Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

The Battle of Pinjarra: The Passing of the Bibbulmun

Mrs. B.S Ilbery

(Read before the Society April 29, 1927.)

Ilbery, Mrs. B. S. 1927, 'The Battle of Pinjarra: the passing of the Bibbulmun', Early Days, vol. 1, part 1: 24-30.


The first migrants who accompanied Sir James Stirling to the Swan River Colony in 1829 very quickly spread themselves over the land. As early as 1834 little homesteads were dotted here and there in the wilderness between the Swan River and King George’s Sound.

Included in Sir James Stirling’s first proclamation was the usual English minute regarding the welfare of the aborigines and certain lands in each district were reserved for their use and occupancy. There was, however, no evidence of native ownership, no villages, fences or cultivation, no signs of permanent occupation by native families. The early settlers, therefore, concluded that the aborigines were as nomadic as the kangaroo or emu, and had no idea of land ownership. Accordingly they chose their holdings with a view to their productivity as farms, cattle or sheep runs, 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 timber and scrub and make a home for himself on the spot he had chosen. But every foot of that land, every pool, tree, creek, inlet, hill or valley was the age-old property of some aboriginal group. These group holdings were so fertile that food was plentiful all the year round. The whole of the South-West was occupied by one race calling themselves Bibbulmum and each group interchanged their local foods in season.

Animals, plants and roots that were specially plentiful in one district were called “Bo-rung-gur” (elder brothers), or totem foods of the groups. In this way each group recognised a mystic, hereditary blood relationship towards the bird, animal, edible root, etc., within the boundaries of its territory. When, for instance, the swan or mallee hen’s laying season arrived, or the honey-bearing banksia ripened, or the native potato reached maturity, the local groups, whose “bo-rung-gur”


these foods were, invited other groups whose totem foods ripened earlier or later, and dancing and friendly fellowship, betrothal of infant children and other ceremonies took place while the supply lasted. The hosts caught and distributed their “bo-rung-gur” and also gave permission to their visitors to hunt any food for themselves. On the Serpentine River is a “manga,” or native weir, constructed long ago, but still easily distinguishable, by the salmon totem members of that district. When the salmon trout, or sea salmon and sea mullet made up the river at certain seasons to spawn, the natives intercepted them at this “manga,” and, inviting their friends from other groups, caught and partook of a plentiful supply of fish. Thus every Bibbulmun group had an asset by which it maintained its place and status among its neighbours. The group territory and group totems were to that group what an inherited estate is to an English family. There was. too, a certain group pride among these primitive people. They accepted foods from the neighbouring groups only when they were certain of returning the courtesy when their own totem food was ripe. There were altogether fifteen or sixteen different totem foods.

It cannot be wondered, therefore, that the coming of the white migrants was bitterly resented by the natives, changing as it did all this.

The water-holes, rivers, swamps, plains and slopes beside which the white man had built his home Were the “kalleep” (homes and fires) of some Bibbulmun group, whose members were thus evicted and dispossessed of their means of existence and driven back uninvited into other groups at a time, when, perhaps, their own ground would be yielding its harvest. Thus the whites brought vital and fatal disturbance amongst the Bibbulmum groups. Swan, mallee hen, kangaroo, emu, edible roots, honey, fish and other totem groups became homeless.

In lonely places many white men were speared, among them Messrs. Budge and Morrell (the former was killed and the latter severely wounded), but owing to the forbearance of the Government, retributive action, in these parts, was delayed until 1834. The barracks that was being established on the Murray River, near the present town of Pinjarra, was removed nearer the seaboard.


On April 16, 1823*, Mr. Barron, at one time a sergeant in the 63rd Regiment, and afterwards a settler, proceeded to the Murray River to effect the exchange of a valuable mare with Mr. Thomas Peel. Upon arrival at Mr. Peel’s estate, he learned that the mare was in the bush. Accompanied by Nesbit, a servant of Captain Adam Armstrong, and two natives, he went out to look for the animal. They were soon joined by nineteen other natives and all scanned the bush in company. At a certain spot Barron leant forward in the saddle to look at some tracks pointed out to him by the natives. While in this position he was speared in the back and as he galloped away a spear struck him in the side and another in the arm. Turning on Nesbit, the treacherous natives killed him and horribly mutilated his body and then made off. Barron recovered; Nesbit’s remains were found on the following morning.

* I find difficulty in determining this date exactly. It is generally given as July 15, but the jarrah tablet erected over the grave of Nesbit, and now at Perth Museum bears the date of April 16.

A jarrah tablet was erected by Mr. Peel to the memory of Nesbit and Budge. It can now be seen at the Perth Museum. It bears the inscription :—

Erected By Thomas Peel
to the memory of
George Budge, late private 63rd Regt.
Aged 45 years
Cruelly murdered by natives on Febry. 23rd., 1832
at Mandurah
Hugh Nesbit
Late private 21st Reg Scotch Fusiliers
Aged 19 years
who fell a victim to the same tribe
on April 16th, 1834.

Such an atrocious outrage as the attack on Barron and Nesbit could not go unpunished, and steps were at once taken to deal with the situation. The Swan River natives being quiet, a punitive expedition was arranged. It was composed of Sir James Stirling, Captain Roe, Captain Meares and his son Seymour, Captain Ellis, Mr. Thomas Peel, Mr. Norcott, Surveyor Smythe, Mr. Peel’s servant, two corporals and eight privates of the 21st Regiment.

On the night of October 27 they camped at a place called by the natives Jim Jam, or Jinjanuk, about ten


miles E.N.E. from the Murray. An abundance of luxurious green grass grew about this reach of the river and the great trees provided abundant shelter. Before six next morning the party was astir and on the alert for any indication of natives. They steered to the southeast towards the proposed site of the town which was to be named Pinjarra, where Peel intended to establish his headquarters and Stirling proposed to leave part of his force, including the military, to establish a barracks. This spot was known to be a well-loved rendezvous of the natives.

The ford near Pinjarra was crossed and Sir James Stirling and his companions turned to the east. They proceeded for a quarter of a mile over the undulating surface of magnificently grassed country, when they suddenly came to a halt. Out of the woods to the left came the loud clamour of many native voices. This was the neighbourhood of the Kalyutes. With Messrs. Peel and Norcott, who were acquainted with the natives and understood their language, Sir James Stirling rode forward to a hill two or three hundred yards distant. Below he descried the blacks on the opposite side of the river, apparently much excited among themselves. Sir James and his companions sought to hold an interview and called loudly to them, but without avail. Their own noise was so loud and clamorous that they did not hear the white men’s voices. Sir James now stationed his party so as to bring about the desired interview. Captain Ellis, Mr. Norcott, the mounted police and three other members of the white force were sent over the ford to the left bank, where the natives were congregated. The remaining members, including Sir James Stirling, waited and watched about a quarter of a mile away. The excited natives did not even yet notice the approach of Captain Ellis and his party until they were about 200 yards distant from them. They were greatly astonished but not confused. There were about seventy men on their side and all seized their spears and stood forward in defiance of the white man. They made a formidable looking front, but when Captain Ellis continued to advance they sullenly retreated. The leader of the Englishmen gave the word “Forward!” and the horsemen dashed among the bristling spears of the natives. At the same moment the avengers recognised the well-known features of some of the worst offenders


in the tribe. One, Noonar, was particularly celebrated for his effrontery and Mr. Norcott, seeing him, called out to his companions, “These are the fellows we want, for here’s that old rascal Noonar!” The savage turned on him and in tones of peculiar ferocity said, “Yes, Noonar me,” and was about to hurl a spear when Mr. Norcott shot him dead.

The assailing party continued firing upon the blacks, who, while they retreated towards the river, hurled spears at their pursuers. The first shot and the shouts and yells of the natives supplied a signal to Sir James Stirling, who, with his companions, rode forward at full speed and stood on the opposite bank of the river. All were well armed. It was a critical and disconcerting moment for the natives, for some were actually in the river and others already scrambling up the right bank. They were utterly confounded when they observed a second party of assailants before them, and were thrown into terrible consternation when a fusilade killed some of them. Exposed to a cross fire without any opportunity to rally, they remained in the river or secreted themselves among the roots and branches or in the holes on the bank. Some immersed themselves in the water with faces only uncovered, holding beneath the surface a spear ready to pierce anyone who approached close enough. A few were more hardy and desperate, and fought the whites on the banks or attempted to break through the ranks. They paid the penalty of their courage and were all shot down. The whites remained on the banks and shot the natives in the water or among the roots and branches until about thirty were killed and several taken prisoners. The numbers are not definite, for it is thought that others may have been killed and carried away by the stream.

A regrettable feature of the encounter was the death by bullet wounds of one woman and two children. Another woman was wounded in the thigh. The fierceness of the engagement was responsible for the error, it being impossible to determine the sex of those hidden on the bank of the river.

Total destruction of this sanguinary and war-like tribe could easily have followed, but Sir James Stirling decided that they had been sufficiently punished and the


bugle sounded “Cease Fire.” When the party reassembled at the ford it was found that Captain Ellis had a severe wound in the head, the spear having been thrown with such violence as to knock him off his horse.

The flint-shafted spear of the Bibbulmun was a deadly weapon. The flints were attached with black-boy gum along both sides of the spear blade and usually one or more of the flints broke off inside the wound. The Bibbulmun were specially expert spearmen.

A constable named P. Heffron had also been severely wounded in the right arm. The need of a surgeon was urgent, but, unfortunately, the expedition lacked one and all that could be done was to apply the rough and ready remedies of the bush. Heffron recovered, but Captain Ellis died on Tuesday, November 1. His burial service was read by Mr. Spencer, the Rev. J. B. Wittenoom being ill.

It was thought highly probable that the natives would return with reinforcements and a sharp look-out was kept, but the counter-attack did not take place. After consultation it was decided to release the prisoners taken, for the purpose of allowing them to fully explain to the remnant of the tribe the cause of their chastisement. They were instructed to bear a message to the effect “that if they again attempted to spear white men or their cattle, or to revenge in any wayr their punishment, that four times the number of the present expedition would be sent to destroy the whole tribe.” The purport of the message was thoroughly understood by the captives, who were only too glad to be released under any conditions.

Tremendous issues hung on this encounter, which may truly be said to have been the beginning of the end for the Bibbulmun people. The Pinjarra, Mandurah, Yundungup, Kuliriup and Kumbernup groups become wanderers. Every native who was killed was the joint owner of the food totem of his group and his death rendered that special food “winnaitch” (forbidden) to his family and group for about a year, as the foods were regarded as the elder brothers of themselves and their dead comrades.

As time went on and settlement extended, many


other groups lost their territory and east of the border of the Bibbulmun were the hated and feared cannibals of the interior. Little wonder that poor distracted mobs of homeless Bibbulmun wandered aimlessly among the settled areas. Some worked for the white men; others resented their coming to the last. Kindly men and women tried to Christianise and civilise them, but how could they absorb the ethics of either, while their teachers held possession of and fenced in their home fires? How could they venerate a religion while its teachers destroyed their religious shrines, cut down their sacred trees and trod upon their sacred hill that held the spirit of those who had made their laws and given them their foods since “Jang-ga Nyitting” (cold time of long ago)? All these and other thoughts of their lives were forever with the derelict groups as they sat at night in the huts built for them by well-meaning whites. They continually mourned for their dead, their lost totems and waters. They saw their children breaking every Bibbulmun law, marrying unlawfully, eating forbidden food and walking over sacred ground. The half-caste came among them, one who was neither white nor black and who was detested by all true Bibbulmun. Their bodies could not assimilate the food of the white man. nor their minds absorb nineteenth century civilisation. And so the Bibbulmun race that had occupied South-Western Australia for untold ages became practically extinct in less than eighty years and, except for the “manga” on the Serpentine, a flint or a hammer head here and there, the race has left no trace of its existence.

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