The local environment, on which Wadawurrung People depended, was irreversibly changed by European colonisation.
The roots of the murnong daisy provided a staple food source for the Wadawurrung People. Unfortunately, introduced sheep ate the daisy leaves and roots, killing the entire plant.
Within three years of the introduction of sheep in the 1830s, most of the murnong across central Victoria was gone. This depletion of local food resources was intensified when the 1850s gold rush saw a huge influx of new settlers. The rapid population explosion and intensive and destructive mining methods created massive environmental change. For the Wadawurrung People, it became almost impossible to survive off the land as their ancestors had.
This inevitably meant that many Wadawurrung People became dependant on the poorly paid work on offer on the goldfields and surrounding sheep stations, and some even resorted to begging or stealing to stay alive. At the time, some Europeans understood that such desperate behaviour was a result of environmental change. Others thought however, that Wadawurrung People were struggling to survive because they were too lazy to work and were too easily drawn to alcoholism. Many Europeans believed they were a people destined for extinction due to their own “natural” weaknesses. Some quoted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (outlined in his On the Origin of Species, published in 1859) as scientific evidence that this was an example of “survival of the fittest”.
PLAY THE AUDIO: The fifth report published by the Central Board Appointed to Watch over the Interests of the Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria, 1866.
“No work can be more manifestly or more imperatively the duty of the colonists of an entirely new country like this than that of providing for its aboriginal inhabitants… The food of the aborigines retreats as the European advances…”
The fifth report published by the Central Board Appointed to Watch over the Interests of the Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria, 1866.
Edward Stone Parker, Assistant Protector to the Aborigines (in Central Victoria) reported in 1839 that: “…all the settlers whom l met with on the journey were of the opinion that the Aborigines were necessarily greatly distressed for food, owing to the destruction of the “murnong”, a tuberous-rooted plant formerly covering the plains of this country, but now entirely cropped off by the sheep and cattle. They expressed their earnest hope that the government would make suitable arrangements for supplying the Natives with food, as it was only under the pressure of hunger that they were disposed to meddle with flocks.”
Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson recorded on February 10, 1840 that a group of Wadawurrung People, less than two years after the occupation of land in the Ballarat district, lamented the loss of their staple food to McLeod, a squatter near Buninyong in central Victoria. The Aboriginals stated to McLeod that “there were no murnong about Geelong. It was like Port Phillip all gone the Bulgana [cattle] and sheep eat it all”.
“No work can be more manifestly or more imperatively the duty of the colonists of an entirely new country like this than that of providing for its aboriginal inhabitants… The food of the aborigines retreats as the European advances… In the very names of places where the native word has been retained, it often recorded the deprivation of the black by white man. Ballarat was a favourite camping place; the word signifies to recline on the elbow, or balla…” The fifth report published by the Central Board Appointed to Watch over the Interests of the Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria, 1866.
“…the rapid occupation of the entire country by settlers, and the consequent attempts made to deprive the aborigines of the natural products of the country and even to exclude them from their native soil. The entire country of … (the local groups) … is now sold or occupied by squatters. …. The very spots most valuable to the aborigines for their productiveness – the creeks, the water-courses and rivers – are the first to be occupied. It is the common opinion among the settlers that the possession of a squatting licence entitles them to the exclusion of aborigines from their runs.” Assistant Protector to the Aborigines Edward Stone Parker, Loddon District, 1840.
In 1839 William Thomas wrote to his superior, Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson, imploring him to help the Wadawurrung People: “…the poor Natives cannot find it [murnong], thus they are reduced to the greatest extremity at this period of the year… it is only at this season of the year that outrages occur in this district an evident proof while they can get a sufficiency they will be harmless but the cravings of nature drives them to excess, tho’ I deplore the outrages they have committed, I cannot help commiserating their misfortune.”
“Maranong is a root found in the ground; it is white, and shaped like a carrot, but the taste is more like a turnip. The leubras [Wadawurrung women] dig for it with long pointed sticks, which they always carry in their hands. I have often eaten maranong; it is very good; and I have put it in soup for want of better vegetables, before we had a garden.” Katherine Kirkland, an 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.
“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.
You can find out more about The Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate here: Clark, I.D. (1990) Aboriginal Languages and Clans: An Historical Atlas of Western and Central Victoria, 1800-1900, Monash Publications in Geography, No. 37, March, 460pp.