Yagan (pron.: / /; c. 1795 – 11 July 1833) was an Australian Aboriginal warrior from the Noongar tribe who played a key part in early indigenous Australian resistance to British settlement and rule in the area of Perth, Western Australia. After he led a series of burglaries and robberies across the countryside, in which white settlers were killed, the government offered a bounty for his capture, dead or alive. A young settler shot and killed him. Yagan's execution figured in Aboriginal folklore as a symbol of the unjust and sometimes brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples of Australia by colonial settlers. Known throughout Australia, Yagan is considered a hero by the Noongar people.
Settlers removed Yagan's head to claim the bounty. Later an official took it to London, England, where it was exhibited as an "anthropological curiosity". A museum held the head in storage for more than a century before burying it with other remains in an unmarked grave in Liverpool in 1964. Over the years, the Noongar asked for repatriation of the head, both for religious reasons and because of Yagan's traditional stature in the culture. In 1993 the burial site was identified. Four years later officials exhumed the head and repatriated it to Australia. Since 1997, the indigenous people of the Perth area argued over how to treat Yagan's head in a respectful way. They finally buried it in July 2010, in a traditional Noongar ceremony in the Swan Valley in Western Australia, 177 years after Yagan's death.
A member of the Whadjuk Noongar people, Yagan belonged to a tribe of around 60 people whose name, according to Robert Lyon, was Beeliar. Scholars now believe that the Beeliar people may have been a family subgroup of a larger tribe whom Daisy Bates called Beelgar. According to Lyon, the Beeliar people occupied the land south of the Swan and Canning rivers, as far south as Mangles Bay. The group had customary land usage rights over a much larger area than this, extending north as far as Lake Monger and north-east to the Helena River. The group also had an unusual degree of freedom to move over their neighbours' land, possibly due to kinship and marriage ties with neighbouring groups.
Yagan is thought to have been born around 1795. His father was Midgegooroo, an elder of the Beeliar people; his mother was presumably one of Midgegooroo's two wives. Yagan was probably a Ballaroke in the Noongar classification.
Marriage and family
According to the historian Neville Green, Yagan had a wife and two children. A report in the Perth Gazette in 1833 gives the names of his children as "Naral", age 9, and "Willim", age 11; however, most other sources state that the warrior was unmarried and childless. Described as taller than average with an impressive burly physique, Yagan had a distinctive tribal tattoo on his right shoulder that identified him as "a man of high degree in tribal law." He was generally acknowledged to be the most physically powerful of his tribe, making him a natural leader.
Relations with settlers
Yagan would have been about 35 years old in 1829 when British settlers landed in the area and established the Swan River Colony. For the first two years of the colony, relations between settlers and Noongar were generally amicable, as there was little competition for resources. The Noongar welcomed the white settlers as Djanga, the returned spirits of their dead. Historical reports noted the two groups shared fish. As time passed, conflicts between the two cultures gradually became more frequent. The settlers incorrectly believed that the Noongar were nomads who had no claim to the land over which they roamed. Colonists fenced off land for grazing and farming according to their traditional practices. As more land was fenced off, the Noongar were increasingly denied access to their traditional hunting grounds and sacred sites. By 1832 Yagan's family group was unable to approach the Swan or Canning Rivers without danger, because settlers' land grants lined the banks. Needing food, the Noongar raided the settlers' crops and killed their cattle. They also developed a taste for the settlers' supplies, and began to take flour and other food, which became a serious problem for the colony. In addition, the Noongar practice of firestick farming: firing the bush to flush out game and encourage germination of undergrowth, threatened the settlers' crops and houses.
In December 1831 Yagan and his father led the first significant Aboriginal resistance to white settlement in Western Australia. Thomas Smedley, a servant of farmer Archibald Butler, ambushed some natives who were raiding a potato patch, and killed one of Yagan's family group. A few days later, Yagan, Midgegooroo and others stormed the farmhouse and, finding the door locked, began to break through the mud-brick walls. Inside were Butler's servant Erin Entwhistle and his two sons Enion and Ralph. After hiding his sons under the bed, Entwhistle opened the door to parley and was killed by Yagan and Midgegooroo. Noongar tribal law required that murders be avenged by the killing of a member of the murderer's tribal group, not necessarily the murderer. The Noongar considered servants and employees to be part of the settlers' groups. Historians believe the Noongar attack on Entwhistle was retribution under their tribal law. The white settlers thought the killing was an unprovoked murder and dispatched a force to arrest Yagan's group, without success.
In June 1832 Yagan led a party of Aborigines in attacking two labourers' sowing a field of wheat alongside the Canning River near Kelmscott. One of the men, John Thomas, escaped, but they wounded the other, William Gaze, who later died. The settlement declared Yagan an outlaw and offered a reward of £20 for his capture. He avoided capture until early October 1832. A group of fishermen enticed Yagan and two companions into their boat, then pushed off into deep water. The fishermen took the three Noongar men to the Perth guardhouse, from which they were transferred to the Round House at Fremantle. Yagan was sentenced to death, but he was saved by the intercession of a settler named Robert Lyon. Arguing that Yagan was defending his land against invasion, Lyon said Yagan should not be considered a criminal but a prisoner of war. He suggested treatment should follow rules for POWs. At the recommendation of John Septimus Roe, the Surveyor-General of Western Australia, Yagan and his men were exiled on Carnac Island under the supervision of Lyon and two soldiers.
Lyon thought he could teach Yagan British ways and convert him to Christianity. He hoped to gain his cooperation and use his tribal stature to persuade the Noongar to accept colonial authority. Lyon spent many hours with Yagan learning his language and customs. After a month, Yagan and his companions escaped by stealing an unattended dinghy and rowing to Woodman Point on the mainland. The Government made no pursuit of the men; apparently its officials considered they had been sufficiently punished.
In January 1833 two Noongars, Gyallipert and Manyat, visited Perth from King George Sound, where relations between settlers and natives were amicable. Two settlers, Richard [Robert?] Dale and George Smythe, arranged for the men to meet a party of local Noongars to encourage friendly relations in the Swan River Colony. On 26 January Yagan led a group of ten formally armed Noongars in greeting the two men near Lake Monger. The men exchanged weapons and held a corroboree, though the groups did not appear to share a language. Yagan and Gyallipert competed at spear throwing. As an example of his prowess, Yagan struck a walking stick from a distance of 25 metres.
Gyallipert and Manyat remained in Perth for some time. On 3 March, Yagan obtained permission to hold another corroboree, this time in the Post Office garden in Perth. The Perth and King George Sound men met at dusk, chalked their bodies, and performed a number of dances including a kangaroo hunt dance. The Perth Gazette wrote that Yagan "was master of ceremonies and acquitted himself with infinite grace and dignity."
During February and March, Yagan was involved in a series of minor conflicts with settlers. In February William Watson complained that Yagan had pushed open his door, demanded a gun, and taken handkerchiefs. Watson had to give him and his companions flour and bread. The following month, Yagan was among a group who received biscuits from a military contingent under Lieutenant Norcott; when Norcott tried to restrict his supply, Yagan threatened him with his spear. Later that month, Yagan was with a group of Noongars who entered Watson's house while he was away. The group left after Watson's wife called on neighbours for help. The next day Captain Ellis lectured them about their behaviour. The frequent incidents prompted The Perth Gazette to remark on "the reckless daring of this desperado who sets his life at a pin's fee ... For the most trivial offence ... he would take the life of any man who provoked him. He is at the head and front of any mischief."
Wanted dead or alive
On the night of 29 April, a party of Noongar broke into a Fremantle store to steal flour and were shot at by the caretaker Peter Chidlow. Domjum, a brother of Yagan, was badly injured and died in jail a few days later. The rest of the party moved from Fremantle to Preston Point, where Yagan reportedly vowed vengeance for the death. Between 50 and 60 Noongar gathered at Bull Creek, where they met a party of settlers who were loading carts with provisions. Later that day, the group ambushed the lead cart, killing two settlers, Tom and John Velvick. Tribal law required only a single death for vengeance. Some historians have speculated that the Velvicks were targeted because they had previously been convicted for assaulting Aboriginal people and coloured seamen. Alexandra Hasluck has also argued that stealing provisions was an important motive in the attack, but this has been refuted elsewhere.
For the killing of the Velvicks, the Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Irwin declared Yagan, Midgegooroo and Munday outlaws, offering rewards of £20 each for the capture of Midgegooroo and Munday, and a reward of £30 for Yagan's capture, dead or alive. Munday successfully appealed against his proscription. Midgegooroo, Yagan and their group immediately moved from their territory north towards the Helena Valley. On 17 May, Midgegooroo was captured on the Helena River. After a brief, informal trial he was executed by firing squad. Yagan remained at large for over two months.
Late in May, George Fletcher Moore reported seeing Yagan on his property and talking with him in pidgin English. Moore wrote in the Perth Gazette:
Yagan stepped forward and leaning with his left hand on my shoulder while he gesticulated with the right, delivered a sort of recitation, looking earnestly in my face. 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 the white men treat us so?"
Since Moore had little knowledge of Yagan's native language, the historian Hasluck suggests that this account is probably more indicative of "a feeling of conscience on the part of the white men" than an accurate rendering of Yagan's state of mind.
Yagan asked Moore whether Midgegooroo was dead or alive. Moore gave no reply, but a servant answered that Midgegooroo was a prisoner on Carnac Island. Yagan warned, "White man shoot Midgegooroo, Yagan kill three." Moore reported the encounter but made no attempt to restrain Yagan. He later wrote, "The truth is, every one wishes him taken, but no one likes to be the captor ... there is something in his daring which one is forced to admire."
On 11 July 1833, two teenage brothers named William and James Keates were herding cattle along the Swan River north of Guildford when a group of Noongar approached while en route to collect flour rations from Henry Bull's house. The Keates brothers suggested Yagan remain with them to avoid arrest. While he was staying with them during the morning, the brothers decided to kill the warrior and claim the reward. When the natives were ready to depart, the Keates took their last opportunity. William Keates shot Yagan, and James shot another native, Heegan, in the act of throwing his spear. The brothers ran away, but William was overtaken and speared to death. James escaped by swimming the river. Shortly afterward he returned with a party of armed settlers from Bull's estate.
When the party of settlers arrived, they found Yagan dead and Heegan dying. Heegan "was groaning and his brains were partly out when the party came, and whether humanity or brutality, a man put a gun to his head and blew it to pieces." The settlers cut Yagan's head from his body, and skinned his back to obtain his tribal markings as a trophy. They buried the bodies a short distance away.
James Keates claimed the reward, but his conduct was widely criticised. The Perth Gazette referred to Yagan's killing as "a wild and treacherous act ... it is revolting to hear this lauded as a meritorious deed." He left the colony the following month; it is possible that he left from fear of being murdered in tribal retaliation.
Exhibition and burial
Yagan's head was initially taken to Henry Bull's house. Moore saw it there and sketched the head a number of times in his unpublished, handwritten diary, commenting that "possibly it may yet figure in some museum at home." The head was preserved by smoking.
In September 1833, Irwin sailed for London, partly to give his own account of the events leading up to the killing. This was an unusual measure, especially given his regiment were about to leave for a tour of duty in India. The Colonial Office indicated that they were satisfied with Irwin's administration of the colony.
Travelling with Irwin was Ensign Robert Dale, who had somehow acquired Yagan's head. According to the historian Paul Turnbull, Dale appears to have persuaded Governor Irwin to let him have the head as an "anthropological curiosity". After arriving in London, Dale tried to sell the head to scientists, approaching a number of anatomists and phrenologists. His price of ₤20 failed to find a buyer, so he made an agreement with Thomas Pettigrew for the exclusive use of the head for 18 months. Pettigrew, a surgeon and antiquarian, was well known in the London social scene for holding private parties at which he unrolled and autopsied Egyptian mummies. He displayed the head on a table in front of a panoramic view of King George Sound reproduced from Dale's sketches. For effect the head was adorned with a fresh corded headband and feathers of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.
Pettigrew had the head examined by a phrenologist. Examination was considered difficult because of the large fracture across the back of the head caused by the gunshot. His conclusions were consistent with contemporary European opinion of Indigenous Australians. Dale published these in a pamphlet entitled Descriptive Account of the Panoramic View &c. of King George's Sound and the Adjacent Country, which Pettigrew encouraged his guests to buy as a souvenir of their evening. The frontispiece of the pamphlet was a hand-coloured aquatint print of Yagan's head by the artist George Cruikshank.
Early in October 1835, Yagan's head and the panoramic view were returned to Dale, then living in Liverpool. On 12 October he presented them to the Liverpool Royal Institution, where the head may have been displayed in a case along with some other preserved heads and wax models illustrating cranial anatomy. In 1894 the Institution's collections were dispersed, and Yagan's head was lent to the Liverpool Museum; it is thought not to have been put on display there. By the 1960s Yagan's head was badly deteriorated. In April 1964 the museum decided to dispose of it. It arranged burial of the head on 10 April 1964, together with a Peruvian mummy and a Māori head. They were buried in Everton Cemetery's General Section 16, grave number 296. In later years a number of burials were made around the grave. For example, in 1968 a local hospital buried directly over the box, 20 stillborn babies and two infants who died soon after birth.
Lobbying for repatriation
For many years beginning in the early 1980s, a number of Noongar groups sought the return of Yagan's head to Australia.
It is Aboriginal belief that because Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey.
At the time, there was not a historical trail for the head after Pettigrew passed it on. Tribal elders entrusted the Aboriginal leader Ken Colbung with the search. In 1985 he engaged Lily Bhavna Kauler as a researcher and they started enquiring of various United Kingdom museums. In the early 1990s, Colbung enlisted the aid of University of London archaeologist Peter Ucko. One of Ucko's researchers, Cressida Fforde, conducted a literature search for information on the head. Fforde successfully traced the head in December 1993. The following April, Colbung applied to exhume the remains under Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857. Home Office regulations required next of kin consent before disturbing the remains of the 22 infants. Colbung's solicitors requested waiver of this condition on grounds that the exhumation would be of great personal significance to Yagan's living relatives, and great national importance to Australia.
Meanwhile, divisions in the Noongar community in Perth began to develop. Some elders questioned Colbung's role and one Noongar registered a complaint with the Liverpool City Council over his involvement. Media reports indicated acrimonious debate within the Noongar community about who had the best cultural qualifications to take possession of the head. The academic Hannah McGlade claims that these divisions were largely manufactured by the media, particularly The West Australian, which "aimed to and successfully represented the Nyungar community in terms of disharmony and dissent". She alleges that one West reporter contacted Noongar who were known to be in disagreement, and quoted one to the other, so as to elicit provocative responses. The disputes were "trumpeted" by The West, allowing it to "preach" against the infighting.
On 25 July a public meeting was held in Perth. All parties agreed to put aside their differences and co-operate to ensure that the repatriation was a "national success". A Yagan Steering Committee was established to co-ordinate the repatriation, and Colbung's application was allowed to proceed. In January 1995 the Home Office advised Colbung that it was unable to waive the requirement to obtain next of kin consent for the exhumation. It contacted the five relatives whose addresses were known, and received unconditional consent from only one. Accordingly, on 30 June 1995, Colbung and the other interested parties were advised that the application for exhumation had been rejected.
Meeting on 21 September, the Yagan Steering Committee decided to lobby Australian and British politicians for support. In 1997 Colbung was invited to visit the United Kingdom at the British government's expense and he arrived on 20 May. His visit attracted substantial media coverage, and increased the political pressure on the British Government. He secured the support of the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, after gate crashing the Prime Minister's June visit to the United Kingdom.
While Colbung was in the United Kingdom, Martin and Richard Bates were engaged to undertake a geophysical survey of the grave site. Using electromagnetic and ground penetrating radar techniques, they identified an approximate position of the box that suggested it could be accessed from the side via the adjacent plot. A report of the survey was passed to the Home Office, prompting further discussions between the British and Australian Governments.
Of concern to the Home Office were an undisclosed number of letters that it had received objecting to Colbung's involvement in the repatriation process; it therefore sought assurances from the Australian Government that Colbung was a correct applicant. In response Colbung asked his elders to ask the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to tell the British Home Office that he was the correct applicant. ATSIC then convened a meeting in Perth at which it was again resolved that Colbung's application could proceed.
Colbung continued to press for the exhumation, asking that it be performed before the 164th anniversary of Yagan's death on 11 July, so that the anniversary could be the occasion of a celebration. His request was not met, and on the anniversary of Yagan's death, Colbung conducted a short memorial service at the burial plot in Everton. He returned to Australia empty-handed on 15 July.
The exhumation of Yagan's head eventually proceeded, without Colbung's knowledge, by excavating six feet down the side of the grave, then tunnelling horizontally to the location of the box. Thus the exhumation was performed without disturbing any other remains. The following day, a forensic palaeontologist from the University of Bradford positively identified the skull as Yagan's by correlating the fractures with those described in Pettigrew's report. The skull was then kept at the museum until 29 August, when it was handed over to the Liverpool City Council.
On 27 August 1997, a delegation of Noongars consisting of Ken Colbung, Robert Bropho, Richard Wilkes and Mingli Wanjurri-Nungala arrived in the UK to collect Yagan's head. The delegation was to have been larger, but Commonwealth funding was withdrawn at the last minute. The handover of Yagan's skull was further delayed, however, when a Noongar named Corrie Bodney applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for an injunction against the handover. Claiming that his family group has sole responsibility for Yagan's remains, Bodney declared the exhumation illegal and denied the existence of any tradition or belief necessitating the head's exhumation and removal to Australia. Another Noongar, Albert Corunna, then came forward with a claim to be Yagan's closest living relative. The Supreme Court had no power to grant an emergency injunction binding the Government of the United Kingdom, so instead it asked the Government of Western Australia to object formally to the handing over of Yagan's remains. The United Kingdom Government responded favourably to the objection, agreeing to withhold the head until the injunction application had been considered. On 29 August the court rejected the injunction application, on the grounds that Bodney had previously agreed to the current arrangements, and on the evidence of another Noongar elder and an anthropologist, both of whom refuted Bodney's claim to sole responsibility.
Yagan's skull was handed over to the Noongar delegation at a ceremony at the Liverpool Town Hall on 31 August 1997. In accepting the skull, Colbung made comments that allegedly linked Yagan's death with the death of Princess Diana, who had died that day:
"Because the Poms did the wrong thing they have to suffer. They have to learn too, to live with it as we did and that is how nature goes."
Colbung's comments prompted a media furore throughout Australia, with newspapers receiving many letters from the public expressing shock and anger at the comments. Colbung later claimed that his comments had been misinterpreted.
Throughout the repatriation process, many sections of the international media treated the story as a joke. For example, the US News & World Report ran a story under the headline Raiders of the Lost Conk, in which Yagan's head was referred to as a "pickled curio", and Colbung's actions were treated as a publicity stunt.
Preparations for reburial
On its return to Perth, Yagan's head continued to be a source of controversy and conflict. Responsibility for reburial of the head was given to a "Committee for the Reburial of Yagan's Kaat", headed by Richard Wilkes. However, the reburial was delayed by disputes between elders over the burial location, mainly due to uncertainty of the whereabouts of the rest of his body, and disagreement about the importance of burying the head with the body.
A number of attempts were made to locate the remains of Yagan's body, which were believed to be on Lot 39 West Swan Road in the outer Perth suburb of Belhus. A remote sensing survey of the site was carried out in 1998, but no remains were found. An archaeological survey of the area was undertaken two years later, but this also was unsuccessful. Disputes then arose over whether the head could be buried separately from the body. Wilkes has claimed that it can, so long as it is placed where Yagan was killed, so that Dreamtime spirits can reunite the remains.
In 1998 the Western Australian Planning Commission and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs jointly published a document entitled Yagan's Gravesite Master Plan, which discussed "matters of ownership, management, development and future use" of the property on which Yagan's remains are believed to be buried. Under consideration was the possibility of turning the site into an indigenous burial site, to be managed by the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board.
Yagan's head spent some time in storage in a bank vault before being handed over to forensics experts who reconstructed a model from it. After that it was held in storage at Western Australia's state mortuary. Plans to re-bury the head were repeatedly deferred, causing ongoing conflict between Noongar groups. In September 2008 it was reported that Yagan's head would be reburied in November, and a Yagan Memorial Park created as a projected cost of A$996,000; but in November it was announced that the reburial had been rescheduled for July 2009 because of logistical problems. In March 2009, it was announced that the Department of Indigenous Affairs had given the City of Swan more than A$500,000 to develop the park.
The head was finally buried in a private ceremony attended only by invited Noongar elders, on 10 July 2010, the anniversary of the last full day he lived and one day before the end of NAIDOC Week 2010. The site in Belhus was chosen as it is believed to be near to where the rest of Yagan's body was buried. The burial coincided with a ceremony to mark the opening of the Yagan Memorial Park which was attended by around 300 people, including Noongar elders and State government representatives. State Premier Colin Barnett described the occasion as "a wonderful day for all West Australians."
The art works for the Yagan Memorial Park were designed by Peter Farmer, Kylie Ricks, Sandra Hill and Jenny Dawson. Hill and Dawson were commissioned to create an entry wall of Yagan's story, and Farmer was commissioned to design the Yagan Grave site wall and park entry statements. Farmer invited Ricks to develop a design for the female Coolamon.
The repatriation of Yagan's head increased the notability of this Aboriginal leader. He is considered a famous historical figure throughout Australia, with material about him appearing in such publications as the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and Western Australia's school curriculum. He is of greatest significance, however, to the Noongar people, for whom he is "a revered, cherished and heroic individual... patriot and visionary hero of WA's South-West". The return of his head was likened by some Indigenous Australians to the November 1993 ceremonial repatriation from Gallipoli of Australia's unknown soldier.