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Jandamarra (1870–1897)

by Howard Pedersen

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Jandamarra (1870?-1897), Aboriginal leader, was born about 1870 into the Bunuba tribe which occupied mountainous country in the Kimberley district of Western Australia. The Napier and Oscar Ranges presented a barrier which had prevented the pastoral frontier from encroaching on Bunuba territory. As a youth Jandamarra learned to ride horses, shear sheep and use fire-arms on William Lukin's neighbouring Lennard River station and won repute as the district's finest Black stockman. He spoke English confidently. Lukin named him 'Pigeon' because he was small, fleet-footed and had a cheeky but endearing personality.

At 15 he returned to his traditional land for initiation and became a skilful hunter. Late in 1889 he and a fellow tribesman, Ellemarra, were captured by police at Windjina Gorge, chained together and marched to Derby gaol; charges of killing sheep were dropped when Jandamarra agreed to serve the police by taking care of their horses. He won popularity and trust at Derby. A year later he went to Lennard River as a stockman, and then to his mountain home where it is alleged that he violated Bunuba law.

Avoiding retribution by the tribe, he went to live at Lillimooloora station where he formed a close friendship with Bill Richardson, a stockman. In 1894 Richardson joined the police force and Jandamarra was recruited as a tracker. With another Aborigine called 'Captain', he was assigned to Constable Richardson at the abandoned Lillimooloora homestead, seventy miles (113 km) from Derby, which had been taken over by the police as an outpost. The three formed a mutually dependent unit. Although it was not official policy to use tribal members against their own people, Jandamarra helped to locate and capture Bunuba warriors. He once saved Richardson's life during an attack by Aborigines.

In a dramatic defection Jandamarra subsequently shot and killed Richardson as he slept, then released sixteen Aboriginal prisoners, among them Ellemarra. The sixteen—who included some of his blood relations—had told him that he was obligated to them for having waived tribal punishment for his offences; they had described a new policeman at Fitzroy Crossing who was murdering Aborigines; and they had announced the imminent invasion of Bunuba country by the Europeans.

Together they formed a gang and with captured guns ambushed a stock party, killing two of its members. Jandamarra planned a military defence of his country by using fire-arms and held a vision of an Aboriginal uprising which would transcend tribal boundaries. Panic engulfed the small White settler community, scattered as it was over an area of nearly 11,500 sq. miles (29,785 km²). The police gained sweeping powers to crush the uprising and killed many Aborigines.

Fifty ochre-painted warriors fought the Whites in the major battle of Windjina Gorge on 16 November 1894. Ellemarra was killed and Jandamarra was severely wounded, but recovered and spent two years hiding in caves to the south. Although his strategies had caused them great suffering, the Bunuba credited him with supernatural powers.

In November 1895 he raided Lillimooloora police station, shocking the Whites who had thought him dead. Late in 1896 he again humiliated the police at Lillimooloora. By this stage many of his gang had been captured and others killed. In March Jandamarra and twenty others attacked Oscar Range homestead; a number of his party were killed and wounded, but their leader escaped through a tunnel and was succoured by Terrawarra. He was finally shot dead at Tunnel Creek on 1 April 1897 by Aboriginal trooper Minko Mick.

Leopold Downs pastoral station was established in the heart of Bunuba territory and within two years most of the tribe's land was similarly occupied. Jandamarra has become the subject of such writing as Colin Johnson's novel, Long Live Sandawara (Melbourne, 1979). In 1988 a heritage trail was constructed for people to visit Jandamarra 's country.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Shoemaker, Black Words, White Page (Brisb, 1989)
  • Studies in Western Australian History, 8, Dec 1984
  • Aboriginal History, 9, pt 1, 1985.

Citation details

Howard Pedersen, 'Jandamarra (1870–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Pigeon
  • Tjangamarra

Western Australia, Australia


1 April, 1897 (aged ~ 27)
Tunnel Creek, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.