This text is derived from and was written in conjunction with the author’s article ‘The Naming of the Yarra River as an Act of Colonialism’. Agora, Colonial Histories, 56:3, 2021.
After nearly two centuries of European occupation, Melbourne’s Yarra River is a highly colonised river. The name ‘Yarra’ ranks amongst the many facets of European colonisation of the river. This is because ‘Yarra’ is a colonial name. Although it has its origins in the languages of Melbourne’s First Nations peoples, it is not the actual name of the river, but instead an imposed colonial one. The river’s actual name, in Melbourne’s local Kulin languages, is ‘Birrarung’ (‘river of mists’).
In September 1835, John Helder Wedge (1793-1872), the surveyor for the Port Phillip Association and one of Victoria’s earliest colonists, arrived at the site of what was to become the settlement of Melbourne, and the lands of the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation. Wedge is responsible for naming much of the landscape around Port Phillip Bay. One such feature, and the one for which he is best remembered, is naming the Yarra River. Wedge writes in his contribution to James Bonwick’s 1857 book, Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip, ‘I gave the river the name of “Yarra Yarra”’, which he had recorded in his field notebook as ‘Yarrow Yarrow’. Wedge in Bonwick’s pages recalled when he named the river:
from the following circumstance: on arriving in sight of the river, the two natives who were with me, pointing to the river, called out, ‘Yarra Yarra’, which, at the time, I imagined to be its name; but I afterwards learnt that the words were what they used to designate a waterfall, as they afterwards gave the same designation to a small fall in the river Weiribie [Werribee], as we crossed it on our way back to Indented Head.
In time the Yarra Yarra River simply became the Yarra River, which is how it is known today.
Wedge’s simple act of naming the river was a powerful act of colonialism. Naming is an act of colonial possession, as it transfers the landscape’s legal and cultural identity from an Indigenous possession and understanding to a colonial one. By naming features, Wedge, in his role of surveyor, ‘placed a symbolic British flag on each of them. The land was charted, ordered and labelled, becoming a colonial possession’.
Some might argue that Wedge’s naming of the Yarra was not a colonial act: Yarra Yarra is a Kulin word and is understood to translate as ‘flowing’, denoting the action of the waterfall. In this sense, Wedge can be understood to have actively tried to do his best to retain the river’s Indigenous name. However, as academic, Tony Birch, states, ‘to attach a “native” name to a space does not represent or recognise an indigenous history’. I would extend this further, acknowledging that it does not recognise Indigenous knowledges or epistemologies either. Instead, to adopt an Indigenous name is often done out of the colonial attraction to what Birch describes as ‘the quaintness of the “native”’. This perceived quaintness subjugates First Nations peoples and their naming to colourful and exotic curios, akin to pre-invasion wildlife. It is in this colonial context that Wedge’s act of naming sits.
Historian Sam Furphy, in quoting George Stewart, views the name Yarra as an example of Indigenous naming that has been appropriated, ‘reshaped and reapplied’, by the colonists into their ‘own language and ways of thought’. This is what Birch portrays as ‘not only appropriation but deception’, as it promotes a corrupt version of Kulin culture and languages.
Paul Carter, in his spatial history of Australia, The Road to Botany Bay, similarly describes the colonial power of corrupt and appropriated Indigenous naming. Carter describes name corruptions, such as Yarra Yarra, as ‘cruel’, as it contributes ‘to effac[ing] Aborigines from the cultural map - cruel in that they make the Aborigines collude in their own destruction’.
Yarra Yarra has been appropriated, corrupted and used as a toponym that supplants the original; denying, dismissing and silencing the original name Birrarung, its meaning — ‘river of mists’ — and the attributes and narratives encompassing that name, as if they never existed. Further to this, as Carter puts it, words such as Yarra Yarra, in their corrupted misuse and appropriation, are ultimately, ‘stripped’ of their true ‘meaning’, changed irreparably, reducing them to ‘mere sounds, like bird songs’ — colourful and lyrical, but ultimately devoid of meaning.
This silencing of Indigenous naming and knowledge systems by western epistemologies is what is understood as epistemic violence. Epistemic violence is violence exerted against or through knowledge against other ways of knowing. Along with epistemic violence, colonial acts of naming can also be understood as epistemic deafness towards the Australian landscape. It is deafness because the colonists struggled to hear and understand the sounds of the Australian landscape, which also included Indigenous naming. This is embodied by the colonial mindset of seeing the Australian landscape and nature as silent and empty, as terra nullius.
In 1968 the anthropologist William Stanner coined the term ‘The Great Australian Silence’, concerning the absence of First Nations peoples in our national histories. Of this silence, Stanner said:
…it is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned into habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
Stanner’s words also extend to Indigenous knowledges, epistemologies, and naming. It is words such as Yarra that are this ‘window’, that ‘exclude[s] a whole quadrant of the landscape’, or in this instance, the riverscape, where the colonial narrative has talked over, silenced and dominated the Indigenous Kulin narrative for nearly two centuries. However, as Bruce Pascoe proposes, ‘by adjusting our perspective by only a few degrees we see a vastly different world from the same window’.
Contemplating Pascoe’s words in relation to the Yarra River, underlines the parallel narratives of the river, those of both the Yarra and Birrarung, the colonial and the Indigenous. In recent decades, more and more efforts are being undertaken to bring Indigenous narratives and perspectives to the forefront again and undo such past suppressions.
Melbourne has seen an expansion in public awareness and acknowledgement of the City’s First Nations peoples, as well as their histories and cultures. Kulin understandings of the Yarra River have also been brought to public attention over recent decades and are the topic of ongoing public discussions. Since the 1990s, as acts of reconciliation, many spaces along the Yarra River in CBD Melbourne acknowledge the Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung peoples, their languages, knowledge systems and histories. Most prominent of these was the naming of the northern riverside park ‘Birrarung Marr’ in 2002, which pays homage to the Yarra’s actual name. In the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung languages this means ‘riverside’ or ‘beside Birrarung’.
In 2017 significant Victorian state government legislation was passed which recognised the important connection between the Yarra River and its Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri Woi wurrung people. This recognition came in the form of ‘The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017’, an Australian and Victorian legislative first which recognises the Yarra and its river corridor as a single living entity. The legislation also acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi wurrung people, whose Country incorporates the Yarra basin, as Traditional Owners. It grants them a prominent role on the Birrarung Council, that serves as the statutory body and voice for the Yarra River and its management. The Act is also the first piece of legislation in Australia to use an Indigenous language in its title. In the Woi wurrung language, ‘Wilip-gin Birrarung murron’ translates as ‘keep Birrarung alive’.
In recent years there has been discussion on decolonising the Yarra River, as part of the decolonisation processes undertaken on many of the colonially named features of Victoria’s landscape. This has involved adopting dual naming, recognising both Indigenous and European naming, such as in western Victoria with the Grampians/Gariwerd. There has also been sole Indigenous name restoration, as was the case in western Victoria with Mount Eccles in 2017, which had its Gunditjmara name ‘Budj Bim’ restored. There have been calls for similar decolonisation and name restoration or dual naming for the Yarra River. The most recent public discussions surrounding this occurred in 2019. In response, the Victorian Government said they had no plans for a name change of the Yarra River, whose current name is an ‘icon’ of Melbourne. Alternatively, the City of Melbourne Council, stated they would be open to the idea, and ‘proposed to consult with Indigenous stakeholders on the prospect of changing the name’.
What is clear from these two government responses, is that this naming discussion has proven a point of contest amongst Melbourne’s community. Many Melburnians have developed an attachment to and affection for the name Yarra, with it having developed its own set of meanings amongst the community, since Wedge named it in 1835. However, in the future, as awareness and respect for Melbourne’s First Nations histories and cultures continues to grow, the Yarra River may cease to be officially recognised by Wedge’s colonial name. As discussed in this article, the name and naming of the Yarra ranks amongst the many acts of colonialism in Australia. In the future, the Yarra may once again be recognised officially by its Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung name ‘Birrarung’, or by a dual name such as ‘Birrarung Yarra’ or ‘Yarra Birrarung’.
Author: Jack Norris
Jack Norris, ‘The Naming of the Yarra River as an Act of Colonialism’. Agora, Colonial Histories, 56:3, 2021.
Jane Belfrage, ‘The Great Australian Silence: Inside acoustic space’, The Australian Sound Design Project. University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1994. https://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/site/papers/AusSilence.html
Tony Birch, ‘‘Nothing Has Changed’: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture’. Meanjin, Vol. 51 (2).
Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 3rd ed. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2010.
Ian D. Clark, Luise Hercus and Laura Kostanski (eds.), Indigenous and Minority Placenames: Australian and International Perspectives. ANU Press, Canberra, 2014.
Sam Furphy, ‘British Surveyors and Aboriginal Place Names’, Writing Colonial Histories: Comparative Perspectives. University of Melbourne, Department of History, Melbourne, 2002.
Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu; Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. Magabala Books, Broome, 2014.
Val Plumwood, ‘Decolonizing relationships with nature’, in Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial Era, eds. William Adams and Martin Mulligan. Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2002.
W.E.H Stanner, ‘The Great Australian Silence’, in The Dreaming & Other Essays Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, 2009.
Steve Trask, ‘Victorian government rejects push to recognise Indigenous heritage and rename Yarra River’, SBS News, October 24, 2019
John Helder Wedge, ‘Mr Wedge’s Narrative’, Discovery and settlement of Port Phillip: being a history of the country now called Victoria, up to the arrival of Mr. Superintendent Latrobe, in October, 1839, James Bonwick (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1857), 61-62.