When I was asked to write an assignment discussing case histories of three aboriginal missions from different perspectives, I quickly discovered three things. Firstly, missions weren’t the only means of sequestering Indigenous people; there were also reserves and stations and, while for non-indigenous people the terms may be interchangeable, for Indigenous people the experiences were very different. Secondly, it wasn’t a simple matter of finding case studies, there are varying amounts of information available, and the case studies had to be constructed first. Thirdly, these places aren’t confined to history.
The three missions or reserves I chose are Lake Tyers near Lakes Entrance in Victoria and, in NSW, Wallaga Lake near Bermagui and Delegate near Bombala. This meant two state Aboriginal Protection Boards were involved. They also represented very different types of management, and ranged in size from 2000 acres at Lake Tyers to only ten acres at Delegate.
The locations are hundreds of kilometres from Sydney and Melbourne, the remoteness planned deliberately to keep Indigenous people away from ‘settled’ areas. Lake Tyers, now also known by residents by its original name of Bung Yarnda, and Wallaga Lake, now called a koori village, are still home to Indigenous people. Delegate station is closed, belonging to a time when Aboriginal people were free to move around and camp on land purposefully set aside for them - a part of Australian history that is almost forgotten.
In Victoria, in 1860, an Act established a Board for the Protection of Aborigines. The following year John Bulmer selected Lake Tyers in Gippsland as the site for a Church of England Mission. By 1863 there were seven reserves, also called missions or stations, and 23 camping spots or ration depots in Victoria. After thirty years of colonisation, this was considerably less than one percent of the colony’s land mass. An Act for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria was passed in 1869, and from that time Aboriginal people became controlled in regard to their place of residence.
In the 1850s and in 1860s there were around 2,000 Aboriginal people in Victoria, but by the late 1870s the number was in serious decline and there were just over 1,000. In 1877 a Victorian Royal Commission into Aborigines was appointed to look at what was happening with Indigenous people, and decide what should be done.
Managers of missions and reserves had enormous powers and the level of cruelty or kindness depended greatly on their individual qualities. Bulmer gave evidence at the commission and appears to have been kind (but paternalistic) stating; “The blacks know very well that I love them and would do them good”. According to current resident Robbie Thorpe, whose great grandfather helped build Bulmer’s church; “Lake Tyers was part of the process of genocide - an attempt to ‘soothe the pillow’ as Aboriginal people died out”.
In 1886 a new Act was passed, building on the 1869 Act, but this time people of mixed descent were no longer regarded as Aboriginal. They were categorised as “half-castes” - and unlicensed “half castes” had to leave the reserves. They were supposed to assimilate whether white people wanted them or not.
In 1917 the Board resolved that; “Blacks be concentrated at Lake Tyers on account of climatic conditions, & isolation situation, lack of main roads & absence of hotels in the District”. According to Thorpe; “Lake Tyers was a concentration camp where Aboriginal people were kept out of sight and out of mind”. That might sound extreme, but in fact at the time this segregation was officially referred to as a Concentration Plan.
The people who lived at Lake Tyers were tightly controlled, needing to ask permission to go to Lakes Entrance just to go shopping. In 1948 Cora Gilsenan wrote; “Food, clothing, housing and firewood do not make up for lack of freedom”. The Aborigines Act of 1957 gave the residents the right to form an advisory board - but it was given no power. The manager of Lake Tyers had the power to issue permits, or refuse to issue permits, allowing people to move on or off the reserve.
Then in 1963 the Board, now known as the Aborigines Welfare Board, announced it would close Lake Tyers and move its residents into country towns. The policy had changed from segregation to assimilation, and once again Aboriginal people were not given a choice about where they lived. A campaign to keep Lake Tyers began, and in 1965 it was declared a permanent reserve. In 1970 it became part of the history of our nation - the first land handover in Australia under the Aboriginal Lands Act. The Victorian Government handed back 1600 hectares at Lake Tyers to be held under perpetual licence by an Aboriginal trust comprising of community members.
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