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Watriama, William Jacob (1880–1925)

by Hugh Laracy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Jacob Watriama (1880?-1925), soldier and patriot, was born probably on 30 August 1880 at Tuo village, Maré, one of the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia, son of Waupo, a servant of the chiefly Naisiline clan, and his wife Sera Wakanude. Adhering to the London Missionary Society, the family was Protestant.

From an early age Watriama showed remarkable independence. About 1887 he left Maré to work as a household servant in Nouméa. Subsequently he joined a Société le Nickel vessel which he deserted in Sydney in 1891. In his first years in Australia he was possibly helped by Rev. John Jones of the L.M.S. who had been expelled from Maré by the French in 1887. Watriama later made a living as a gardener and house-painter. In 1907 he lived at the Methodist mission headquarters in Castlereagh Street, Sydney.

Watriama first came to public notice in 1911 through a campaign he launched urging the end of French rule over New Caledonia and its dependencies. He saw an influx of Japanese labourers there as the start of a Japanese invasion of the South Pacific and as a threat to the security of Australia. Accordingly, he declared himself to be the exiled 'King of the Loyalty Islands' and in that assumed role sought to persuade the British and Australian governments to annex New Caledonia and so abort the Japanese menace. He twice attempted to visit New Caledonia, but was deported each time. Although unsuccessful, his cause did enjoy considerable public following, while his pretensions to royalty were generally treated sympathetically.

As the recipient of this attention Watriama is a figure of some historical interest, for he was one of the few Black men to attain such a degree of acceptance in White Australian society. Much of his support was due to his war record. In 1901-02 he had served in the South African War as a trooper with the 2nd New South Wales Mounted Rifles. In 1914 he joined the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force which occupied German New Guinea and, en route to Rabaul, helped to train troops aboard the Berrima. Enlisting as a private in the Australian Imperial Force in December 1915, he served with the 5th Australian Training Battalion in England and with the 18th Battalion, A.I.F., in France. He was discharged on 5 December 1917. His most dramatic demonstration of patriotism occurred during an Anzac Day service in 1921: with a party of ex-servicemen, he hoisted a Union Jack above Sydney Town Hall in protest at the alleged disloyalty of the lord mayor W. H. Lambert.

On 21 March 1916, before departing on active service, Watriama had married Ethel May Tipping at Wesley Church, Melbourne. They lived at Northbridge, Sydney. Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died of cancer on 5 January 1925 at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Sydney, and was buried in the Methodist section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. Prime Minister Hughes delivered a eulogy at the graveside.

Select Bibliography

  • Evening News (Sydney), 6 Jan 1925
  • Sun (Sydney), 6 Jan 1925
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 7 Jan 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Jan 1925
  • Australian National Review, 23 Jan 1925
  • H. Laracy, ‘W. J. Watriama: Pretender and Patriot (or a Black Man's Defence of White Australia)’, (seminar paper presented at the Australian National University, 3 June 1987).

Citation details

Hugh Laracy, 'Watriama, William Jacob (1880–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watriama-william-jacob-8996/text15837, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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