As Australia Day approaches, Melbourne City Council is working on plans to commemorate two Aboriginal people, who were the first people executed in Victoria.
In 1842, Tasmanian men Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, convicted of murdering two whalers, became the first people hanged in Victoria.
A simple watercolour painting held by the State Library’s collection depicts two Aboriginal men on a horse-drawn cart, surrounded by armed guards and onlookers as they are led from jail to their grisly fate, on January 20, 1842.
They were brought to Melbourne from Tasmania with 14 other Aborigines as intermediaries, but they were executed for their prolonged uprising against white settlement.
At a gathering on the anniversary of their deaths, the City of Melbourne publicly backed a memorial to be erected where the two were executed, on the corner of Bowen and Franklin streets.
They are now understood to be buried on the site of the Queen Victoria Market.
Tunnerminnerwait, one of the first people to be hanged in Victoria.
Monash University’s Claire Land says their convictions need to be seen in the context of battles against white settlement and the establishment of colonial sovereignty.
“Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were subjected to capital punishment at a time in history when race relations were characterised by guerrilla war and, at times, martial law,” she writes.
Dr Joseph Toscano, convenor of the Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner commemoration committee, has gone a step further.
“We want to show this country has a black history.”
Dr Joseph Toscano, convenor of the Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner commemoration committee.
“This campaign has been a cultural, social and political struggle,” he told an assembled crowd.
“We want to show this country has a black history.
“These are men who were killed because they were involved in a war against people who robbed them of their lands, of their way of life, of their language, of their future.”
Premier Denis Napthine agrees it is a chapter of history, however uncomfortable, that deserves recognition.
“The way that white settlers interacted with our Indigenous community could have been done a lot better with hindsight, and I think it’s important to recognise those interactions weren’t exactly as good as they should have been,” he said.
Tasmanian aboriginal Maulboyheener. Photo: John Woudstra
“If we can have good memorials to remind us of our history, I think that they’re welcome.”
Dr Toscano wants a permanent monument “to rival Captain Cook’s cottage”.
Last month the Melbourne City Council unanimously voted to erect a permanent memory of the two, known by their own people as freedom fighters.
“It’s important that we do acknowledge it and we don’t shy away from acknowledging it,” Councillor Kathy Oake said.
She says it is still unclear what shape the memorial would take or whether it will be in place in time for next year’s anniversary.
A statue or a walking tour are two suggestions.