« On Smoking | Main | I Love Them Both But... »

Opinion And World View: The Wik Nation of Cape York - First Peoples Of Terra Australis

Paul W Newbury tells the little known story of the Wik nation who repulsed Dutch invaders led by Willem Janszoon at Cape Keerweer on the western side of Cape York Peninsula in March 1606 while the Dutch were exploring the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Duyfken.

In this month of April Australians celebrate our most sacred day as a nation, Anzac Day that is about defending our freedom and way of life. What follows is the little known story of the Wik nation who repulsed Dutch invaders led by Willem Janszoon at Cape Keerweer on the western side of Cape York Peninsula in March 1606 while the Dutch were exploring the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Duyfken. This event is the first episode in the recorded history of Australia.
Wik people have an account of their meeting with Janszoon that has been handed down over four centuries. Wik elder Gladys Nunkatiapin told the story of Janszoon’s landing in 1606 to Kevin Gilbert in the 1970s. He published her story in Living Black: Blacks talk to Kevin Gilbert (1977):

One day, the first six white men came to this country. They crossed the Kirke River and met our people. They took one young woman back across the river. Her husband went to them and said, “Let her go, give her back.” No one spoke the language; they could only use signs.

The husband came back and said to our people, “Help me get my wife back.” So the husband and tribesmen went back across the river and made signs. The white men wouldn’t let her go. The husband pulled the white man into the river and choked him. I think that’s when it all started.

Gladys Nunkatiapin was the traditional custodian of the story handed down in Wik oral tradition. She was referring to the clash between the Wik people and the Dutch in 1606 that resulted in loss of life on both sides.

During Janszoon’s stay in the Gulf of Carpentaria, he became the first European to name a place on the continent, chart the coastline and record his meeting with the native people. This was the first of many landings in the north of Terra Australis.

Over the centuries, the continent of Australia took shape in the minds of Europeans from the many landings and sightings recorded by mariners along the western, southern and northern coastlines. Captain Cook made the shape more complete when he charted the eastern coast of the continent in 1770.

Following his retreat, Janszoon named the place Cape Keerweer which is Dutch for ‘turn around’. In 1623, Dutchman, Jan Carstenszoon, in the vessels Pera and Arnhem made the second recorded European contact with Australia.

When he landed at Cape Keerweer, Carstenszoon noted he met more resistance from the warriors there than from the natives further south. He believed the people were motivated by memory of their encounter with Janszoon. The Cape Keerweer people are aware of their place in the history of Australia in forcing the Dutch to retreat and they tell the story with passion.

In 1976, a Wik man, Jack Spear Karntin, gave a slightly different version of the story to anthropologist, Peter Sutton. Karntin told the story in his language, Wik-Ngatharra, and Sutton translated it. Karntin tells of the Dutch landing at Cape Keerweer where they erected huts and sank a well.

The Wik did not object to the Dutch activities until they detained two women. In this version, the Dutch released the women when a party of Wik warriors approached them with a demand for the women’s return.

The conflict in Karntin’s story began through a misunderstanding. One of the Dutch colonists decided to teach a Wik warrior to use a musket so he could shoot ducks for the Dutch party. In the midst of explaining how to use it, he pointed the gun at the Wik man. At this, the other Aborigines, thinking he was about to shoot their comrade, called out a warning. The Wik man grappled with the Dutchman and strangled him.

When other Dutchmen came to help their countryman, Wik warriors used their woomeras and spears to deadly effect. Karntin said the Dutch took revenge by shooting a number of Wik tribesmen. Eventually, the Dutch broke and ran leaving nine dead for the Wik to bury. They had to bury some of their own. This is the first recorded invasion of Australia.

An account of the return of the Duyfken to Java was published in 1625. The story told by the crew confirm the nine dead, ‘killed by heathens’ and they also dismissed the continent as desolate saying, ‘no good could be done there’.

The journals of the Dutch mariners show they had little understanding that Wik resistance to their incursions was reasonable. Carstenszoon lamented that the natives received him with hostility everywhere as he went about following the Dutch East India Company’s instructions to kidnap a native to learn whether any opportunity for profitable trade existed.

Carstenszoon gave his impression of the land of the Wik people along with the rest of western Cape York Peninsula, ‘This is the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on the earth’.

Bloody conflict marked the Dutch visits and the Dutch were to blame for the reputation among mariners that the Australian Aborigines were ‘fierce and bloodthirsty’. Sutton suggests the sailors’ dismal depiction of the country acted as a cover for their reluctance to return to face the Wik.

The country of the various Aboriginal groups referred to as the Wik nation covers the west coast of the Cape between Pormpuraaw and Weipa and the inland drained by the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd rivers. Anthropologists estimate their pre-invasion numbers at around

4000 and their current population is around 1500. Rapid depopulation took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through punitive expeditions by pastoralists, forced labour in the marine industry and disease epidemics. The majority of Wik people today live at the former missions of Aurukun, Napranum, Mapoon and New Mapoon.

Weipa is a town on the western side of the Cape that is famed for its beautiful sunsets over the waters of the Gulf. It is dominated by the Comalco alumina mine. Relations between Comalco and the Wik people of the nearby settlement of Mapoon reached their low point in 1963 when Queensland police burnt the people’s houses and forcibly removed them to New Mapoon at the top of Cape York. The Queensland Government said the people had to go because it had granted Comalco a lease over the area for the mining of bauxite.

In August 2001, good relations were restored when the mining giant signed an accord - the ‘Comalco Indigenous Land Use Agreement. It is registered with the National Native Title Tribunal under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).

The historic agreement recognises the native title rights of the traditional owners and it involves annual payments to fund development programs that commence at $4 million per year paid into a fund managed by community representatives.

The Australian Journal of Mining reported the agreement under the headline: ‘Sorry’ Comalco signs Cape York Native Title deal’. In a spirit of reconciliation, the Journal reported the Comalco CEO said ‘sorry’ three times in his speech in apology for the removal of the people in 1963.

The signatories to the Comalco Indigenous Land Use Agreement include eleven traditional owner groups, four Indigenous Community Councils (Aurukun, Napranum, Mapoon and New Mapoon), Cape York Land Council and the Queensland Government.

The agreement encourages mutual respect; support for future Comalco mining operations; economic development of Indigenous communities; increased Indigenous representation in consultation about operations; and increased levels of Wik cultural awareness among Comalco employees.

A Charitable Trust controlled in majority by the traditional owners has been set up to manage the funds and annual contributions made by Comalco and the Queensland Government. A Co-ordination Committee with broad representation oversees the day to day operation of the agreement.

In the Mabo decision of 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that at the time of the British landing in 1788, the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were the owners of the Australian continent and they were entitled to have their title to land acknowledged and protected under British law.

In 1994, the Wik peoples applied for native title to land and waters covering 17,700 sq km of west Cape York Peninsula. Much of the land under claim was under pastoral leasehold. Their claim led to the historic ‘Wik decision’ of the High Court in 1996 that native title rights can co-exist with leasehold title on pastoral leases.

The ruling substantiated the peoples’ right to access their lands and engage in traditional activities including fishing and hunting rights. The Court ruled that in any conflict of rights, the rights of the pastoralist prevail. Wik delegate, Gladys Tybingoompa, made the day memorable when she danced the Wik malpa in celebration outside the High Court in Canberra.

Over the past 30 years, Wik peoples have taken action to assert their customary rights and demand recognition of their society and culture by state and federal governments. In 1996, the High Court of Australia acknowledged the long-established right of the Wik to possess, use, occupy and enjoy their traditional land in accordance with their laws and customs.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.