The Aboriginal History of Yarra

Confrontation

Confrontation between Aborigines and a Squatter

9. Disease

One of the biggest impacts on the Aboriginal population in the City of Yarra area was the introduction of diseases previously unknown to the Wurundjeri. It has been estimated that disease accounted for up to sixty percent of the Aboriginal deaths across the Port Phillip area.[i] While the European population had a strong resistance to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and even the common cold – exposure to these diseases was often fatal to Aboriginal populations. Added to this were other diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and venereal disease (such as syphilis) that were deadly to European and Aboriginal people alike.[ii] Changes to diet, movement away from a nomadic life and the introduction of alcohol all had a devastating and ongoing impact on the Aboriginal people of Victoria.


 Disease

[i] Presland, First People, 90

[ii] Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 42

One of the biggest impacts on the Aboriginal population in the City of Yarra area was the introduction of diseases previously unknown to the Wurundjeri. It has been estimated that disease accounted for up to sixty percent of the Aboriginal deaths across the Port Phillip area.[i] Even before Europeans began arriving in the Melbourne area, up to a third of the population of the eastern Australian tribes had been killed by an epidemic of smallpox that spread down from Sydney.[ii]

While the European population had a strong resistance to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and even the common cold – exposure to these diseases was often fatal to Aboriginal populations. Added to this were other diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and venereal disease (such as syphilis) that were deadly for European and Aboriginal populations alike.[iii]

Changes to diet also became a source of ill health and disease. Some changes were caused by restricted access to traditional food – from land being fenced off, native animals being shot for sport, and the introduction of hoofed animals such as sheep (which trampled and destroyed native plants that had served as staple foodstuffs). For some, these changes led to starvation, for others this led to the adoption of a European style diet including refined sugar, flour and offal, replacing what had been a high protein diet.[iv] The impact of a diet based on these introduced foodstuffs was made worse by the provision of rations that consisted of the worst quality and cheapest grains and meats available.

Movement away from a nomadic life also had a massive impact on the Wurundjeri’s health. Constant availability of European food led to gatherings of more Aboriginal people, which in turn facilitated spread of disease.[v] One of the reasons for travelling in small bands was to ensure there was adequate food available; and to enable an area to regenerate once an area had been exhausted. Moving camp after they had exhausted supply also prevented issues with natural waste – ‘mobility gave them a sewerage system’.[vi] By making permanent camps, the Aboriginal people had a greater exposure to germs, leading to a number of outbreaks of dysentery.[vii] Even the adoption of European dress caused the Aboriginal people harm, preventing their skin from absorbing the sunlight that had previously aided in the destruction of bacteria. Furthermore, Blainey argues, they ‘had no tradition of washing clothes, that they often had no access to soap and to clean running water, and that they did not realize the danger of sleeping in a wet dress or damp blanket. In putting on clothes they were often putting on burial garments.’[viii]

The other big lifestyle-based cause of ill health and disease that came with the European population was alcohol. As stated by Megan Goulding and Mary Menis, ‘by the 1850s alcoholism was endemic across the Victorian Aboriginal population and contributed greatly to population decline.’[ix] Issues with alcohol were made worse by the fact that spirits were the primary form of drink in this period. William Thomas reported: ‘‘At the Merri Creek, one morning at daybreak, there were four or five lying bedded in the mud, drunk, not dead; cold comes on, and as soon as disease touches a black man’s chest you cannot save him.’[x]

In June 1847 there was an epidemic of influenza that hit the large encampment at the confluence of the Yarra River and Merri Creek particularly hard. Those who survived the initial impact of disease had to live with the grief and devastation within their community. In the wake of this, what had once been a popular and significant camping spot for the Wurundjeri was no longer used to any great extent.[xi] This then acted as yet another force to drive the Wurundjeri from their land.

Declining birth rates was another issue. The diseases mentioned above impacted the young more than the elderly, causing a decline in the number of people of childbearing age. Depression also may have had a role to play. Both Billibellary, Elder of the Wurundjeri, and Derrimut, Elder of the Yalukit-willam, are repeatedly quoted as stating that there was no point having children as the Europeans had taken all the land.[xii] On top of this, the European introduction of syphilis caused sterility. Similarly, a decline in health from dietary and other changes also affected fertility.[xiii]

Ultimately, the introduction of European diseases and lifestyle-related health problems had a devastating and ongoing impact on the Aboriginal people of Victoria.



 

Disease

[i] Presland, First People, 90

[ii] Garden, Victoria, 5; Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 27

[iii] Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 42

[iv] Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 43

[v] Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 68-69

[vi] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

[vii] Ibid; Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 68-69

[viii] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

[ix] Goulding and Menis, Moreland Post-Contact Aboriginal Heritage Study, 62

[x] Ibid

[xi] Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 3-4, 179

[xii] Billibellary quoted as stating “blackfellows all about say that no good have them pickaninneys now, no country for blackfellows like long time ago”, Broome, ‘Aboriginal Melbourne’; Billibellary quoted as stating “no country, no good piccaninny”, Ellender and Christiansen, People of the Merri Merri, 100; Derrimut quoted as stating “you have all this place, no good have children”, Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 89-90; Derrimut quoted as stating “You see…all this mine, all along here Derrimut’s once; no matter now, me soon tumble down… Why me have lubra? Why me have piccaninny? You have all this place, no good have children, no good have lubra, me tumble down and die very soon now.’ Presland First People, 91; Billibellary quoted as stating “The Black lubras say now no good children, Blackfellow say no country now for them, very good we kill and no more come up piccaninny.” Presland, First People, 91

[xiii] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

One of the biggest impacts on the Aboriginal population in the City of Yarra area was the introduction of diseases previously unknown to the Wurundjeri. It has been estimated that disease accounted for up to sixty percent of the Aboriginal deaths across the Port Phillip area.[i] Even before Europeans began arriving in the Melbourne area, up to a third of the population of the eastern Australian tribes had been killed by an epidemic of smallpox that spread down from Sydney.[ii]

While the European population had a strong resistance to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and even the common cold – exposure to these diseases was often fatal to Aboriginal populations. Added to this were other diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and venereal disease (such as syphilis) that were deadly for European and Aboriginal populations alike.[iii]

Changes to diet also became a source of ill health and disease. Some changes were caused by restricted access to traditional food – from land being fenced off, native animals being shot for sport, and the introduction of hoofed animals such as sheep (which trampled and destroyed native plants that had served as staple foodstuffs). For some, these changes led to starvation, for others this led to the adoption of a European style diet including refined sugar, flour and offal, replacing what had been a high protein diet.[iv] The impact of a diet based on these introduced foodstuffs was made worse by the provision of rations that consisted of the worst quality and cheapest grains and meats available.

Movement away from a nomadic life also had a massive impact on the Wurundjeri’s health. Constant availability of European food led to gatherings of more Aboriginal people, which in turn facilitated spread of disease.[v] One of the reasons for travelling in small bands was to ensure there was adequate food available; and to enable an area to regenerate once an area had been exhausted. Moving camp after they had exhausted supply also prevented issues with natural waste – ‘mobility gave them a sewerage system’.[vi] By making permanent camps, the Aboriginal people had a greater exposure to germs, leading to a number of outbreaks of dysentery.[vii] Even the adoption of European dress caused the Aboriginal people harm, preventing their skin from absorbing the sunlight that had previously aided in the destruction of bacteria. Furthermore, Blainey argues, they ‘had no tradition of washing clothes, that they often had no access to soap and to clean running water, and that they did not realize the danger of sleeping in a wet dress or damp blanket. In putting on clothes they were often putting on burial garments.’[viii]

The other big lifestyle-based cause of ill health and disease that came with the European population was alcohol. As stated by Megan Goulding and Mary Menis, ‘by the 1850s alcoholism was endemic across the Victorian Aboriginal population and contributed greatly to population decline.’[ix] Issues with alcohol were made worse by the fact that spirits were the primary form of drink in this period. William Thomas reported: ‘‘At the Merri Creek, one morning at daybreak, there were four or five lying bedded in the mud, drunk, not dead; cold comes on, and as soon as disease touches a black man’s chest you cannot save him.’[x]

In June 1847 there was an epidemic of influenza that hit the large encampment at the confluence of the Yarra River and Merri Creek particularly hard. Those who survived the initial impact of disease had to live with the grief and devastation within their community. In the wake of this, what had once been a popular and significant camping spot for the Wurundjeri was no longer used to any great extent.[xi] This then acted as yet another force to drive the Wurundjeri from their land.

Declining birth rates was another issue. The diseases mentioned above impacted the young more than the elderly, causing a decline in the number of people of childbearing age. Depression also may have had a role to play. Both Billibellary, Elder of the Wurundjeri, and Derrimut, Elder of the Yalukit-willam, are repeatedly quoted as stating that there was no point having children as the Europeans had taken all the land.[xii] On top of this, the European introduction of syphilis caused sterility. Similarly, a decline in health from dietary and other changes also affected fertility.[xiii]

Ultimately, the introduction of European diseases and lifestyle-related health problems had a devastating and ongoing impact on the Aboriginal people of Victoria.



 

Disease

[i] Presland, First People, 90

[ii] Garden, Victoria, 5; Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers, 27

[iii] Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 42

[iv] Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 43

[v] Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 68-69

[vi] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

[vii] Ibid; Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 68-69

[viii] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

[ix] Goulding and Menis, Moreland Post-Contact Aboriginal Heritage Study, 62

[x] Ibid

[xi] Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 3-4, 179

[xii] Billibellary quoted as stating “blackfellows all about say that no good have them pickaninneys now, no country for blackfellows like long time ago”, Broome, ‘Aboriginal Melbourne’; Billibellary quoted as stating “no country, no good piccaninny”, Ellender and Christiansen, People of the Merri Merri, 100; Derrimut quoted as stating “you have all this place, no good have children”, Clark and Kostanski, ‘An Indigenous History of Stonnington’, 89-90; Derrimut quoted as stating “You see…all this mine, all along here Derrimut’s once; no matter now, me soon tumble down… Why me have lubra? Why me have piccaninny? You have all this place, no good have children, no good have lubra, me tumble down and die very soon now.’ Presland First People, 91; Billibellary quoted as stating “The Black lubras say now no good children, Blackfellow say no country now for them, very good we kill and no more come up piccaninny.” Presland, First People, 91

[xiii] Blainey, A Land Half Won, 91-92

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Confrontation

Confrontation

Confrontation between Aborigines and a Squatter