William Barak (1824–1903)
William Barak aged 33, c.1856
‘You got to know your father’s country, Yarra was my Father’s country.
Me no leave it, Yarra, my Father’s country.
There’s no mountains for me on the Murray.’
William Barak was born into the Wurundjeri clan of the Woi wurung people in 1823, in the area now known as Croydon, in Melbourne. Originally named Beruk Barak, he adopted the name William after joining the Native Police as a 19 year old.
Leadership was in Barak’s blood: his father Bebejan was a ngurunggaeta (clan head) and his Uncle Billibellary, a signatory to John Batman’s 1835 “treaty”, became the Narrm (Melbourne) region’s most senior elder. As a boy, Barak witnessed the signing of this document, which was to have grave and profound consequences for his people.
Soon after white settlement a farming boom forced the Kulin peoples from their land, and many died of starvation and disease. During those hard years, Barak emerged as a politically savvy leader, skilled mediator and spokesman for his people. In partnership with his cousin Simon Wonga, a ngurunggaeta, Barak worked to establish and protect Coranderrk, a self-sufficient Aboriginal farming community in Healesville, and became a prominent figure in the struggle for Aboriginal rights and justice. When Wonga died in 1875, Barak succeeded him as clan leader.
While at Coranderrk, Barak recorded Koorie culture through storytelling and art, and invited white settlers and dignitaries to visit the reserve. Skilled in the arts of diplomacy and friendship, over time he gained growing respect and fame within his own culture, in settler society and even abroad.
During his years of leadership, Barak endured significant personal hardship. After the death of his first wife Lizzie at Coranderrk, he married a young Murray River woman called Annie, and the couple had a son, David. But during Barak’s involvement in the ongoing struggle to save the reserve, both Annie and young David died of tuberculosis.
When he died in 1903, at around 80 years of age, the man known as the King of the Yarra was buried at Coranderrk, in a simple grave marked by a wooden cross.