Thursday, 22 April 2021

Paring Back the Palimpsests - Mythology and the Lost Layers of Melbourne Geography

The City as Palimpsest

Robyn Annear's Bearbrass - Imagining Early Melbourne (Black Inc, 2014) does a great job of giving a voice to the city's earliest fitful development years. Melbourne was born in 1835 a rudimentary, slapdash, ramshackle city - a city which had largely been subsumed by more permanent structures by the time photography arrived in the colonies in the 1850s.

We know it mostly from rough watercolours and loose sketches, such as this by the city's first Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle, looking west along Collins St, over the government reserve towards King St in 1840.

Annear addresses the Melbourne we know from this time - the "Marvelous" city full of grand Victorian buildings erected from gold rush fortunes - as a palimpsest over the older, forgotten city.

But while it's obviusly beyond the scope of the book, Annear largely ignores the reality that her vanished "Bearbrass" was itself a palimpsest over the pre-contact land use and cultural heritage of various groups within the Kulin Nation.

The Stories We Tell

As the Andrews Government laudably looks to develop a treaty with indigenous Victorians, I can't help but feel a window of opportunity sits wide open to better connect all Victorians with a deeper sense of the utter lie of terra nullius, and through that sense of our own long, deep shared history  a history it would not seem in any way laughable for us to claim, were indigenous and non-indigenoous Victoria actually properly reconciled.

If Indigenous Australia's heritage were properly part of the Australian story, then Australia could claim to be arguably the oldest extant culture on earth. Australia has so much to gain from a successful process of reconciliation that for conservative commentators and politicians to treat any indigenous issue, much less any talk of a treaty, as if it were some latte-sippers' indulgent abstraction, rather than critical to our entire national identity and actually critical to nationally moving on from a whole range of issues we are collectively hung up on makes my blood boil.

Such a narrow, unimaginative scope for the vision of our still very youthful and emergent (no matter how much ScoMo might want to finesse the issue) sense of national identity ought to write the Mark Lathams of this world entirely out of the debate altogether, instead of granting them a platform to promote anything that reeks of national reconciliation as patrisan distraction, pandering to minorities etc.

If that sort of bulldust is going to stand in the way of the nation lifting its eyes properly to the horizon, coming to terms with the wrongful basis on which a nation was founded, but promoting that same nation's welfare as the obvious and best vehicle to advance the welfare of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, then it needs to be countered.

The Lies We Rote Repeat

Just like having a foreign hereditary monarch as our head of state, just like having the flag of another nation in the corner of ours, just like never having formally recognised the basis on which the land was settled represented an injustice that didn't result in genocide only by accident, these things all hobble our sense of national self, our confidence in acting independently in our own interests.

PATRIOTS should be screaming to change the flag. PATRIOTS should be in the streets demanding a republic. PATRIOTS should be advocating for the interests of those Aussies with a connection to the land that runs 40,000+ years deep.

Consider New Zealand, where in spite of a not-unparalleled level of frontier violence, the existence of the Treaty of Waitangi with that nation's indigenous peoples appears to symbolically at least have ushered in a national acceptance that using indigenous place-names and indigenous terms like "kia-ora" within the effective national lingo is itself an act of patriotism, rather than some form of woke treason.

"Aboriginal Australians camped in the bush near the Yarra River, [Vic.]", 1858 Daintree and Fauchery photographers. Original title: "Camp of Blackfellows."

What if we really seized the opportunities a Victorian treaty process invites to elevate the pathetic level of respect and commemoration we have for our pre-contact indigenous history, by formally recognising it in our geographic nomenclature, and by resurrecting memory in some way at the many sites of significance to indigenous Australia which dot present-day Melbourne?

What if Brighton were "Worrowen"? Toorak were "Turruk" (and already hopefully readers can see, the palimpsest city doesn't always turn out to be as much of an erasure as we might assume)? 

What if we renamed Albert Park lake, named for a Prince Albert who bears no relevance whatsoever to modern Australia, and who never so much as set foot on this soil "Euro-yoroke"?

What if it were "Gariwerd" instead of "Grampians" again? Bruce Ruxton is dead, it's worth another crack ...

What if the Richmond Football Club took the opportunity through the planned redevelopment of Punt Rd Oval to find a way to include something - an artwork, an interpretive centre, anything that commemorates the significance of the site to Melbourne's pre-contact history? 

Do that within a retained Jack Dyer stand, and really show we've turned the corner as a nation in appreciating our own heritage ...

In our language lies our ideology. At the moment, as a nation we are still more concerned with denying the past (as this somehow threatens our present sense of identity) than planning for the future, and it's not good enough just to blame politicians.

But my hope is that the politicians involved here WILL see the transformative opportunities a Victorian treaty represents.

Just a few of the sites that would be potential places for commemoration - and note how many neighburing nations shared use of many of these sites, indicating how fluid relations were between clan groups within the Kulin Nation ...

Known Indigenus Camps in the Melbourne Metropolitan Area at the Time of First Contact (Canning & Thiele, p. 21)

Gellibrand Hill Park in Greenvale near the Melbourne Airport - Wurundjeri-willam camp

South bank of the Yarra River between Princes Bridge and Punt Road – Bun wurrung, Daung wurrung and Woi Wurrung camps

Richmond Cricket Ground (Punt Road Oval) - Wurundjeri-willam camp

Melbourne Cricket Ground – Wurundjeri-willam camp

New Town Hill (Fitzroy) – Wurundjeri-willam camp

Riery’s Hill (Clifton Hill) around Heidelberg Road – Daung wurrung and possibly Ngurai-willam wurrung camp

Royal Park and both sides of Sydney Road – general camping area for all Aboriginal groups

Melbourne General Cemetery site – preferred camp site for Corio and Western District groups

Worrowen (Brighton) – Bun wurrung camp between the Yarra River and the coast

Euro-yoroke (St. Kilda swamp) now part of Albert Park Lake – Bun wurrung camp

South of the confluence of the Merri Creek and Yarra River in Studley Park, west of the Merri Creek

Turruk (Toorak)

Fawkner Park, South Yarra


Canning, S. & Thiele, F., "Indigenous Cultural Heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area", Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, 2010

Annear, Robyn, "Bearbrass - Imagining Early Melbourne" (Black Inc, 2014)