This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969
William Barak (1824-1903), Aboriginal spokesman, variously called 'King William, last chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe' or 'Beruk (white grub in gum tree) belonging to the Wurundjeri Willum horde whose country lay along the Yarra and Plenty Rivers', was the son of Bebejern and great-nephew of prominent Victorian tribal leaders Billi belleri, Captain Turnbull and Jakki Jakki. He was regarded with more romance than reason by contemporaries as an innocent witness to the first European intruders, William Buckley and John Batman. He spent his childhood in traditional Aboriginal fashion but with tribal dislocation; after Melbourne's settlement he was not properly initiated. Relations invested him with the possum shawl, necklet, waist string and nose peg of manhood in a brief ceremony, but much of tribal lore was left to be picked up informally. He received a brief taste of education at Rev. G. Langhorne's mission school in 1837-39, and was possibly one of the more sober members of Captain Henry Dana's Native Police Force.
With his Gippsland-born first wife Lizzie, he was among the first group of Goulburn Aboriginals who settled at Acheron in 1859, hoping to have the area reserved. After much official indecision Coranderrk, near Healesville, was gazetted and he settled there permanently in 1863, in a 'neat little cottage and garden, most tidy and comfortable'. Barak worked for a small wage on the station farm and acquired a few horses. Further schooling and religious instruction were undertaken; he could read but not write. He was baptized, confirmed, and took a second wife Annie 'of the Lower Murray' (Lizzie died before 1863) in a publicized Presbyterian ceremony in 1865. The fate of his family was typical of the time; two infants died of gastro-enteritis, David and Annie of consumption. When he married Sarah (Kurnai) on 7 June 1890 he was the oldest man at Coranderrk and only full-blood survivor of his tribe.
In the late 1870s when management of Aboriginal affairs came under vigorous public criticism Barak emerged as a respected spokesman. Until his death he was the acknowledged leader at Coranderrk and a liaison between officialdom and the native population. His contact with such people as Graham Berry, Alfred Howitt, Mrs Ann Bon and Alfred Deakin, his petitions and public appearances were important spurs to action, especially the government inquiry of 1881. He outlined a plan for autonomous communities under Coranderrk's first manager, John Green: 'give us this ground and let us manage here ourselves … and no one over us … we will show the country we can work it and make it pay and I know it will'. His white champions did not share this faith and the scheme was never fostered, although Coranderrk was retained.
While adapting his own life to the changing conditions Barak maintained a remarkably balanced tie with his own culture. He was an accomplished painter in ochre and charcoal, 'a baritone of average compass', and a source on Aboriginal ways for both tourists and serious anthropologists. Lorimer Fison drew on his knowledge extensively. He was Howitt's chief informant for central and south-west Victoria and elsewhere. Large parts of Howitt's Native Tribes of South East Australia (London, 1904) rest heavily on his knowledge and opinion. Howitt invited him to Bairnsdale in 1882 and his notes of these interviews cover a wide range of customs, beliefs and kinship patterns, discussed with respect and deep feeling by Barak yet evaluated maturely against his Christian faith.
He died on 15 August 1903. In 1934 the local Australian Natives' Association erected a marble monument donated by Mrs Bon in Healesville's main street. This was later defaced by vandals, stored in the municipal offices, and finally placed above the heap of stones which marks his grave at Coranderrk.
Those who knew Barak described him unanimously as wise and dignified, with penetrating eyes and firm principles. The Board for the Protection of Aborigines noted him 'the most intelligent … remarkable black'. However, to the ordinary people he remained a romantic curiosity on picture postcards; erect and bearded, wearing sandshoes and a long coat, a Bible in one gloved hand and a boomerang in the other.
Patricia Marcard, 'Barak, William (1824–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barak-william-2930/text4239, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 July 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969