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Opinion And World View: Yagan - Noongar Resistance Hero

"This story commemorates the Noongar resistance hero Yagan who was killed in July 1833, 180 years ago this month,'' writes
Paul W Newbury.

The territory of the Noongar people is the fertile triangle of Western Australia’s couth-west extending from south of Geraldton to mid-way between Albany and Esperance east of Cape Leeuwin on WA’s south coast. The Darling Range in the east provided a watershed that irrigated the coastal plain with numerous rivers and creeks.

In 1829, the British under the command of Captain James Stirling invaded Noongar country and colonised the people and took their land that was so much a part of themselves. Among the bands of Noongar people were warriors named Yagan, Yellagonga, Midgegooroo (Yagan’s father), Munday and Calyute who were known as leaders of their people in the written records of their time and who resisted with all the means at their disposal the forced annexation of their country.

By the end of 1830, 57 boats had arrived depositing 1800 immigrants as well as detachments of soldiers and the dispossession of the Noongar people was well underway. Eighty years later, it would be complete.

The colony experienced hardship, hunger and tragedy in the first years. Severe floods in 1830 destroyed the first crops and brought an epidemic of typhus that was responsible for many deaths in both societies. Settlers believed the hardships they endured gave them a claim to the land by right of ordeal.

This attitude spelt disaster for the Noongar whose claim to the land came from 60,000 years of continuous occupation through the rigours of the Ice Age. When the ice caps melted around 8,000 years ago, rising seas inundated their coastal dwellings and separated Rottnest Island from the mainland.

While the Noongar were able to follow their traditional lifestyle, there was little conflict. In the early years, they were able move away from the coast in winter to where food was more plentiful and return to the coast in spring and summer.

It was here where traditional burning of country brought about conflict with settlers. White people’s crops and sheep were destroyed and houses with thatched roofs were particularly vulnerable.

The English practice of fencing land to exclude others exacerbated the conflict. These limited Noongar access to the land for hunting and access to sacred sites and the British fired on the Noongars as they traversed their country. When the Noongar raided the stores of the invaders, reprisals caused them death and injury.

Then, the tempo of the conflict quickened and the name of Yagan, a tall and daring figure, expert with use of the spear, was frequently linked with Noongar resistance to the invasion. In December 1831, a member of Yagan’s band was shot and killed while taking potatoes from a garden. Yagan returned with a band of Noongar that included his father Midgegooroo and besieged the farmhouse and killed a servant.

Yagan’s band was able to elude immediate capture but Midgegooroo was later executed for this killing. No action was taken against the settler whose killing of the Noongar man had led to the retaliation.

A short time later, Yagan and his band attacked two men who were sowing wheat along the Canning River and killed one of them. Yagan was declared an outlaw with a price of 40 pounds on his head but he was able to elude capture for many months. With two of his companions, Donmera and Ningina, Yagan was finally caught and taken into custody.

Robert Lyon, an idealistic evangelical, pleaded his cause against execution and Yagan was given into his custody to live in exile with his two companions on Carnac Island off Fremantle. Robert Lyon accompanied the three Noongars to begin the task of converting them to Christianity.

Settlers desired the domestication of the blacks for the routine tasks of town and farm life. However, the Noongar were not willing to discard their lifestyle as hunter gatherers to become a cheap source of labour. The resourceful Noongars escaped custody in a dinghy.

There were fears at the time the Noongars would unite in a major uprising but they preferred guerilla actions against the many depredations made against by the invaders. There were many instances of unwarranted aggression made by the invader settlers and in the absence of Governor Stirling, Captain Irwin was forced to issue orders that those who interfered with the Noongars would face trial.

In April 1833, Yagan’s brother Domjum was killed while attempting to break into a store. Yagan retaliated by killing two men on the road to Fremantle. A reward of sixty pounds was offered for Yagan ‘dead or alive’ and three poses pursued him with relentless determination. Finally Midgegooroo was captured and the old man was executed without formal trial to satisfy colonists’ desire for revenge.

When Yagan heard of his father’s death, he warned colonists he would take three lives in retaliation. Yagan eluded capture until July 1833 when he was shot and killed in the region of the Upper Swan by two boys who he believed to be his friends. In a display of wanton brutality, Yagan’s head was hacked from his body and it was preserved to be exhibited as a trophy at English shows.

The editor of the Perth Gazette was appalled that the boys had violated Yagan’s trust and said: It is revolting to our feelings to hear this lauded as a meritorious deed.

Had they lived a little longer and learnt of the brutality of the Pinjarra massacre, Yagan and Midgegooroo might have been inclined to challenge the moral ground taken by their accusers. In this action in 1834, Captain Stirling wanted to break the strength of the Noongar leader Calyute and the warlike Murray River Noongars who stood in his way in establishing a road and a line of garrisons from Perth and Albany.

Stirling led a large group of heavily armed soldiers and settlers in a dawn raid on the unsuspecting Noongars at Pinjarra. In the carnage, many of the eighty noongars were killed and the few remaining women and children were taken into custody. It is the same story across Australia that mounted and armed troopers eventually won the day against Aborigines especially when they were in the company of women and children.

In his official report, Governor Stirling estimated the Noongar dead at 15. The Perth Gazette reported that a later survey implied there were many more killed than officially acknowledged. Noongar reluctance to speak the name of the dead helped in the cover-up. It is significant that no male prisoners were taken though Calyute survived despite his wounds and lived to be a much esteemed elder.

See ‘Mabo Comes of Age as the Noongar Decision nears the Peoples’ vote’ in Open Writing for the recent history of the Noongar people. http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2013/06/mabo_comes_of_a.php#more

This account is taken from ‘Aboriginal Heroes of the Resistance: from Pemulwuy to Mabo’ written by this writer Paul W Newbury and published by the ecumenical justice and peace organisation Action for World Development, Sydney in 1999.

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