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Yagan (?–1833)

by Alexandra Hasluck

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Yagan (?-1833), by Robert Havell, 1834

Yagan (?-1833), by Robert Havell, 1834

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7404365

Yagan (d.1833), Aborigine, was the son of Midgigoroo, chief of the tribe in the district of Beeliar, the native name for the region south of Perth bounded by the Swan and Canning Rivers and the sea. For the first nine months of settlement at Swan River relations between settlers and natives were good. Then, as Aboriginals discovered that they liked the taste of the colonists' provisions and began to thieve and to spear livestock, retaliations were made, for food supplies were scarce. Gradually the settlers became aware that the attacks along the Canning River and the farther banks of the Swan were led by a certain native of striking appearance named Yagan. In May 1832 a labourer, William Gaze, was murdered. Yagan was identified as the killer, and Midgigoroo as participating in other recent attacks. After four months Yagan was captured and sentenced, with two other native culprits, to temporary detention on Carnac Island. Two soldiers were sent as guards, and a settler, Robert Lyon, volunteered to accompany them in order to study Aboriginal ways and language. For six weeks Lyon tried to teach the natives the ways of civilization; then one night Yagan and the others stole a boat and escaped. Boats were unknown to the Aborigines, and Yagan's courage and skill in managing to propel it eight miles to shore was admired, even if deplored. He returned to his old haunts, and became a conspicuous figure in Perth, boasting of his escape, taking part in spear-throwing contests at which he excelled, and showing himself an admirable dancer at corroborees performed before the governor and people. Lyon praised him as a warrior and a patriot, calling him 'the Wallace of the Age' in articles he wrote for the Perth Gazette on his study of the Aboriginals and their language.

Yagan and his tribe were soon in trouble again for several thefts. In April 1833 they were fired upon while stealing flour from a Fremantle store, and Yagan's brother was killed. Yagan, Midgigoroo and others followed some carts taking provisions to settlers on the Canning River, and savagely speared the drivers to death. He, Midgigoroo and another, Munday, were then proclaimed outlaws, with a price of £30 on their heads. Midgigoroo was captured, identified by witnesses to his crime, tried and shot; but Yagan was at large for two months. The colonists feared him while admiring him as a kind of patriot. As a patriot Yagan may have been defending his tribal hunting ground, but such facts as there are indicate that his actions were only directed to providing himself with food, and taking retribution at its denial. While still at large he was finally shot on 11 July 1833 by a young shepherd, William Keates, intent on the government reward. Keates was soon killed in another affray with Aborigines and, after an official inquiry, his brother received the reward.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Dale, Descriptive Account of the Panoramic View of King George's Sound and the Adjacent Country (Lond, 1834)
  • G. F. Moore, A Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language in Common Use Amongst the Aborigines of Western Australia (Lond, 1842)
  • G. F. Moore, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia (Lond, 1884)
  • The Western Australian Almanack, 1842
  • A. Hasluck, ‘Yagan the Patriot’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 7, 1961, pp 33-48
  • Perth Gazette, Mar-July 1833
  • Swan River papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Alexandra Hasluck, 'Yagan (?–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yagan-2826/text4053, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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