Koorie Victoria and State Library of Victoria collections

Guide to sources in the Library collection, with links to external collections and digitised collections.


The Australian Manuscripts Collection holds a wide range of papers from individuals and organisations enabling researchers to develop detailed impressions of Victorian life. Further material, by or about the people and groups listed are held by the Library and linked to below.

The diaries, notebooks and letters, from the first contact and the frontier, are written from a white colonists perspective. They contain examples of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Victorians, recording interactions between Aboriginal people and colonists. 

The efforts of early collator “anthropologist enthusiasts” such as Robert Brough Smyth, Edward Curr and Alfred Howitt acknowledged the complexity of  traditional life, along with the damage done to Aboriginal people and their culture. A belief in their presumed imminent demise also promoted the view that Aboriginal people were objects worthy of scientific study.  Today their records can add to oral memory of Indigenous culture and languages in the late nineteenth century. 

Later, Diane Barwick combined her anthropological training with historical and contemporary research to make a significant contribution to the field of Aboriginal studies.

Collections such as the the papers of Valentine Leeper and Amy Brown include material relating to the Victorian Aboriginal Group, the Council for Aboriginal Rights and Action for Aboriginal Rights show passion, conviction and the complex networks involved in activism.  While often promoting an assimilationist model, these groups combined their struggles for rights, an improved legislative framework at state level, and later national governance of Aboriginal affairs; with efforts to teach other Australians of Aboriginal culture.

During the late 1960's struggles within many of these groups transferred control to Aboriginal people, and from the early 1970's governments began to deal directly with Aboriginal controlled organisations, including the Land Councils, established after the 1976 Land Rights Act.

Organisations such as the Aboriginal Advancement League provided a platform for the voices of Aboriginal people in a dialogue which had largely been “about” rather than “with”.

To access the collection contact the Library.

Notes on some manuscript collections

This collection gathers together documents concerning the European settlement of Victoria – then Port Phillip. Amongst the collection are diaries, notebooks and deeds for Melbourne and Geelong and indentures for the establishment of the Port Phillip Association, including detail on proposed dealings with the Aboriginal people. 

John Helder Wedge’s field book from his early survey of Port Phillip (1835-6) includes notes on his encounters with Aboriginal people, along with sketch drawings. Governor Bourke’s journal records his visit to Port Phillip in early 1837 and notes the position for the prospective mission, and the optimism of Langhorne: [he] “has great hopes of succeeding in inducing the adults to work for food & clothing and to leave their children with him for instruction”. [1]

William Buckley’s memoir of his time spent with the Wathourong people, after escaping from custody describes his life in affectionate terms:
I never could make up my mind to leave the party to whom I had become attached - when therefore I heard of the arrival of Mr Batman and his party it was some time before I would go down as I never supposed I should be comfortable among my own country men again.[2]

1. Richard Bourke, Journal, 24 March 1837
2. William Buckley.  Reminiscences of James Buckley who lived for thirty years among the Wallawarro or Watourong tribes at Geelong Port Phillip, communicated by him to George Langhorne. 1837. p.11

The Aborigines Protection Society formed in London in 1837 to carry out recommendations from the British House of Commons Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (Vol. 7.1, No. 425). In 1909 it amalgamated with the Anti-Slavery Society and is still active today as Anti-Slavery.  Thomas Fowell Buxton, a key figure in the anti-slavery movement, Member of Parliament and author of the report, joined the committee as President.  Its object: “to assist in protecting the defenceless and promoting the advancement of uncivilised tribes.” [1] The Australian Aborigines' Protection Society was formed in 1838.[2]

The Society combined the dual purposes of scientific inquiry and the recording of Aboriginal people’s cultures in the face of white contact; with exhorting treatment worthy of the British nation in showing charity, understanding and support for the Aboriginal people’s progression to the benefits of civilisation and Christianity.
Its members were actively interested in promoting the welfare of Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Pacific, New Zealand, the Americas as well as Australia. Records relating to Australia cover the period 1845-1892 and concentrate on Western Australia, South Australia and the pacific labour trade in Queensland.  Of interest for Victorian studies are reports from the mission stations - annual reports, pamphlets, documents from government departments and a wide range of correspondents.

The Library holds other publications by the Aborigines Protection Society including  The Aborigines' friend and the colonial intelligencer, see page 49-54 for the story of Edward Warrulan. 

1. The British and Foreign Aborigines Protection Society. Regulations, p.6
2. Sydney morning herald. 19 October 1838. p.2 col.4

 This group, formed in 1951 and while based in Victoria, worked on a national level, drawing together activist organisations and individuals around issues of rights relating to employment, wages and social conditions.  The collection includes correspondence files, and documentation relating to the running of the organisation demonstrating the complex interrelationship of these groups – some of whose records are also held by the Library.  Included are submissions to government, documents supporting individuals fighting discrimination cases and files relating to Lake Tyers – reports, birth and death statistics.  The collection also includes material from the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). 

 A significant aspect of their activities was the fight to have Aboriginal people included as active participants in the economic life of the country and recompensed fairly.  There are also comprehensive newspaper cutting files, (1952-1973).

Records for this organisation span the years 1973-1993.  It wound up its activities in May 2010.  Minutes from meetings 1974-1993 allow a detailed picture of activity, discussion and resolution to be constructed.  Correspondence with organisations and individuals includes material relating to the film industry and Aboriginal people from the mid 1970’s, general correspondence and leaflets, pamphlets and other publications.  Financial records include donation receipts, cash books, banking records, accounts and receipts.  There is a series of newsletters and other publications produced by related groups and files relating to specific topics such as education, health, housing and land rights. 

Virtually spanning three quarters of a century (1915-1973), this collection shows Aboriginal affairs in the context of the peace and civil rights movement. The group was also involved in anti-conscription campaigns. Material relating to Aboriginal people is found in Section 1 (Correspondence, indexed by name) and Section 6.  Also includes varying runs of periodicals, individual publications, reports and miscellanea from organisations such as the Aborigines Advancement League, Aborigines Uplift Society, Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee and the Victorian Aboriginal Group, amongst others.

The League, still active today,  formed in 1957, initially in response to film footage shown at a public meeting organised by the Save the Aborigines Committee, showing the plight of Aboriginal people from the Warburton Ranges area in Western Australia. The release of the  McLean Report in 1957 further galvanised support for the League in opposition to the reports recommendations to close Lake Tyers and Framlingham and actively pursue the assimilation of Aboriginal people into white society. Early leaders included Doug Nicholls, Gordon Bryant, Doris Blackburn and Stan Davey.  

The Australian Aborigines League  founded by William Cooper, was an all-Aboriginal organisation, merging in 1962 with the Aborigines Advancement League as its Aboriginal Branch.

After a period of turbulence and dispute, in December 1969 Bruce McGuiness was appointed the first Aboriginal director with the League now under full Aboriginal leadership. Their activities included welfare, policy and co-ordination roles to advance the interests and rights of Aboriginal people. 

The collection includes newsletters, administrative documents - from Melbourne and Geelong branches, cassette tapes (‘Talking together’,‘Our story, our voice’ and Phyl Vinnicombe songs) and booklets, subject files on rights and equal wages along with newspaper cuttings (1965-1990) There are also relevant papers in the Dianne Barwick collection.

Digitised copies of some of the Leagues' publications are available through Reason in Revolt.

Brough Smyth’s papers and published works display his varied interests; his lecture notes demonstrate their breadth and nature: from ethnology – Polynesia and Micronesia; to clouds; to the physical geography and geology of Gippsland.

From 1860-1878 he sat on the Board of Protection for Aborigines and his work in this area led to a sense of “duty to collect information respecting the customs of the people who had formerly owned the soil of Australia, and to make accurate drawings of their weapons and ornaments.” [1] His publication The Aborigines of Victoria drew together information gathered from survey responses, and correspondence with missionaries and others working with Aboriginal people, farmers and scientists. 

Of relevance here are the drawings of Aboriginal people, some named, some not, of huts, weapons, corroborees, sketch maps of small sections including an Aboriginal Reserve at 9 Mile beach, Port Phillip Bay, “where the blacks were shot” near Mt Rouse Station, drawings from rooves of caves and the naming of the creeks flowing from the river in Melbourne, drawn by Billibellary.  Most other drawings are thought to have been drawn by William Thomas, assistant protector and later, Guardian of Aborigines (1838-1865).

Many of these illustrations have been published elsewhere – noted in the descriptive lists for the collections.

1. Brough Smyth, Robert. Aborigines of Victoria, p.v. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1878

Howitt arrived in Australia in 1852.  His early time was spent prospecting and exploring – records of which are included. in 1861 Howitt became leader of the expedition in search of Burke and Wills.  After moving to Gippsland in 1863, his position as police magistrate and warden of the Omeo goldfields, combined with his developing anthropological interests, fostered his studies and writings on Aboriginal people.  The Library's collections span the breadth of his work.

Howitt, as Brough Smyth did, used an array of sources; including letters, detailed survey questionnaires sent to a wide range of correspondents, along with information from Aboriginal people, as the basis for his work The native tribes of South-East Australia.

The book includes a list of correspondents and the tribes they describe. Material was collected over a period of forty years with Dr Lorimer Fison. A significant area of study was “the tribal class system and the rules of marriage and descent connected therewith…"[1]

Copies of published works, along with related notes and reviews, press cuttings and maps complete the “professional” side of the collection, complemented by a large array of personal and family papers. 

 1. Alfred William Howitt. The native tribes of South East Australia. London: 1904. p. viii

Leaving Canada in 1960, anthropologist Dianne Barwick spent over 20 years working with Aboriginal people and related historical records, until her death in 1986.

The collection includes publications with working papers, drafts, reference material, project papers, and conference papers.  Along with her personal academic work is material relating to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies of which she was a founding member, the journal Aboriginal History, the Aboriginal Treaty Committee and the Bicentennial History Project.  Integral to these studies was the role of government and its agencies in the lives of Aboriginal people.

Access is restricted to this collection.