Wyndham History

Wyndham’s Aboriginal past


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Wyndham’s Aboriginal past





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Wyndham’s Aboriginal past


The Aboriginal clans of Wyndham

For thousands of years before European settlement began, the area that is now the City of Wyndham was a place of particular importance to local Aboriginal people.  In the Aboriginal world the boundaries between different social groups were commonly marked by natural features such as streams or mountain ranges.  The Werribee River was one such feature, and was a border between the estates of Aboriginal clans of three different language groups.

The western margin of the river through Wyndham was the estate of a clan called Marpeang bulluk.  This was one of 25 clans whose members spoke the Wadawurrung language. Collectively, the estates of the Wadawurrung language group comprised an area that stretched from the Dividing Range in the north to the Otway Range in the south, including the Bellarine Peninsula, and from the Werribee River as far to the west as Fiery Creek, on the other side of Beaufort and Skipton.1

The area on the eastern side of the Werribee River within the City of Wyndham was divided between two clans. Most of the river’s margin was the territory of a clan called Kurung jang balluk whose language was Woi wurrung.  The name of this clan refers to the red earth of their estate, which was an area between the Werribee River and Kororoit Creek, taking in parts of Wyndham, Mount Cottrell and Melton.  The urban centre of Kurunjang, within the Shire of Melton, takes its name from the clan that lived in the locality.  The Kurung jang balluk were closely allied to three other clans that made up the Woi wurrung language group, and whose estates took in all the area south of the Dividing Range, from the Werribee River to the Dandenong Ranges.2

Also on the eastern side of the Werribee River, between the Kurung jang balluk and Port Phillip Bay, was a clan called Yalukit willam.  This clan’s estate was a tract of land that stretched east from the Werribee, around the top of the Bay, as far as present-day St Kilda. The Yalukit willam was part of the Boon wurrung language group, the six clans of which collectively claimed all the coastal land from Wilsons Promontory to the Werribee River, taking in part of Wyndham on its south-western edge.3

People of these three clans, who lived in the Wyndham region for some part of the year, were thus members of an extensive and widespread network of clans that occupied a large area of central Victoria.

The Kulin world

All clans of the Wadawurrung, Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups were part of the Kulin nation. Along with clans from the Taung wurrung and Ngurai-illam-wurrung language groups in the Goulburn River valley, they formed a cultural bloc, the territory of which stretched from the Murray River at Echuca to Bass Strait. The languages spoken by people of this nation were closely related and the people themselves were connected also by common spiritual beliefs, as well as by alliances formed through marriage.

The Kulin believed the world was created by Bunjil and Waa, and a range of lesser spirit ancestors. Bunjil (who could take the shape of an eagle), and Waa (a crow), were the major ancestors who created both humans and the Aboriginal world during the Dreaming.  The Kulin clans divided the living world into two halves (or moieties) also named Bunjil and Waa.  This way of organising the world had a number of outcomes and was of importance for every Kulin individual, particularly when it came time to find a marriage partner.

The clans were connected in a variety of ways, such as through language, marriage and religious beliefs.  Kulin clans were exogamous, that is, when a man sought a marriage partner he always looked to another clan, usually one from as far away as practical.  In addition, a potential wife had to be in the opposite marriage class or ‘skin-group’. For both men and women from a clan of the Bunjil moiety, for example, marriage had to be contracted with a partner from a Waa clan; if they were Waa then they had to marry Bunjil.

It was the practice within Kulin clans that when a woman was given in marriage she would leave the clan into which she was born, and move to live with her husband in his clan’s estate.  If the woman subsequently had children, they took the moiety of the clan into which they were born, which, of course, was that of their father.  The movement of women between clans through marriage connections had enormous importance within Kulin society: on the one hand it served to ‘cement’ the bonds that existed between these groups; and on the other was a crucial factor in determining the movement of other individuals within their society.  One example of this is that when a boy reached the age for being initiated it was usual for an uncle, commonly his mother’s brother, would visit from his own estate to mentor his nephew through the process.


Each Kulin clan was essentially independent, and governed by collective decisions.  In each clan there were one or two clan-heads, individuals whose role it was to put their clan’s position at the council meetings of clan-heads, which was the nearest thing in Kulin society to a governing body.  In the Woi wurrung language the term for clan-head was Ngurungaeta; in the Boon wurrung and Wadawurrung clans they were Arweet.  These men were often referred to by Europeans as ‘Chiefs’, but this is not an appropriate term.  The status of clan-head was neither automatically inherited nor elected.  Often, a clan-head, towards the end of his life, would nominate his successor, but that person had both to prove his competence and win the endorsement of clan-heads from other Kulin clans.5  Clan-heads provided guidance and advice during group discussion and carried the decisions to clan-head meetings.  Their standing within the clan might have allowed them to exercise control of marriages but otherwise they had no special privileges.

At the time of European settlement around the Werribee River the clan-head (Arweet) of the Marpeang balluk was Worope, also called Mr Malcolm; the Ngurungaeta of the Kurung jang bulluk was Bet Benjee; and in the Yalukit willam the position of Arweet was shared between two men – Derrimut and Benbow.

These men were among the better-known Aborigines in the early years of European settlement.  Derrimut early formed a close relationship with John Pascoe Fawkner and in the first months of the settlement was twice instrumental in saving Fawkner’s party from attack by Aborigines. Derrimut continued for some years to align himself with the settlers, and when he died in 1863 his actions in saving the settlement were recorded on gravestone in the new Melbourne Cemetery in Carlton.  It has not been clearly determined why he acted seemingly against his own people, but in fact he did not act alone; he was only one member of a group of Aboriginal leaders, including his kinsman Bet Benjee, that allowed the warning. In August 1836 both Derrimut and Bet Benjee, clan-head of the Kurung jang bulluk, accompanied Fawkner to Tasmania.7  Two of the clan-heads from the Wyndham area also served for a time in the Native Police Corps.  Bet Benjee enlisted in the first corps, formed in October 1837 and Derrimut’s fellow clan-head, Benbow, was a late inclusion in the third Corps, formed in 1842. He was actually in excess of the required number, but he wanted to join and was considered too important to leave out.8

These clan-heads were influential and respected figures in the Kulin world.  In the wake of European settlement they often petitioned European authorities, arguing on behalf of their people.  The fact that they were willing to join such a European institution as a police force suggests that in the wake of European invasion they were leading their people into new relationships and arrangements with the settlers, in a vastly changed world.

Daily life

In the pre-contact world, Aboriginal people in the Wyndham area lead lives that were mediated by customary lore, as set out by ancestral beings in the period called the Dreaming.  The given role of humans was to maintain and care for their country; this required regular movement around the clan estates.  Over and above essentially economic matters, there were social and spiritual imperatives that required people to be in particular places at particular times of the year.  One of the ways in which people fulfilled their role was through observance of traditional ritual and ceremony.9

For day-to-day purposes, clan members operated in small family-based units, referred to as bands.  A single clan could number in the hundreds, which was too large a group to be practical for most day-to-day purposes.  Local bands would comprise 15 to 20 individuals, generally of one or two families, plus visitors.  Although sometimes widely dispersed in such groups, members of a clan would know where their fellow clanspeople were. Clan members might also, by arrangement, temporarily join a band operating within the area of a different language group of the Kulin.  Reasons for doing this included taking advantage of seasonal abundances in food, meeting with other members of a totemic group and fulfilling ritual obligations, or visiting relations.

Historical observations of Aboriginal movement around the Wyndham area suggests a regularity, and that the warmer months was the period when people would have exploited the locally available resources.10 For the Yalukit willam and Marpeang bulluk, operating during the warmer months along the edge of the Bay, on either side of the Werribee River, meant spending some time focusing on local marine resources.  A number of archaeological sites recorded around the mouth of the river and at Point Cook attest to the former presence of Aborigines in the area.11  The very large campsite at Point Cook was being used in the period in which Europeans first settled in the Werribee region.12

In the estate of the Kurung jang balluk, economic activity centred on exploiting the plant resources of the area, and in promoting the growth of a range of herbs that had edible tubers.13  More than 10 sites that indicate social and economic activity by Aboriginal residents have been recorded between the Werribee river and Skeleton Creek.14

As the colder months approached, clans moved away from the lower, more open parts of their estate — generally into higher country, where there was more shelter from the inclement weather.  It is of interest to note that Kulin clans divided their year into seven seasons, not the familiar four.  The arrival of a new season was marked by the occurrence of some natural event, such as the blooming of the wattle or the first appearance of the blue wren.

The clans of the Wyndham area were hunter-gatherers, ie. they made their living through hunting, foraging and fishing. It is an ancient way of life, but nonetheless a highly efficient means of making a living.  So much so that the local clans, living in the resource-rich environments adjacent to the Werribee River and around the top of the Bay, needed only about four to five hours per day to fulfil all their physical needs. This left a lot of time for other pursuits; much of the time was spent in developing the non-material aspects of life.  These aspects included typical human recreations such as music, dance, and the graphic arts. And of course there was the spiritual side of life, which in Aboriginal culture was extremely rich.  Indeed, for Aboriginal people this part of their life was considered of far greater importance than the material aspects.15

How did people spend their working day?  Generally speaking, they engaged in group activities aimed at satisfying everybody's daily requirements for food, and in gathering any other materials needed at the time.  In a normal foraging band of about twelve to fifteen people, everybody had a role to play in the day's work.  Even children were expected to contribute in some small way to the group's takings for the day, if only to the extent of satisfying their own food needs.  There is a division of labour within hunter-gatherer societies such as operated here; generally speaking, men hunt game and women gather plant resources and shell fish. There were many instances on a day-to-day basis when this varied: there were times when men focused their attention on particular plants, for example in gathering specific types of gum for use as adhesive in making tools; likewise, women regularly hunted small game - lizards, snakes, grubs — as part of their foraging routine.  And there are recorded cases of women successfully hunting larger game, in the absence of men.  Moreover, all members of the band were simultaneously involved in activities such as fishing or capturing eels.

In the normal run of circumstances, however, the activities of both men and women were part of their separate routines.  At the beginning of the day, generally early in the morning, everybody would leave camp in one of two groups that had formed.  One of these groups was composed of the women and younger children, both girls and boys; the other group consisted of the men and youths.  These parties would move away from the campsite, to pursue their respective aims.

These activities would generally be completed by the early afternoon, and everybody would return to the camp site.  Women often arrived first; they might stoke the fires ready for cooking the main meal of the day, and make sure there was sufficient fresh water in camp.  Through the afternoon men carried out any maintenance needed on their tools, and discussions were held regarding future activities such as the need to move camp, or impending meetings with other clans.  During the daylight hours both men and women could engage in making artefacts or items of personal adornment.

Campsite locations were generally chosen because of the proximity of fresh water.  In the regular patterns of movements by the clans around their estate, there were also favourite spots which were re-used at regular intervals.  Along the edge of the bay camps were often set up in sand-dunes close to the shore, such as in the sheltered environment provided by the swale between two dune ridges running parallel to the shore.  In such a location there was protection from the cool breezes off the bay in the evening while the sandy surface provided a softer place for sitting and lying than the harder ground further inland.

Camps were sometimes large, comprising a foraging band perhaps made up of several families.  The size of day-to-day foraging groups could vary quite a lot; a larger camp might contain between twenty and thirty people, the number depending on factors such as the available food resources and the time of year.  A group of that size would consist of perhaps four or five adult men, their wives, maybe one or two unmarried men, a couple of youths and about seven or eight children ranging in age from twelve months or less to twelve years.  This was about as large as a foraging band could be and remain viable. Gatherings of larger numbers were always pre-arranged and only occurred at specific places where there were sufficient resources to sustain bigger groups.  The smallest bands consisted of six or seven individuals and comprised a single family of one man, one or two wives and their children.

The continued presence of Europeans and their stock across the Kulin estates had devastating impacts on the Aboriginal population.  The number of Aboriginal people in the Wyndham area, as in all parts of Victoria, dropped dramatically in the decades following European arrival.  Introduced diseases (by far the biggest killer), violence, a declining birthrate and increased infant mortality all played a part in this decline.16  Denial of access to places of importance to Aboriginal people also struck a devastating blow to a way of life that had endured for many thousands of years.


1 Clark, ID (1990) Aboriginal languages and clans: an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800–1900. Monash Publications in Geography, no. 37.
2 Presland, G (2010) First people: the eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip & central Victoria (Melbourne: Museum Victoria)
3 Barwick, DE (1985) Mapping the past: an atlas of Victorian clans 1835–1904. Aboriginal History, 8:100–132.
4 Barwick, DE (1985) Mapping the past: an atlas of Victorian clans 1835–1904. Aboriginal History, 8:100–132.
5 Barwick, DE (1998) Rebellion at Coranderrk ((Canberra, Aboriginal History monograph no. 5)
6 Clark, ID (2005) ‘You have all this place, no good have children . . .’ Derrimut: traitor, saviour, or a man of his people? Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 91:107–132.
7 Barwick, DE (1985) Mapping the past: an atlas of Victorian clans 1835–1904. Aboriginal History, 8:100–132.
8 Fels, MH (1988) Good men and true: the Aboriginal police of the Port Phillip District 1837–1853 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)
9 Stanner, CH (1984) Religion, totemism and symbolism. In (Eds) Charlesworth, M et al, Religion in Aboriginal Australia: an anthology, pp. 137–172. (St Lucia, University of Queensland Press)
10 Robinson, GA (1839–49) Journals and papers (State Library of Victoria, Manuscript collection)
11 Geering, K and Hughes PJ (1984) An archaeological investigation of the Point Cook Metropolitan Park, Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. Victoria Archaeological Survey Occasional Report Series no. 20.
12 Mitchell, SR (1949) Stone Age craftsmen (Melbourne, Tait Book Co.)
13 Gott, B. (2005) ‘Aboriginal fire management in south-eastern Australia: aims and frequency’ Journal of biogeography 32: 1203–1208.
14 du Cros, H (1989) The western region: Melbourne metropolitan area. An archaeological survey. (Melbourne, Victoria Archaeological Survey & the Western Region Commission)
15 Stanner, op. cit. p. 137 16 Barwick, DE (1969) Changes in the Aboriginal population in Victoria 1863–1966. In (Eds) Mulvaney, DJ and Golson, J Aboriginal man and environment in Australia (Canberra, ANU Press)


Gary Presland, “Wyndham’s Aboriginal past,” Wyndham History, accessed October 1, 2023, https://wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/1528.


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