When Europeans first settled the Port Phillip region of Victoria it was already occupied by five Aboriginal language groups. Each of these groups consisted of up to six or more land-owning units called clans that spoke a related language and were connected through cultural and mutual interests, totems, trading initiatives and marriage ties. Together these groups are known as the Kulin (Koolin) nation of peoples.
The five Kulin nations are the Wathaurong, the Woiwurrung, the Taungurong, the Djadjawurung and the Boonwurrung peoples.
The Boonwurrung* people are the traditional owners of the coast and land along the northern, eastern and southern shorelines of Port Phillip Bay Nairm, the Mornington Peninsula, Western Port and its two main islands – Phillip Island and French Island, and land to the south-east down to Wilson's Promontory.
The Boonwurrung 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 Boonwurrung shared more than 90 per cent common
vocabulary with their close neighbours, the Woiwurrung (Blake 1991,
Smyth 1878), of whom the Wurundjeri were their most immediate
It is estimated that the Boonwurrung lived in the area from as far back as 40,000 years ago. The Boonwurrung people were linked with Tasmania but were disconnected by the rising seas that turned once-fertile plains into Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, including the Mornington Peninsula. Some of Tasmania's Palawa (Indigenous) peoples have Boonwurrung ancestry.
The Boonwurrung were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving around a well-defined tract of land on a seasonal basis, exploiting and managing a range of resources. Land mammals such as the kangaroo and possum were sources of food and clothing, birds and eggs were harvested, shellfish and fish were taken in the coastal region and eels were a major food source in the swamps and rivers. The landscape of their country included swamps, lagoons, rivers, open grassy country and thinly timbered country. Men hunted while women gathered. It is known from historical records that wattle gum, roots, including yams and rushes, thistles, blossoms kangaroo apple, grass tree ferns and mushrooms were amongst the plant foods utilised by the Boonwurrung.
The Boonwurrung people were made up of six clans or extended family groups which were the
- Mayone-bulluk - area at the top of the Mornington Peninsula and the head of Westernport Bay
- Ngaruk-Willam - Dandenong across to the Mordialloc area
- Yallock-Bullock - near the Bass River on the eastern side of Westernport Bay
- Boonwurrung-Balluk – southern Mornington Peninsula
- Yownegerra - the eastern-most side of Boonwurrung land
- Yalukit Willam - a small strip of coastline north of the Mordiallic Creek following around the head of Port Phillip Bay to the Werribee River
European contact with the Boonwurrung was early in the 19th century. By 1839, (only 4 years after the settlement of Melbourne) only 83 Boonwurrung remained in the Western Port Bay and Mornington Peninsula area from a population estimated to be between 250 and 500 prior to 1800. By 1844 many new settlers had taken up grazing licenses on the peninsula with tens of thousands of hard hoofed animals such as sheep and cattle destroying many native plant foods vital to the Boonwurrung. By 1850 Protector William Thomas estimated just 28 Boonwurrung people still survived. The dramatic decrease in population was due to the effects of alcohol, weapons, violence and introduced diseases in particular smallpox. Aboriginal birth numbers plummeted too as the traditional people witnessed the dramatic and detrimental change on their lifestyle and lands as they did not want to bring children into an environment, which for them was changing for the worse.
In 1852 the Boonwurrung were allocated 340 hectares at Mordialloc Creek while the Woiwurrung gained 782 hectares along the Yarra at Warrandyte. The Aboriginal Protection Board revoked these two reserves in 1862-1863, considering them now too close to Melbourne. In March 1863 the surviving Kulin leaders, among them Simon Wonga and William Barak, led forty Wurundjeri, Taungurong (Goulburn River) and Boonwurrung people over the Black Spur and squatted on a traditional camping site on Badger Creek near Healesville and requested ownership of the site. This became Coranderrk Station. Coranderrk was closed in 1924 and its occupants forced to move to Lake Tyers in Gippsland.
Nationally throughout the 20th century the forced removal of aboriginal children from their families, whole communities being sent to Aboriginal reserves and dispersal and assimilation policies has lead to Aboriginal people from all over Australia having settled in Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. As of 30 August 2006, ABS statistics state that there were 1,388 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. Of this total, over two thirds are 24 and under.
Aboriginal culture is now being revitalised in Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula, with growing numbers of Aboriginal people becoming involved in community groups and services and the arts.
The Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, the Victorian Boonerwrung Elders Lands Council and other Aboriginal organisations and community members are advising the National Parks and Wildlife Service, museums and archaeologists about the management and protection of local Aboriginal sites and heritage items.
The newly formed Aboriginal Corporation for Frankston and Mornington Peninsula Indigenous Artists - trading as Baluk Arts - represents its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members in Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. It is an artist run initiative that aims to empower its members, maintain culture, support artists in producing high quality artwork and to generate income and employment opportunities for Indigenous artists of the region.
* Baluk Arts notes there are over 60 different spellings of this Aboriginal group found in various literature, including “Bunurong”, “Boonerwrung”, “Bunwurrung” etc. Baluk Arts has used the spelling “Boonwurrung” because it is consistent with the spelling used by the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages to assist users with correct pronunciation. The use of this spelling is not related to any particular organisation and it is not intended to show any preference for any Aboriginal organisation over any other. In using Boonwurrung, Baluk Arts also notes the alternative “Bunurong”.
Map of the five Kulin nations
Photograph of Sally of Arthur's Seat, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (Georgiana'a Journal, Edited by Hugh McCrae with permission by HarperCollins.)
Drawing of Eliza of Arthur's Seat by Georgiana McCrae, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (Georgiana'a Journal, Edited by Hugh McCrae with permission by HarperCollins.)
Photograph of George of Arthur's Seat, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (Georgiana'a Journal, Edited by Hugh McCrae with permission by HarperCollins.)
Drawing of Ben-Benjie of Arthur's Seat by Georgiana McCrae, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria (Georgiana'a Journal, Edited by Hugh McCrae with permission by HarperCollins.)