Boon wurrung Arweets Carolyn Briggs PDF Print E-mail

In A Report to the Victorian Corporation for Languages (July 1996), Ian Clark identified more than 60 variations in the spelling of Boon wurrung. In this publication the spelling adopted is Boon wurrung rather than Bun wurrung. This is consistent with recommendations by Clark (1996) and Blake (1991) and encourages the correct pronunciation, using the “oo” rather than the “u” sound.

The Boon wurrung language was first referred to in 1836 by Stewart and in 1837 by Langhorne and Wedge. ‘The language name is derived from the word boon meaning “no” and wurrung meaning “lips” “mouth” or “language” (Clark 1996). The Boon wurrung shared more than 90 per cent common vocabulary with their close neighbours, the Woi wurrung (Blake 1991, Smyth 1878), of whom the Wurundjeri baluk were their most immediate neighbours, sharing a border in the country around where Parliament house is now located.

Other Kulin tribes visiting the country of the Boon wurrung were required to speak the language of the Boon wurrung. This is explained as the spiritual base to the Boon wurrung country. Compliance with this cultural protocol was especially relevant because the demi-god Loo-errn resided in Boon wurrung country, in the area known today as Wilson’s Promontory. Visitors to Boon wurrung country were required to undergo a ritual that afforded rights and accompanying responsibilities.

The Boon wurrung had a very strong and detailed oral history that recalled events estimated to be ten thousand years old. The existence of such a strong oral history tradition was shown in evidence given in 1858 to a Select Committee of the Legislative Council. Referring to a Boon wurrung Arweet (head man) known as Old Bembow, Magistrate Hulls stated:

“Old Bembow recalled that his grandfather recollected when Hobson’s Bay was a kangaroo ground; they say, “Plenty catch kangaroo, and plenty catch opossum there;” and Murray assured mc that the passage up the bay, through which the ships came is the River Yana, and that River once went out at the heads, but that the sea broke in and that Hobson’s bay, which was once hunting ground, became what is. (Hull, 911 111852 in Victoria 1858:12)

This recollection of the flooding of the bay due to the ice age is even more remarkable because many Western scientists did not accept ice age theories until the 20th century. The Boon wurrung recalled other stories from their past - including stories of great earthquakes - through dance, story and song.

In the first years after settlement, there were two Arweets (clan heads) living. They were Derrimut and Ningerranarro (Benbow).

Derrimut was a head guleen of the Yallultit Willam. His authority within the Yallukit Willam extended beyond that of his immediate “estate” or property, which included the south bank of the Yarra from the punt at South Yarra to the Yarra Wharf. He also had custodianship of much of the Boon wurrung lands, south of Melbourne.

Derrimut was an expert linguist, quickly mastering the English wurrung as well as being a fluent speaker of other Kulin and indigenous wurrung. When the European settlers arrived, they were granted the customary rights that the Boon wurrung bestowed on visitors. While many of these rights were clearly abused by the early settlers, Derrimut afforded them the rights that came with such a welcome. In late 1835, Derrimut’s actions saved the lives of John Pascoe Fawkner and his party from an imminent attack by a tribe that had travelled from the north.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Derrimut led a struggle for the recognition of the land rights of the Boon wurrung people, who by that stage were living at Mordialloc. In the early days of Melbourne settlement, Derrimut’s birnban (wife) was kidnapped by sealers - he never saw her again. Derrimut had expressed his concerns about his future to William Thomas, the Protector of Aborigines.

Derrimut fought to uphold his laws and traditions. On one occasion, the Magistrate, a Mr Hulls, walked into a sacred ceremony and was speared by Derrimut. Hulls did not convict Derrimut - he recognised that he had broken the law.

When the rights of his people to continue to live on their traditional land at Mordialloc were finally taken away in 1863, Derrimut’s health declined rapidly. He was admitted to a hospice in North Melbourne, where he died on 24 May 1864.

The grave of Derrimut is in the Melbourne General Cemetery. His tombstone is a reminder of the importance of his role to both his own people and the Europeans who eventually took his country and his will to live from him. It is inscribed: This stone was erected by a few colonists to commemorate the noble act of the native chief Derrimut, who by timely information given October 1835 lo the first colonists, Messrs Fawkner, Lance, Evans, Henry, Batman and their (six) dependants; saved them from a massacre planned by some of llie upcountry tribes of aborigines. Derrimut closed his mortal career in the Benevolent Asylum, May 28”, 1864, aged 54 years.

Ningerrano, known as Old Mr or Benbow, was also an Arweet and, as the leader of his Clan, was recognised by Europeans as a guleen (man) of importance. Ningerrano had three sons, who assumed custodial responsibility when he died in 1847.

His three sons were, Bullourd, Pardeweeerap and Mingarerer. Bullourd was also known as Little Benbow or King Benbow. Pardeweeerap was known as Big Benbow or Mr Smith. Mingarerer was known as Benbow the Less or Young Mr Man.

Bullourd or King Benbow provided leadership for the Yallukit Willam during the early days of settlement. As a leader of the Yallulkit Willam he interacted with the European settlers. In 1836 he went fishing with Pascoe Fawkner and was later employed by John Batman.

He built his hut or willam, where he and his birnban “Kitty” lived, on the land Batman had claimed for himself. In 1845 Benbow retrieved the marram (body) of the eight-year-old John Charles Batman after he drowned at the Yarra Falls.

Benbow joined the Native Police Corps in 1842 and became closely associated with George Arthur Robinson, Chief Protector from 1846 to 1848. During this time Robinson made several journeys around Victoria, Benbow accompanying him as far as the Snowy River where the Gunnai people (traditional enemies of the Boon wurrung) lived.

Benbow was possibly one of the first Boon wurrung to make a bid for the rights to his land, following the rapid colonisation of his barerareungar by Europeans. One day in March 1849 he stood outside Governor La Trobe’s office all day, but was not admitted. Benbow had argued for the rights of the Boon wurrung to continue to access their land. Along with a fellow countryman, Bethengai, he had complained in 1842:

Now many white people come and turn blackfellow away ... Big Benbow almost crying . . . say go away go away . . . soldier say no good that. 1 again tell them that they make willams [huts] on white mans ground, and cut off bark ... make white man sulky ... they say no [not] white man’s ground, black man’s. (Fels 1988:71-2) Benbow died at Green Point on 5 July 1852. He had been on his way to Mordialloc, where the remainder of the Boon wurrung people were living.