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'Battle of Pinjarra: causes and consequences'

Bates, Daisy M. 1926, 'Battle of Pinjarra: causes and consequences', The Western Mail, 5 August, p. 40.

The first migrants who accompanied Sir James Stirling to Perth in 1829 almost immediately spread themselves over the land. As early as 1834 the country had little homesteads dotted here an there, in the wilderness between Perth and Albany and the British migrants had already become broken in to the rough pioneering work of those far-off days.

Included in Sir James Stirling's first proclamation was the usual English minutes regarding the welfare of the aborigines, and certain lands in every district were reserved for their use and occupancy. The early settlers, however naturally chose their holdings with a view to their productivity as farms, dairies cattle or sheep runs; and as there was no evidence anywhere of native ownership of rivers or pools or fertile soils— no villages, no fences, no cultivation of any kind or sign of permanent occupation by native families, the early settlers concluded that the aborigines, were as nomadic as the kangaroo or emu, with no idea of land ownership. And so pools and river-lands and fertile areas were taken up by grant or purchase from the Government, and the Britisher proceeded to clear away the timber and bush and build a home for himself and his family in the spot he had chosen.

But every rod of that ground, every pool, tree, creek, inlet, hill or valley within the white man's new holding was the age-old property of an aboriginal group. These group-holdings were so fertile that food was plentiful all the year round; and the whole of the SouthWest being occupied by one race of people, calling themselves collectively Bibbulmun, the group interchanged their local foods in their seasons.

Animals, plants, roots, and other foods that were specially plentiful in certain areas were called from time immemorial the "bo-rung-gur" or "elder brothers" (called "totems" by scienists) of the groups. Each group recognised a mystic hereditary blood relationship towards the bird, animal, or edible root, etc., within the boundaries of the group. When for instance, the swan laying season, or the mallee hen season arrived, or when the honey-bearing banksia ripened, or the native potato reached maturity, the local groups whose "bo-rung-gur" (totems) these foods were, invited neighbouring groups whose totem foods ripened earlier or later; and dancing and, friendly fellowship, betrothal of infant children or other ceremonies were held while the supply lasted. The hosts caught and distributed their "bo-rung-gur" to their visitors to hunt any food for themselves visitors to hunt any food for themselves on their hosts' ground.

And so the ages passed. Each group owned collectively its portion of land and the special food supply thereon and none could tresspass on a neighbouring group area without invitation. The group territory and its totems were to the group what an inherited estate is to the family which enters into possession of it. Every Bibbulmun group throughout the SouthWest area had thus an asset by which it maintained its place and status among its neighbours.

The coming of the white migrants immediately changed all this. The waterholes, rivers, swamps, plains, and slopes beside which the white man built his house, were the kalleep (homes, hearths, and, fires) of some Bibbulmun group, whose members were thus evicted and dispossessed of their means of existence, and driven back into other group areas, uninvited by those groups and at a time when, perhaps, their own ground would be yielding its harvest. Thus, the very first white comers unconsciously brought vital, and fatal disturbance amongst and between the Bibbulmun groups. Native laws and rules established by usage throughout the ages were broken down in a moment. Swan, mallee hen, emu, kangaroo, edible root, honey, fish and other totem groups became homeless. Many white men were speared in lonely places, and through the forbearance of the Government retributive action was delayed until 1834, when the so-called "Battle of Pinjarra" took place.

Details of the Encounter.

From a very early record the following condensed account of this decisive battle is taken. "On October 27, Governor Stirling and a party consisting of Mr. Roe, Captain Meares, his son Seymour, Mr. Peel, Captain Ellis, Mr. Norcott, five mounted police (one sick), Surveyor Smythe, and his soldier orderly, Mr. Peel's servant, two corporals, eight privates of M. M. 21st Regiment—25 in all—bivouacked at a place called Jinjanuk, about ten miles from the mouth of the Murray. The party steered for Pinjarra, where it was intended to establish a town on a side and to leave half the party, including the military, for the protection of Mr. Peel and the settlers whom he would induce there.

"Crossing the ford where the river had an average depth of two and a half feet, an easterly course was taken, but the party had not proceeded more than a quarter of a mile when the voices of many natives were heard. Kalyute's tribe frequented this neighbourhood, and Private Nesbitt and Mr. Barron having been speared but a short time previously, the moment was considered favourable for punishing the perpetrators if these proved to be the offenders. His Excellency rode forward 200 yards with Peel and Norcott, who were acquainted with the persons of the natives and with their dialects and commenced calling out to them for an interview. Their own noise, loud, and clamorous, made the sounds lost. No answer being forthcoming, Captain Ellis, in charge of five mounted police, and Mr. Norcott, his assistant and three men, were despatched across the ford again to the left bank, where the natives were posted, to bring on the interview. The instant the police were observed about 200 yards away, the natives—about 70—started to their feet and showed a formidable front, but finding the visitors still advancing, they felt unable to stand the charge and were retreating sullenly when Captain Ellis cried "Forward," and in half a minute they were in the midst of the mob. Mr. Norcott, who knew one of them, called out, 'These are the fellows we want, for here's the old rascal Noonar,' on which the savage turned and said, 'Yes! Noonar! me!' and was in the act of hurling his spear at Norcott when that gentleman shot him dead. The identity of the tribe being now clearly established, and the natives turning to assail their pursuers, the firing continued and was returned with spears as the natives retreated towards the river. The first shot and the shouts and yells of the natives were sufficient signal to Sir James's party, who had halted a quarter of a mile away. They came down at full speed and arrived opposite Captain Ellis's party just as some of the natives had crossed and others were in the river.

"It was the critical moment for them. Five or six of the natives rushed up the right bank, but were utterly confounded at meeting a second party of assailants, who immediately drove back those who escaped the firing. Being thus exposed to a cross fire and having no time to rally their forces they took to the river, secreting themselves amongst the roots and branches or immersing themselves with their faces only, uncovered and ready with a spear under water to take advantage of any who approached within reach. Those who were desperate and exposed themselves were soon cleared off, and the remainder were picked out by the cross-fire from both banks until 25 or 30 were left dead on the field or in the river. The others had either escaped up or down the river or had hidden too closely to be discovered except 8 women and some children, who were assured of their personal safety, but were kept prisoners till the end of the fray.

"On finding that the women were spared and understanding, the orders repeatedly issued to that effect, many of the men cried out that they were of the other sex. As it appeared that sufficient punishment had been inflicted, and as an examination showed amongst the dead 15 very old and desperate offenders, the bugle sounded to cease firing, and the divided party re-assembled at the ford where the baggage and four soldiers were left. Here Captain Ellis came badly wounded in the right temple by a spear hurled from a distance of three or four yards, which had knocked him off his horse. The party then expected the natives to return, but they were disappointed. They set the women free...

"Captain Ellis died on Tuesday, November 1, and the burial service was read by Mr. Spencer, as J. B. Wittenoom was ill."

End of the Bibbulmun People.

Tremendous issues hung on that battle, which may be truly said to have been the beginning of the end for the Bibbulmun people. The Pinjarra, Mandurah, Yundungup, Kulinup and Kumbernup groups became wanderers. The Battle of Pinjarra was the deciding factor in their ultimate extinction. Mackenzie, Budge, Wood, Layman, Nesbitt, Jenkins and Barron were the names of some of the murdered whites. From the children and grandchildren of those long-ago natives, from Yabbulgurt, Ngalyart, Baaburgurt, and a few others—themselves old and grey and childless (Baaburgurt's own father had killed Mr. Layman), I was given in the early 1900's a graphic account of that battle, with the names and local totem foods of the groups that took part in it. Wandin, one of the 70, and Ngalyart's grandfather, had seven wives and 11 children. Noonar, who had killed one or more white men, had three wives and several children, and Karrie and Yoogul, Wandal, Doilbuk, Yoonggup, Doolyung, Kwegan, Laatup, Woobung, and many other names were remembered of those who took part in that battle.

With his group territory taken from him, how was Wandin to find meat food, not only for his wives and families but for the fathers and brothers of all his wives, for all of whom it was his lawful duty to provide meat-food? How could he foist himself and his large family upon even the most friendly neighbouring group when he could no more offer them water and his totem food in return for their hospitality? This was the theme of rancorous discussion by Wandin, Noonar and their friends, when Captain Ellis and his five mounted troopers rode into their midst. The flint-shafted spear of the Bibbulmun was a deadly war weapon. The flints were attached with blackboy or sandalwood gum along both sides of the spear blade, and usually one or more of the flints, broke off inside the victim. A Bibbulmun or any native can ship and hurl his spear as quickly, as an American gunman can handle his gun, and, as the Bibbulmun used no shields, they were specially expert spearmen.

Again, every native who was killed in that Pinjarra battle was the joint owner of the food totem of his local group, and his death rendered that special food winnaitch (forbidden) to his family and group for perhaps a year, for were not these foods the elder brothers of themselves and their dead kindred? There were about 16 or 20 different totem foods, represented by their members at that fateful gathering, therefore, however plentiful those foods might have been, none of the mourners would touch or eat them, consequently, there were many deaths amongst the widows and orphans of the dead men during the months that followed the battle. There was a certain group pride amongst all these primitive people. They accepted food from neighbouring groups only when they were certain of liberally returning the courtesy when their own totem food was ripe. Now, when their food and waters were taken from them they could make no return, and because of this they could neither visit nor merge into the neighbouring groups.

Derelict Groups.

As time went on and settlement extended, these neighbouring groups also lost their territory, and east of the border of Bibbulmun territory were the hated and feared circumcised cannibals of the interior. Little wonder that poor distracted mobs of homeless Bibbulmun wandered here and there along the settled areas. Some worked for the white people, others resented to the last the white man's coming. Kindly men and women tried to civilise and Christianise them, but how could they absorb the ethics of either while their teachers held possession of and fenced in their kalleep (homes, fires)? How could they venerate a religion while its teachers destroyed their religious shrines, cut down their sacred trees and trod upon the sacred slope or hill that held the spirits of those who had made their laws and had given them their totem foods and waters, since Jang-ga Nyitting times (jang-ga, "spirits of the returned dead") afterwards "white men;" Nyitting, "cold times of long ago" (glacial period)? All these, and other thoughts of their lives and pastimes were for ever with the derelict groups, and as they sat at night in the huts built for them by kindly whites they mourned for their dead, and their lost waters and lost totems. They saw their children breaking every Bibbulmun law, marrying unlawfully, eating forbidden food and walking defiantly over sacred ground. They saw them dying from the white man's diseases—dying in mobs from measles, whooping cough and influenza, and from their own wrongdoing. The half-caste came amongst them—one who was neither black nor white, and who was detested by all true Bibbulmun.

Another great factor in their disappearance was the food of the white man. From the very first taste of flour, tea, sugar, stews, soups, puddings, wine, beer, whisky, etc., their appreciation of their own foods lessened; and, as their physical bodies could no more assimilate the highly civilised foods than their mental system could absorb nineteenth century civilisation, the Bibbulmun race that had occupied South-Western Australia for untold ages became extinct in 80 years, and except for a stone weir across a river, a flint or hammer head that may be found here and there, the race has left no trace of its existence in the South-west. The Battle of Pinjarra began their steady decline, but the will to live was really taken from them when their first waterhole was fenced in by the white man.

The same process is going on to-day, happily without battle. Wherever the white man settles in Australia he is displacing the aboriginal occupiers of the country he takes up. There is absolutely no hope for preserving the aborigines, for they themselves are a contributing factor in their ultimate extinction by their voluntary desertion of their totem waters in the inland areas still left to them and which they are abandoning in families and small mobs to enter civilisation. And a significant fact connected with this exodus is—that once they enter civilisation and taste the white man's foods, they never return to their own waters.

Garry Gillard | New: 10 January, 2022 | Now: 10 December, 2023