The Tragedy of the Bunurong People: The Mordialloc Connection

Jimmy Dunbar, a member of the Bunurong people outside his mia mia located on the Blind Creek, an arm of the Mordialloc Creek and adjacent to the Bridge Hotel. c1870. Courtesy Paul Dwyer, Mordialloc and District Historical Society.

Aboriginal people lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years before European explorers and settlers arrived. The first Australians who lived in the Mordialloc district were the Bunurong people who formed part of what was the Kulin nation, a group of five tribes that occupied Victoria’s central district surrounding Port Phillip Bay and its hinterland.

The Kulin nation comprised the Jajowrong tribe that lived in the western area north of Ballarat, the Wathaurung people from the Geelong district, the Woiworung tribe of the lower Yarra valley (including the Wurundjeri clan), the Taungurongs from the hilly district surrounding Seymour, and the Bunurong tribe of the coastal lands around Port Phillip Bay, Western Port Bay and Wilsons Promontory. Mordialloc was important for the Bunurong tribe, because part of the upstream creek valley acted as a boundary with the neighbouring Woiworungs, and the creek provided fresh water and plentiful food as well. Bunurong people traversed the whole coastal fringe of Port Phillip around as far as the Geelong area.

When the first whites came to Port Phillip Bay just after 1800 the Bunurong tribe was small in number, estimates putting their total population at around 300. There is evidence that about this time the Kurnai tribesmen from Gippsland had attacked the Bunurong clans and killed up to half of them. Kurnai people seem to have been long-term enemies of the Bunurong tribe.

For countless centuries the lifestyle of the Bunurong people had been that of the hunter-gatherer. They used simple weapons (spears, boomerangs, stone axes, etc) to kill animals, birds and fish. This hunting was the role of the men who ranged over several kilometres in search of game. Women gathered nutritious plants and berries as well as digging for yams and other edible tubers. They also hunted small animals. As the Bunurong tribe lived close to the sea they consumed shellfish (periwinkles, mussels and the like); the large shell middens on the cliffs at Beaumaris and Sandringham give testament to this.

At night, fires were vital to these people who cooked the day’s food supply and left small fires burning to provide some warmth as they slept nearby. When the clan moved to a new hunting place firesticks were carried with them so that they had no need to go through the time-consuming job of creating fire by vigorous rubbing of dry sticks. Like other indigenous Australians, the Bunurong tribe was nomadic, ranging over much of the Port Phillip coastal area, including the Mornington Peninsula, in search of food and water. Apart from the creeks the tribe knew where fresh water springs existed. White farmers used these springs later on, the ones around Cheltenham Park included. Mordialloc Creek, the Beaumaris shore near Ricketts Point, and the Carrum Carrum Swamp, were great sources of eels, fish and water birds. Before the whites came the Carrum Carrum Swamp was a huge trapped area of water nestling behind the coastal dunes and it drained only slowly through the distant Kananook Creek at Frankston as well as the Mordialloc Creek.

For these natives permanent shelter was unusual, most of their protection against the elements being constructed with tree limbs and bark that did not remain in place for long. They also sought out protected spots such as small depressions in the sand dunes or areas of thick vegetation, while rugs and cloaks formed by stitching possum skins together provided warmth, although they spent much time wearing no clothes at all. It was a simple lifestyle, but one that put little pressure on the environment given the small numbers of people. It has been calculated that the Bunurong tribespeople could satisfy their needs with about four hours per capita of work a day, so they had plenty of rest time.

The Kulin nation tribes intermarried because the custom was that a woman married a man from another tribe and moved to live with his people. So Bunurong women came to the tribe when men chose or were allotted women from the neighbouring Wathaurung or Woiworung peoples. These females had to adjust to living with strangers, a process that was often difficult. The custom of marrying outside the immediate clan was probably their way of preventing in-breeding.

This Bunurong lifestyle was fractured and came to a sad end with the arrival of the sailing ships and the pale people in them as the 1800s wore on and Europeans invaded their land. The white people came in various ways over a period of several decades.

After Sydney was founded in 1788 the number of European visitors to the southern coastline of Victoria increased rapidly when Bass and Flinders proved that Tasmania was separated from the mainland in 1797-8. First to come were whalers and sealers who plied their trade in southern waters, including around the Bass Strait islands, and occasionally they made landfall for water and what else they could gather. Some of them made contact with the Bunurong clans and kidnapped women who were forced into sexual partnerships and also made to help in the capture of seals, their skill at doing this being a bonus to the rough sailors. Native women were known to swim quietly among the seals, imitating the movements of the sea creatures before stunning them with a sharp blow to the nose. The white sailors sometimes left Aboriginal females on Bass Strait islands and returned north to profit from their catch. No one knows exactly how many children were born from these rather brutal co-habitations but some Bunurong descendants have come from them.

By the 1790s French explorers had came to the southern coasts of Australia, prompting the British Government to step up the annexation of the south of the continent, making it British territory that could not be lost to an enemy such as France at a time when Napoleon was about to challenge the world. Bass and Flinders explored much of the southern coast in1797-8 and mapped it as well, Flinders continuing with further charting of the Australian coastline to the north after 1800. Captain Murray in the Lady Nelson sailed into the southern part of Port Phillip Bay in 1802 and Grimes went further the next year, exploring the whole bay and discovering the Yarra River as well as other creeks. Grimes met the French mariner, Nicholas Baudin, in Bass Strait during 1803 and warned him that he was in territory belonging to the British. Baudin wrote to Governor King in Sydney, telling him that the annexation of land belonging to the native inhabitants was not his objective and should not have been done by Britain either.

Britain by then had dispatched David Collins with two ships carrying 300 convicts together with 100 marines and a few free settlers. Collins had instructions to set up an encampment near the Heads of Port Phillip Bay where foreign ships could be observed and intercepted. The ships under Collins’ command landed at Sullivan Bay near Sorrento in September 1803 to allow the building of a settlement that lasted a mere four months, such was its site’s unsuitability due to lack of water and poor soil. At Christmas time in 1803 William Buckley and a few convict associates escaped from Collins’ camp, before setting off around the bay to the north. Only Buckley avoided capture. The others were caught or decided to return to captivity. Buckley walked around the bay to where Geelong now stands. He survived by eating raw shellfish and some plants, but was in a sorry state when found by Wathaurung warriors after months of wandering. His survival depended on the fact that he was found near the grave of a Wathaurung warrior and the natives thought he was a re-incarnation of their deceased, a respected tribesman. Buckley was astute enough to go along with the Aboriginal belief; he learned their language, was made an elder, and lived with a young woman for some of the time, perhaps fathering children. He was discovered by some of Batman’s party at Indented Head in 1835, the early white settlers being amazed to learn he had been there for 32 years, had forgotten his age, and had trouble speaking English again. He was then torn between two cultures, eventually trying to liaise between the whites and the blacks, before his death in Hobart in 1856. Buckley, during his escape, would have passed through Bunurong lands but he made no reference to meeting any of those people.

William Buckley. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

By the time Buckley met the white settlers of Batman’s party the Bunurong tribal members had realised that these aliens were bent on moving into their lands, an invasion that was not welcomed. They had been shot at by Grimes’ party and Collins’ marines in the 1803 incursions by the whites. Some Bunurong warriors were hit and wounded but there were no reports of deaths, though it is likely that some did die. These incidents had been the result of misunderstandings and fear on both sides of a difficult language barrier. One of the misjudgments by the whites related to the Aboriginal culture of sharing and reciprocal actions. They had no individual ownership of property, apart from a few simple personal items. Land and food belonged to everyone. They shared everything necessary for life. Reciprocal behaviour was demanded as well, in that if a person used some item, say food, that you had provided, he or she was expected to return the favour by giving something in return. The whites simply took land, timber, food and water from the Bunurong living area and generally made no return offers. Bunurong people, believing they had entitlement, then simply helped themselves by taking items they wanted such as livestock, food or tools. This problem blighted the relationship between the natives and the whites who believed private property ownership was vital and legally defensible.

As the nineteenth century progressed there was another white encampment at Western Port in 1826 near Corinella. The sealers continued to land along the coast that surrounded the Bunurong tribal area. When more white sails moved into Port Phillip in 1835 and the following years, the Bunurong people and their neighbouring tribesmen could only have looked on with horror as hundreds, then thousands, of settlers disembarked.

In June 1835, John Batman, acting without any authority from Sydney or London, drew up a fraudulent contract which saw huge tracts of land around Port Phillip pass into his hands in exchange for blankets, mirrors, axes, etc., to be distributed to the blackfellows annually. The tribal chiefs who signed that document had no concept of its real meaning and the fact that the white chief they dealt with was acting for himself and his friends out of greed for land to exploit. It was not long before the Bunurong people and their neighbouring Kulin nation members began to suffer. Around Melbourne the natives were excluded from areas where whites built homes and established farms, and by the late 1830s squatters had ranged far and wide. Around Mordialloc sheep, cattle and horses were introduced, some being landed from ships that came close to the creek mouth. Squatting stations were set up, beginning with the Moodie Yallo station in 1837, started by Michael Solomon, and then Britannia Bay run by Newton. Others, including James Fraser and Daniel Mackinnon, ran stock in the area from 1840. The grazing animals ranged in all directions from the creek, including along the fringes of the Carrum Carrum Swamp. Alexander McDonald occupied leased land along the beachfront in 1841 and as well as grazing stock he ran the Travellers’ Rest inn and then, in 1855, built a larger hotel on the site of the Mordialloc Hotel of later years, now the Mordialloc Sporting Club.

John Batman signing a fraudulent contract with Tribal Chiefs of the Kulin nation. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Thus in a few short years the Bunurong people’s favourite area, the Mordialloc Creek and its nearby land, had been grabbed by cattle and sheep graziers, destroying the tranquillity and richness of this food-giving source. Further down the peninsula Alexander Balcombe built The Briars near Mornington in 1843 and the McCraes settled near Arthurs Seat in 1845. In less than a decade after Batman’s deal the Bunurong hunting grounds were being invaded by white men with their hooved beasts, and the land changed radically forever.

Small in numbers, the members of the Bunurong tribe had no way of dealing with the intruders whom they knew had ‘firesticks’ that could kill. There was no option but to accept the invasion and try to get the best results for their people by a form of co-operation. For instance, Derrimut, one of their chiefs who had signed Batman’s contract, knew about a plan by Aboriginals to massacre the small number of white settlers when Melbourne was just a small encampment around John Pascoe Fawkner’s dwelling. He went among the whites and warned them of the impending attack by large groups of warriors, not necessarily all Bunurong clansmen. Steps taken by the whites deterred the aggressive natives and the bloodshed was averted. Derrimut was honoured by the Europeans for this action, some settlers erecting a substantial gravestone when he died in 1864.

Derrimut of the Boon-oor-rong. An oil painting by Benjamin Duterrreau. Courtesy: The Dixon Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.

Many Aboriginals in the Melbourne district, Bunurongs included, tried to adopt white culture. In 1863 there was a large function and celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday with much speechmaking and feasting. Native chiefs joined in, trying to be part of British society. Here is a translation of what their representative chief, Wonga of the Yarra tribe, said to the assembled white leaders including the Governor, Sir Henry Barkly:

Blacks of the tribes of Wawoorong, Boonoorong and Tara-Waragal send this to the Great Mother Queen Victoria.
We and other blackfellows send very many thanks to the Great Mother Queen for many many things.
Blackfellows now throw away all war-spears.
No fighting but live like white men almost.
Blackfellows hear that your first son has married. Very good that! Blackfellows send all good to him, and to you, his Great Mother, Victoria.
Blackfellows come from Miam and Willum (shelters) to bring this paper to the Good Governor. He will tell you more.
All blackfellows round agree to this.
That is all.

After this address Wonga unrolled a large, beautifully-worked possum rug which was a present for Queen Victoria, together with spears and woomeras, presents for Prince Alfred and the Prince of Wales.

The small number of Bunurong people still in existence at that time were party to this attempt at being accepted into European society. It was a forlorn hope as a tragedy was already unfolding at great speed, one that would almost wipe out the indigenous population of Melbourne and surrounding districts. William Bruton, who lived near Latrobe Street south of Cheltenham, was born in 1854, a year after his parents settled on a market garden property. Just prior to 1930, as an old man, he dictated his memoirs to his grand daughter who published his story. During his early childhood, in about 1860, he remembered Aboriginal people wandering between the Melbourne area and Mordialloc where, prior to the bridge over the creek being built in 1855, the Aboriginals had guided travellers who crossed the creek sand bars at low tide. He recalled corroborees near Cheltenham’s Royal Oak hotel which he said was called the Armagh prior to the 1860s. Derrimut, their chief, was notable for wearing a top hat on occasions, presumably to demonstrate his high position in the tribe. Derrimut called at his home one day and he remembered his mother giving him a bowl of boiled potatoes, a food the chief loved. Bruton remembers him as ‘Dedimut’, probably because he heard the name differently to others. Bruton notes in his memoirs how the blacks declined in numbers during his youth and then disappeared.

William Bruton a Cheltenham pioneer. Courtesy Joy Rainey/

It took only a few decades after Batman and company arrived for the number of Bunurong people to decline to a point where they faced extinction. By 1864 William Thomas, the government protector in the Melbourne area, stated that only 11 natives lived at the Mordialloc reserve and there were none at all after Jimmy Dunbar died in1877. The white people’s invasion of the Bunurong lands quickly caused their demise. Firstly, cattle and sheep grazing destroyed much of the plant life that natives used for food. As well, kangaroos, wallabies, emus and other animals were driven from the coastal lands as the graziers moved in, so indigenous people had smaller and smaller areas for food gathering. Secondly, Aboriginal people began to die from diseases from which they had no immunity, diseases brought by the settlers. Thirdly, alcohol became a scourge that led to destruction of a former simple lifestyle. Native people had no tolerance for the drug and health problems quickly arose. White people supplied the grog in the full knowledge of its effects on the indigenous people, many of whom became addicted to it.

The Bunurong tribe had small numbers and a fragile existence. Soon the birth rate dropped to negligible proportions as a result of the factors mentioned above and inevitably they moved close to extinction. However, people with Bunurong bloodlines did not completely disappear. As mentioned earlier some of their women had survived on Bass Strait islands where the whalers and sealers had taken them; their offspring were partly Bunurong in ancestry. Coranderk, one of several reservations set up by Victoria’s colonial government in the 1860s, probably had some Bunurong people as part of the group forcibly sent there. So a small Bunurong group remain in Victoria today, descendants of these people.

The tragic decline in Bunurong numbers in the regions south of Melbourne including the Mornington Peninsula was mainly due to contact with the white settlers who transmitted small pox, some venereal diseases, and a range of other illnesses that natives succumbed to. There were some whites who despised the blacks as inferior human beings and even plied them with alcohol so they would fight each other or behave in other ways that would be seen as entertaining. On the other hand some settlers tried to help them. The British Government, alarmed at reports of ill treatment, appointed George Augustus Robinson as Protector of Aborigines in 1839. His attempts to keep them away from the temptations of Melbourne and encourage them to accept education in European lifestyles was an abject failure. Natives continued to die at a rate that massively outstripped their birth rate that had fallen to almost zero. When William Thomas, Robinson’s assistant, took over as Guardian of Aborigines in 1850 there was a belief that the whole race would soon be extinct. This fitted in with the emerging conventional wisdom of the time that Darwin later developed into academic theory, that superior peoples would prevail over those who were considered to be primitive and inferior. Natural selection was at work.

William Thomas, Assistant Protector and Guardian of Aboriginals, c1860. Courtesy La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.

William Thomas lived and worked with Aboriginal tribes in the Melbourne area. He succeeded in having reserves set aside where they could live away from white settlers and the associated problems of that contact. Coranderk and Mordialloc were two such reserves. These date from the early 1860s with Coranderk becoming a success. Near Healesville, this place showed that the natives could work the land and make a living from it. For a while they grew hops and other crops and did well. But in the 1880s the Victorian Government changed policies, removing all but the full-blood blacks from Coranderk to Lake Tyers. This policy came from a belief that the Aboriginal race would die out through the natural selection process and so those with white blood were meant to be assimilated into white society while the full bloods lived out their last years. The policy ruined farming at Coranderk through lack of labour and expertise so the place began to be unprofitable. Coranderk was ultimately sold to white people despite the protests of William Barak, a respected elder who twice walked to Melbourne with his people to plead with the colonial government not to take the land away. Prior to this William Thomas worked hard to improve the lot of natives, encouraging them to take jobs, receive schooling and avoid the pitfalls of white civilisation. But it was a vain attempt as the Bunurong people and other tribes had been suddenly forced out of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into one that was drastically foreign to them. Thomas died in 1867; by then the Bunurong people in the Mordialloc and surrounding area numbered fewer than ten.

William Thomas standing with three adult aboriginals and a child outside a colonial hut. Courtesy Shirley Joy.

It should be mentioned that in 1845 the McCrae family occupied a homestead that they had built near Arthurs Seat and present-day Dromana. Georgiana McCrae ran the property most of the time because her husband, Andrew, spent much time in Melbourne as a practising lawyer. From an account of George, her son, who recorded his memories of the 1840s at the McCrae farm and published them in1912, we can learn more about the Bunurong people. He described how the young black men and women were employed by Georgiana and the results were very good indeed. The young girls learned all the household tasks including cooking, mending and cleaning, being assessed as excellent in their skills. The young males excelled at horse-riding and dealing with stock. George McCrae also noted with some amusement that the Bunurong people were great mimics and could imitate the Irish and Scottish accents of people they met. One man who brought home a woman from a distant part of the Gippsland coast called her a ‘warrigal’, or wild woman, who spoke in a different way from how he and his tribe spoke. Comparing her with Irish people who spoke with an accent, he said, ‘That fella-lubra no yabber likit mine; all-a-same-a-lika Yirishman-belongit-a-blackfella.’

Away from the bad effects nearer Melbourne, these Aboriginals dwelt peacefully with the white settlers and there was mutual respect from both groups. George, as a young boy, learned much of the Aboriginal language and culture. The McCraes moved from the farm in 1851 so their relationship with these Bunurong people was severed. Georgiana McCrae was an able and enlightened woman as her later life in Melbourne showed. She spoke several languages, was a skilled portrait painter, and a woman who brought culture and refinement to the rough society of gold rush Melbourne. Her friends included Governor La Trobe, W C Wentworth, Sir John Franklin and other colonial leaders. One wonders if the Bunurong tribe would have survived if more enlightened settlers like Georgiana had been present in our region in those far-off days.

Jimmy Dunbar and his wife Nancy outside the Bridge Hotel, Mordialloc. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society .

The Bunurong people in our Mordialloc district succumbed to the influences brought about by white settlement, with the end coming when Jimmy Dunbar (Big Jemmy) died in the Alfred Hospital in 1877. Prior to that, the last few of his tribal co-habitants at the Mordialloc Creek reserve had died, his wife, Nancy, a week before his own demise. The Illustrated Australian News, on 14th May 1877, printed an obituary for Jimmy Dunbar whose tribal name was Yam-mer-book:

The aboriginal tribes of these colonies are gradually becoming extinct. The once numerous Barwon tribe has now only one representative, King Billy, who is occasionally seen in Geelong. In this issue we give portraits of the last members of the Mordialloc tribe, “Jimmy Dunbar” and his women. Jimmy was remarkably sagacious, dry and amusing, qualities which he combined with a keen regard for the interests and welfare of number one. He was also possessed of a very retentive memory, and was an excellent mimic. He was a perfect master of the boomerang, excelling at trial matches all competitors. Physically he was well made and a favorable specimen of his tribe. At one time he served as a mounted trooper. Jimmy’s last woman died in his mia- mia at Mordialloc six days previous to his own decease, leaving as mourners for her loss Jimmy himself and some twelve or fourteen dogs. When Jimmy was being removed to the Alfred Hospital this troop of vagabond dogs followed, and formed a canine encampment outside. After remaining outside the Alfred Hospital for two days these inconsolable followers of Jimmy returned to his desolate mia-mia, and there became so fierce that no one dared approach the spot. Finding, however, there was no re-appearance of Jimmy, they set off to visit his usual haunts. To the last Jimmy considered himself the supreme lord and master of Mordialloc. He was in the habit of offering large areas of the district for small exchanges of rum or tobacco – and recently he tried very hard to negotiate the sale of fifty acres to a certain speculative well-known medico of Fitzroy.

Before Jimmy Dunbar’s death, in 1872, J. Randell, who was responsible for the Aborigines at Mordialloc, reported:
The number of Aborigines at Mordialloc under my charge, and who receive aid from me, is four—Jimmy and Nancy, Peter and Eliza. As to the condition and conduct of these Aborigines, I can only say that they are neither interesting nor industrious…….I have offered to teach them to work, but without avail, as work they detest…….. Their greatest happiness is perfect liberty to roam free and unconstrained. There are some good traits in their character, for instance, they are perfectly harmless, and thoroughly trustworthy and honest.
As the Mordialloc Aborigines now number only four, and one of the women (Eliza) is far from strong, I do not think that the Board will be put to any great cost before the tribe is extinct.
I have carried out my instructions by supplying the rations as economically as possible, and regularly once a week.

Peter and Eliza of the Westerport Tribe – Bunurongs. Courtesy La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.

In the context of the attitudes of nineteenth century colonists there is a superior tone and patronising air in the above report. In fact the whole story of white contact with Aboriginal people in the Melbourne area was a tragedy, a disaster for the original inhabitants that took place with great rapidity. Although there was not the same savage conflict with bloodshed that took place elsewhere in parts of Australia, the demise of the blacks and their culture was just as complete. There is evidence that many of the tribespeople of the Melbourne area began to accept the fact that they were doomed. A report is quoted in Richard Cotter’s book on the Bunurong tribe where an Aboriginal made this sad comment to a white person who was being critical. The Aboriginal said, ‘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’

There was a terrible inevitability about what happened between blacks and whites during the nineteenth century in the Port Phillip district.

Leo Gamble
14 March 2011
  1. Presland, Gary. Aboriginal Melbourne. The Lost Land of the Kulin People. Penguin, 1994.
  2. Cotter, Richard. Boon Wurrung. People of the Port Phillip District. Lavender Hill Media. 2001.
  3. Perkins, Rachel and Langton, Marcia (editors). First Australians. The Mergunyah Press (MUP). 2008.
  4. Joy, Shirley (ed.). The Victorian Westernport or Boon-oor-rong Tribe of Australian Aboriginals. Volumes 1 to 3. (a collection of government reports and other primary source material from the 19th century). 2003-4. (Held at Old Bakery Museum, Mentone).
  5. Bruton, William. Local History. Carrum to Cheltenham. Originally issued in 1930, it was re-published in 1999 as a reprint with illustrations and a commentary by the publisher, Bruton’s great grand daughter, Joy Rainey.
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City of Kingston acknowledges the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the land on which the municipality is a part and pays respect to their Elders, past and present. Council is a member of the Inter Council Aboriginal Consultative Committee (ICACC).