AN OVERBEARING man of God snapped at a member of his own flock 140 years ago in a telling example of the way too many Australians were turned into second class citizens.
Reverend Frederick Strickland had ordered a man under his charge to prepare some ground to plant potatoes.
The man refused, an outraged Strickland told a parliamentary inquiry the following month.
"He said, 'I will do nothing of the kind, unless I am paid the full price a white man is paid'."
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It was not the only resistance Strickland was confronting in the late winter and early spring of 1881.
Strickland was the station manager and spiritual leader of Coranderrk, an Aboriginal station near Healesville that had become a home to many Indigenous people including those forced from the land they called home in central Victoria.
But his rule over the station's 94 residents had never been more tenuous.
They complained of malnourishment, disease and incompetent management.
We know all this because those residents had marched to Melbourne, prayed to God and then met with the colony's chief secretary (as the premier of Victoria was then known).
Their activism triggered a parliamentary inquiry that would shape the lives of future generations for the better.
Aboriginal dissatisfaction builds at Coranderrk
Indigenous people had chosen to set up a working farm near Healesville in the early 1860s with the help of lay preacher John Green.
The site quickly became a hub for Indigenous people from as far away as Queensland.
In its early years it was incredibly successful, La Trobe University historian Richard Broome said.
"Green ran it extremely effectively because he worked closely with Aboriginal people. They trusted him and he had a very close relationship with William Barak, who was the key Elder at Coranderrk," he said.
"He allowed them a lot of autonomy in how the work was to be done everyday, they had their own courts for when community members made transgressions and it was a very successful outcome."
But times had changed by 1881.
An all-white, government-endorsed board of management had pressured Green to resign before bringing in a succession of coercive white managers, including Strickland.
These newcomers believed Indigenous people were childlike and needed to be managed for their own good.
Things came to a head when residents began reading newspaper accounts that managers wanted to sell the station and move everyone on.
That was not going to happen without a fight, residents like Dja Dja Wurrung man Thomas Dunolly decided.
"Mr Strickland is not fit to be on the station," he said.
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Dunolly was a roguishly handsome 25 year old who had seen too much of the way these reserves could operate at their worst.
He had been part of a generation of children who had gone to school in exchange for his family being able to live on an Indigenous reserve.
It looked like a great deal on paper. At its best it probably was.
But it also left many families open to manipulation and coercion from white managers who held a lot of power.
Dunolly was among 21 Indigenous people who appeared at the inquiry and gave damning testimony about inadequate medical care, clothing shortages and poor housing.
Strickland and other station bigwigs denied those accusations and said there were absolutely no problems with food or clothing, even if the climate was so cold and wet that it bred sicknesses in winter.
"Discontent is a chronic disease at Coranderrk," he told the inquiry.
"They appear to be dissatisfied at everything that is done."
The most common Indigenous criticism centred on meat rations, which appeared to be a savvy strategy to draw colonial Victorians' attention.
"Rations were always a key political issue. If convicts complained about rations in the old convict society they had to be listened to," Dr Broome said.
"They would argue that it was the government's duty of care to make sure they were fed properly and I think Aboriginal people cottoned on to that."
Witness after witness spoke about the weakness they felt because they could not get enough meat to last each week.
They outlined a cycle of debt with butchers and how it stopped them saving money, and how they were sometimes forced to stop work so they could go hunting.
It was a powerful argument because so many white people did feel a sense of responsibility for people dispossessed of their land and way of life.
Even the most draconian members on the station's board of management agreed that things had to be done to help Victoria's Indigenous people, even if they refused to take those same people's ideas and needs on board.
"I would say that Aboriginal people were putting a moral position forward," Dr Broome said.
"They were arguing the need for 'right' behaviour - that a duty of care should be given to them."
Strickland gets his comeuppance
The inquiry was a bruising one for those overseeing Coranderrk's operations.
Allegations leveled against Strickland included the unauthorised sale of government owned property, drunkenness and the beating of a young boy.
Strickland said the punishment was perfectly acceptable as it was over school related matters, which it may well have been under educational standards of the period.
The boy's family alleged he had needed treatment for a head wound.
Strickland got little support even from the man overseeing all Victoria's aboriginal reserves.
"The manager could not be competent at the present time. No man could manage it the way it is now," Captain A. M. A. Page said during a forensic line of questioning at the inquiry.
Page himself was lucky to survive the inquiry with his job, with multiple witnesses accusing him of ignoring conditions on the station.
Strickland was not so lucky.
The inquiry backed Coranderrk residents' claims of poor management and recommended the station stay where it was.
But it was not a complete vindication for Coranderrk's residents.
The world still regarded Indigenous people as inferior. Decision makers still thought they knew better.
Still, trailblazing men and women had forced their voices to be heard when it would have been easier to stay silent.
It had a lasting impact on their descendants.
Harley Dunolly-Lee is Thomas Dunolly's great great grandson and says his Ancestor still shapes his life.
"One of the things with my family that my grandfather used to say was that Thomas Dunolly was 'Thomas the Great'," he said.
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Mr Dunolly-Lee is today helping the world rediscover the Dja Dja Wurrung language and says it is largely because Dunolly sensed how important literacy would be in the world Indigenous people were negotiating.
"My Pop's signature was exactly the same style as Thomas Dunolly's. Pop would make my mum sit down and write her own over and over. So now hers is written in the special way that they did it," he said.
One of the greatest sources of pride for descendants is that Dunolly was able to overcome the hurdles 19th century society set in place and buy land that could be passed on to his children.
Dunolly eventually moved back to Coranderrk after the death of his wife, where he remarried and spent the remainder of his years.
For Dr Broome, Coranderrk exemplifies ways Indigenous Ancestors should be regarded.
"They were not just victims of colonialisation. They made great transformations not only to survive but to deal with new situations in creative ways," he said.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series WHAT HAPPENED?
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