Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Kudajarnd (c. 1845–c. 1905)

by Paul Memmott

This article was published:

Kudajarnd, 1893, photograph by Charles Kerry

Kudajarnd, 1893, photograph by Charles Kerry

State Library of Victoria, 49332807

Kudajarnd (c. 1845–c. 1905), elder, senior lawman, and Wild Australia Show performer, was born in the mid-1840s on Wakaya Country in the central-east of what is now the Northern Territory. Wakaya Country includes the Frew River, Walkabout, and Whistleduck creeks in the west, the Ranken River and Lorne Creek in the east, the internal drainage basin of lakes Sylvester and Corella in the north, and the lower Elkedra River in the south.

The first Europeans to approach Kudajarnd’s country were William Landsborough and his exploration party, who were searching for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition in 1861–62. Travelling south-west from the southern shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria, they came to the upper Georgina River with its three large bodies of water, which Landsborough named Mary, Francis, and Canellan lakes. These were sacred sites and their resources supported the trading and ceremonial camps of the Indjalandji people, the eastern neighbours of the Wakaya. As it was late December when Landsborough arrived, the lakes were full from early wet season rains. Large camps indicated an influx of visitors to this summertime, food-rich part of the interior. As an adjacent language group, the Wakaya were regular visitors so it is feasible that Kudajarnd was present with his family at the Georgina lakes when Landsborough and his party arrived. Kudajarnd’s Country, located on the westernmost tributary of the upper Georgina basin and later to be given the English name of Ranken River, was a three-day walk from the lakes.

Landsborough’s tales of magnificent open grassland plains to the west of the Georgina encouraged an influx of colonisers. The first pastoral stations were established during 1864–67, probably around the time that Kudajarnd, freshly initiated, commenced living with his first wife, Langinkab, a Wakaya woman. Kudajarnd would have witnessed the colonisers’ arrival and, following several years of drought, their departure. A major concern for the customary land custodians was the bogging and subsequent pollution of their sacred lakes by decaying sheep carcasses. It was not until 1876 that Europeans returned to the upper Georgina basin, this time bringing herds of cattle that trampled the edible plants along the edges of the waterholes, further despoiling this precious resource.

The European invaders brought previously unknown diseases that killed many Wakaya, Indjalandji, and other Georgina River people. Also distressing for the traditional custodians were stories of uniformed Aboriginal police officers—the Native Police—shooting and hanging Warluwarra, Wangkayujuru, Pitta Pitta, and Wangkamanha peoples further downstream. The Wakaya depended on these trading partners for commodities that were not available in their own country. In the 1880s, when Kudajarnd completed his higher levels of initiation and was joined by a second wife, Kulindab, who was both Wakaya and Indjalandji, news arrived from the east of further killings by the Native Police.

From the west had come news of a high wire on poles built by Europeans through Kaydej and Warumungu Country. This was the overland telegraph line, erected in 1871–72. Colonists spread east and west out from the line to occupy land, some of which encroached on western Wakaya Country in the eastern part of the Davenport and Murchison ranges where perennial waterholes fed intermittent streams. Three cattle stations were formed in this region during the late 1880s: Murray Downs, Frew River, and Elkedra. All would be abandoned due to drought, the difficulty of getting cattle to market, and Wakaya hostility. The Wakaya speared cattle and burnt the grassy plains, destroying extensive areas of fodder and infuriating the pastoralists, who sought bloody vengeance. Conflict escalated and each side felt justified in maiming and killing the other.

In late 1891 a number of Wakaya people, led by Kudajarnd, travelled to Lake Nash, a cattle station on the Northern Territory–Queensland border owned by John Costello. There they met Brabazon Harry Purcell, a stock and station agent who was purchasing Aboriginal artefacts for the entrepreneur Archibald Meston’s planned world tour of his Wild Australia Show. Purcell was also recruiting Aboriginal performers for the show. Kudajarnd’s party sold Purcell some artefacts, including a message stick that ended up in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, before proceeding downstream along the Georgina River, a traditional trade route, to the Toko Waterhole, an important Rain Dreaming centre and trading camp, to procure the native drug pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii). It is likely that Purcell arranged to rendezvous with them some months later at Lake Nash, where, assisted by Costello’s son Michael, he persuaded Kudajarnd and his wives and two other Wakaya men, Narimbu and Dangakura, to join the show. The group travelled with Purcell by wagon and coach to Cloncurry and by train to Townsville where they caught a steamship to Brisbane.

South-eastern Wakaya country was the limit of the frontier in the early 1890s, and the Wakaya desert had not been crossed or explored by colonists. The publicity devised by Meston and Purcell presented the Wakaya as a wild and primitive people, not affected by contact with Europeans. A former journalist, Meston described the three men and two women from Wakaya Country as coming from ‘tribes which practise what is known to ethnologists as Sturt's terrible rite’—subincision—which he claimed was ‘absolutely unknown in any other people’ (Daily Telegraph 1893, 4). Purcell documented the Wakaya’s ‘superstitious dread of the ocean’ that nearly prevented them from joining the tour: ‘they imagine that their “Aranja,” or evil spirit, dwells therein, and would get them if they went too near the sea’ (Purcell 1894, 19). As a result of such stories and publicity, the five Wakaya performers received more attention than other members of the twenty-seven-member Wild Australia Show.

With heavy scarring on his back and chest and a full beard beneath plucked cheeks and upper lip, Kudajarnd was the most photographed member of the troupe. The photographer John Lindt posed him with Langinkab, their heads affectionately pressed together; on another occasion, Lindt showed him wearing a tall hat identified as a devil dance headdress. The Brisbane-based Swedish artist Oscar Friström painted several portraits of Kudajarnd, probably working from Charles Kerry’s photographs. In such renderings his name was usually spelt Cootajandra.

While on tour in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne between December 1892 and June 1893, Purcell delivered lectures to various scientific and philosophical societies. One lecture was on Kudajarnd’s message stick and included various exaggerated embellishments. Another was on pituri. Purcell had purchased pituri on the Georgina River to take on the tour, and its consumption on stage by the Wakaya performers became a feature of the show.

The planned overseas leg of the Wild Australia Show was abandoned in Melbourne after Meston experienced financial failure. He left the troupe stranded; however, after many performances, including in a play in Sydney, they eventually managed to return to their homelands. The five Wakaya members travelled by steamship to the port of Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria and thence by coach via Burketown to Camooweal on the Queensland border in August 1893. From there they probably travelled by foot back to the Ranken River. No records remain of Kudajarnd’s life after this.


Paul Memmott is of Anglo-Celtic descent (fourth generation). He was the senior anthropologist of the Wakaya land claim in the 1980s. His ongoing connection with Wakaya families included a photographic exhibition on the Wild Australia Show at Mount Isa and Tennant Creek in 2018—19.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney). ‘Wild Australia.’ 9 January 1893, 4
  • Purcell, Brabazon Harry. ‘The Aborigines of Australia.’ Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Victorian Branch) 11 (1894): 17–21
  • Queensland State Archives. Item 847448 92/14199

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

  • Michael Aird, Lindy Allen, Chantal Knowles, Paul Memmott, Maria Nugent, Tim O'Rourke and Jonathan Richards, Wild Australia Show

Citation details

Paul Memmott, 'Kudajarnd (c. 1845–c. 1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kudajarnd, 1893, photograph by Charles Kerry

Kudajarnd, 1893, photograph by Charles Kerry

State Library of Victoria, 49332807

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cootajandra
  • Cootajandarra
  • Coontajandra

c. 1845
Northern Territory, Australia


c. 1905 (aged ~ 60)
Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Key Organisations