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Opinion And World View: Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda v the King 1934

"On 6 August 1933, Judge Wells of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory sentenced Yolngu man Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda (known as Tuckiar) to death for the murder of Constable Alan McColl at Woodah Island in north-eastern Arnhem Land...''

Paul W Newbury tells the story of a great injustice.

On 6 August 1933, Judge Wells of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory sentenced Yolngu man Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda (known as Tuckiar) to death for the murder of Constable Alan McColl at Woodah Island in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

In an associated incident a year before, the leader of the Yolngu clan of Caledon Bay, Wonggu went to Japanese trepangers on the beach to object about their interference of Yolngu women. They responded by ducking his head in a bucket of offal.

When Wonggu returned to tell his family what had happened, three of his sons responded to the insult by spearing five of the Japanese to death. Trepang is a sea slug which is a Chinese delicacy and it is bountiful off the northern coast of Australia. The killings were reported widely in Australian newspapers.

In Justice All Their Own (1996), popular outback raconteur Ted Egan says human rights organisations in southern Australia had been keeping Territory police under close scrutiny ever since the Coniston massacre four years earlier.

In 1928, a police party was exonerated for the massacre of thirty-one Walpiri people in reprisal for the murder of a white man. Egan estimates the Walpiri dead to number at least seventy.

On 7 June 1933, a police patrol left Darwin to investigate the killings. They apprehended Tuckiar’s wife Dajarra and Constable McColl handcuffed her to his arm to prevent her escaping. Tuckiar who had been hiding in the bush nearby attempted to communicate with Dajarra but McColl spotted him and shot at him. His pistol misfired and Tuckiar killed him with a spear to the chest.

The police party returned to Darwin immediately with the intent to return with a larger party but the authorities decided to send a ‘peace’ party headed by the missionary, Rev Warren.

In March 1933, two white drifters named Traynor and Fagan were killed by Yolngu in March 1933. One was Tuckiar who killed one of the men because he had molested Dajarra. The other man was Yolngu man, Mirera. The two men gave provocation as their defence.

The party took Tuckiar, Mirera and Wonggu’s sons Mau, Natjelma and Narkaya to Darwin by lugger. They told Wonggu they were taking his sons to have ‘talks’ with white authorities in Darwin about the deaths of the Japanese trepangers.

When the boat arrived at Darwin on 8 April 1934, rather than going to the police station for ‘congenial’ talks, a police truck arrived and the five Yolngu were arrested and imprisoned. The ‘peace’ party betrayed the Aborigines in their charge by luring them to Darwin by deception.

In Rex v Mau, Natjelma and Narkaya, the all-white jury took only a quarter of an hour to bring in a verdict of guilty, though they recommended mercy on the grounds the defendants were ‘primitive’ men who had suffered provocation. The three young Yolngu men were barely aware what was happening. They had no English and no translator was provided.

Judge Wells sentenced them to imprisonment for twenty years. He stipulated that if after four years their behaviour was exemplary, he would recommend they be released and sent back to their own country.

The Melbourne Herald editorial of 2 August 1934 lamented the sentence against the young men and announced that the eminent anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson had volunteered to live among the Arnhem Land Aborigines and mediate between them and the authorities.

In the case of Rex vs. Tuckiar and Mirera regarding the killing of the two white men, the jury acquitted them both. Mirera was discharged and Tuckiar remained in custody to stand trial the next day for the murder of Constable McColl.

Tuckiar pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder. The trial has been widely described as a miscarriage of justice. Tuckiar’s lawyer refused to argue that he had been defending his wife Dajarra at the time of the incident. Few witnesses were called and Tuckiar was unable to testify.

On 6 August 1934, Judge Wells sentenced Tuckiar to death by hanging for the murder.
Initially, no one was able to tell him what the court had ruled.

An appeal to the High Court of the Northern Territory was heard between 29 October and 8 November 1934. The appeal was heard by the Chief Justice Gavan Duffy and four fellow Justices. They quashed of the conviction because Tuckiar had been denied natural justice.

Tuckiar was freed from Fannie Bay Gaol where he had been held for seven months. He was never seen again. Ted Egan says the belief in Darwin was that friends of McColl murdered Tuckiar and disposed of his body in the harbour.

Thomson was appalled the Caledon Bay peoples were described as ‘treacherous murderers’ but he realised he had a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate the practical value of an anthropological approach and he hoped his work could lead to an overhaul of policy regarding the administration of native peoples.

Thomson was an exceptional anthropologist: he accompanied the people in their nomadic habit and he learned their languages and their customs. Consequently, he understood them and he resented the injustices they suffered. They were a people holding onto their heritage and daring to defend their homes and their families from violation.

Thomson formed a deep and enduring friendship with Wonggu and in June 1936, he made representations to the government for the release of Wonggu’s three sons from custody. To save them from Tuckiar’s fate, Thomson picked them up personally and took them by boat to Caledon Bay.

In World War 2, the Army employed Thomson to set up a Special Reconnaissance Unit of Yolngu people with a coast-watching role in the defence of northern Australia against an imminent Japanese invasion.

Wonggu offered five of his sons to join the unit. Thomson argued that from childhood, Yolngu used the tactics of ambush to hunt game. Consequently they were adept in guerrilla tactics and Thomson said it was hard to imagine an advance party of Japanese going far into the territory of these warrior people.

In June 2003, a Yolngu Wukudi ceremony was held In Darwin to liberate Tuckiar’s spirit and cleanse those involved in his death. The Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Murray Gleeson, attended in commemoration of a memorable NT High Court decision.

Yolngu memorial poles were placed inside the Supreme Court of Darwin as symbols of remembrance and healing. A large number of Constable McColl’s relatives attended and they accepted a gift from the Yolngu people in a gesture of reconciliation.


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