King Billy: Last of the Tribal Wathaurung

For thousands of years, the Wa tarung Bulluk clan of the Wathaurung had practised a tribal way of life in the Geelong area. Just before Europeans arrived in the area a baby boy was born at the side of a lagoon near what is today Geelong’s Market Square. The baby was destined to be King Billy, the last of the tribal Wathaurung in the Geelong area.[1]

King Billy

When his son was born, the father saw a bunyip while hunting at Waurn Ponds. He named his son Willem Baa Ni ip, meaning “home bunyip”.

Willem Baa Ni ip’s grandfather, Waa Waa was the first to make contact with Europeans when Matthew Flinder’s party climbed the You Yangs in 1802. Escaped convict, William Buckley made contact the following year and lived with the Wathaurung for 32 years. Permanent European settlement began in 1835 when John Batman sailed from Van Diemens Land and set up camp at St. Leonards.

Batman and the Wathaurung signed a treaty that became controversial. The colonial government in New South Wales refused to recognise it as legitimate, and it is believed the elders would never knowingly sell the land of their ancestors. Although the treaty was exploitative, it has been the only attempt by the Europeans to involve Australian Aboriginal people in a treaty or transaction rather than simply claiming the land outright.

Wada Warrung people

For more than 2000 generations the Wathaurung had nurtured the land and lived a good life with its bounty. The land and water provided ample food and ingredients for medicines.

Squatters soon arrived. Subsequently 700 of the Wathaurung people that Buckley reported seeing gathered for special occasions, had been to reduced to 297 when counted in 1837 by Foster Fyans, the newly appointed Geelong Police Magistrate. Another count of the local Aborigines was taken in 1842 at Bukar Bulok, now called Fyansford when Willem Ba Ni ip was six years old and was listed in this census as ‘Wormebaneep’. There were only 118 of his people left — 179 fewer than only five years before.[2] Eleven years later 101 people had disappeared. Only nine women, seven men and one child remained in 1853. Willem Baa Ni ip was 17 at this time and counted as a man. For many years, he may have lived inconspicuously at the edges of the white settlements. He may have lived off the land. In the early years of his life he would have learnt to gather plant food, seafood, small mammals and reptiles.[3] However much of the traditional diet had been destroyed by the grazing livestock brought in by the settlers. A lot of the game, fish traps and dwellings were destroyed by the settlers.

John Armstrong, at Mount Duneed squatted on the traditional winter camp of the Wathaurong. When the stations were divided up, John Stewart purchased part of this land. A few acres of land along the banks of Armstrong Creek were used by the remaining ten Wathaurong people. By 1861 there were seven adults now known as the Barrabool tribe. They were moved from Stewarts Reserve to live on one acre of land on the Ghazeepore Road which was declared the Duneed Aboriginal Land Reserve. It had a wooden hut for shelter.

J. M. Garratt, Honorary Correspondent of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of the Aborigines, reported in the Geelong Advertiser in 1862 that there was “plenty of wood and water”. He also reported to parliament that he had distributed:

  • October 1860, 12 pairs moleskin trowsers, 12 cloth caps, 2 flannel petticoats, 2 common cotton gowns, 12 paris strong shoes.
  • December 1860, 1 chest tea, 2 bags sugar, 4 bags flour, 25lbs. tobacco
  • May 1861, 24 pairs blankets, 24 pairs trowsers, 24 twilled shirts, 24 blue serge shirts, 24 pairs strong boots, 24 felt hats.
  • November 1861, 4 bags flour, I bag sugar, 1 half-chest tea, 10lbs soap
  • March 1862, 800lbs flour, 100lbs tea, 300lbs sugar, 12lbs soap, 12 pair blankets, 12 pair trousers, 24 shirts, 6 pair boots, 6 billies and 12 panicans (enamel camping mugs).[4]

The Wathaurong people could not sustain themselves with such small food resources so they would walk to Geelong each day to trade or beg because they were not allowed to stay in the town after sunset.

Frank Armstrong remembered as a young boy, he would see the Barwon Tribe approaching Geelong every morning over an open plain, they would stop at the house and ask for food. He also recalled Willem Baa Niip teaching him to throw a boomerang.[5] Frank described how “Billy” would walk “backwards and forwards as if to gauge the wind. Then when he thought everything was favourable, he would let go. Away it soared until it poised in the air for a second or two, and then returned with not a little force, dropping to earth a little behind us.”

Alexander Webb’s painting of Yarra Street in 1872 shows two Aboriginal men. One seems to be selling boomerangs to a man on horseback. Could the two be Willem Baa Ni ip and his last companion Dan Dan Nook? They were known to make and trade boomerangs. Others of the tribe had died earlier – Dick (1862), Ellen (1864), Jemmy Nelson and Timboo (1866) and Harry Gore (1868). Only Dan Dan Nook and Willem Baa Ni ip were left.

Through the hard times, Willem Baa Ni ip and Dan Dan Nook had resisted being moved to the Aboriginal Reserve at Coranderrk preferring to live out their lives on Wathaurung country. Frank Armstrong states that “Jerry (Dan Dan Nook) was King and after he died in 1870, Billy was proud of being styled King.”[6] All alone Willem Baa Ni ip regularly stayed near Edwards Point on the shores of Swan Bay and at Skepper’s Well, Ocean Grove. It was near the home of fisherman, Thomas Blackwell who was the Aboriginal warden issuing rations.[7]

Willem and Thomas were friends who had a falling out in 1877 after a ‘drinking’ session. Consequently, Thomas asked Willem to leave his property; land which Willem looked upon as his own territory. Blows were landed on each other until Thomas attacked Willem with a soldering iron. Willem Baa Ni ip went to the police charging Thomas with assault. Willem was laughed at in the Geelong Police Court when he gave evidence, and the case was dismissed even though Thomas admitted to giving Billy a good “prodding” in the side with a soldering iron.[8] After this Willem Baa Ni ip moved to Portarlington.

Willem Baa Ni ip died in Geelong Hospital on 11 November 1885. He was 49 years old. He was buried at the Western Cemetery where others of the Wathaurung had been previously laid to rest. The memorial stone was laid over the collective grave soon afterwards by the former mayor of Geelong, Robert De Bruce Johnstone. The railing was provided by Mr Shirra of Commun a Feinne.

A mural of Willem Baa Nip is featured in Dennys Place, Central Geelong and a road constructed during 2015 in Armstrong Creek, Geelong was named Baanip Boulevard in recognition of him.


[1] Geelong Advertiser, King Billy: the last of a proud people, Ron Milligan, 11/11/2005, p8

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] retrieved 6/11/2020

[5]  Geelong Advertiser 12/08/1922 p11

[6] Ibid

[7] Geelong Advertiser, King Billy: the last of a proud people, Ron Milligan, 11/11/2005, p8

[8] Geelong Advertiser, Town Talk, 3/3/1877 p2