• William 'Beruk' Barak, 1866 (Image: Wikimedia Commens)
Not only did William Barak leave a legacy of historically and culturally rich artwork, but he also tracked bush outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang. Today, we remember a significant man in Australia's history books.
By
Sophie Verass

15 Aug 2016 - 7:20 PM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2016 - 7:20 PM

Often named 'King of the Yarra', William 'Beruk' Barak left a legacy as a prominent leader, spokesperson, artist and diplomat and cultural ambassador for Aboriginal Australia. 

He was a dedicated land rights' activist and marched to the then Parliament House in the late 1800s after enduring terrible oppression and mistreatment from colonial government policy, where he famously stated, "[We want] the Government [to] leave us here, give us the ground and let us manage here and get all the money." 

"[We want] the Government [to] leave us here, give us the ground and let us manage here and get all the money."

Barak died on this day, 15 August, 113 years ago. At approximately 85 years old, he is said to be the last full-blood tribesperson, the Wurunderjeri clan, first inhabitants of present-day Melbourne.  

Born as 'Beruk Barak' in 1823, he was of the Woi wurung people, inhabited in what is now known as the suburb of Croydon in Melbourne. He was the son of Bebejan a Ngurungaeta (clan head) and relation of Uncle Billibellary, another influential Ngurungaeta and one of the signatories of John Batman's 1835 historic 'treaty' abomination, to which Barak witnessed as a young boy.

Before becoming a Ngurungaeta in his own right, he was schooled at the government's Yarra Mission School from 1837 to 1839 and in the mid-1840s he joined the Native Mounted Police, a law enforcement consisting of Aboriginal troopers under the command of a single white officer.

 

Here, at 19 years old, he adopted the name 'William' and became known as a skilled tracker. Barak was engaged many times to track missing children and fugitives from the law, even years after he'd hung up his uniform. One of his most significant tasks was tracking the notorious Kelly Gang, which he found hiding in a thick scrub and refused his white superiors orders to approach them "first".   

In 1863, Barak moved to Coranderrk Station, a self-sufficient Aboriginal farming community near Healesville, Victoria. Ten years later he succeeded the then clan leader, Wonga and claimed the title. In its prime, Coranderrk became a small thriving village with many facilities including a school, church, bakery, butchery and orphan dormitories. Today, the old homestead of Coranderrk still stands and a small portion of the land has been returned to the Wurundjeri Council.  

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In his adult life, Barak developed many working relationships, friendships and diplomatic links with a number of influential non-Koorie people. He worked tirelessly as a negotiator between his people and settlers and colonisers. 

While adapting his own life to the changing conditions of his nation, Barak maintained a connection with his own culture, which can be seen throughout his prominent artworks. His famous works in ochre and charcoal depict both, Indigenous life and encounters with Europeans; featuring traditional ceremonies, group hunts and non-Indigenous visitors to the Coranderrk Station. His paintings are on display in leading galleries across Australia and have exceeded interest from arts enthusiasts and serious anthropologists across the globe. 

In 2005, the city of Melbourne honoured Barak and constructed a 525-metre footbridge named 'the William Barak bridge' which extends from Birrarung Marr to Yarra Park, across the Yarra River. 

More recently, in 2015, a 32-story residential block was constructed in Melbourne's CBD with a large portrait of the Wurnundjeri activist created by using shadows from negative spaces up the side of the building. Architecturally, the portrait is brilliant, however, the tribute was poorly received, with many people from the community calling it a "cruel juxtaposition" to have a land rights' activist on the side of a commercial estate. 

While many people might look to the U.S when it comes to leaders named 'Barack', Australia pays homage to its own homegrown pioneer who shares a similar name and defied his own generation.


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