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Tarra Bobby (1834–1874)

by Cheryl Glowrey

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Tarra Bobby, by Carl Walter, c.1859

Tarra Bobby, by Carl Walter, c.1859

State Library of Victoria, 53351071

Tarra Bobby (c. 1834–1874), lewin (messenger) and cultural mediator, was a Brataualung man of the Yau-ung/Yauung clan, part of the wider regional grouping known as the Gunaikurnai (Gunai/Kurnai), whose estates were located between Warrigal Creek and the Tarra River in Gippsland, Victoria. He was born in the mid-1830s and named Boon-bul-wa, spelled variously as Bun-Bun-wire, Bun-bool-ware, or Boon-bool-wy-er. Tarra Bobby’s grandfather was Bungelene (Bunjil Laen-buke), headman of the Wargatie (Wurnungatti) clan near Bushy Park station, Sale. Following the arrival of European settlers to Yau-ung country in 1841, the Brataualung were commonly referred to as the ‘Tarra tribe,’ hence Tarra Bobby’s Europeanised name. Despite the disruption caused by European settlement, Tarra Bobby’s early education and much of his life was grounded in Brataualung culture. He went through jerraeil (a male initiation ceremony) in the early 1850s and later became a lewin, a role that required him to travel to different clans of the Gunaikurnai and further afield on behalf of Yau-ung elders. His upper arms and chest were scarred with distinctive cicatrice markings that may have denoted this position.

In October 1857 the Brataualung were invited to attend celebrations with the Boonwurrung (Bunurong), Woiwurrung, and Taungurung clans of the Kulin nation. Through this tanderrum (ceremony), the Brataualung were guaranteed the protection of their hosts as well as the giving and receiving of allegiance and access to each other’s resources. Upon departing, each Brataualung man handed a spear to a Kulin man as a sign of the peaceful relationship between the clans. William Thomas, the government-appointed guardian of Aboriginal people, witnessed these events. Travelling with the Brataualung as they returned to Gippsland, he observed a group of young men, one of whom was probably Tarra Bobby, playing cards, a pastime learned from the settlers.

As a young man, Tarra Bobby and his friends were attracted to European culture and were able to gain work on pastoral runs during the labour shortage of the Victorian gold rush years. His wages, although low, were enough to purchase clothes, tobacco, and alcohol, allowing him to participate in colonial society. In 1858 he was working near Sale and living in a camp at Flooding Creek on the edge of the settlement when he encountered William Dexter, a European painter known for his card-playing and liberal supply of alcohol. Dexter employed Tarra Bobby and his friend, Billy Login/Logan (Mya-ran-bar), to cut wood, after which the two were involved in an altercation with another European man, Richard Dothwaite, who entered Tarra Bobby and Login’s camp while drunk, supplied the Aboriginal men with liquor, and was killed. According to the Age, ‘Tarra Bobby admitted having struck the deceased one blow on the back of the head; he says, however, the blow was intended for Billy Login’ (1858, 6). Both Aboriginal men were charged with murder and sent to Melbourne for trial. They were accompanied by the pastoralist Angus McMillan of Bushy Park station who enlisted Thomas’s support to care for the frightened young men. Aware of the injustice of the murder charge, Thomas visited the pair often. The trial was delayed several times (due to witnesses for the prosecution failing to appear) before they were eventually discharged, the long wait fostering a lasting relationship between Tarra Bobby and Thomas.

Tarra Bobby’s friend, Simon Wonga, ngurungaeta (headman) of the Kulin confederacy, secured land in the Upper Goulbourn area on the Acheron River in 1859 for the Taungurung. In April that year the Brataualung made representations through Wonga to Thomas for land of their own on which to settle and farm. Thomas advised them to consult McMillan and other local pastoralists, which they did, but to no effect. Early the following year Tarra Bobby visited the Taungurung farm at Acheron and was greatly impressed by what he saw—the land being self-managed and the people living independently. During the visit the Taungurung gave him a wife, Quar-tan-grook or Annie, likely a strategic move to guarantee his safety as he moved between the Gunaikurnai and the Kulin. In May 1860 he returned to Gippsland and persuaded one hundred or more Gunaikurnai members to visit the Acheron Reserve. When they arrived ‘a great game of football’ was held and the ‘festivities … were closed by a glorious corroberee’ (Gippsland Guardian 1860, 4).

In December 1861 the Moravian missionary Rev. Friedrich Hagenauer visited Gippsland with plans for a mission at Bushy Park. Protests by neighbouring pastoralists resulted in the mission, Ramahyuck, being established on the shores of Lake Wellington near the mouth of the Avon River. Many Gunaikurnai moved there when it opened in 1863. That year Wonga selected a permanent place for the Woiwurrung near Badger’s Creek in the Dandenong Ranges, named Coranderrk. The significance of the alliance between the Kulin and the Brataualung was evident when leaders of the Woiwurrung, Boonwurrung, and Brataualung groups attended a public levee held by the governor of Victoria on 26 May 1863 in Melbourne. The leaders brought gifts for Queen Victoria, petitioned for land, and committed to adopting European ways (mostly): ‘Blackfellows now throw away all war spears … live like white men almost’ (Argus 1863, 5). Tarra Bobby represented the Brataualung as speaker or emissary for the clan’s ageing headman, Old Morgan (Bunjil Diarreen). When Coranderrk was subsequently gazetted a reserve in June 1863, the Kulin believed that this meant that they owned the land.

Tarra Bobby, Annie, and their child (who may have been Annie’s by a previous marriage) made their home at Coranderrk. However, rather than settle, Tarra Bobby spent much of his time on the road between Ramahyuck and Coranderrk, acting as messenger and mediator between the Kulin and Brataualung. He also visited Thomas, who helped him get treatment for his eye, which had been injured in 1860 in a shooting accident at Anderson’s Creek near Warrandyte. By December 1864 the eye had seriously deteriorated and Thomas took him to the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital where it was removed. Tarra Bobby’s request, through Thomas, for a glass eye was denied by the committee of the Melbourne Hospital on the grounds that he would likely break this expensive item.

At Ramahyuck Hagenauer was trying to alienate the Gunaikurnai from their traditional ways. In February 1866 he negotiated to bring Aboriginal women from Western Australia to induce the young men to settle. Just as he was finalising the arrangements, Tarra Bobby, whom Hagenauer regarded as a ‘bad character’ (NLA MS 3343), persuaded twenty-seven Brataualung to leave Ramahyuck for Coranderrk, much to the missionary’s frustration. The two men clashed again in 1868 when Hagenauer enlisted the help of the Sale police to prevent a formal collective duel that had been arranged to resolve a dispute with the Snowy River people living at the Lake Tyers mission. Tarra Bobby threatened to involve Robert Brough Smyth, chair of the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of Aborigines, claiming that the Gunaikurnai had a right to do as they pleased. Such rights proved to be short-lived, as the following year new legislation was introduced that formally confined Aboriginal people in Victoria to particular missions and prevented their freedom to travel between places or to claim ownership of the mission lands.

Despite these new laws, Tarra Bobby remained mobile, moving between Ramahyuck and Coranderrk until 1874 when he agreed to return permanently to Gippsland. Although blind in both eyes and sick he refused to stay at Ramahyuck for fear that he would be poisoned. While camping near Stratford on the Avon River he came to the attention of a settler who wrote to the press claiming that Tarra Bobby had been ill-treated by Hagenauer and forced off the station. The missionary had not refused Tarra Bobby food or shelter, but he did consider him a threat to the mission. In April Tarra Bobby was arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned at Sale. The following month he was transferred to Melbourne where two doctors examined him. They were expected to declare him insane, but neither did; instead, they decided that he was suffering from hepatitis, gastric problems, and blindness among other ailments. The doctors recommended that he be allowed to return to his own country or, failing that, a mission station. Their recommendations were ignored and, on 21 May 1874, Tarra Bobby was committed to the Kew Lunatic Asylum, where he died on 7 June 1874 of a pelvic abscess. Predeceased by Annie, who died in the early 1870s, and his friend Thomas, he had become increasingly isolated and alone in his final years. Following his death, other Aboriginal men who, like him, refused to be confined on mission stations, were also committed to mental asylums in Victoria.

 

Cheryl Glowrey is a European woman. She was born on Brataualung land and was living on Brataualung land when she wrote this article.  

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Murder at Sale by the Blacks.’ 7 September 1858, 6
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Her Majesty’s Birthday.’ 27 May 1863, 4–5
  • Attwood, Bain. ‘Tarra Bobby, a Brataualung Man.’ Aboriginal History 11, no. 1 (1987): 41–57
  • Gippsland Guardian. ‘An Aboriginal Colony.’ 29 June 1860, 4
  • National Library of Australia. MS 3343, Letterbooks of F. A. Hagenauer
  • Stephens, Marguerita. The Journal of William Thomas: Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian of the Aborigines of Victoria 1839 to 1867. Vol. 3, 1854 to 1867. Melbourne: Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2014

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cheryl Glowrey, 'Tarra Bobby (1834–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/tarra-bobby-29711/text36783, accessed 9 August 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012