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HomeVolume 29A leader, not a victim

A leader, not a victim


The man looking down from one of Melbourne’s most prominent public buildings was a leader, a fighter for rights and freedom, a businessman, politician, diplomat and artist.

Parrying shield.

At his feet is where Victorians gather to give breath to democracy, with speeches and rallies. On Sunday last week thousands of them assembled and marched in support of Palestinians.

Inside the State Library Victoria the life of Beruk (1824-1903) is celebrated in a small but powerful exhibition about him, his family, his art and objects that he manufactured to make money and to proudly show the world how his people managed their lives.

Alice Springs’ history must be rich with such stories yet nowhere are they on prominent public display. It is the town’s loss – and this is true for much of the country – that the strength and resourcefulness of local Indigenous people at the time of contact and beyond is not better known.

With the Beruk exhibition, created by the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, the State Library Victoria is taking a step in the right direction.

Beruk was a Ngurungaeta, a Wurundjerri Head Man, known to settlers as William Barak, “King William, last traditional chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe”.

The exhibition is about a man who didn’t see himself as a victim, but as an equal of the leaders in the non-Indigenous world.

He liaised between the colonial Protectorate and residents of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, Healesville, 64 km from today’s Melbourne city.

Beruk is quoted in the displayed text, curated by Stacie Piper and guided by Wurundjeri elders: “A Ngurungaeta is like a Governor and if a man was sensible, spoke straight, and did harm to no one, people would listen to him and obey him.”

Explains the exhibition: Cultural authority within the Wurundjeri tribe was given to those who earned the respect of their community by way of good character, knowledge, patience, inclusivity, and by elevating the wants and needs of their people above their own.

“Beruk preserved and carried the culture of his people, at times and with certain individuals, even sharing some elements of traditional leadership with non-Indigenous people.”

Wurundjeri people were denied using both their language and cultural practice while living on Coranderrk and mission managers forced Christianity upon all the residents.

“Despite these punitive measures, and the many other injustices against Wurundjeri people at the time, Beruk remained a strong cultural man and never forgot his origins,” says the display.

Beruk with wife Annie and son David.

Traditionally, the Ngurungaeta position would be inherited by a son from his father, although the son still had to prove his suitability for the role.

“Age was not a defining factor in becoming a Ngurungaeta, instead, a good reputation, charismatic oration, and personal integrity meant that they would be considered worthy of the role and win the support of other leaders.

“Characteristically fair and sensible, while maintaining the respect and obedience of his people, the Ngurungaeta would be a man of great warrior ability, a renowned craftsman of cultural items and maker of songs.”

The exhibition makes it clear that Beruk wasn’t given to complaining. He grabbed opportunities when they  presented themselves.

“When Coranderrk became a tourist attraction for newly arrived settlers, Beruk saw his chance to protect and promote the Wurundjeri way of life, inviting visitors and tourists to attend cultural displays.

“In his later years at Coranderrk, Beruk made and sold handcrafted shields, paintings, and other cultural items that were used by the Wurundjeri people.

“He generously explained the use and technique of each object to visitors, says the library display: “The task of creating the objects of everyday life were generally shared between men and women. The women were experts in weaving and crafting adornments, while the men trained in woodworking and tool making.”

The exhibition gives examples Beruk’s self-assurance: He became close to Sir Henry Loch, the Governor of Victoria from 1884. Loch regularly invited Beruk to come to Government House to meet important visitors.

Beruk seized an opportunity by attending a public event in Melbourne honouring Queen Victoria’s birthday. Handcrafted gifts were presented to Prince Albert to pass on to the Queen.

Coranderrk grew in size and population: “The adults adopted farming and the children reading and writing, but they never forgot their Aboriginal identities and connections to their various countries.”

The Aboriginal Protection Act in 1869 gave extraordinary powers to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, including regulation of residence, employment, marriage and other aspects of daily life.

Beruk continued his diplomacy by walking to Melbourne to meet government officials and eventually it was ordered that Coranderrk be permanently reserved as a site for the use of the Aborigines in 1884.

Recounts the exhibition: “Legislation was again to cause chaos for the residents of Coranderrk.

“The Aboriginal Protection Law Amendment Act passed in 1886 defined what it meant to be Aboriginal. This racist policy conceived the idea of the ‘half-caste’ and decimated the population at Coranderrk – half-castes being excluded from the reserve, cut off from their family members – although some elderly residents refused to leave.

“The Coranderrk Lands Bill was passed in 1948 revoking the remaining land and making it available for soldier resettlement. No Aboriginal people were eligible for the land.”

Beruk’s only son became ill in 1881. Beruk set out on foot and carried David, aged only 10, from Coranderrk to Kew Hospital.

Repots the exhibition: “As an Aboriginal man, Beruk was not permitted to stay by David’s side in the hospital. David died, alone and without family by his side. Beruk’s wife, Annie, died shortly after.”

Beruk’s direct lineage died with David. Beruk “joined his ancestors” in 1903.

Beruk is holding up lyrebird feathers. Images State Library Victoria.


  1. “Wurundjeri people were denied using both their language and cultural practice while living on Coranderrk and mission managers forced Christianity upon all the residents,” writes the author.
    “‘Despite these punitive measures, and the many other injustices against Wurundjeri people at the time, Beruk remained a strong cultural man and never forgot his origins,’ says the display.”
    This story is woke in flavour.
    It is highly contentious to make generalised claims about Christian Missions when it was such a complex movement. Nor does it take into account the many published records of Aboriginal Christians emerging from Missions nationwide, having survived a time of major cultural upheaval.
    “One Blood” by John Harris is the generally accepted text for anyone venturing into this area.

  2. The Worawa Aboriginal College for young Indigenous women is founded on land that once formed part of the Coranderrk Christian Mission, close to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Cemetery and recognised as an integral part of the Healesville community as a settlement and education centre for Aboriginal people. Partner schools include Mt Evelyn Christian College, Presbyterian Ladies College and the Methodist Ladies College. I withdraw my earlier comment about the story being ‘woke’.


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