Initial relations between indigenous and settler people in the Melbourne region were mixed, but combined to create a familiar pattern marked by colonial power. On 15 February 1802, 20 crew of the brig Lady Nelson, the first ship to enter Port Phillip Bay, met five Boon wurrung men on the beach near Arthurs Seat. They exchanged greetings and danced, but that afternoon violence erupted and contacts ceased. The Boon wurrung also kept their distance from the garrison at the abortive convict settlement at Sorrento (1803-1804). Over the next 30 years, sealers, whalers and a few castaways (including William Buckley) made intermittent, sometimes violent, contacts with Kulin clans.
In May 1835 John Batman, representing Hobart entrepreneurs, made a treaty with the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung people, allegedly purchasing some of their land. Three months later John Pascoe Fawkner and his party settled the Yarra River bank. From the first, both cultural groups desired contact with and control over the other. The settlers sought conciliation with the Aboriginal people, 'savages' as they often termed them, to access their knowledge of the land and then to expropriate it. The Kulin sought to access some desirable European artefacts - steel axes, guns and the like - from these interloping 'white ghosts' and to tame them to Aboriginal purposes. Both sides had mixed views as to how to deal with the situation, but caution and conciliation initially prevailed. This is evident in Fawkner's account of relations with the Kulin. Some of the upcountry Kulin planned to kill Fawkner's party for their goods. Two of the local Melbourne clan heads, Derrimut and Billibellari, preferred to use diplomacy and warned the Europeans about an attack. Fawkner forced the attacking party across the Yarra, burning their weapons and canoes, but exercised moderation. Thereafter, Derrimut and several others attached themselves to Fawkner, who, like Batman, was soon supporting groups of Kulin in return for work.
As more Europeans arrived to take advantage of the pastoral economy or to work in the growing town, the balance tipped in the Europeans' favour. Conciliation gave way to European arrogance and Aboriginal resentment. This produced ill feeling and scuffles, but fatalities were largely confined to the frontier. However, the 'Melbourne tribes' - the Boon wurrung and the Woi wurrung - were affected by violent frontier relations as they moved about their lands outside the settlement or visited Kulin kin upcountry.
Genocidal outcomes developed, but not of the classic type of a deliberate official policy of extermination, for after 1839 a government Aboriginal Protectorate existed. Rather, these were 'relations of genocide', as historian Tony Barta has called them, relations shaped by the unintended outcomes of a rapid decline of Aboriginal people. The usurping of Aboriginal lands by settlers and their cloven-hoofed sheep scared away the game, trampled the grasslands and waterholes, and ate out the root vegetables that formed the Kulin's staple diet. Despite its environmental damage, pastoralism could have coexisted with Aboriginal land use, but the settlers' exclusive ideas of property swept the Aboriginal economy aside, disrupting use of Aboriginal lands, and their cultural and ritual life. New respiratory and other diseases devastated the Kulin, already weakened by rapid change. Their psychic disorientation created fatalism among some. Billibellari, an elder, commented in 1843 that 'blackfellows all about say that no good have them pickaninneys now, no country for blackfellows like long time ago'. A drop in new births compounded the Kulin's decline.
However, fatalism was not the dominant response. Most Kulin revealed a zest for cultural interaction. They camped in scores, even hundreds, by the Yarra in the early 1840s to sample European novelties, especially flour, mutton and tobacco. One Kulin man in 1844 remarked: 'the bush big one hungry no bellyfull like it Melbourne'. They quickly learned English and sang Scottish songs with a brogue. They desired guns and metal objects. Some Kulin traded lyrebird feathers and possum skins or laboured around Melbourne to purchase such items. They were not averse to behaviours called 'begging' by the Europeans, which to them were reciprocal exchanges for the use of their land. The Kulin frequented the Government Mission by the Yarra while there was food to be had, and enrolled their children in the Baptist (Aboriginal) School on the Merri Creek, where they were cared for while their parents travelled on Kulin business. Many young Kulin men joined the Native Police Corps, based at Narre Warren, to gain access to food, fine uniforms, guns, horses and added power.
By the early 1840s, the government discouraged the Kulin from visiting their own lands, arguing that they lowered the tone of an increasingly 'respectable' town. By the 1850s, the Kulin worked in the Plenty Valley and the Mornington Peninsula as rural labourers, shepherds and stockmen, for hard-pressed employers during gold rush labour shortages. They visited Melbourne on drays and horses, delivering or collecting goods, trading lyrebird feathers, visiting gunsmiths, calling on their friend William Thomas, then the Guardian of Aborigines, or simply seeking amusement. Six Kulin men even performed corroborees for a week in the Queen's Theatre in 1856 to entertain the gold-diggers. These Kulin workers dressed like European labourers until nightfall, when they threw off their work clothes and slept under the stars as their people had always done.
However, few Kulin survived. Their numbers plummeted by 90% in 20 years. William Thomas, Assistant Aboriginal Protector (later Guardian) from 1839, reported that the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung, who numbered about 350 in 1835, and 233 by 1840, totalled only 28 in 1857 (17 Woi wurrung and 11 Boon wurrung). In 1863, these survivors moved to Coranderrk, a traditional camping site near Healesville, once their request for farming land had been granted.
Once special Aboriginal legislation was introduced in the Parliament of Victoria in 1860, Aboriginal people were subordinate to the state. After the Aborigines Act was strengthened in 1869, the Board for the Protection of Aborigines was empowered to determine where Aboriginal people could live and work, and could remove their children if deemed neglected. By 1877, half of the surviving 1000 Aboriginal people in Victoria lived under direct Board control on six rural reserves and missions. The remainder lived nearby to stay in contact with kin. In 1886, a new Act pushed those of mixed descent ('half-castes' in the Act's terminology) off the missions to 'blend' into the white population. They ceased to be Aboriginal people in the eyes of the government. In 1925 about 200 people remaining under the Board's control were centralised at Lake Tyers reserve, near Lakes Entrance.
Some of those pushed off the missions drifted back to Melbourne seeking work. However, there was no significant Melbourne Aboriginal community at this time to keep them there. The 1901 census recorded 46 Aboriginal people living in Melbourne. Some were domestic servants, others were children who had been removed from their parents under the 1886 Act. A few were in training, preparatory to working at low wages for whites. The boys trained at the Salvation Army farm school at Bayswater, normally a home for troublesome boys, while the girls learned domestic skills at church institutions.
The 1920s saw the re-emergence of Aboriginal people in Fitzroy, most living around the intersection of George and Gertrude streets. This community, formed of people from all over the State, forged the first pan-Aboriginal political movement in Victoria. William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man from the Murray Valley, established the Australian Aborigines' League in 1933 to push for citizenship rights.
His strategies included a petition to the King calling for federal intervention in Aboriginal affairs and Aboriginal parliamentary representation. He and others also devised a Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938 to protest the 150th anniversary celebrations of white settlement.
Most Melburnians had little contact with the small Melbourne Aboriginal community in the interwar years. Perhaps some heard Cooper or Bill Onus speak at Yarra Bank Park, read their occasional letters to the editor, or saw Aboriginal people about Fitzroy. Many more marvelled at Doug Nicholls, dubbed 'the flying Abo', who played for Northcote and Fitzroy Football Club around 1930 before ministering to the Gore Street Mission in the 1940s. Others saw Mulga Fred, an Aboriginal whip-cracker from the Western District, performing at Victorian Football League matches.
By the 1950s, however, Aboriginal people had a higher profile in Melbourne. Many theatregoers witnessed the highly acclaimed Aboriginal production Out of the dark, which was part of the Jubilee celebrations. Others saw Bill Bull, gumleaf player, busking at Princes Bridge before being moved on by the police or gaoled. In 1950 the Melbourne Herald defended his right to be there and a top Melbourne lawyer represented him in court.
In 1958 policy changes followed the Cabinet-inspired McLean Report, which urged equal rights and citizenship for Aboriginal people at the price of assimilating to white ways. A new Aborigines Welfare Board represented this renewed commitment to assimilation. Ironically, Aboriginal people not under the Board's control were finally acknowledged as being Aboriginal, at the very time the Welfare Board planned their absorption and cultural disappearance. The previous year, 1957, the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) was formed in Melbourne, providing Aboriginal people with a means of resisting the Welfare Board's assimilationist agenda. While Aboriginal people desired equality with other Victorians they did not want to become just like them. By the mid-1960s VAAL and the Lake Tyers community battled the Board's efforts to dismantle the reserve and distribute Aboriginal people among white communities. In 1968 its criticisms helped topple the Board and its policies and led to the hand-back of Lake Tyers and Framlingham lands to the communities. In Melbourne, VAAL developed hostels, services and a permanent centre for the Melbourne Aboriginal community at Northcote.
By the 1960s one in five Aboriginal Victorians lived in Melbourne. While distinct regional identities still existed among Aborigines in the metropolis, Aboriginal balls at the Northcote Town Hall, community activities, and intermarriage, helped to modify regional identities and strengthen pan-Aboriginal feeling. In 1969 the word 'Koori(e)' emerged and was used especially by younger Aboriginal people. There was also a movement into the wider community, with 11% of married Aboriginal men and 27% of married Aboriginal women in the 1960s having non-Aboriginal partners.
In the early 1970s, Aboriginal-run health, housing and legal services and other community bodies were formed in Melbourne. Aboriginal people drifted to the city in search of jobs, lured there by the growth of community organisations. In 1986 over 6000 people of indigenous descent lived in Melbourne, almost half the State total. By 1996 their numbers in Melbourne had climbed to almost 11 000, again almost half of their Victorian total; currently they total almost 15 000 in the Melbourne region. Melburnians of indigenous descent are scattered thinly throughout city and suburbs, except for modest concentrations in Fitzroy, Northcote and Preston. A larger concentration exists at nearby Healesville, a traditional place of the Kulin and a pleasant rural area with affordable housing. Such clusters create dozens of fiercely supported community groups as the government found to its cost when it attempted to close the Koorie-backed Northland Secondary College in 1992. After four years of court battles the community retained the right to government support for the school.
Koorie cultural expression now forms a vibrant part of Melbourne's multicultural ambience. Key examples are the establishment of exhibitions at the Koorie Heritage Trust from 1985, the creation of a Koorie heritage trail called 'Another View', the existence of Koorie music groups and the creation of the Melbourne Museum's Bunjilaka Centre in 2000. The popularity of these cultural expressions reflects a growing tolerance between Koories and Gubbas (to use local indigenous words) or Aboriginal and other Victorians (to use English terms). Koories now move more confidently in the wider community, adhering as always to their Aboriginal identities, kin and culture. Most Melburnians now respect these Koorie cultural expressions.