The Aboriginal History of Yarra

William Thomas

William Thomas, Protectorate, 1860, State Library of Victoria Accession No H2002.87

7. The Protectorate

The influence of the Exeter Hall movement meant that ‘protection’ was a key idea of the early settlement years, and had a strong influence on government policy. In many ways William Thomas was the epitome of this idea of protection, and the contradictions it contained. In his role as Protector, Thomas had good intentions. He formed a close friendship with Billibellary and made efforts to learn the ways of the Wurundjeri, learning both Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language. But he was an Englishman and fervent Christian, and his ultimate goal was to “civilise” the local Aboriginal people by settling them in villages and converting them to Christianity. The Protectorate system was seen as a failure, and, unsupported by the government or the public, it was dismantled in December 1849.

The influence of the Exeter Hall movement meant that ‘protection’ was a key idea of the early settlement years, and had a strong influence on government policy. In many ways William Thomas was the epitome of this idea of protection, and the contradictions it contained.

In his role as Protector, Thomas had good intentions. He formed a close friendship with Billibellary and made efforts to learn the ways of the Wurundjeri, learning both Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language. But he was an Englishman and fervent Christian, and his ultimate goal was to “civilise” the local Aboriginal people by settling them in villages and converting them Christianity.

In 1837, prior to the Protectorate’s establishment, a mission and school had been set up on the south side of the Yarra River at a meeting place and corroboree site which is now occupied by Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens.[i] The mission and school failed, however, because the people of the Kulin nations refused to give up cultural practices of travelling and hunting at certain times of the year.

The Aboriginal Protectorate was established to replace the mission. Under orders from the chief Protectorate George Robinson, William Thomas established a station at Narre Narre Warren in 1840 and based himself there from 1841. However he was not successful in convincing the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung to move so far from Melbourne, and by 1843, Thomas had moved to the popular camp site at the confluence of the Yarra River and the Merri Creek. At this time the Merri Creek School was established for Aboriginal children, with some success.

As the settlement grew, the Wurundjeri found themselves faced with a variety of requests and demands from the European settlers. The Protectors wanted to keep Aboriginal people out of the town, in order to “civilize” them and eventually enable them to be part of society. The merchants wanted Aboriginal people to continue coming to the town so they could profit from them. The general public and colonial officers simply wanted the protectors to remove the Aboriginal people from the area and ensure they did not return. There were also some who saw the injustice of dispossession (although this was only because the Europeans had taken the land without allocating an area for the Aboriginal people to go).[ii]

The Protectorate system was seen as a failure, and, unsupported by the government or the public, it was dismantled in December 1849. Thomas was named Guardian of the Aborigines on 1 January, 1850. His instructions were nearly identical to when he was appointed Assistant Protector, except Superintendent Charles La Trobe now emphasised that Thomas was ‘to keep the blacks out of Melbourne’.[iii] With Thomas the sole authority looking after the welfare of the Aboriginal people, as Penelope Edmonds has noted, ‘the 1850s have been described as a period of almost complete government neglect of Aboriginal peoples’.[iv]

In 1858, a ‘Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines’ was formed by the Victorian Government, to enquire into the state of the Aboriginal population at this time. The Committee published a report in 1859, which recommended the establishment of government reserves for Aboriginal people. The result of this was the creation of the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in 1860 to establish a series of reserves, onto which the Aboriginal people would be ‘more vigorously compelled’ to move. These reserves included Ebenezer, Lake Tyers, Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ramahyuck, Coranderrk and Yelta. Many of the Wurundjeri moved to Coranderrk, which was created by a group of Kulin in 1863, and retroactively approved by the government.[v]

 


[i] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 87; Dr Shaun Canning and Dr Frances Thiele, Indigenous Cultural heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area: A Report to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, Australian Cultural Heritage Management, 2010, 12

[ii] Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on The Aborigines; Together with the Proceedings of Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendices, Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer 1859, iv

[iii] Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines, 1

[iv] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 153

[v] Canning and Thiele, Indigenous Cultural heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area, 14

The influence of the Exeter Hall movement meant that ‘protection’ was a key idea of the early settlement years, and had a strong influence on government policy. In many ways William Thomas was the epitome of this idea of protection, and the contradictions it contained.

In his role as Protector, Thomas had good intentions. He formed a close friendship with Billibellary and made efforts to learn the ways of the Wurundjeri, learning both Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language. But he was an Englishman and fervent Christian, and his ultimate goal was to “civilise” the local Aboriginal people by settling them in villages and converting them Christianity.

In 1837, prior to the Protectorate’s establishment, a mission and school had been set up on the south side of the Yarra River at a meeting place and corroboree site which is now occupied by Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens.[i] The mission and school failed, however, because the people of the Kulin nations refused to give up cultural practices of travelling and hunting at certain times of the year.

The Aboriginal Protectorate was established to replace the mission. Under orders from the chief Protectorate George Robinson, William Thomas established a station at Narre Narre Warren in 1840 and based himself there from 1841. However he was not successful in convincing the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung to move so far from Melbourne, and by 1843, Thomas had moved to the popular camp site at the confluence of the Yarra River and the Merri Creek. At this time the Merri Creek School was established for Aboriginal children, with some success.

As the settlement grew, the Wurundjeri found themselves faced with a variety of requests and demands from the European settlers. The Protectors wanted to keep Aboriginal people out of the town, in order to “civilize” them and eventually enable them to be part of society. The merchants wanted Aboriginal people to continue coming to the town so they could profit from them. The general public and colonial officers simply wanted the protectors to remove the Aboriginal people from the area and ensure they did not return. There were also some who saw the injustice of dispossession (although this was only because the Europeans had taken the land without allocating an area for the Aboriginal people to go).[ii]

The Protectorate system was seen as a failure, and, unsupported by the government or the public, it was dismantled in December 1849. Thomas was named Guardian of the Aborigines on 1 January, 1850. His instructions were nearly identical to when he was appointed Assistant Protector, except Superintendent Charles La Trobe now emphasised that Thomas was ‘to keep the blacks out of Melbourne’.[iii] With Thomas the sole authority looking after the welfare of the Aboriginal people, as Penelope Edmonds has noted, ‘the 1850s have been described as a period of almost complete government neglect of Aboriginal peoples’.[iv]

In 1858, a ‘Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines’ was formed by the Victorian Government, to enquire into the state of the Aboriginal population at this time. The Committee published a report in 1859, which recommended the establishment of government reserves for Aboriginal people. The result of this was the creation of the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in 1860 to establish a series of reserves, onto which the Aboriginal people would be ‘more vigorously compelled’ to move. These reserves included Ebenezer, Lake Tyers, Framlingham, Lake Condah, Ramahyuck, Coranderrk and Yelta. Many of the Wurundjeri moved to Coranderrk, which was created by a group of Kulin in 1863, and retroactively approved by the government.[v]

 


[i] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 87; Dr Shaun Canning and Dr Frances Thiele, Indigenous Cultural heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area: A Report to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, Australian Cultural Heritage Management, 2010, 12

[ii] Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on The Aborigines; Together with the Proceedings of Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendices, Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer 1859, iv

[iii] Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines, 1

[iv] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 153

[v] Canning and Thiele, Indigenous Cultural heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area, 14

Back

William Thomas

William Thomas

William Thomas, Protectorate, 1860, State Library of Victoria Accession No H2002.87