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Total population
Pre contact – at least 500.[1]
Regions with significant populations
Boonwurrung language, English
Australian Aboriginal mythology, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
see List of Indigenous Australian group names

The Boonwurrung people,[2][3] are an Aboriginal people of the Kulin nation, who are the Traditional Owners of the land from the Werribee River to Wilsons Promontory, Victoria, Australia. Their territory includes part of what is now the city and suburbs of Melbourne. Before British arrival, they lived as all people of the Kulin nation lived, sustainably on the land, for tens of thousands of years. They were called the Western Port or Port Philip tribe by the early settlers, and were in alliance with other tribes in the Kulin nation, having particularly strong ties to the Wurundjeri people.

The Registered Aboriginal Party representing the Boonwurrung people is the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation.


Boonwurrung is one of a group of Aboriginal Australian languages known as the Kulin languages, which belong to the Pama-Nyungan language family.[4] The ethnonym occasionally used in early writings to refer to the Bunwurrung, namely Bunwurru, is derived from the word bu:n, meaning "no" and wur:u, signifying either "lip" or "speech".[5]


The Boonwurrung people are predominantly saltwater people whose lands, waters, and cosmos encompassed some 3,000 square miles (7,800 km2) of territory around Western Port Bay and the Mornington Peninsula. Its western boundary was set at Werribee. To the southeast, it extended from Mordialloc through to Anderson Inlet, as far as Wilson's Promontory. Inland its borders reached the Dandenong Ranges, and ran eastwards as far as the vicinity of Warragul.[5][6][7]

In June 2021, the boundaries between the land of two of the traditional owner groups in greater Melbourne, the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung, were agreed between the two groups, after being drawn up by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The new borderline runs across the city from west to east, with the CBD, Richmond and Hawthorn included in Wurundjeri land, and Albert Park, St Kilda and Caulfield on Bunurong land. It was agreed that Mount Cottrell, the site of a massacre in 1836 with at least 10 Wathaurong victims, would be jointly managed above the 160 m (520 ft) line. The two Registered Aboriginal Parties representing the two groups were the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation.[8]

Structure, borders, and land use[edit]

Communities consisted of six or more (depending on the extent of the territory) land-owning groups called clans that spoke a related language and were connected through cultural and mutual interests, totems, trading initiatives, and marriage ties. Access by other clans to land and resources (such as the Birrarung, or Yarra River) was sometimes restricted depending on the state of the resource in question. For example; if a river or creek had been fished regularly throughout the fishing season and fish supplies were down, fishing was limited or stopped entirely by the clan who owned that resource until fish were given a chance to recover. During this time, other resources were utilised for food. This ensured the sustained use of the resources available to them. As with most other Kulin territories, penalties such as spearings were enforced upon trespassers. Today, traditional clan locations, language groups, and borders are no longer in use and descendants of Wurundjeri people live within modern-day society.[citation needed]


It is generally considered that before European invasion, six separate clans existed, each with an Arweet, or clan headman.[9]


The Bunurong social divisions consisted of moieties, classifying people either as Bunjil the Eaglehawk or Waang the raven.[11]


First contact[edit]

The Boonwurrung clans would have been aware of the Europeans, as people of the coast who watched the explorers ships sail past, then enter Port Phillip and Western Port. Initial contact was made in February 1801, when Lieutenant Murray and his crew from the Lady Nelson came ashore for fresh water near present-day Sorrento. A wary exchange of spears and stone axes for shirts, mirrors and a steel axe, ended when the British panicked, resulting in spears flying, musket shots and the use of the ship's cannon, wounding several fleeing Boonwurrung people.[12]

The following month, Captain Milius from the French ship Naturaliste, in the Baudin expedition, danced alone on a beach at Western Port for the natives, in a much more peaceful contact.[12]

Just before and overlapping the period of British exploration and settlement, the Boonwurrung were involved in a long-running dispute with the Gunai/Kurnai people from Gippsland. According to William Barak, the last traditional elder of the Wurundjeri people, the conflict was a dispute over resources, which resulted in heavy casualties being suffered by the Boonwurrung. Many Gunnai raids occurred to abduct Boonwurrung women. The Yowengerra had almost been completely annihilated by 1836, largely as a result of attacks from the Gunai.[13] During 1833–34, around 60–70 Bunurong people, if a report has been correctly interpreted, may have been killed in a raid by Gunai when they were camped to the north of Carrum Carrum Swamp.[14]


The first British settlement occurred at Sullivan Bay in October 1803, near modern-day Sorrento, Victoria, under the command of Lieutenant David Collins. William Buckley, a convict, escaped from this abortive settlement and lived for more than 30 years with the Wathaurong people before approaching John Batman's party in 1835.[citation needed]

The Boonwurrung people, living primarily along the Port Phillip and Western Port coast, may have had their livelihoods affected by European seal hunters. The sealers' abduction of Boonwurrung women and taken to Bass Strait Islands and Tasmania may have caused inter-tribal conflicts, and by analogy, this may also apply to the Boonwurrung, whose coastlands were visited by sealers.[15] A report by Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1830 attributed the absence of Boonwurrung on Phillip Island, which was a camp for sealers, as due to the latter's behavior.[16] As late as 1833, nine Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung women, and a boy, Yonki Yonka, were kidnapped and ferried across to the sealers' Bass Strait island bases.[17] Contact with sealers would have exposed the coastal tribes to European diseases, and this would have exercised a heavy impact on demographics, and the economic and social ties binding the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples, as would the possible effects of infectious diseases contracted from these sealers.[1]

James Fleming, one of the party of surveyor Charles Grimes in HMS Cumberland who explored the Maribyrnong River and the Yarra River as far as Dights Falls in February 1803, reported smallpox scars on several aboriginal people he met, suggesting that a smallpox epidemic might have swept through the tribes around Port Philip before 1803, reducing the population.[18] Broome puts forward that two epidemics of smallpox decimated the population of the Kulin tribes by perhaps killing half each time in the 1790s and again around 1830.[19][a] This theory has been challenged, however, by modern historical diagnosticians, who argue that the observed symptoms in the early ethnographical literature are compatible with impetigo and ringworm.[20]

One particularly notable person at the time of European settlement in Victoria was Derrimut, a Boonwurrung Elder, who informed early European settlers in October 1835 of an impending attack by clans from the Woiwurrung group. The colonists armed themselves, and the attack was averted. Benbow and Billibellary, from the Wurundjeri, also acted to protect the colonists as part of their duty of hospitality. Derrimut later became very disillusioned and died in the Benevolent Asylum at the age of about 54 years in 1864. A few colonists erected a tombstone to Derrimut in Melbourne General Cemetery in his honour.[citation needed]

By 1839, the Boonwurrung had been reduced to 80–90 people, with only 4 of 19 children under four years old, from a probable pre-contact population of greater than 500 people. By 1850 Protector William Thomas estimated just 28 Bunurong people living on Boonwurrung land.[citation needed]

In 1852, the Boonwurrung were allocated 340 hectares (840 acres) at Mordialloc Creek while the Woiwurrung gained 782 hectares along the Yarra at Warrandyte. The Aboriginal reserves were never staffed by whites and were not permanent camps, but acted as distribution depots where rations and blankets were distributed, with the intention being to keep the tribes away from the growing settlement of Melbourne.[21] The Aboriginal Protection Board revoked these two reserves in 1862–1863, considering them now too close to Melbourne.[22]

In March 1863, after three years of upheaval, the surviving Kulin leaders, among them Simon Wonga and William Barak, led forty Wurundjeri, Taungurung (Goulburn River) and Boonwurrung people over the Black Spur and squatted on a traditional camping site on Badger Creek near Healesville and requested ownership of the site. This became Coranderrk Station, named after the Woiwurrung word for the Victorian Christmas bush.[23] Coranderrk was closed in 1924 and its occupants were moved to Lake Tyers in Gippsland.[24]


In Boonwurrung belief, their territory was carved out by the creator Lohan as he moved from Yarra Flats down to his final resting place at Wa-mung and, as custodians of this marine-bek country, they required outsiders to observe certain ritual prohibitions and to learn their language if the newcomers were to enter their land without harm.[25]

Law and war[edit]

Great enmity existed in particular between the Boonwurrung and the eastern Gunai, who were later deemed responsible for playing a role in the drastic reduction of the tribe's population.[26]

Injury or death to a tribal member usually resulted in a conference to assess the facts, and, where thought unlawful, revenge was taken.[27] In 1839, after one or two Boonwurrung/Woiwurrung were killed, a party of 15 men left for Geelong in order to retaliate against the malefactors, the Wathaurong.[28] In 1840, the Boonwurrung became convinced that a man from a tribe in Echuca had used sorcery to ordain the death of one of their warriors, whose name had been sung while a possum bone discarded after a Boonwurrung meal, and encased in a kangaroo's leg bone, was roasted. Shortly afterward the named Boonwurrung man died, and the tribe revenged itself on the first Echuca tribesman who then came to visit their territory.[3] It was arranged by word of mouth, passing from Echuca through the Nirababaluk and Wurundjeri, for a meeting to have justice done at Merri Creek. Nine or ten of the killed Echuca tribesman's kinsmen threw spears and boomerangs at the Boonwurrung warrior, armed with a shield, until he was wounded in the flank by a reed-spear. An elder of another, observing tribe, the Barababaraba, called it a day, the ordeal ended, and all celebrated a grand corroboree.[29]

Boonwurrung Dreaming[edit]

  • Bunjil & Pallian Creation Story: Bunjil is the Creator spirit of the Kulin People.
  • Birrarung Creation Story: formation of the Birrarung River.

Notable people[edit]

Alternative names[edit]

  • Bunuron
  • Bunurong, Bunwurrung, Boonwerung, Boonoorong and Bururong[31]
  • Boonerwrung[32]
  • Bunwurru
  • Putnaroo, Putmaroo
  • Thurung (an eastern tribal exonym for the Bunjurong, meaning tiger snakes, a metaphor indicating the sneaky way they set up ambushes against the eastern tribes.)
  • Toturin (a Gunai term for 'black snake, used for several western Boonwurrung tribes.[5]z

See also[edit]


  1. ^ It is attested that in some Victorian tribes, such of those found in the Loddon area the advent of the smallpox was associated with s serpent, Mindye, whose maleficence could be conjured by sorcerers to harm people. An early colonist wrote: "Any plague is supposed to be brought on by the Mindye or some of its little ones. I have no doubt that, in generations gone by, there has been an awful plague of cholera or black fever, and that the wind at the time, or some other appearance from the north-west has given rise to this strange being." (Thomas 1898, pp. 84–85, 89–90)


  1. ^ a b Gaughwin & Sullivan 1984, p. 88.
  2. ^ Blainey 2013, p. 8.
  3. ^ a b Howitt 2010, p. 338.
  4. ^ Dixon 2002, p. xxxv.
  5. ^ a b c Tindale 1974.
  6. ^ Clark 1995, p. v, map.
  7. ^ Howitt 2010, p. 127.
  8. ^ Dunstan, Joseph (26 June 2021). "Melbourne's birth destroyed Bunurong and Wurundjeri boundaries. 185 years on, they've been redrawn". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 July 2021.
  9. ^ Barwick 1984, p. 117.
  10. ^ Clark & Heydon 2004, p. 9.
  11. ^ Gunson 1968, p. 5.
  12. ^ a b Broome 2005, pp. 3–6.
  13. ^ Barwick 1984, p. 119.
  14. ^ Clark & Heydon 2004, p. 32.
  15. ^ Presland 1994, p. 40.
  16. ^ Gaughwin & Sullivan 1984, p. 82.
  17. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 5–6.
  18. ^ Shillinglaw 1879, p. 28.
  19. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 7–9.
  20. ^ Barwick 1984, p. 116, n.17.
  21. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 106–107.
  22. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 126–127.
  23. ^ Clark 2015, p. 19.
  24. ^ Clark 2015, p. 3.
  25. ^ Barwick 1984, p. 114.
  26. ^ Gaughwin & Sullivan 1984, p. 83.
  27. ^ Howitt 2010, pp. 336ff..
  28. ^ Clark 2015, p. 163, n.101.
  29. ^ Howitt 2010, pp. 338–340.
  30. ^ Munro 2014.
  31. ^ Clark 1990.
  32. ^ Boon Wurrung Foundation 2021.


External links[edit]