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Yagan (c.1795–July 11 1833) was an Australian Aborigine warrior who played a key part in early indigenous resistance to white rule around the area of Perth, Western Australia. He was murdered by a white settler and his head was removed and taken to Britain. In recent times, the return and proper burial of Yagan's head has become a source of great controversy and conflict amongst Aborigines in the Perth area.
Nothing is known of Yagan's early life, except that he was the son of Midgegooroo, who belonged to a Noongar tribal group that occupied the land south of the Swan and Canning rivers known as Beeliar . Yagan would have been around 35 years old in 1829 when English settlers landed in the area and established the Swan River Colony.
Yagan initially had good relations with the white settlers, and helped to distribute goods and rations received as compensation for the use of land by the settlers. He was quick to learn the settlers' language and customs, and this initially gave him high standing in the colony. Eighteen months after the English settlers landed, Yagan held a corroboree at the Swan River, to which he invited both Noongars from all over the Southwest, and many of the white settlers including Governor James Stirling.
However as time passed the white settlers increasingly encroached on the Noongars' traditional lands, threatening their way of life. As their land was taken up by settlers growing crops and vegetables, the Noongars started taking crops. When kangaroos were displaced by cattle, the Noongars started spearing and eating cattle. Under English law this was theft, and offenders were shot. Yagan issued a warning to the governor, that under Aboriginal law they would take a life for a life, but to no avail.
The first significant Aboriginal resistance to white settlement in Western Australia occurred in December 1831 when a farmer's servant ambushed some Aborigines who were raiding a potato patch, shooting dead one of Yagan's friends. A few days later, Yagan, Midgegooroo and others broke through the mudbrick walls of the farmhouse and speared the occupant, another servant, to death. Six months later, Yagan again led a party of Aborigines in an attack on labourers at the same farm, killing one. In response to this, Yagan was declared an outlaw with a reward of £20 offered for his capture.
In early October 1832, Yagan and two of his friends were captured and sentenced to death, but they were saved by the intercession of a settler named Robert Lyon, who argued that Yagan was not a criminal but a prisoner of war, and was entitled to be treated as such. Yagan and his friends were instead exiled on Carnac Island at the governor's pleasure, under the supervision of Lyon and two soldiers. Lyon was convinced that he could civilise Yagan and convert him to Christianity, and hoped to use his tribal standing to obtain the Noongahs' acceptance of white authority. To this end, Lyon spent many hours with Yagan learning his language. However after a month Yagan and one of his companions escaped by stealing an unattended dinghy and rowing to the mainland. Curiously, no attempt was made to recapture them.
On the night of 29 April, Yagan's brother Domjum was shot dead while breaking into a store in Fremantle. The next day, a party of about 40 natives including Yagan and Midgegooroo camped at Bull Creek beside the road from Fremantle to Kelmscott , at what is now Yagan Park. There, they retaliated by ambushing and spearing to death two white men, Tom and John Velvick. For this the Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Irwin declared Yagan an outlaw, and offered a reward of £30 for his capture dead or alive.
On July 11 1833, two teenage brothers named William and James Keates were herding cattle along the Swan River just north of Guildford when a group of Noongars approached and asked for flour. The boys directed them to a nearby homestead but, being on friendly terms with Yagan and another member of the group, Heegan, they advised these two to wait with them to avoid arrest. While they were waiting, the boys decided to try to capture or kill Yagan so that they could claim the reward. At the first opportunity they shot both Yagan and Heegan. The other Noongars returned as soon as they heard gunshots, and on seeing that their companions had been shot, they speared William Keates to death. James Keates escaped by swimming the river, and returned shortly afterwards with a party of armed settlers.
The party of settlers arrived to find Yagan dead and Heegan dying. Heegan was summarily shot dead. Yagan's head was removed and placed in the wedge of a smoking tree in order to preserve it. His back was skinned to obtain his tribal markings as a trophy. James Keates successfully claimed the reward but his actions were widely criticised; the Perth Gazette referred to Yagan's murder as
- a wild and treacherous act... it is revolting to hear this lauded as a meritorious deed.
Yagan's head was pickled, and then taken to Britain, where in 1834 it was displayed throughout the country as the head of the "Chief of the Swan River". It eventually became the property of the Liverpool Royal Institution , who put it on display at the Liverpool Museum. By the 1960s, it was badly deteriorated, and in 1964 it was buried in a local cemetery along with a Peruvian mummy and a Maori head. In later years, a number of burials were made around the grave, and a local hospital buried the bodies of 21 stillborn babies directly over the box containing Yagan's head.
For many years, a number of Noongar groups sought the return of Yagan's head, because
- It is Aboriginal belief that because Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey. (Ken Colbung )
Ken Colbung lobbied for its return for many years, and in 1997 led a delegation to the United Kingdom to negotiate for its return. However the Home Office stalled the matter because of the objections of a number of parents who did not want the remains of their babies disturbed. Eventually, with the aid of state-of-the-art geophysical surveying equipment, Yagan's head was located and successfully exhumed without disturbing any other remains. However it was not immediately handed over because a Noongar named Corrie Bodney, who claimed to be Yagan's last living relative, applied for a court injunction, claiming that the exhumation was illegal, and denying the existence of any tradition or belief necessitating the head's exhumation and removal to Australia. This injunction was eventually lifted, and the head handed over.
On its return to Perth, Yagan's head continued to be a source of controversy and conflict. The burial of Yagan's head was delayed by disputes between elders over the burial location, due to uncertainty of the whereabouts of the rest of his body and disagreement about the importance of burying the head with the body. For some time the head was stored in a bank vault, and more recently it was in the hands of forensic experts who were reconstructing a model from it. To date the head remains unburied.
A number of attempts have been made to locate the remains of Yagan's body, but these have all been unsuccessful. Some Noongar groups believe that the remains are on a property on West Swan Road in Upper Swan , near All Saints Church. In 1998 the Western Australian Planning Commission and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs published a document entitled Yagan's gravesite master plan, which discussed matters of ownership, management, development and future use of the property. In March 2005 Noongar elder Kevin Cameron said that he believed the body was buried at that location, and accused the group that had the head of deferring its burial in the hope of making money out of it with elaborate parks and monuments. He said that he wanted to reunite the head and body before Western Australian aborigines were hit with more bad luck. Another elder, Richard Wilkes , chairman of the "Committee for the Reburial of Yagan's Kaat (head)" responded by claiming that the Noongars who had possession of the head had direct kinship lines to Yagan and wanted the head buried properly, but had been delayed by searches and burial site negotiations. He claimed that the head could be buried separately from the body, so long as it was placed where he was killed, so that Dreamtime spirits could reunite the remains.
Alas, Poor Yagan
In September 1997 The West Australian published a Dean Alston cartoon entitled Alas, Poor Yagan, which was critical of the fact that the return of Yagan's head had become a source of conflict between Noongars instead of fostering unity. The cartoon could also be interpreted as casting aspersions on the motives and legitimacy of Aborigines with mixed racial heritage. The content of the cartoon offended many Aborigines, and the elder Robert Bropho levelled accusations of racism against The West Australian. Eventually the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission ruled that the cartoon made inappropriate references to Noongar beliefs but did not breach racial discrimination law. This ruling was upheld on appeal by the Federal Court of Australia.
In 1984, a statue of Yagan was erected at Heirisson Island in Perth. Since 1997, when the return of Yagan's head raised public awareness of the story, vandals have repeatedly beheaded the statue and stolen the head.
- Dean Alston's Alas Poor Yagan cartoon from The West Australian (Saturday 6 September 1997).
- Dale, R. (1834). Descriptive account of the panoramic view &c. of King George's Sound and the adjacent country.
- Green, Neville (1979). Yagan, the patriot. in Hunt, Lyall (ed). Westralian Portraits. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, Western Australia. ISBN 0855641576.
- Lampathakis, Paul (2005). Hunt for Yagan narrows. The Sunday Times 6 March 2005.
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