Long before Europeans first settled the Port Phillip region; it was already occupied by
five Aboriginal language groups. These groups spoke a related language and were part of the
Kulin (Koolin) nation of peoples. They are believed to have lived around the Yarra River for over
forty thousand years before the European invasion (Presland 1994, 3). These people included the
wathaurong, The Wathaurong People, The Wurundjeri People, The Taungerong People, The
Jaara People and the The Boon Wurrung People.
Each of these groups was made up of up to six or more land-owning groups known as
clans. These clans spoke a interrelated language and were linked through mutual and cultural
interests, trading initiatives, totems and marriage ties. The Kulin people traditionally passed their
time as hunters and gatherers for several generations. Seasonal alterations in the weather and
readiness of foods would define where campsites were situated. The five Aboriginal tribes of the
Kulin Nation took up a fair share of land in Central Victoria, concentrating on Melbourne itself.
These people had great spiritual attachment to their land and defended it fiercely. There
were well defined boundaries between land owning groups or clans. Each clan had a ceremonial
and economic responsibility for its land. Exchange and reciprocity between the clans allowed for
mutual management and access to food and other resources. Several families making up small
bands could travel between seven and ten miles within their territory each day to collect food.
The lands of the Kulin people include the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne, which they refer
to as the ‘cold country’ (Perkins and Langton 2010, 192).
The Kulin had a detailed local knowledge of the environment and the seasons. Each
season was marked by the movement of the stars in the sky and alterations in the weather,
corresponding to the life cycles of animals and plants. Draped on the seven seasons were two
other non-annual seasons. One was the flood season which was expected to start on average
about every 28 years. The second was the fire season which occurred on average about every
seven years. The kulin people used managed burning to prevent catastrophic wildfires and to
allow for the regrowth of grass shoots that was fed on by the kangaroo (Everist 2006, 55), which
was key to their diet. Hobsons Bay, before it was flooded, was a favorite kangaroo hunting
Their land was basically Woodland, and ‘firestick agriculture’ played a very crucial role
in opening it up. Actually, the Kulin had a very natural way of associating with their
environment. Land was of spiritual importance and the rivers which were strategically placed
within the region also had spiritual purposes (Read, Meyers and Reece 2010, 20). There were
special places within the rivers that acted as shrines. Some of these can still be found along the
depleted goldmines. Rivers were also important channels for transportation. The people of the
Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri gathered at important occassions with other Kulin language groups
– the Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungerong and Wathaurong– along the Maribyrnong and Yarra river
valleys, including at Mount William stone-axe quarry , Werribee River, Keilor sites and the
major ceremonial bora rings at Sunbury (Presland 1994, 24). The Kulin tribes had these rivers as
their source of Alpine heights. These are the places where they would come to hunt in summer as
soon as the harsh snow of winter had melted.
One of the last fragments of indigenous grasslands on lands of the Kulin is positioned
around Iramoo at the St Albans Campus. Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri peoples still have a
strong connection to their ancestral lands. The Kulin people were very humble and diplomatic.
An example of this is seen on how they treted foreigners. When foreign people were invited onto
or passed through tribal lands, the Tanderrum ceremony would be performed (Read, Meyers and
Reece 2010, 98). This literally translates to ‘freedom of the bush’. This allowed temporary access
and safe passage as well as use of land and resources by the foreign people. It was a diplomatic
ceremony which involved the landholder’s cordiality and a customary exchange of handouts.
Although gold did not mean much to the Kulin people, they mined diorite at Mount
William Stone Hatchet Quarry. This was the source of the extremely valued greenstone which
was used for hatchet heads. The hatchet heads were highly cherished and traded as far as
Adelaide and New South Wales. The mine provided an intricate network of trading for both
social and economic exchange among the several kulin clans and other Aborigines in Victoria
(Bride 1983, 211). The Quarry had been in operation for more than one thousand, five hundred
years and covered eighteen hectares in addition to underground pits of numerous meters.
The Kulin people are thought to have been cognizant of the Europeans, through the close
association to the people Bunwurrung of the coast who interacted with the Baudin
expedition during 1801on the French ship ‘Le Naturaliste’, and later the British in 1803 in
settlement at Sullivan Bay (Johnson 2001, 12). However, the British by then had not shown
interest in their land. In 1835, the Kulin signed a land treaty with John Batman. Soon after, gold
was discovered in Melbourne. Following Batman’s ‘treaty’ with the Port Phillip tribes, as they
were called, in 1835, the Melbourne village was quickly developed.
Opportunistic settlers rushed in. By 1838 the village’s population totaled 600, while in the
Port Phillip district, the population was 3,500 in the same year. By 1845, the population had
escalated to 12,000 settlers. Squatters hungry for land spread out in every direction, pushing the
population of Victoria to escalating heights of 77,345 by 1851 (Winzenreid 1988, 27). Just a
decade later, after the initial gold rushes, it had surpassed half a million. Soon after settlement by
the white, a farming explosion forced the Kulin nation from their land. By this time, their
population had dramatically decreased as many had died of disease and starvation (Presland
1994, 64). During this one critical generation, between 1835 and 1865, Kulin people in Victoria
were successfully destroyed. They were crushed by the overwhelming avalanche of expansion of
Without a channel to access to their customary food sources, several populations became
reliant on handouts of sugar, tea and flour and also of alcohol and tobacco, which were important
in their way of life. It is difficult to untangle the physical and psychological effects which the loss
of ancestral land had on the Kulin. This is because as has been previously noted, the two were
entirely integrated. However, from as early as 1838, Kulins in the banks of the Yarra River were
already suffering from cold and famine as a consequence of being disintegrated from their
customary sources of clothing and food (Jones 1983, 67).
There is almost no doubt that malnutrition and physical deprivation played a substantial
role in reducing Kulin numbers, particularly since the situation would render them highly prone
to disease. Smallpox was the most common disease brought about by the European invasion.
However, there were other diseases, which included respiratory complaints such as influenza,
catarrh and whooping cough, tuberculosis, chicken pox, venereal disease, dysentery, yaws and
measles (Boldrewood 1884, 72). The settlers took advantage of the Kulin hospitality and humility
to drive them away from their land.
The Kulin were not an aggressive people and the Europeans expected little if any
resistance at all. Kulins responded in diverse ways to the European invasion. Some defended their
land fiercely, while others recognized the ineffectiveness of direct conflict. There was an
shocking rise in the severity of conflict between the Kulin in the Western District and Europeans,
but also around Melbourne. There were several conflicts between Kulins and settlers in the region
of Mt Macedon in May and June of 1838 (Rae-Ellis 1996, 109). One of the settler’s huts was
plundered, one of the shepherds killed and several sheep were stolen. In an ensuing battle about
eight Kulins were shot dead. This battle only lasted about three-quarters of an hour.
However, not all attacks on Kulins were out of vengeance, and were often uncalled for.
Whiteway of the Marine care notes that in Presland’s Westernport Bay, a group of men sent to
collect wattle bark, shot at a group of Kulins, wounding six. One of the hurt was a young girl who
was shot on both of her legs. This occurred in March 1836. For the most part, settlers were
approached by surreptitiousness and attacked singly, but in North East Victoria, about fourteen
settlers were slain and their sheep dispersed. Generally though, settler attacks were far more
destructive than those of the Kulin. For example, Captain Hutton was said to have murdered forty
Kulins in a half-hour’s battle in the Wannon region, with the assistance of his men (Johnson
Some Kulins died at the hands of some cold-blooded Killers who gave them flour that
was poisoned. However, many more were mercilessly killed by fellow Aborigines who had
arranged to work for the settlers as Native Police against their people. The Native Police were, in
particular dreaded by their fellow Aborigines because they were such skilled trackers and
Bushmen that there was no evading from them if they attacked. Also, the fights between tribes
rose in the scramble for ever-lessening natural resources from the land.
Using an unconventional estimate, a thousand Kulins and other Aborigines had died at the
hands of settlers by 1850 (Clarke 1998, 192). However, the total may have been far much more,
maybe twice as many. Another three hundred or there about deaths possibly resulted from tribal
fights and the work of Native Police. Records show that aborigines in total killed only fifty-nine
settlers in the same period. These figures are worrying enough. Although they could have been
far much more higher were it not for the single reason that many tribes of the Kulin Nation and
other Aborigines were not violent in particular, and generally looked for alternative ways of
handling the white settlers.