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Yonki Yonka (c. 1823–1846)

by Brian Wills-Johnson

This article was published:

Yonki Yonka, lithograph by H. Hainsselin, 1846

Yonki Yonka, lithograph by H. Hainsselin, 1846

National Library of Australia, 8189832

Yonki Yonka (c. 1823–1846), shepherd and sailor, was probably born in the early 1820s into the Yalukit Willam, a clan of the Boonwurrung language group, son of Baddourup, also known as Big Benbow, and one of his two wives, Barbunggrook or Mullingrook. His paternal grandfather was Mingaragong, known to Europeans as Old Mr Man. Yonki Yonka’s people lived in the area where the city of Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs is now located, lands to which the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung are also connected, and whose borders are still to be formally determined.

Yonki Yonka had many names. A Melbourne magistrate, William Hull, called him Yangalla, which may have been his childhood name. Assistant Protector of Aborigines William Thomas used many different spellings of his name including Yankiyunker and Yonke Yonke, and he was also known to Europeans as Robert or Bob Cunninghame.

In around 1833 Yonki Yonka was one of a small group of Boonwurrung, mostly women, who were kidnapped from the beach near Point Nepean by non-Indigenous sealers and taken to Preservation Island, Bass Strait, where they were sold or traded as slaves. He either escaped or was rescued and, on 17 October 1833, at Launceston, Van Diemen’s Land, he boarded the cutter Royal William. Yonki Yonka may have hoped it would return him to Port Phillip but instead it delivered him to Albany, Western Australia, where he had no choice but to learn English and work for the colonists. In March 1835 he was employed on the Adams as a shepherd for Samuel Barker who was bringing a load of sheep to Fremantle. The ship reached Fremantle on 4 April, and Yonki Yonka would spend the next five years working as a shepherd and stock-keeper. He was in the Avon Valley, in the hills east of Perth, during the height of conflict between the Ballardong Noongar and colonists. Later, Thomas recorded that Yonki Yonka’s colonial ‘masters were, at Swan River, 1 & 2 Mr Barker, 3 Mr Phillips, 4 Mr Mundy’ (SLNSW MLMSS 214).

Yonki Yonka left Fremantle on the Minerva on 16 April 1840 bound for Adelaide with four other Aboriginal shepherds who, like him, were employed by the stock importers Edward Eyre and Alfred Mundy. One of his companions was Wylie, who would later accompany Eyre on his expedition across the Nullarbor. Yonki Yonka spent a year in Adelaide employed by John Gombel as a dairy hand and stockman and was paid £1 per week, before joining the Edina on 17 May 1841 to return to Port Phillip. Three weeks later, on 6 June 1841, he presented himself at Thomas’s tent at the Boonwurrung encampment on the south side of the Yarra River. He was dressed as a sailor in a blue jacket with a ‘black silk handkerchief hung loose and easy on his neck,’ and had ‘fine dark eyes, [and] very long black curly hair’ (Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser 1845, 2). Fluent in English, the eighteen-year-old told Thomas his story, and the protector, who had ‘often heard of him from the blacks,’ described the revelry that followed his reunion with his people: ‘the excitement that night can only be felt by a black’ (Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser 1845, 2).

When the European colonisers John Fawkner and John Batman had arrived at Port Phillip in the mid-1830s, Yonki Yonka had been in Western Australia. On his return to his Country he found it and his people overrun by colonists and their sheep. He quickly discarded his sailor’s uniform and rejoined his people, undergoing an initiation process that left scars on his chest, shoulders, and arms. Thomas struggled to understand Yonki Yonka’s decision to resume his Aboriginal way of life, which he dismissed as ‘miserable,’ but Yonki Yonka boldly asserted: ‘If I like it, what’s that to [the] white man?’ (quoted in Stephens 2014, 42). Perhaps reflecting on his years of working for colonists in Van Diemen’s Land, Western Australia, and South Australia, he stated: ‘white man … only make me work, work, and Black Fellows no like work, & never live like white man’ (quoted in Stephens 2014, 42). Having been introduced to aspects of Western life and having seemingly rejected them, some Europeans viewed Yonki Yonka as a ‘dangerous character … more mischievous than one who has never mixed … with the white population’ (Haydon 1846, 119).

Despite this assessment, towards the end of 1841 Yonki Yonka rescued the European colonists William Johnson and Joseph Harper who had become lost in the bush outside Melbourne. Johnson showed his appreciation by naming several of his properties after his rescuer. On 23 February 1842 Yonki Yonka was one of twenty-three Aboriginal men to join the native police corps, re-established that year under the command of Henry E. P. Dana at the Aboriginal Protectorate Station at Nerre Nerre Warren. The force was established for two main purposes: to ‘civilise’ the Aboriginal troopers and to keep the peace across the Port Phillip District. It is possible that among Yonki Yonka’s motives for joining the corps was the desire to forge an alliance with colonists. Later, he impressed Magistrate Hull with his knowledge of the history of his Country. He and his father Baddourup told Hull that Port Phillip Bay had once been a grassy plain—a story passed down through generations, recording conditions that predate ‘the last post-ice age rising of the seas’ (Upton 2015) ten thousand years ago.

In 1841 or 1842 Yonki Yonka had married Bungerrook, a daughter of Billibellary, one of the most significant clan leaders among the neighbouring Woiwurrung language group and one of the alleged signatories of John Batman’s land-grabbing ‘treaty’ in 1835. Yonki Yonka died of unknown causes on 4 November 1846 and was buried at Emerald Hill (later South Melbourne), an important meeting and corroboree place, in the customary manner with an opossum cloak bound around him. Thomas was so surprised by Yonki Yonka’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable death that he had his body disinterred to look for signs of his cause of death, fearing it may have been the result of violence, but could find nothing.

A member of the first generation of Victorian Aboriginal people to live through the European invasion and settlement of their Country, Yonki Yonka is remembered for his resilience, initiative, and adaptability, having been removed from his family and Country at a young age, survived in unknown distant lands by adapting to the demands of strangers, and returned to his home, now irrevocably changed.

 

Brian Wills-Johnson is of European descent. He was born on Whadjuk Noongar land.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Eddie, Rachel. ‘Traditional Owners Formalised in New Boundaries Covering Central Melbourne.’ Age, 1 July 2021. Accessed 5 August 2021. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/traditional-owners-formalised-in-new-boundaries-covering-central-melbourne-20210701-p585vg.html. Copy held on ADB file
  • Haydon, G. H. Five Years’ Experience in Australia Felix, Comprising a Short Account of Its Early Settlement and Its Present Position, with Many Particulars Interesting to Intending Emigrants. London: Hamilton, Adams, 1846
  • Port Phillip Gazette and Settler's Journal. ‘Domestic Intelligence.’ 11 November 1846, 2
  • Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser. ‘Original Correspondence.’ 14 October 1845, 2–3
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 214, William Thomas Papers, 1834–1868, 1902
  • Stephens, Marguerita. The Journal of William Thomas: Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian of the Aborigines of Victoria 1839 to 1843. Melbourne: Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2014
  • Upton, John. ‘Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately for 10,000 Years.’ Scientific American, 26 January 2015. Accessed 4 March 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-sea-rise-tale-told-accurately-for-10-000-years/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. ‘Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation Boundaries.’ Last modified 1 July 2021. Accessed 22 July 2021. https://www.aboriginalheritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/bunurong-land-council-aboriginal-corporation. Copy held on ADB file
  • Wills-Johnson, Brian. ‘“A Most Dangerous Character”: The Extraordinary Life of Yonki Yonka.’ Master’s thesis, University of Western Australia, 2017

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian Wills-Johnson, 'Yonki Yonka (c. 1823–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yonki-yonka-31119/text38495, published online 2022, accessed online 2 December 2022.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Yonki Yonka, lithograph by H. Hainsselin, 1846

Yonki Yonka, lithograph by H. Hainsselin, 1846

National Library of Australia, 8189832

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Yanker Yunker
  • Yanke Yanke
  • Yanker Yanker
  • Yonker Yonker
  • Yonka Yonka
  • Yakiyunker
  • Yonke Yonke
  • Yangalla
  • Cunninghame, Bob
  • Cunningham, Robert
Birth

c. 1823
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

4 November, 1846 (aged ~ 23)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage
Occupation