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AUSTRALIA HISTORY NEWS: Indigenous man Wombeetch Puyuun, known to the local white settlers as Camperdown George, stood in a courtroom in south-west Victoria in 1877.

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#AceHistoryDesk – Wombeetch Puyuun, a unique friendship and the push to recognise a monument erected in his honour

Sepia photo shirtless Indigenous wearing traditional necklace next to black and white photo of white-haired English man
Wombeetch Puyuun and James Dawson became lifelong friends.(Supplied: Camperdown and District Historical Society)none

Indigenous man Wombeetch Puyuun, known to the local white settlers as Camperdown George, stood in a courtroom in south-west Victoria in 1877.

The charge against him, according to the Hampden Guardian newspaper, was “being noisy and disagreeable … having, by some inconsiderate people, been supplied with intoxicating liquor”.

The justice of the peace, Peter McArthur, told Wombeetch he should go and live at Framlingham, the “Aboriginal station” some 40 kilometres away that was home to the vast majority of surviving First Nations people from the district.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.

But Wombeetch was having none of it — after all, he was thought by many to be the last member of the Leehoorah Gundidj clan still living freely on the ancestral lands of the Djargurd Wurrung people around present-day Camperdown.

An indigenous man sits with traditional weapons and necklace.
Wombeetch Putyuun was the last of the Leehoorah Gundidj. This photo was taken in 1879.(Supplied: Camperdown and District Historical Society)none

“The old fellow merely shook his head, and, remarking that this was ‘his country’, offered to take sixpence as an instalment of the rent due by the white fellows generally, and by the magistrate in particular,” the Hampden Guardian reported.

It’s stories such as this that help make Wombeetch Puyuun an important Indigenous figure in south-west Victoria, and are part of a push to have Heritage Victoria recognise a monument erected in his honour, under tragic but touching circumstances, about 140 years ago.

The monument is unlike any other in Australia for two key reasons; it acknowledges the massacre of Indigenous people at a time when they were still happening, and it celebrates a rare friendship between a white colonist and a First Nations person.

A proud warrior

Wombeetch was about 20 years old when white colonists arrived in 1839 in the area now known as Camperdown, where the Djargurd Wurrung people had lived for tens of thousands of years.

Camperdown and District Historical Society life member Bob Lambell said the white settlers arrived at a “rich hunting ground of swamps [with] plenty of game” where Wombeetch and his people had lived “a pretty good lifestyle for countless thousands of years”.

A man stands near displays of indigenous artifacts and information.
Bob Lambell amid a display honouring the region’s Indigenous people.(ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)none

“Within 40-odd years of the arrival of Europeans [the Aboriginal people were] all gone from here,” Mr Lambell explained, citing a combination of massacres, dispossession and disease.

Those who didn’t die were relocated to Aboriginal missions at Framlingham, about 40km west of Camperdown, or Buntingdale at Birregurra, about 70km to the east.

“But the unique thing about Wombeetch Puyuun is that throughout his life he refused to move from his country,” Mr Lambell explained.

A sign at a small public garden commemorating an indigenous warrior.
The Wombeetch Puyuun reconciliation garden in Camperdown, located near where Wombeetch used to live.(ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)none

As the township of Camperdown grew around him, Wombeetch continued to live in a traditional bark hut called a mia mia near the present-day site of a garden in his honour.

Wombeetch would often be seen walking the streets with his dogs, and became known to locals as “Camperdown George”.

An indigenous man dressed in a possum skin cloak holds a spear in the bush in an old photo.
Wombeetch Puyuun, pictured on country in 1878.(Supplied: Camperdown & District Historical Society)none

Vicki Couzens, who is a descendant of the Leehoorah Gundidj clan, says Wombeetch Puyuun is an “iconic” figure.

“He’s one of our heroes,” she said.

“There’s great photos of him — he’s a very proud and strong-looking man and a warrior.

“For me, he stands for that sovereignty, and standing as citizens on our own lands, and he maintained that and stayed there ’til his passing.”

A beautiful friendship

James Dawson and his wife Joan moved from Scotland to Australia in 1840, starting a dairy farm at Warrandyte in the Yarra Valley.

Dawson immediately stood out among other colonists by showing “enormous respect for the Aboriginal people”, Mr Lambell said.

A black and white portrait of a man in the 1870s
James Dawson, pictured in 1878, was horrified to learn of the death of his friend.(Supplied: Camperdown & District Historical Society)none

His daughter Isabella was born in 1842 and brought up alongside Indigenous children, becoming fluent in their languages, while Dawson advocated for the use of Aboriginal place names, and used local language names for his properties, which were often seen as a refuge for First Nations people.

In 1868, the Dawson family moved to Camperdown, where James met Wombeetch, and the two became firm friends.

John Clarke, a Kirrae Whurrong man who works with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, says it is through Wombeetch’s “very good friend James Dawson” that we know what an “extraordinary individual” Wombeetch was.

“[Wombeetch] was an astrologer and poet, and a brilliant knowledge-holder about local landscapes and the biology and the environment around him,” Mr Clarke said.

“[He was] a great champion and advocate for himself and his own people.”

While Wombeetch himself was extraordinary, his friendship with Dawson was perhaps even more so.

Indigenous man with full grey beard looks into the distance. He sits bare-footed, wrapped in animal fur and holding large stick
The earliest known portrait of Wombeetch Puyuun: “Camperdown George of the Timboon Tribe”.(Supplied: Camperdown & District Historical Society)none

“That friendship was built at a time when there was a lot of conflict,” Mr Clarke explained.

“A war was being waged in the south-west of Victoria — it was a frontier of violence, occupation, and as Indigenous peoples in the area, we weren’t just allowing ourselves to be overtaken.

“[Their friendship is] considered rare because Aboriginal people back in the day were considered a burden and, you know, sub-human.

“If they had some form of productive use, in the eyes of landholders and squatters, then it would have been [as] menial, indentured labour, if not slavery.

“So it was unique in that sense, where both James Dawson and his daughter Isabella … recognised the humanity of the Indigenous peoples and really acknowledged the knowledge that they had for the place, identity and culture.”

An invaluable resource

In Camperdown, Dawson and Isabella continued the work they had started years earlier, while living north of Port Fairy, to record the language, stories and customs of the Indigenous people of south-west Victoria.

The Dawsons published their work under James Dawson’s name in 1881 in the book The Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes in the Western District of Victoria, Australia.

It was the first book of its kind, and was created thanks to the trust and respect the Dawsons had fostered with local Indigenous people, including Wombeetch Puyuun.

A white lady in late 1800s clothing listens to a group of indigenous people
Isabella Dawson, pictured in 1875, listening to the local indigenous people.(Supplied: Camperdown & District Historical Society)none

In the book’s preface, Dawson writes: “Great care has been taken in this work not to state anything on the word of a white person; and, in obtaining information from the aborigines, suggestive or leading questions have been avoided as much as possible.”

Mr Clarke said the work the Dawsons did was incredibly important.

“They captured and recorded a lot of language that was forbidden to be spoken at the time,” he said.

“Because of the work that he did capturing stories and language … we now have some of those today.

“We can’t even guesstimate what’s been taken from us as a society.”

An old book from 1881, next to new version open to portraits of indigenous people
An original copy of James and Isabella Dawson’s 1881 book (left) next to a 1981 reprint.(ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)none

Ms Couzens described the book as an incredible resource which recorded that which otherwise would have been lost.

“We have no fluent speakers in Gunditjmara nation,” Ms Couzens said.

“Those of us who have a good working knowledge of the language still can’t speak in conversational fluency.

“Our old people knew what they were doing — getting it written down — because they could see what was happening.

“[The Dawsons’ book] and that amount of work that they did directly with our people … it’s absolutely invaluable.”

Dawson would eventually be appointed “local guardian of the Aborigines” in 1876, but the preface to his book shows how anachronistic Dawson’s views were, how aware he was of the sad impact of colonialism, and how poorly his fellow colonial settlers viewed the local Indigenous people:

An older man holds a book with an embossed image of a First Nations warrior on the front cover
Bob Lambell with James and Isabella Dawson’s book.(ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)none

“People seeing only the miserable remnants to be met with about the white man’s grog-shop may be inclined to doubt this; but if these doubters were to be brought into close communication with the Aborigines, away from the means of intoxication, and were to listen to their guileless conversation, their humour and wit, and their expressions of honour and affection for one another, those who are disposed to look upon them as scarcely human would be compelled to admit that in general intelligence, common sense, integrity, and the absence of anything repulsive in their conduct, they are at least equal, if not superior, to the general run of white men.”

‘A universal favourite’

Wombeetch Puyuun died of bronchitis on February 26, 1883, and the Camperdown Chronicle marked his death with a typically backhanded compliment of the time:

“[Camperdown George was] a universal favourite,” it wrote.

“He had a kindly nature and was possessed of none of the worst qualities of his race.

“The old man has refused to be moved to Framlingham, preferring to wander about the streets of the town with his two dogs.”

Wombeetch was buried in an unmarked grave in a patch of boggy land reserved for Indigenous people outside the consecrated grounds of the Camperdown cemetery.

Dawson was back in Scotland at the time of Wombeetch’s death and as soon as he learnt of his friend’s passing, he returned to Camperdown.

Upon his return, Dawson “protested the fact that Wombeetch was not buried in the cemetery”, Mr Clarke said.

“He got no traction on that protest, so he then dug up the remains of Wombeetch, and buried them in the cemetery without permission, and buried him in [Dawson’s] own plot”.

A tall obelisk in a cemetery at dusk
The monument was erected in 1883 by James Dawson in honour of Wombeetch Puyuun and the region’s Indigenous people.(ABC South West Vic: Matt Neal)none

‘In memory of the Aborigines of this district’

Mr Lambell said Dawson’s outrage went further than just giving his friend Wombeetch Puyuun a proper burial.

“He wanted to recognise the importance of the passing of the Aboriginal people so he decided to erect a monument in the Camperdown cemetery to their memory,” Mr Lambell said.

“He tried to raise money off a number of squatting families and other prominent citizens that he knew were complicit in massacres and the dispossession of Aboriginal people.

“None would contribute [so Dawson] erected the monument at his own expense in 1885.”

The obelisk still stands in the Camperdown cemetery, and its inscription reads:

“In memory of the Aborigines of the district. Here lies the body of the chief Wombeetch Puyuun and the last of the local tribes.”

A Indigenous warrior holds a spear and looks up at a monument in a cemetery.
Hissing Swan, who was also known as King David, stands at the monument in 1885.(Supplied: Camperdown & District Historical Society)none

On the monument, two dates were inscribed; 1840 and 1883, which Mr Lambell said “marked basically the arrival of the Europeans [through] to the near total demise of Aboriginal people resident in the district in 1883”.

Ms Couzens says the obelisk in Camperdown cemetery is a powerful symbol.

“It [comes from] a really bloody time, literally, and a time of great dispossession and social destruction,” she said.

“It’s important to hear Wombeetch Puyuun’s story, and of his relationship with the Dawsons, because it’s inspirational.

“[To know] there were people [like James Dawson] of good conscience, and trying to take care — [that’s] an inspirational story for now for everybody to know.”

One of a kind

Mr Clarke says the monument is a unique piece of Australian history, and he and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation are leading a push to get it on the Victorian and Australian heritage registers.

“It’s a very early solid piece of recognition that this is Aboriginal land, and that some atrocity has occurred,” Mr Clarke said.

“We understand it to be the only memorial of its kind from that time, and so on a national scale that is important.

“It is a memorial to the Aborigines of the district, and … Wombeetch Puyuun, who, effectively in this case, embodies the tragedy of colonisation.

“It’s a real-time example of friendship, mutual respect, and reconciliation.”

ABC (HISTORY) NEWS

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