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The story of Yagan is about the invasion of Aboriginal lands in Western Australia by the British.
The Indigenous people of southwest Western Australia were and are generally known as Nyoongar. Yagan’s own group of people from the Swan River area are the Bibbulman.
The Nyoongar fiercely defended their rights and their lands. Here is the story.
Yagan (c1795-1833) is a hero of the Australian Aboriginal resistance.
Indigenous Australians fought wars of resistance against the British Empire when it occupied the east coast of the Australian continent in 1788. The resistance wars started in the 1790s in Sydney after the First Fleet arrived in 1788.
On 19 April 1770 Captain James Cook had reached the east coast of Australia. Cook had been instructed to take possession of the eastern half of the continent for the British crown.
At Possession Island, off Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland, he took possession of the whole of the eastern coast in the name of King George III.
Cook declared that Australia was terra nullius meaning that Australia was land without people and that it was unoccupied and unowned. Therefore, the belief of the time was that the British could justify claiming the continent as theirs.
When hostilities broke out with the British, Yagan in Western Australia, became a war leader following the tradition established by Pemulwuy.
Pemulwuy led the Aboriginal resistance in the Sydney region in the 1790s against the British and was described by the Governor of the new colony, Philip Gidley King in 1802 as an “active” and “daring leader”.
Nothing like this had ever happened before for Indigenous Australians as these strangers were taking fish from the harbour and sea, and animals and plants from the bush.
Captain Arthur Phillip had claimed New South Wales for the British Crown. In effect Phillip was given authority to take half a continent from the Indigenous Australians who had been living on the continent for 65 000 years.
From this time until his death in 1802, Pemulwuy led the Eora resistance against the British settlement which was continually expanding. Pemulwuy and his men attacked the invaders – raiding settlements, burning houses, destroying crops, and going after wandering settlers.
In 1802 Pemulwuy was shot by two settlers and his head cut from his body and pickled . It was preserved in spirits and sent to England for research.
The head was sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England for his collection. The current whereabouts of the head is unknown.
A generation later Yagan suffered the same fate; he was killed, and his head was hacked from his body and sent to England.
Warfare continued for the next one hundred years on the Australian frontier.
Yagan emerged as an Aboriginal resistance leader in the 1830s in Western Australia. He was from the Swan River Colony now known as Perth – the capital city of Western Australia.
The day of reckoning for the Nyoongar arrived in 1829 when the British Government decided to establish the colony of Western Australia and appointed Captain James Stirling as lieutenant governor.
Stirling formed a settlement on the Swan River.He was given the rank and authority of lieutenant governor.
Not only was he given authority to seize all the land belonging to the people of the west without discussion, treaty or agreement of any kind, but he received a personal present of 100,000 acres.
From August to December 1829 no fewer than eighteen immigrant ships arrived at the Swan River, launching the great migrant rush of 1830. Settlers quickly spread over the land.
They took the most fertile areas and the river lands, which they cleared of timber to establish homesteads and sheep and cattle runs.
The British were for the most part unaware that all the land, every billabong, creek, river, hill or valley, was the property of the Nyoongar people whose religious belief was that the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime had given the land to them to be cared forever.
The security of the port and the colony rested on the muskets of the officers and men of the West Suffolk (63rd) Regiment and the arms of the crew and marines of the warship. In addition almost all the settlers had access to muskets and swords.
Within five years the British settlement was nearly 2000 strong. It consisted mostly of men – soldiers, sailors and landowners.
Once the British were settled on their blocks of land they faced a struggle to survive in a completely alien environment. To put up a house, to grow some food, just to survive in the early days totally occupied them.
But consciously they set out to duplicate their homeland, ripping out local trees and shrubs and substituting roses and oaks. They scattered the region with English names such as Guildford, Bayswater and Huntingdale.
The seeds of war were sown by the different cultural concepts of land and its management.
At the end of the first year of British settlement, the Nyoongar. began to fire the land. This was an annual practice to encourage growth, hunt out game and increase soil fertility. It is known as “firestick farming”.
However, firing the land was a threat to the homesteads of the settlers and to their crops and livestock. The British took the traditional game of the Nyoongar such as kangaroos as they pleased.
They regarded their own livestock as private property.
The Nyoongar, as they saw their livestock being taken, simply began by taking the British sheep and cattle.
Before long the Indigenous people were branded as thieves and rogues.
Typical of the clashes that resulted was an incident in the first year of the invasion, when a party of Nyoongar, finding their food game gone, turned to some chickens. The Englishman defended his chickens, the military were called and fired on the Nyoongar to drive them away.
They did not shoot to kill, but the damage was done. The Nyoongar had found a new rule. ‘We take what you have but you can’t take what we have”.
By 1831 such incidents had multiplied.
As the clashes grew more frequent the Nyoongar developed new strengths. A group of Aboriginal resistance leaders emerged. These were Yagan, Weeip, and Calyute.
Nyoongar resistance gathered momentum during 1832-33. Isolated farms became targets of guerilla attacks.
Many settlers became worried about venturing away from their homesteads. Tensions grew. Citizen forces were recruited to assist the military. Much of the activity was on the Swan and Canning Rivers.
When the British first met Yagan they liked and respected him. Yagan was born in the early 1800s. He was killed in 1833.
Yagan has been described as a “true prince of his people”. He was tall, intelligent, swaggering.
Before the outbreak of fighting, between his people and the British, Yagan was a favourite of the English. He would play with them; carry the children on his shoulders; have fun with them.
He would perform the ceremonial dances of his people in front of the Governor. The English described him performing with “infinite dignity and grace”.
Yagan advocated peace between the Nyoongar and the British.
He had a sense of give and take, and chivalry in his dealings with whites, particularly in the sharing of game, yet when roused he became a formidable foe. He held dear a sense of justice and was keen to quickly balance the scales.
Yagan was a noble man, admired by his own people, and respected by many white settlers.
Yagan did not appear to have a wife or children. When he was killed he was survived by his mother, Moyran and two brothers.
Just like other men of his culture he hunted played, danced, loved and lived. It is estimated that he was close to 40 years of age when he died.
Clashes between the British settlers and the Nyoongar continued. Each incident inflamed passions, regardless of where the guilt lay.
The British settlers eventually declared Yagan an outlaw. Yagan’s father, Midgigoroo, a leader of his people, was involved in an attack on a couple of white men in May 1833.
Yagan was also accused of being one of the attackers. Despite positive beginnings with the British Yagan’s father, brothers and other family members were killed. He himself was made an outlaw and eventually killed.
The story of Yagan sums up the barbarity of the times. Yagan tried to learn and understand the customs and values of the British.
He could not have known that the prevailing British view was that the Indigenous people of the west had no right to anything – neither land, life, or independence.
Yagan was proclaimed an outlaw and shot dead on July 11, 1833.
The fate of Yagan in Western Australia in the early 1800s was death at the hands of the British. He was lured into an ambush, shot, his head severed , his entire skin cut off, and the head smoked to preserve it.
His other remains were left behind and casually abandoned. Several months later the hair on the head was combed, possum fur string tied around the forehead, and red and black cockatoo feathers added.
The head became a trophe and was taken England, where it was displayed as the head of a ‘Swan River Chieftain’.
Efforts by Australians to bring Yagan’s head home to Western Australia culminated in 1997 when a four person delegation led by West Australian Aboriginal elder, the Late Ken Colbung Nundjan Djiridjarkan( 1931-2010), went to England to negotiate its return.
The intervention of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and members of the British Parliament enabled justice to be done and arrangments for Yagan’s head to be returned to Western Australia.
On the 1 September 1997, a delegation of Elders brought Yagan’s head back to his home country.
Yagan, who was both feared and admired by the British as a resistance fighter for his lands, became an iconic figure in the fight for Indigenous rights and recognition.
The reburial of his head took place in a ceremony on the 10 July 2010.
The life and struggles of Yagan can be summed up in his own words:
You came to our own country… you have driven us from our haunts and disturbed us in our occupation as we walk in our own country… we are fired upon by white men, why should they mistreat us this way? (Yagan, 1832)
Art work by Marji Hill
Colbung, Ken Yagan: the Swan River Settlement. Australia Council for the Arts.
Durack, Mary Yagan of the Bibbulman. West Melbourne, Nelson, 1976.
Grassby, Al & Marji Hill Six Australian Battlefields Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1998.
Green, Neville Broken Spears Perth, Focus Education Services, 1984.
Green, Neville,ed. Nyungar – the People : Aboriginal Customs in the Southwest of Australia Creative research Perth and Mt Lawley College 1979
The West Australian. Tues. April 12, 1994