WILLIAM WIMMERA, CHILD OF THE WOTJOBALUK
The ruins of Ebenezer Aboriginal Mission are located near the tiny, West Wimmera settlement of Antwerp, 22 kilometres north of Dimboola, in western Victoria.
Strangely enough, the history of the mission is entwined with that of a young Aboriginal boy, who died on the opposite side of the world.
In 1846, following reports of sheep stealing, white settlers by the Wimmera River launched an attack on the campsite of the local Wotjobaluk people. During the conflict a woman was shot dead and her child, a boy of about six , was later found huddled by her body. Leading the attack was Horatio Ellerman, who owned a large station in the area. He had named the property Antwerp, in memory of his Belgian birthplace. Rumour had it that Ellerman himself had fired the fatal shot. Instead of returning the child to his people, Ellerman took the little boy home and named him William Wimmera. William later referred to the squatter as ‘my master’ so presumably his position at Antwerp was that of a servant.
UPDATE – According to his descendants Ellerman, pictured below, was haunted by the shooting of the woman. My thanks to Terrie Ellerman Warner, for responding to this article (see comments section below).
SO FAR FROM HOME
Several years later the little boy managed to escape, possibly with the assistance of passing wood cutters or wool carters. He made his way to Melbourne where he was befriended by a group of children who found him wandering the city lost and in tears. The children took William along to St James Anglican school, where he came to the attention of the Rev. Septimus Lloyd Chase. The Rev. Chase was about to return to England, and saw an opportunity to extend God’s work. He felt that if William were to be completely separated from his people and given a religious education he could eventually be returned to his Aboriginal community with the aim of converting others. In 1851 the minister left Australia with young William in tow. Prophetically, their ship, Sacramento, left Melbourne on April 1st – All Fools Day.
William, now aged about ten, had the run of the ship. He thoroughly enjoyed chattering to the sailors and clambering up and down the Sacramento’s masts. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived in England it was September, and the days were already closing in. There was little time for the boy to acclimatize before facing his first northern winter.
The Rev. Chase took William back to his hometown of Reading, in Berkshire. According to a pious Victorian tract published anonymously some years later, his sister assumed the role of the boy’s teacher. Initially Miss Chase was delighted with her pupil, who showed a natural talent for art. He was keenly observant and could produce drawings of fully rigged sailing ships as well as detailed pictures of Australian native birds and animals. However, when William rebelled against the discipline of the schoolroom Miss Chase became less glowing in her reports;
‘There was but little evidence of a work of grace in his heart, and it was painful to see his want of gratitude, and frequent sullenness of temper.’
Two months later William was removed to the home of one of Septimus Chase’s relatives, a schoolmaster who lived further down the Thames. Lessons continued and the boy was also given instruction in various vocational skills such as shoe making and basket weaving. He returned to Reading in time for Christmas, though not to the Chase family. Septimus’ sister had lost interest, and Chase himself was pre-occupied by matters of the heart; he married Eleanor Purvis on January 8 1851 at St Giles Church, Reading. William was fostered out to a worthy couple who lived nearby. When a marked change in the boy’s behaviour took place, the Rev. Chase’s missionary zeal was revived. Apparently the child’s defiant attitude had completely disappeared;
‘He was willing to give up his will to the will of others; was grateful for any kindness shewn to him; in a word, he became a new creature.’
The transformation was attributed to the power of God, though in retrospect it was due to a broken spirit, and serious ill-health. The English winter had a devastating effect on William’s lungs and soon doctors were urging Chase to return his small charge to the drier climate of Australia. Travel plans were made but by now the boy was fading fast and in March a baptism was hastily arranged . To the Rev. Chase, the most important issue was that William did not die ‘a heathen’. Sadly, the stimulation of visitors attending the ceremony worsened his condition;
‘Several of Mr Chase’s family were present; they described it as a solemn and interesting occasion…as it was, the excitement was too great for him [William], and his pain returned with fearful violence.’
William survived the harshest months of winter, but died on March 10th. 1852. He was interred in Reading Cemetery. I have visited his grave on several occasion. The vast 19th century burial ground is now completely marooned by traffic and is largely overgrown by ivy, blackberry and nettles. Reading is located close to the Thames and in winter the gravestones are wreathed by the same damp river mists that must surely have contributed to William’s death from tuberculosis. His headstone is badly weathered but it is still possible to make out the inscription;
To the memory of
An Australian Boy,
Who died in Christ,
March 10th 1852
Aged 11 years.
Following the funeral, Septimus Chase and his new bride returned to Melbourne, where Chase resumed his ministry at St James church.
In 1859 a group of German based missionaries known as Moravians arrived in West Wimmera. They were intent on bringing Christianity to Australia’s indigenous people by establishing a Mission, and chose an area well insulated from areas of ‘ungodly’ European influence. The availability of fresh water from the Wimmera River must also have influenced their choice of site. Strangely enough it was William’s old master, Horatio Ellerman, who donated land at Antwerp to the Moravians.. Ellerman was now a prominent member of the Presbyterian church and strongly supported the idea of a mission. Initially a simple hut was built. Perhaps by chance, though more likely by design, it was located in the middle of the Wotjobaluk tribe’s corroboree ground. Not surprisingly, this caused a great deal of cultural conflict.
Early in 1860 the missionaries were given a pamphlet telling the story of William Wimmera; of his mother’s death by a white man, his time with Horatio Ellerman, and his eventual ‘conversion’ by the Rev. Chase at Reading. When it was read to a group of Wotjabaluk people there was an immediate reaction. At least one man had been present when William’s mother was shot, and he took the Moravian priests to visit her burial site nearby.
Later that year The Melbourne Argus printed a letter from the mission leader Fr. Aug. Hagenauer to the Reverend Chase. Clearly the missionaries were still attempting to replace the Aborigines cultural heritage with Christianity; Fr. Hagenauer wrote;
Late at night, when I was in bed, I heard in the distance the blacks singing a song of the corroberee, so I prayed and went to it. They made a corroberee. I went into the midst of them, and said I was very sorry for this and so on. One of them said, “Oh Sir, it is no harm in it, and the whites do just the same when they have a dance.” My heart was moved in compassion. We sat down and I spoke to them of the great love of Jesus Christ..
The missionary’s letter also proved that following the attack on the Wotjabaluk people in 1846, Horatio Ellerman had removed William Wimmera from close relatives;
‘His [William’s] old grandmother is here and very sick. The poor woman is very much afraid for ganta-galla (hell) and cried one time fearfully. I spoke to her of Jesus Christ . Corny his brother goes on well. ‘
It seems that, as in his own case, William’s grandmother was denied a peaceful passing into spirit world of her people.
To the Moravians, the Christian conversion of a Wotjabaluk child had been a sign they had miraculously chosen the perfect site for their mission. Full of confidence in the future they erected a complex of buildings, and replaced their rough hut with a church. Present at its consecration was Squatter Ellerman, who had been responsible for the death of William’s mother. The service was led by the Rev. Chase, the man indirectly responsible for the death of William. And in final ironic twist, the boy’s father was said to have been among the congregation.
In 1863 Septimus Chase presented a paper to the annual meeting of the Society for Promoting Moravian Missions to the Aborigines of Victoria. He spoke of the difficulties being encountered in the Lord’s work at Ebenezer. It seems that, despite his own powerful testimony regarding ‘little Wimmera’s’ conversion at Reading, there had been difficulties in turning others to God,
Certain young men had been candidates for baptism during the past year, but they did not give sufficient evidence of faith to justify the administration of that ordinance.
Ebenezer Mission closed in 1904. Over time its buildings fell into ruin and a wall of the pale pink limestone church had to be supported by a large tree limb. In the year 2000, emergency repair work was completed, to preserve what are now Victoria’s oldest remaining Mission buildings. At the official opening following this work, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs spoke of Antwerp’s dark history, making specific reference to the 1846 raid on the Wotjabaluk people.
A more comprehensive restoration project was completed in 2005, but the tree limb was left in place against the church for posterity.
Surrounding buildings include a detached kitchen, dormitory, and toilet block. Beside the church are the graves of early missionaries and of Philip Pepper, brother of Nathaniel, the Moravians’ first convert. However, as far as I am aware there is no memorial to William Wimmera. The restored buildings are open to the public daily and are administered by the Goolum-Goolum Aboriginal Co-operative.
For a broader history of the Wotjabaluk people.
IF YOU ENJOYED THE ARTICLE, YOU MIGHT LIKE TO READ A POIGNANT AUSTRALIAN STORY FROM A LATER ERA. CLICK HERE.
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