State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Tracing The Humanitarian Strain In Black-White Encounters

From the first moments of culture contact in Victoria the Kooris’ experience of Europeans has been mixed. When the Bunurong people met the crew of the brig Lady Nelson in February 1802 on the sands of Port Phillip Bay, there was a tentative exchange of greetings and artefacts but then violence ensued. On the shore of Western Port some months later, a Bunurong family met Captain Millius from the French vessel, the Naturaliste. Millius stripped off his clothes to reveal his common humanity. An exchange of greetings and curious looks followed before the Bunurong family fled in dismay. Batman's Treaty which heralded the invasion of Port Phillip in 1835 was both swindle and hoax, but it was the only treaty ever offered Aboriginal people in Australia and for some fleeting moments it created an air of reciprocity: albeit an extremely one-sided arrangement.
Through the dismal culture contact history that followed in Victoria — marked by dispossession, control, violence and some bloody massacres — the light of humanitarianism formed small pools of hope in the vast colonial gloom. The Port Phillip Protectorate of the 1840s, although misconceived and ineffectual, reflected the humane glow of the Exeter Hall evangelical lobby in England. The grimness of the reserve period in Victoria was countered by the efforts of John Green at Coranderrk, and other individuals who sought to let Koori people manage themselves. In the twentieth century this impulse beat more strongly from the 1930s, a watershed in Australian black-white relations. My current research on Kooris in twentieth century Victoria will take into account the numerous white support groups in Victorian Aboriginal affairs. It is essential to understand the contributions of these groups, since they not only reflected the ongoing humanitarian strand in black-white relations, but they formed an important part of the political process for Koori rights and autonomy, particularly in the generation after the 1930s.
Diane Barwick recorded in 1962 that there were about forty white voluntary organisations in Victoria which concerned themselves with Kooris, although many of these had a diversity of interests, Kooris being but one of them. Only a dozen of these organisations, claimed Barwick, were in contact with a large number of Koori people.1 The most prominent of these white support groups were the Victorian Aboriginal Group, the Aborigines Committee of the Churches of Christ, the Bethesda Aborigines Mission, the Aborigines Fellowship Group, the Council for Aboriginal Rights and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League, which was established in 1957 by Kooris and white Victorians, was taken over by Kooris in 1969 after a period of white administration. However it remains the only Aboriginal body in Australia which allows white membership (but not at the executive level).2
The La Trobe Library Australian Manuscripts Collection currently holds the records of some of these groups, namely: the Victorian Aboriginal Group (MS 9212); the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (MS 9377); and the Council for Aboriginal Rights (PA 222). An initial survey of these collections reveals some important records for the understanding of white action for black rights.
The Victorian Aboriginal Group (VAG) was formed as a study circle in February 1930 by the writers A. S. Kenyon and R. H. Croll and others in response to the publication of J. W. Bleakley's report on the conditions of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. A permanent society emerged by 1933 and it existed until 1971 when it amalgamated with the National Association for the Advancement of the Native Race.3 As was often the case in Aboriginal affairs on both sides of the cultural divide, women played an important but unheralded role. Two women became the VAG's driving force: Miss V. A. Leeper (daughter of Alexander Leeper, the educationalist) as the honorary treasurer, and Miss Amy Brown, as the honorary secretary. The VAG lobbied the government in the 1930s on conditions at Lake Tyers and Framlingham reserves and increasingly agitated about the conditions of Aboriginal fringe camps throughout Victoria. It waited on all incoming Victorian Chief Secretaries, and was one voice urging a committee of inquiry which resulted in the McLean Inquiry of 1956. The Victorian Aboriginal Group, like most older white support groups of its time, was unashamedly assimilationist in wanting Koori people to be dispersed among the white Victorian population into good housing near employment and hoping for their acceptance as equals. It was a radical policy for its time. The VAG's extant records are concerned with Aboriginal affairs continent-wide, but three or four of the eleven boxes in the series contain material on its political welfare efforts for Victorian Kooris.
In 1915, a meeting of Melbourne women convened by Dr. Charles Strong formed a sisterhood of international peace, which in 1920 became a branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). This League maintained a strong commitment to peace, disarmament and human rights on an international level for the next fifty years. However in the late 1940s new blood on the executive introduced Aboriginal rights to WILPF's vision of
the future. A key personality in this shift was Anna Vroland, a teacher from Box Hill whose ideals were too radical for the VAG executive. Others important in this change included Cora Gilsenan-Waters of ‘Moonaculla’, Metung; Helen Baillie of South Yarra; H. Heffernan of Heidelberg and Doris Blackburn. Helen Baillie was also the honorary secretary of the Aborigines Fellowship Group, created to aid those who walked off Cummeragunja mission in 1938 in protest at conditions there. The records of WILPF (39 boxes in all) deal with a great range of issues. However three boxes in particular and some correspondence (all well identified by a carefully compiled index), are concerned with Victorian Aboriginal affairs — particularly conditions at Lake Tyers, Framlingham and East Gippsland in the 1950s.
The Council for Aboriginal Rights (CAR) was formed in 1951 as a federally-based political group to lobby on Aboriginal civil rights, equal pay and the conditions of Aboriginal people in general. It emerged from a Melbourne Town Hall meeting held in response to the forced removal of Aboriginal unionist Fred Waters, from Darwin to Haas Bluff, for leading Aboriginal strike action for better pay. CAR still works for Aboriginal rights today by funding an Aboriginal ‘political’ worker in Queensland, who chivvies a reluctant bureaucracy to act on Aboriginal problems. Its collection of papers in 21 boxes — as yet unsorted — includes minute books, reports, a correspondence series of over 5,000 letters (inwards and outwards) printed material and press cuttings4. There are restrictions on some of these items.
A handful of whites — ‘Gubbs’ as Kooris call them — gave up an enormous amount of time, energy and money to fight for the Aboriginal cause and some of this is revealed in these records. In November 1936, Arthur Burdeu, a railway employee and President of the Australian Aborigines League (founded by a Koori elder, William Cooper), wrote to Hon. W. H. Edgar MLC saying that his recent help given to a Koori woman stranded in Melbourne had cost him 20A (perhaps equal to about a third of his weekly wage): ‘The privilege of helping these folk is valued, but it is beyond me’. He asked Edgar to suggest some Melbourne relief agencies that might be able to fund such emergencies.5 In February 1948 Anna Vroland refused an offer to join the Country Women's Association because of her writing, speaking and organisational commitments concerned with justice for Aborigines and her membership of the state council of the New Education Fellowship.6 That very month she single-handedly organized a deputation to the Chief Secretary of interested parties on Aboriginal affairs. In a letter to the Bairnsdale Advertiser in April 1948 she described her efforts and motives:
I am one of many all over Australia, who are ashamed of the way aborigines are treated by white people. In my capacity of teacher, writer and radical commentator, I have long pleaded the cause of those who suffer injustice and cruelty. Aborigines have been welcome visitors in my home… . Some people like to tell what they have done for aborigines. This seems to me very shortsighted. It is time we tried to understand them, tried to learn something of their needs and purposes.7
There is much evidence that Kooris appreciated all these efforts. In February 1936 William Cooper, honorary secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, wrote to W. Gordon Sprigg, who was noted for his agitations about the Lake Tyers reserve in the Victorian Baptist Assemblies between 1927 and 1936. Cooper said:
We dark folk would like to say how grateful we are to you for your efforts to bring to notice the conditions at Lake Tyers. Of course, as is usual, the result has been a whitewashing of the whole business but we do feel that only good must ultimately come from it. For far too long there has been a ruthlessness in dealing with our race and it is from friends as you that we feel an improvement will come. We know the truth of what you said. We get disheartened at times but the interest of the white folk as you does help us to realise that better times are in store.8
If Koori people at the time acknowledged and appreciated the help and interest of white support groups, the historical record must do no less.


D. Barwick, ‘A Little More than Kin. Regional Affiliation and Group Identity among Aboriginal Migrants in Melbourne’, PhD, ANU, 1963, p. 344.


VAAL, Victims or Victors: The Story of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. (South Yarra, Vic.: Hyland House, 1985), chap. 7.


Typescript on VAG's beginnings, April 1957, and final annual report 1971, MS 9212, Box 2. P. Matthews, “‘Uplifting our Aboriginal People”: the Victorian Aboriginal Group, 1930–1971’, B.A. Hons. thesis, Monash University, 1985.


Letter, A. Vroland to VAG 17 June 1948, MS9377, Box 1726, V/61.


Letter, A. Burdeu to W. H. Edgar, 7 November 1936, MS 9212, Box 7.


Draft and letter A. Vroland to A. Carter 4 July 1948, MS 9377, Box 1726, V/37, V/63.


Letter, A. Vroland to Bairnsdale Advertiser, 10 April 1948, MS 9377, Box 1726, V/55.


Letter, W. Cooper to W. Gordon Sprigg 22 February 1936, MS 9377, Box 1726, V/1.