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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nemarluk (1911–1940)

by Bruce Shaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Nemarluk (1911-1940), by unknown photographer

Nemarluk (1911-1940), by unknown photographer

NTGP Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0107/0247

Nemarluk (c.1911-1940), Aboriginal resistance leader, was born about 1911 in the central Daly River region of the Northern Territory. He belonged to the Murrinh-patha language group (called the 'Cahn-mah' by Ion Idriess). W. E. H. Stanner described that part of the Territory as a 'barbarous frontier' in the first four decades of the twentieth century, and Nemarluk's life should be seen in this context. By the early 1930s he was a fully initiated man. His shoulders, chest and thighs were deeply cicatrized, his long hair was tied back with a headband, and he wore a belt made of human hair. Idriess (who met him twice) admired his 'magnificent' appearance: broad chested and 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, he was 'a picture of youth and strength, and of muscles and sinew in rippling relief'. Nemarluk reportedly had five wives, one of whom, Marpu, bore him his only tribal child.

In the 1930s Aboriginal resistance fighters operated on both sides of the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Their tactics were to spear cattle and horses and attack isolated travellers before retreating to rugged terrain and eluding their pursuers. They also engaged in traditional blood-feuds with other Aborigines. Nemarluk led a small band of warriors who lived and camped mainly on the Moyle Plain and around Port Keats. He and his followers armed themselves and painted their bodies red before setting out on forays.

In July 1931 three Japanese shark-fishermen, Nagata Yoshikiya, Yusama Owashi and Ryukichi Yoshida, anchored their rented lugger, Ouida, near Port Keats. Nemarluk and his party used Aboriginal women to win the confidence of the fishermen. Days later, they killed the Japanese. News of the murders reached Darwin in October. Idriess romanticized the pursuit of the killers as a duel of wits between Nemarluk and Bul-Bul, an Aboriginal police tracker. Nemarluk's companions—Minemarra, Montespare (also known as Mangul Mangul), Nargoon, Marragin and Mankee—were arrested and taken to Darwin. In March 1933 they were tried, found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to death. The sentences were later commuted to imprisonment for life.

Nemarluk evaded arrest until 4 May 1933 when he was apprehended at Legune Station. While awaiting trial, he escaped from Darwin Gaol and Labour Prison in September and remained at large for six months. After his recapture he was transported back to Darwin and tried in April 1934. Evidence was heard in court that the Japanese had been killed for failing to pay (in tobacco) for the favours of the Aboriginal women. Another explanation is that the fishermen had been murdered for detaining and raping the women. It is part of the oral tradition of Nemarluk's people, however, that he had vowed to kill those who intruded on his country. As was the case with his companions, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died (probably of tuberculosis) in early August 1940 at Darwin Hospital.

Select Bibliography

  • I. L. Idriess, Man Tracks (Syd, 1935)
  • I. L. Idriess, Nemarluk, King of the Wilds (Syd, 1941)
  • K. Willey, Eaters of the Lotus (Brisb, 1964)
  • J. Pye, The Port Keats Story (Syd, 1973)
  • B. Parry, The Story of Nimalak (Batchelor, NT, 1983)
  • D. Carment et al (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (Darwin, 1990)
  • Walkabout, Sept 1973
  • Northern Standard, 10, 13 Apr 1934, 13 Aug 1940
  • A1, 1933/2852, A1, 1937/5697, A659/1, 1939/1/9949 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce Shaw, 'Nemarluk (1911–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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