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Yagan (1795–1833)

by R. H. W. Reece

This article was published online in 2019

Yagan (c.1795–1833), eminent Aboriginal man, was born into the Whadjuk group of Noongar people who were the traditional owners of the Swan Valley region of Western Australia when British colonisation began. He was the son of the influential elder Midgegooroo and one of his three wives, but it is not clear whether he himself had a wife and children. Narral, Billy, and Willim, said to have been his sons, may have been younger brothers. Belonging to the Ballaroke subdivision of Wordungmat, one of the two marrying categories observed by the Whadjuk, Yagan’s symbol was the red-tailed black cockatoo. His country, over which he possessed rights of hunting and foraging through his father, stretched south from the Swan and Canning Rivers as far as Mangles Bay and halfway to the Murray River, an area called Beeliar. He also inherited rights to land as far as the mouth of the Swan at Fremantle, north to Monger’s Lake and north-east to Helena River. Most likely through his mother’s links, he was able to move freely from Heirisson Island to the lakes north of Perth and Upper Swan.

Of ‘pre-eminent height,’ powerful build and dignified bearing, aged about thirty-five when the settlers arrived in 1829, Yagan wore his hair shoulder-length with a full beard. On his right shoulder he bore the ngoombart (scarring) indicating his status in Noongar law. In his right hand, he habitually carried a long spear, a lethal weapon with which he could reportedly hit an upright walking stick at twenty-five yards (22.9 m) or bury in a tree at sixty yards (54.9 m). He had killed or wounded several members of other Noongar groups, earning him warrior status as Boo gore Wardagaduk.

An experienced master of ceremonial matters, Yagan was an accomplished performer of his people’s dances. Dressed normally in a buka (kangaroo skin cape), when on the run he also wore an old soldier’s cloak to conceal the scarring which might identify him. In his headband he wore a feather of the red-tailed black cockatoo. As for his temperament, he was capable of extreme rage, which could leave him literally frothing at the mouth.

Traditional Noongar society did not have tribal ‘kings’ or ‘chiefs,’ despite the settlers’ belief that they existed and that there were well-defined territorial boundaries. They referred to ‘Yellagonga’s Tribe,’ ‘Munday’s Tribe,’ and so on, believing that these nominally patriarchal groupings made up what the amateur ethnographer Robert Lyon Milne (Robert Menli Lyon) called the ‘Derbal nation.’ Although he believed that ‘they are formed into distinct tribes, who have particular districts,’ Milne stressed that their ‘chiefs have but a limited authority, excepting in time of war or any emergency’ (Lyon 30 March 1833, 51). Milne’s ‘distinct tribes’ were actually clans, socio-economic units of from thirty-five to seventy individuals linked among themselves and with other groups by marriage in a complex mosaic of kin relationships. Individuals of both sexes inherited rights to the use of land from their mothers’ as well as their fathers’ lines of descent.

Milne, who spent six weeks with Yagan and two kinsmen at Carnac Island in late 1832 to ‘conciliate’ him and learn what he could of Noongar language and culture, believed that he was

not a chief. But, being the son of Midjegoorong [sic] … must be ranked among the princes of the country. He has greatly distinguished himself as a patriot and a warrior. He is in fact the Wallace of the age (Lyon 20 April 1833, 62).

Yagan may have represented a form of martial status deriving from the courage and prowess with the spear that he demonstrated when challenging the settler presence. It was never suggested, however, that he might unite and lead the local ‘tribes’ against them. While his mobility made him ubiquitous, it may also have prevented him from becoming an influential local leader. Many early shootings by settlers were of Noongars taking farm animals or produce, their deaths triggering revenge killings by kinsmen in accordance with the system of retributive justice, a life for a life, if not of the perpetrator, then of close kin. Contemporary observers portrayed this as an iron law to be obeyed on pain of death. When it was too difficult to kill settlers responsible for Noongar deaths, vengeance was taken on members of other Noongar groups, triggering internecine violence.

Yagan was bound to enforce this system of retributive justice, but from critical remarks by Munday and other senior Noongar figures after his death it seems that he did so with a fiercer spirit than was usual, driven by the burning anger for which he was notorious. His quick intellect, powerful physique and agility with the spear made him a figure inspiring awe among his people, and fear among the settlers. When Yagan heard that Midgegooroo had been executed by firing squad after his capture and summary trial in mid-June 1833, he told George Fletcher Moore that if it was true he would take three settlers’ or soldiers’ lives in revenge.

Moore, the first colonial advocate-general, understood the predicament of the people whom the settlers were rapidly dispossessing. After an unexpected encounter with Yagan at Upper Swan on 27 May 1833, Moore recorded his impassioned address, during which Yagan ‘held a beautifully tapered and exquisitely pointed spear, grasped like a stiletto about fourteen inches [36 cm] from the point, while its shaft lay on his shoulder, with a seeming carelessness’:

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?’ (Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 1 June 1833, 87).

Governor James Stirling’s policies had helped to shape the pattern of emerging conflict. Required by the Colonial Office to extend the protection of British law to Indigenous people, his main interest was to make the colony a success. He wanted an understanding with the Noongars but encouraged the expansion of settlement and acted to protect settlers’ lives and property by stationing soldiers at its outposts. Reviving the archaic English law of outlawry in May 1832 in Stirling’s absence on leave, the lieutenant-governor, F.C. Irwin, issued proclamations removing Yagan and other Noongars, including Midgegooroo and Munday, from legal protection, meaning that they could be shot or captured on sight with impunity.

The three major events which brought Yagan notoriety and led to his death were the killing of Enion Entwhistle near Point Walter on 3 August 1831, the fatal wounding of William Gaze at Kelmscott on 14 June 1832, and the killing of Thomas and John Velvick at Bull’s Creek on 30 April 1833. Significantly, all these attacks took place on Midgegooroo’s lands. For the settlers, the Velvick incident marked a turning point in what had been a relatively peaceful relationship between them and Noongars. Soldiers and settlers were now more inclined to take matters into their own hands, firing at Noongars whom they encountered in the bush.

Fearful of Yagan’s capacity for violence, which had seen him outlawed twice, the settler population was relieved when news came of his shooting for the bounty of £80 at Upper Swan on 11 July 1833 by the thirteen-year-old William Keates, in Milne’s view ‘a worthless workhouse boy’ (1839, 44–45), who had then been killed by Yagan’s kinsman, Heegan. For Noongar perspectives on Yagan’s death, there are reports of discussions in early September 1833 between Irwin and two other important figures, Munday and Migo, after both sides paused to consider the future. The Perth Gazette wondered if he had ‘left his sovereign influence to an equally daring successor; … but if not, a favourable time has arrived for adopting some decisive and amicable system of proceeding’ (20 July 1833, 114). Munday and Migo subsequently called for ‘an amicable treaty,’ welcoming Irwin’s assurance that no more of their people would be shot in retaliation for the killing of Keates (Perth Gazette 7 September 1833, 142). They then listed the names of all the black men who had been killed, with a description of the places where Noongars were shot, and the persons who shot them. The number amounted to sixteen killed and more than twice as many wounded.

The Yagan legacy began to be debated in the early 1960s when the historian Alexandra Hasluck published an article rejecting Milne’s ‘patriot’ label and what she regarded as increasingly romanticised portrayals by Mary Durack and others. Her praise was reserved for ‘King’ Yellagonga whose more accommodating attitude to the settlers she believed had resulted in relative peace in the Perth area. She related a conversation in the Legislative Council in the 1940s when the Speaker, Sir John Kirwan, having asked ‘who would be considered the most noteworthy West Australian a hundred years hence,’ suggested to his surprised colleagues that it might be Yagan. Asking whether ‘the ghastly murders’ attributed to him were ‘a protest against the white men settling in his land,’ or ‘for the sake of the food to be gained,’ Hasluck concluded: ‘Yagan was not … a patriot in the true meaning of the word. I doubt very much whether he consciously thought of the white men as invaders, as people who wanted his land; on the evidence it seems more as if he thought of them as people who had something he wanted—food’ (Hasluck 1961, 47).

The problem with this interpretation was its failure to recognise the economic repercussions of European occupation for the Whadjuk Noongars, and their attempts to enforce their system of justice on the settlers. They were complaining within a few years about the disappearance of kangaroo, waterfowl and other food sources, as settlers satisfied their appetites for fresh meat. More importantly, they relied on plant food, woyang or warrain (native yams), and yandyeet (flag root), which the women tended from season to season, providing three-quarters of nutritional needs. Settlers’ fencing impeded access to these yam beds and the cultivation of crops like potatoes destroyed them.

The erection of a statue of Yagan at Heirisson Island in 1984 raised his profile but also led to its decapitation. By then, the search for his preserved head, taken to England in September 1833 as a trophy by Ensign Robert Dale, and exhibited as ‘an anthropological curiosity,’ had become a symbolic cause among Noongars. Its discovery in Everton cemetery near Liverpool in 1977, and recovery ten years later, resulted finally in repatriation, safe-keeping, and long-delayed reburial by his kin at Upper Swan on 10 July 2010 after the failure to find related skeletal remains. A week after the head had been returned to Perth in September 1987, the statue had once more been decapitated, this time by a ‘British loyalist’ in retaliation for the Noongar leader Ken Colbung’s description of Lady Diana Spencer’s death as ‘Nature’s Revenge’ for the killing of Yagan by the English and the taking of his head.

Reactions to the naming of ‘Yagan Square’ in Perth in May 2014 were not all favourable, but popular attitudes to Yagan have become less polarised and his statue has remained intact. A documentary film re-enacting episodes from his life was well received, and new academic contributions by both white and Noongar writers have shone more light on his story. Yagan cannot properly be described as a ‘resistance leader’ when the Noongars offered no organised and sustained opposition to the settlers. He was more of a maverick, a bold and courageous warrior whose actions on behalf of his people and their rights made him notorious. He was not the brutal, indiscriminate killer most settlers thought him to be. His duty was to enforce the Noongar system of retributive justice on them as the only basis for a resolution of conflict between Noongars and colonists. In hindsight, this was never a real possibility, making his exploits and death doubly tragic but likely to fulfil Kirwan’s prediction that he will be seen as ‘the most noteworthy West Australian’ when the 2040s come around.

Research edited by Peter Gifford

♦♦    This article replaces the original Volume 2 ADB biography, authored by Alexandra Hasluck. To view original, see link below.

Select Bibliography

  • Cameron, J. M. R., ed. The Millendon Memoirs: George Fletcher Moore’s Western Australia Diaries and Letters, 1830–1841. Carlisle, WA: Hesperian Press, 2006
  • Colbung, Ken. Yagan: The Swan River ‘Settlement.’ Perth: Australia Council for the Arts, 1996
  • Green, Neville. Yagan: A Different Kind of Hero, 1833. Clarkson, WA: Focus Education Services, 2016
  • Hallam, Sylvia. ‘Aboriginal Women as Providers: The 1830s on the Swan.’ Aboriginal History 15, no. 1 (1991): 38–72
  • Hallam, Sylvia, and Lois Tilbrook, eds. Aborigines of the Southwest Region, 1829–1840. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 1990
  • Hasluck, Alexandra. ‘Yagan the Patriot.’ Early Days 5, no. 7 (1961): 33–48
  • Lyon, R. M. [Robert Lyon Milne]. ‘A Glance at the Manners, and Language of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Western Australia
  • with a Short Vocabulary.’ Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 30 March 1833, 51
  • 20 April 1833, 62
  • [Milne, Robert Lyon]. Australia: An Appeal to the World on Behalf of the Younger Branch of the Family of Shem. Sydney: J. Spilsbury & J. McEachern, 1839
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 23 February 1833, 29
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 16 March 1833, 42
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 25 May 1833, 83
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 1 June 1833, 87
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 22 June 1833, 98
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 20 July 1833, 114
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 10 August 1833, 126
  • Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 7 September 1833, 142
  • Reece, Bob, ‘“A Most Complete and Untameable Savage”: Yagan.’ Early Days 14, no. 1 (2015): 591–616
  • West Australian, 19 October 1978, 7
  • West Australian, 1 September 1997, 9
  • West Australian, 2 September 1997, 11
  • West Australian, 3 September 1997, 5
  • West Australian, 2 June 2014, 22  

Other ADB articles for Yagan

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'Yagan (1795–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yagan-2826/text36984, published online 2019, accessed online 21 October 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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