Aboriginal place names: let’s get it right
16 September 2020


This is the second in a series of articles in which Hugh Fraser will be writing about contemporary shire matters in the run-up to local government elections. Follow the work of Hugh on the council and in the community at hughfraser-morningtonpeninsula.com

THE name “Blacks Camp Reserve” in Somerville is a derogatory term and offensive to the traditional custodians of the Mornington Peninsula, so the shire has been advised. This is supported by non-Aboriginal local residents and reserve users.

So in July, the council endorsed for public comment four possible Aboriginal names for the renaming of this shire-owned reserve.

Two are generic Aboriginal names – “earth” (Beek Beak) and “mountain” (Ngooraak). The two other names proposed are the clan names Burinyong Balug and Mayone Balug.

In 2004 the council commissioned an archaeological investigation of the reserve, which found more than 200 artefacts and four Aboriginal sites later registered. An existing billabong, which fills after rain, was likely a water source. The importance of the site is undoubted.

The reserve, Blacks Camp Road and Blacks Camp Preschool are to be renamed, which has created interest from the preschool community, local Rotary club and Friends of Blacks Camp Reserve.

For nearly 200 years of European settlement in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, official government policy has been to name places using local names actually used by local Aboriginal people. Evocative Aboriginal place names such as Ballaarat, Wendouree, Warrenheip, Birrigurrah, Moorabool, Millewa, Tullamarine and Yarra (-Yarra) spring to mind. These are not “off the shelf” generic place names but names Aboriginal people used for their places.

The southern Mornington Peninsula has many local and equally evocative place names used by the local Aboriginal people. Tootgarook swamp, Gunnamatta surf beach, Kangerong ward and Wannaeue Place, a tiny remnant of a local Aboriginal name in Rosebud, are examples.

Rosebud itself is named after a twomasted sailing ship wrecked on a sandbank off the fishing village of Banksia Point in 1855. Locals stripped timbers from the ship for their houses and used to say “I’m going up to the Rosebud”, which soon became the fishing village’s name. In 1939 The Argus newspaper referred to this wreck off “Wannaeue Beach”. And Wannaeue would be a fabulous new name for Rosebud or this shire.

The adoption of Aboriginal place names was official Victorian government policy as early as 1839.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle was instructed, “You will assign to each Parish a name, founded on the native appellations of any place or hill therein”. In the Grampians (also known as Gariwerd), for example, 28 of 30 parishes have Aboriginal names – see Eccleston G, Major Mitchell’s 1836 ‘Australian Felix’ Expedition: a re-evaluation (Monash Publications, 1992).

So it is a disappointment not to find at least some intellectual rigour in management’s report to the council proposing names for Blacks Camp Reserve. More research could be done to find a name that local Aboriginal people themselves once used for their important place at the reserve.

We ought not be careless about this and actually be mindful of what has been displaced and why.

I am reminded of what Keith Hancock powerfully wrote 90 years ago about the “Invasion of Australia” in Australia (Australasian Publishing, 1930):

“[T]he British have imposed themselves upon it [Australia] with their barbed-wire and railways and commercial journalism and modern liberal ideas. Their advance resembles the forward-scattering of a horde, and sometimes, like the onrush of a horde, it has been devastating. The Australian Aborigines … fitted themselves to the soil, modelling a complex civilization of intelligent artificiality, which yet was pathetically helpless when assailed by the acquisitive society of Europe.”

W Keith Hancock – fellow of All Souls College, Oxford but better known to Australians as Professor of Modern History at the University of Adelaide (and later knighted) – concluded:

“Yet sometimes the invading British did their wreckers’ work with the unnecessary brutality of stupid children. The Aboriginal race has always possessed enthusiastic friends but the friends have never agreed upon a consistent and practical policy for [their] preservation.”

The Aboriginal camp at Somerville has long gone except for its archeological remains. What is now thought to be the pejorative name “Blacks Camp Reserve” is to be changed.

So how much and how little has changed in 90 years? Reported in The Age newspaper of Saturday 13 June 2020, one of Australia’s leading historians, Stuart McIntyre, wrote about the recent removal of statues and other memorials in the United States and United Kingdom:

“I recognize that a number of these monuments are extremely offensive to people for whom they have a meaning of repression and even extermination. The problem is that, if you remove them, you are removing the capacity for people to have an informed awareness of what has happened in the past and things that have changed since.”

Before we displace the descriptive name with generic names such as “Beek Beak” or “Ngooraak”, let’s apply at least some intellectual rigour to find a truly local name the Aboriginal clans would themselves have once used for their place.

The naming process is open for community feedback until Monday 21 September 2020.

Hugh Fraser is Nepean Ward councillor
on Mornington Peninsula Shire Council
and a candidate in the upcoming local
government elections.
Email: hwfraser@vicbar.com.au or
mobile: 0418 379 335
Written and authorised by Hugh Fraser,
12 Michael Street, Rye 3941