When the European settlers first arrived in Melbourne in 1835, different aboriginal clans occupied the area. Each clan had a clan head or Arweet. The clan head usually nominates his successor towards the end of his life. For the Yalukit willam clan the position of Arweet was shared between two young men named Derrimut and Benbow.
The story of Derrimut, the traitor, is also the story of the survival of the early white settlers of Melbourne. For many, Derrimut is still an enigma – Is he a saviour or a traitor? The kindness Derrimut showed towards the new settlers proved to be his and his tribe’s undoing.
On Friday, 29th April 1864, ‘The Age’ published from Melbourne carried a rather unimportant news in one of its inside pages, which read as follows,
“The old chief Derrimut died at the Melbourne Benevolent asylum, on Wednesday last. Derrimut was the last chief of those tribes of aborigines who were encamped in the neighbourhood of the Yarra, when Mr Fawkner and the first settlers arrived here. It will be remembered that Derrimut saved the first settlers from being massacred by the blacks, as he gave them timely warning of the attack.”
Derrimut, the traitor who entered the history books of Australia for working against the best interests of his own tribe died a pathetic death after a long and equally pathetic life. But that was not the first time he was mentioned in Australian newspapers.
On 17th October 1862, “The Age” carried a one liner mentioning his name among the drunkards.
Thursday, 16th October 1862
(Before Mr Stuart, P.M)
Drunkards – Derrimut an aborigine was discharged.
Two years after this incident, the man who should have been the chief of a tribe, was picked up in a helpless condition at Brighton, crippled with rheumatism. He left his own creed for the friendship of the white settlers and became a degenerate hanger-on around the outskirts of Melbourne for most of the rest of his life.
Derrimut belonged to the Yalukit Willam Clan and the meaning of his name is believed to be ‘pursue’ or ‘hunt’, denoting the two most cherished qualities for an aboriginal. Yalukit Willam Clan was associated with the coastal land which spread from Port Phillip bay to the Werribee river. But in1835, the aboriginal landscape was about to face the winds of change. On 15 August 1835, Enterprize, a schooner owned by John Pascoe Fawkner, entered the Yarra River. On 30 August, the settlers disembarked near where William Street now stands. John Fawkner was not one of the passengers as he was prevented by his creditors at the last moment from boarding the schooner. He arrived on 16th October 1835, on the second trip of the Enterprize. When Fawkner arrived in Melbourne, he found an assemblage of around 300 of the aborigines drawn from adjacent areas like Goulbourn river, Geelong and the Barabool Hill stationed near where a new weather boarded house was built for him and his dependents. The tribesmen planned to murder the settlers by tomahawking them, but the settlers did not suspect anything as the natives inhabited near the Yarra area were in friendly terms with them. The settlers offered them biscuits, potatoes and other presents brought specifically for them. The arms of all sorts were left on board the schooner with the women and children, which would have given ample time for the natives to strike before the settlers could get hold of the weapons to defend themselves.
Two natives Baitbainger and Derrimut formed a friendship with Fawkner’s servant, a youth named William Watkins. On 28th October 1835, the day began as usual for the settlers, putting all their efforts to finish the work on Fawkner’s house. The local tribe was happy to allow the settlers build their houses for the gifts they already received and the anticipation of receiving more. The tribes from surrounding areas who have not been shared the bounty, watched with growing cupidity and resolved to attack and kill all the settlers, in order to possess themselves of their goods. It would have been an easy walk over for the natives with their overpowering numbers against the unarmed settlers.
Derrimut came running to William Watkins to inform about the impending attack. Initially they could not understand anything due to the language barrier. William Buckley the white man who lived with the Yarra tribe for 32 years were called in to translate and it became known that aborigines had agreed to murder all the white people by getting two or more of their fighting men along side each of the settlers. The natives were armed with stone Tomahawks hidden under their skin rugs and each one had a spear with them or hidden in the long grass near the hut and were dragging it along with their toes. When they saw Derrimut passing the information, they unsuccessfully threw a few spears at him. The Aborigines, then clustered together in two lots some hundred Yards from the settlers believed to be holding a council of war.
Fawkner at once called his men and quietly armed them. He loaded one of his muskets with buckshot and fired into the head of the tree under which the natives assembled. When they heard the sound and saw pieces of wood falling on their heads, they ran away with loud cries. Fawkner and Henry Batman (brother of John Batman) made William Buckley, the man who lived with aborigines for 32 years, to tell the natives to leave the place and cross the Yarra to the other side. Loaded the natives in their boats and transported them across the Yarra as the settlers stood armed. The settlers destroyed all the bark canoes they could find so that the aborigines wont return. Out of gratitude they gave Derrimut clothes and food.
If Derrimut did not turn an informant, the white settlement in Melbourne would have been delayed at least for some years. It was the duty of the natives to protect their land irrespective of the uncertain outcome of an attack against the settlers.
Since then, for quite some time, Derrimut was closely associated with Fawkner. He often went hunting and fishing with Fawkner and with other aborigines formed a crew for Fawkner’s boat. Another two times, Derrimutt saved the settlers from an impending attack by giving them early warning. Derrimut accompanied Fawkner to Van Diemen’s land in August 1836 and was presented to Governor Arthur. Arthur presented Derrimut with a drummer’s uniform.
Derrimut’s first wife was abducted by sealers at Point Nepean in 1833 and was taken to permanent sealing camps on one of the Bass Strait Islands. In October 1845, Derrimut had a companion named Maywerer, a Wathawurrung tribal woman.
Derrimut remained as an object of interest for the Colonial Government in later years. Colonial Government’s enquiry into the aborigines (1858–59) by a select committee of legislative council produced a report in 1859. Derrimut’s name appeared a few times in the report.
Below are some of the relevant parts of the report:
On a question to William Thomas (1793-1867), assistant protector and guardian of Aboriginals by a committee member J.H Patterson
J.H Patterson: Do you believe they (aborigines)would sell their blankets, if anyone would buy them?
William Thomas answered, “Yes, but it must be a very low character that would take a blanket away from a black. I think some drunken black such as Derrimut would sell his blanket for drink.”
In another part of the report, a testimony from William Hull who served as a magistrate and authored a book titled, “An inquiry into the origin and antiquity of the Aborigines” makes an interesting read. William Hull testified in 1842.
By Dr. Hope: Have you had any experience or knowledge of any aboriginal ever continuing faithfully attached to a family where he was brought up? Supposing any family had taken a black from his tribe and brought him up as a member of the family and educated him, has he broken loose at some time or other? Is there any further information you could afford to the committee relative to the subject under consideration?
Hull: In the select committee which sat in Sydney many years ago, a black, who was supposed to be civilized and Christianised, was examined before the committee, and if this committee could get Derrimut and examine him, I think he would give the committee a great deal of valuable information with respect to himself and his tribe, which would be very interesting; he speaks moderately good English, and I was told by a black a few days ago that he was still alive, and that he lay about in St. Kilda.
The last time I saw him was nearly opposite the Bank of Victoria, he stopped me and said “You give me shilling, Mr. Hull.” ” No,” I said, ” I will not give you a shilling, I will go and give you some bread,” and he held his hand out to me and he said “Me plenty sulky you long time ago, you plenty sulky me; no sulky now, Derrimut soon die,” and then he pointed with a plaintive manner, which they can affect, to the Bank of Victoria, he said, “You see, Mr. Hull, Bank of Victoria, all this mine, all along here Derrimut’s once; no matter now, me soon tumble down.” I said, ” Have you no children?” and he flew into a passion immediately, ” Why me have lubra? why me have pica ninny? You have all this place, no good have children, no good have lubra, me tumble down and die very soon now.”
Derrimut suffered from many ailments and was treated at the Melbourne Hospital in 1863 and 1864 for partial blindness and paralysed arm. In January 1864, Derrimut was the subject of a report into his mistreatment by two nurses.
Derrimut was moved to the Benevolent Asylum in North Melbourne in March 1864. John Fawkner visited Derrimut the day before he died. Derrimut died on 26th April 1864 at the age of 54. But the date on his tombstone at Melbourne General Cemetery is 28th May 1864.
A tomb stone was erected at the Cemetery by some of the colonialists and it reads,
To commemorate the noble act of the native Chief Derrimut who by timely information given October 1835 to the first colonists
Messrs Fawkner, Lancey, Evans, Henry Batman and their dependants saved them from massacre, planned by some of the up-country tribes of Aborigines.
Derrimut closed his mortal career in the Benevolent Asylum, May 28th, 1864; aged about 54 Years
In Derrimut’s honour his name was given to the Parish of Derrimut, part of Werribee plains and minor rise was given the name Mount Derrimut. The suburb of Derrimut was detached from Deer Park in 1998.