NATIONAL: CHRIS MUNRO* recounts the story of the brave Noongar warrior Yagan, who’s legacy still lives on.
The undertaker looked at his notes allocating the freshly dug burial plot a new number…#296.
In the spring of 1960, in a small patch of ground in Everton Cemetery’s General Section 16, an undertaker dropped into the rich, black soil three badly deteriorating ‘collections’ from the Liverpool Museum in England’s north west.
Among them were the remains of a Peruvian mummy, the severed head of an unknown Maori warrior, and finally another head, that of a Noongar Aboriginal warrior known as Yagan.
Prior to this rather undignified burial, Yagan’s remains had been taken on quite an abnormal journey.
Long before Yagan’s head, or as the Noongar call it, his ‘kaat,’ had made its way to an Everton cemetery, it sat idle in the stuffy storage vaults of the Liverpool Royal Institution, a so-called “learned society” for science and the arts.
Years before that in 1833, not long after Yagan’s violent death back in Western Australia, an Englishman by the name of Ensign Robert Dale arrived back in London having somehow acquired the head in his travels to the great southern wilderness.
Dale approached several scientists trying to hawk it as an “anthropological curiosity”, although it seems his fee of 20 pounds was far too steep. He eventually made an agreement to lend it for a time to an infamous surgeon named Thomas Pettigrew.
In perhaps the most gruesome chapter of its amazing journey, Pettigrew displayed Yagan’s head at private parties attended by London’s well to do. Renowned for his eccentric behavior, Pettigrew even carefully decorated the head with feathers from a black cockatoo for “effect”.
Quite a strange practice in anyone’s book. But if you thought the remains of this Noongar man had embarked on a fascinating albeit macabre passage already, the story of his living years is even more extraordinary still.
Yagan was somewhere around the age of 35 when white men first sailed into Noongar territory on the Swan River – where Perth stands today.
The year was 1829. Yagan had a wife and two children; Naral aged 9 and Willim, the eldest at 11 years old.
He was the son of Midgegooroo, a highly respected elder of the Beeliar subgroup, who enjoyed vast land use rights as far north as Helena River and as far south as Mangles Bay.
Yagan was as physically impressive as he was intelligent. Standing at 181 centimetres, or 6’2’’ in the old scale, he was a head taller than the rest of his tribe and far and away the most physically powerful man in the district.
He also carried a very distinctive tattoo on his right shoulder, markings that signified his standing as a very important go-to man in the tribe. Put short, he was a born leader.
In the beginning Yagan and his family group welcomed the strange white men into their flourishing territories mistakenly believing them to be ‘Djanga’, or the returned spirits of the dead.
European historical records tell of a reasonably peaceful co-existence between the swelling ranks of white settlers and the Beeliar. They traded with each other too. Fish, red meat, various tools and cultural information.
Resources were plentiful at first. The Noongar nation had carefully managed their environment for many thousands of years with a disciplined fire-stick farming routine to keep the flora and fauna dense on the ground and the waterways chocked with fish and birdlife.
It was nothing short of paradise for all, black and white, but the genialities were to last only three fleeting years.
Fences started to go up around settler’s holdings. Fields of potatoes and corn started to appear where there were once rich hunting grounds.
Fish, swans and other wetland bird species also started to dwindle as more settlers moved in to take advantage of the thriving Swan district.
As Yagan and his family group began to lose access to their food supplies, something had to give and it came in the December heat of 1831.
If Thomas Smedley, a young servant of a white settler, had a better grasp of exactly whom he was about to attack that day, he may have thought better of it.
But as he watched a small group of young black men dig-up potatoes from his master’s field, he made a very poor decision, one that would spark an all out war in the west.
Smedley’s attack on the young Beeliar boys claimed the life of one of Yagan’s close family members. Payback took only 24 hours to assemble.
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Accompanied by his father Midgegooroo and a Beeliar war party, Yagan stormed the farmhouse. Under customary law, Yagan’s party required payback in the form of death for anyone in Smedley ‘tribe,’ but not necessarily the man himself.
This unfortunate honour went to another farm servant named Entwhistle, who made the foolish decision of attempting to fight Yagan after opening the farmhouse door. He was killed instantly.
For Yagan, the killing was retribution under Noongar law, plain and simple. But for the white folk it was an unprovoked attack on the fledgling colony. They sent in the army to search for Yagan.
That initial force never came close to their target, but as Yagan melted back into the dense scrub, he now knew very clearly that he was at war with the whites, and as he’d always suspected, they were no Djanga either.
Going on the offensive, Yagan led a war party to a plot near Kelmscott on the Canning River. He singled out two labourers working a wheat field. Both were attacked. One escaped and survived, the other died some time later of his wounds.
Yagan was now officially a wanted fugitive in the eyes of the white law. He had a 20-pound bounty placed on his head, but managed to slip his pursuers for some months.
Assuming the heat had passed, Yagan began to reappear throughout his old haunts. Taking advantage of his lax state, and not forgetting the sizable bounty, a group of fishermen managed to entice Yagan and several of his party onto a boat.
Once on board, in deeper water and unable to escape, the party ended up in custody in Fremantle – their leader charged with murder.
His fate was all but sealed, but as Yagan and the other Noongars commenced their time in prison, a settler named Robert Lyon was negotiating their release.
Exiled to Carnac Island, Yagan and his party were befriended by Lyon who spent everyday learning their language and customs. Lyon believed he could convert Yagan to Christianity, using the leader as a lightning rod to convert all Noongars.
Lyon’s plan fell flat the day Yagan and his men stole a rowboat and made their way back to the mainland.
Over the coming months and with food now scarce, Yagan and other Noongar groups were reduced to stealing from settler’s farms, and at times, committing armed robbery for simple staples like flour.
During another of these robberies, this time on a flour store in Fremantle, Yagan and his party were shot at by a caretaker named Peter Chidlow. Yagan’s brother, Domjum was wounded and later died in jail. His brother’s death was another Yagan wasn’t about to take lying down.
Assembling some 60 Noongars, Yagan tracked a group of settlers that were loading provisions onto carts. At sun-down the lead cart was ambushed, and although only one death was required for payback, two men, Tom and John Velvick were speared.
Its believed the Velvicks were both targeted because they had previous convictions for assaults on Aboriginal people and other African sailors in Fremantle and Perth.
Whatever their motives, both Velvicks were dead, and Yagan became the most wanted man in the west.
After the Velvick murders, the Yagan party moved north from their territory towards the Helena Valley north east of modern day Perth, but despite their slip back into tougher terrain, Midgegooroo was tracked down on the Helena river.
Yagan’s father, the most highly respected elder of the Beeliar, was given a mock trial before being executed by firing squad.
Two months later, in late in May, Yagan appeared on settler George Fletcher Moore’s ‘property’ and the duo struck a conversation of sorts.
By this stage Yagan was something of a celebrity in the colony. He’d defied the odds, showed daring and defiance, and these were traits the convict settler could firstly relate to and secondly, admire.
Fletcher was no different. He wrote a letter to the Perth Gazette detailing his clearly exciting close encounter with the great Yagan.
“He stepped forward and leaning with his left hand on my shoulder and his right hand gesticulating, delivered a sort of recitation. I regret I could not understand it, I thought from the tone and manner that the purport was this:
‘You came to our country, you have driven us from our haunts, and disturbed us in our occupations. As we walk in our own country we are fired upon by the white men; why should white men treat us so?”
Only a few months later Yagan and a party of travelling Noongahs came across two teenage brothers herding cattle along the Swan River. William and James Keates were acquaintances of Yagan, who’d had dealings with them in the past, so Yagan put his trust in the young brothers when they convinced him to stay a while at their camp and avoid capture.
Well aware of the bounty, the brothers decided to murder Yagan and as many of the small party of Noongars that had stayed behind.
As the Noongars packed up camp to head on their way, William Keates seized his only opportunity. He opened fire on Yagan, shooting him in the back, whilst brother James fired a shot at another Noongah, Heegan, who was in the motion of releasing his spear. The brothers then ran for their lives. William was run down by Yagan’s men and speared to death, although James made it to the water, swimming across the Swan River to safety.
Keates returned to the site shortly afterwards with an armed group of settlers, finding Yagan’s dead body and fellow warrior Heegan dying from terrible head wounds.
The so-called ‘civilised’ settlers then cut Yagan’s head from his body. They also skinned his back, keeping his tribal tattoos as a sickening trophy.
James Keates claimed the reward. But he was widely chastised for the manner in which he obtained it. Such was the feeling for Yagan in the end, his killing was described in the Perth Gazette as a “wild and treacherous act”.
Almost 152 years later, the Noongar began the fight to repatriate Yagan’s remains from the United Kingdom.
In a testament to Noongar resolve, Yagan’s spirit was finally set free with his remains repatriated and re-buried on July 10, 2010.
Some years before the re-burial though, in 1984, and after a long push for fundraising, the Noongah community erected a statue in honour of their freedom fighter. It stands today on Herisson Island on the Swan River.
It’d be appropriate for this story to end here, but in true Australian style, it seems the settler racism of Yagan era hasn’t changed.
In 1997 the statue was beheaded with an angle grinder. A replacement was attached soon after, but it too was removed and stolen.
It seems even once immortalized in bronze a Noongah can’t escape the deep-set sickness of settler racism, thriving in the descendants of Perth’s colonial convicts.
*Chris Munro is a former NITV Political Correspondent and a Gamilaroi man.