ballarat, did not describe them as mining, but notes their presence on the goldfields and that they were earning some money from gold miners: “met a party of a half dozen at Ballarat” who were sometimes “employed by the diggers in remote gullies to strip trees of their bark for a hut, for a day’s labour at which a little bread or a English shilling is sufficient recompense.”
In 1861 the Ballarat Star carried a satirical article attributed to ‘A Blackfellow’ which pleads with the colonial government to provide market protection for the Aboriginal trade in possum-skin rugs: “You write guv’nor and ask him why protection on the wallaby track looking for grubs ‘mong whitefellow? You say whitefellow no make um blankets this colony, blackfellow make ‘possum rug, which whitefellow ought to buy ‘stead of blanket; possum rug all along same as whitefellow’s blankets;- why not give blackfellow monopoly of making and selling ‘em and protect real native industry.”
J. F. Hughes, from Castlemaine, wrote that both possum and kangaroo skin rugs “were sold to settlers and lucky gold-diggers at £5 a-piece”.
“Few colonists expect gratitude from the aborigines, but that they are not always unmindful of these obligations which go to make up what is called civilization has been proved of late in this district. Our readers will remember the paragraph which appeared in our last issue, notifying that a party of aborigines had found a thirty-ounce nugget at the Emu. This gold realized about 120 pounds for them and shortly after they had patronized the draper’s shop, and provided themselves with good winter clothing, they determined to pay a visit to Clunes, where some months since a resident had been very kind to them. According to their version of the affair, he gave them money to purchase extra blankets when the weather was very cold, and they could not forget his kindness. Accordingly, the party, to the number of nine, hired for three pounds two vehicles, on Wednesday, and proceeded in them to Clunes, for the purpose of returning to their benefactor the sum he had placed at their disposal on that occasion. Some amusement was occasioned by the sight of the party when they drove out of Talbot, the women being decked in crinolines, good warm dresses, and bonnets, and the men clothed in wearing apparel of the latest fashions; but when the motive of their errand was known, they certainly rose considerably in the estimation of the bystanders.” From The Argus, 6th June, 1865.
From the Grenville Advocate, 2nd September 1862 reporting on an occurrence in Linton: “The Mount Emu tribe of aboriginals must have been pretty hard pinched for food this winter as they were never before known to be so keen to get employment from Europeans as they have shown themselves this season in Linton. A gentleman of that town … has engaged the tribe to carve his come light-wood uprights for an alcove, as the timber sheds the bark. It is intended that the carved designs will represent a serpentine coil, similar to that on the shields that the chiefs of the tribe use in time of warfare.”