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Yamurra (c. 1863–?)

by Paul Memmott

This article was published:

Yamurra (c. 1863–?), Wild Australia Show performer, also known as Bob, was born in the early 1860s on Kabi Kabi (Gubbi Gubbi) Country, south-east Queensland. He was a member of the Tawarbura clan whose estate encompassed the Moocooboola (Mary River) townships of Tiaro and Owanyilla, early sites of European settlement in the area. The lungfish may have been his totem. When he was eleven or twelve he went through tribal initiation, emerging with an intricate and ordered set of geometrically incised cicatrised scarrings on his back: four vertical rows of pairs of short slanting scars.

Kabi Kabi initiations were conducted on sacred bora (initiation) grounds. Between rituals, initiands were taken on an educational tour (or run) of their Country to impart both practical survival knowledge as well as geographic, religious, and ritual knowledge. The last bora runs on the Moocooboola occurred in the mid-1870s, from Tin Can Bay up to the heads of the Brisbane River. The mountain saddle near the top of the eastern branch of the upper Brisbane River was the ‘head office’ (Bond, pers. comm.) of the Bunya Dreaming, and a key site of the Bonye Bonye (Bunya festival) feasts that occurred triennially, attracting thousands of Aboriginal people from a radius of more than 150 miles (250 km). Yamurra received his back scars in one of those bora runs.

For Aboriginal people from many nations, ‘bunya trees were an economic and living commodity … that nourished the body and the spirit’ (Swan 2017, 17). Europeans also recognised the valuable qualities of Araucaria bidwillii, or bunya pine, which grew in abundance on Kabi Kabi Country. The first colonists and sheep had arrived on Kabi Kabi Country in the early 1840s and extreme violence had ensued, the Kabi Kabi defending their land and their resources against invasion. A peace of sorts was struck at Tiaro after George Beardmore and his brother settled there in late 1854. A group of Kabi Kabi, including women and children, visited the Beardmores, and the Elder of the group, Bungaree, requested tobacco, which was provided. A friendly pipe-smoking session followed, after which the Kabi Kabi came to view the brothers as reincarnated kinsmen. These Kabi Kabi visitors may have been classificatory if not genealogical ancestors of Yamurra; Bungaree may have been his grandfather. Once the Beardmore brothers were claimed as kin, they received a measure of protection against attack and were provided with a local labour pool. In return, the brothers were careful not to cut down any bunya trees.

Yamurra would have grown up hearing stories of the invasion of his Country and would have experienced its ongoing reverberations as massacres of Aboriginal people by European squatters and native police continued along the expanding Queensland frontier. As tensions eased in south-east Queensland, some Kabi Kabi came to live on the outskirts of the township of Maryborough, established in 1847. It is likely that Yamurra met the European explorer and journalist Archibald Meston at Maryborough in the late 1880s when Meston was undertaking research for his Queensland Railway & Tourists’ Guide (1890). In 1892 Yamurra joined Meston’s Wild Australia Show, which included a portrayal of the violence of the Queensland frontier among its regular theatrical performances.

The Wild Australia Show (1892–93) was assembled to exhibit ‘representative men from the wild tribes of the West and North of Queensland, where they, so far, have not been contaminated by civilisation’ (Brisbane Courier 1893, 6). The idea was to show the world the ‘last’ of a race that was believed to be dying out. Yamurra joined the fully assembled troupe at their St Lucia rehearsal camp upstream of central Brisbane some weeks after the other twenty-six members. His late arrival may have contributed to the difficulties he subsequently had in relating to Brabazon Purcell, the manager of the tour. Further straining the relationship, Yamurra seems to have been the only performer personally recruited by Meston.

Unlike the rest of the Wild Australia Show members, Yamurra came from a part of Queensland that had been colonised for thirty years and so he had a fair mastery of English. Given his enculturation into the ways of the invaders, one motive for Meston engaging him may have been as a spokesperson for the troupe. If so, this role did not endear him to Purcell who, by the end of the tour, had formed a decidedly negative view of Yamurra. According to Purcell, all the troupe ‘worked hard, were honest, straightforward, obedient, sober and steady, with the one exception that of Bob or Yammara Meston’s pet from the Mary River. He I had arrested several times for drunkenness and disorderly conduct’ (QSA ITM847483). Meston had abandoned the tour in Melbourne and it seems that Yamurra had sold some of the show’s artefacts to buy alcohol for the troupe during the cold winter. If he was also a spokesman for their modest rights, this would have aggravated Purcell’s dislike.

A different picture of Yamurra emerges from contemporary newspaper reports. Upon the show’s return to Brisbane after eight months of performing and touring to the south, the ‘rather handsome’ Yamurra was described as ‘a capital athlete, a noted jumper, and an all-round good fellow’ (Queenslander 1893, 180). Keen to return to his Country and people, Yamurra quickly departed for Gootchie station, south of Tiaro, where he intended to meet up with his sweetheart, Katie, and get married. Professing the ‘greatest regard and affection’ for Meston, he said he would be ‘willing to go at any time on a similar trip’ (Queenslander 1893, 180).

Despite the failure of the ambitious Wild Australia Show, Meston bounced back, mobilising Aboriginal performers, including Yamurra, and staging further exhibitions in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales towns in the mid-1890s, presumably driven by his impoverished economic state. In 1894 in Maryborough Yamurra reportedly used a woomera as part of his performance, a skill he must have learnt while on tour with the Wild Australia Show, as the Kabi Kabi did not have the woomera in their material culture repertoire. Meston organised several performances in Bundaberg in 1895. On one occasion, a local pugilist ‘picked a quarrel with “Bob,” the aboriginal,’ whom Meston physically defended, sending ‘the fighting man away with a pair of lovely black eyes’ (Warwick Examiner and Times 1895, 3). Meston’s reciprocated loyalty to Yamurra is the last entry about him in the written record, after which Yamurra exits from the annals of documented history. It is not known when or where he died.

 

Paul Memmott is of Anglo-Celtic descent (fourth generation). As team leader of the Wild Australia Show project, he engaged Kabi Kabi scholar Alex Bond to participate in research on the historical record of Yamurra and his clan estate.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Bond, Alex. Personal communication
  • Brisbane Courier. ‘“Wild Australia”: Aboriginals in Queensland—A Dying Race.’ 11 January 1893, 6
  • Queenslander (Brisbane). ‘Wild Australia.’ 22 July 1893, 180
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID 847483, 1893/8474
  • State Library of Queensland. OM64-17, Archibald Meston Papers 1867–1970
  • Sullivan, H. ‘Aboriginal Gatherings in South-East Queensland.’ Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1977
  • Swan, Deborah Kim. ‘Bunya Tukka Tracks: Investigating Traditional Travelling Routes of Eastern Australia.’ Master’s thesis, Deakin University, 2017
  • Thorpe, B. ‘Archibald Meston and the Aborigines: Ideology and Practice, 1870–1970: and Exploration in Social History.’ Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1978
  • Warwick Examiner and Times (Brisbane). ‘Meston as a Pugilist.’ 21 May 1895, 3

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Paul Memmott, 'Yamurra (c. 1863–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yamurra-31141/text38528, published online 2022, accessed online 5 July 2022.

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Yamuna
  • Yammara
Birth

c. 1863
Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation
Miscellaneous