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

Early Days: Volume 5, 1955-1961

Yagan the Patriot, and some notable aborigines of the first decade of settlement

Alexandra Hasluck

Hasluck, Alexandra 1961, 'Yagan the Patriot, and some notable Aborigines of the first decade of settlement', Early Days, vol. 5 part 7: 33-48.


Some time ago Dr. Hislop, a member of the Legislative Council of W.A., described to me an incident which had struck him as interesting. It concerned some fellow members waiting for a meeting of the Council to begin, who, to fill in time, began to discuss who would be considered the most noteworthy West Australian a hundred years hence. One name and another was suggested, and then Sir John Kirwan, President of the Council, proffered the name of Yagan the aborigine, known to the early settlers as “the Wallace of the Age.” In the stunned silence that followed this suggestion, the shadowy figure of the Highland chieftain Wallace, of whom most of the members had a vague idea, met in their minds an even more indistinct shade—Yagan the native patriot, unknown to history, of whom no Burns had sung.

“Why don’t you,” said Dr. Hislop to me, “write about Yagan the Patriot?”

I must confess that while I knew a little about Yagan, it had not occurred to me to think of him as a patriot. The definition of a patriot is, one who defends or is zealous for his country’s freedom or rights. How did Yagan measure up to this? And how did he come to be known as “the Wallace of the Age?”

Yagan—whose name is sometimes spelt Eagan or Yegan, which would indicate that the 'a’ was not a broad ‘a’—flourished on these wild shores up to the year 1833. He was the son of Midgigoroo, who was chief of the tribe in the district of Beeliar. Beeliar was bounded by Melville Water and the Canning River on the north, by the mountains on the east, by the sea on the west, and by a line due east from Mangles Bay on the south. It was, as we might say, on the far side of the river, lying between the Canning, Fremantle and Woodman’s Point. It was a large area of land, and the tribe was large, as tribes went, numbering some 58 persons, but there is some doubt as to whether it was not two tribes. Next to this district was Beeloo, bounded on the south by the other side of the Canning, on the west by Melville Water, on the north by the Swan and Ellen’s Brook and by the mountains on the east; as we might say, South Perth and Victoria Park across to the hills. Its chief was named Munday, and his tribe numbered 32. The north side of the Swan River was called Mooro, and its chief was Yellagonga, with a tribe of 28 persons (P.G. 20/4/1888). It will be noted that these numbers are not large.


They were noted down, together with many of the names of members of the tribes, with painstaking care in 1837 by Francis Armstrong, who then held the post of Native Interpreter; and they are corroborated by other early settlers, such as Captain F. C. Irwin in his book: State and Position of W.A., published in 1835, who speaks of the tribes between Swan River, Augusta and King George’s Sound—that is to say, in the whole of the South West—as not exceeding 1000 souls; and G. F. Moore, who refers in his Diary in 1831 to the natives not being very numerous. This is contrary to the current idea which has gained ground that the aborigines flourished in large numbers before the beginning of settlement and that their numbers were decimated after the advent of the colonists.

When the first Englishmen arrived to settle on these shores under the command of Captain Stirling, they might have expected, from the experiences of other colonizing forces in America, Canada, South Africa and other places, to be met by a hostile mass of native inhabitants keen to defend their country and opposed to the coming of the white men. That the latter did expect attack from hostile native tribes is shown by Stirling’s Proclamation issued at Perth on the 18th June, 1829, taking possession of the territory of Western Australia. This asserted that there might be need to form a Militia force to assist the regular troops in the defence of law and property if they were assailed by the aborigines; while at the same time it warned settlers that the aborigines were now British subjects, even if unknown to themselves, and that cruelty and felony against them would be prosecuted. Alerted though the settlers were, nothing happened. The only sign of hostility was experienced by some officers of H.M.S. Challenger and Sulphur who had landed at Woodman’s Point one day to be greeted by a solitary native with “a furious and wholly unprovoked demonstration of everything but amity and kindness.” (P.G. 13/1/1833). This may have been Yagan himself, appearing in defence of his land, for this was his district. No further demonstrations occurred, however, and Captain Stirling and his fellow civil servants immediately became very busy setting up the administration and looking to the needs of the settlers which were many and pressing. They gave little thought to the natives while the latter remained peaceful, and this was the case at first, no untoward events occurring in the first nine months. A despatch of Stirling’s dated 30th January, 1830, only the second to be written, does not mention natives at all. During that time the first little cottages began to arise in Fremantle and Perth; families settled there, established their livestock, and put in their gardens. Peeping through the surrounding trees, the aborigines watched them. Gardens did not interest them, the living things did.


It is a habit nowadays to say that the colonists took the aborigines’ land and killed off their food supply, the native animals. But the actual fact was the very reverse. In the crucial first years, it was the natives, (after they had discovered that they liked the taste) who killed, or drove off, or stole, the scanty food supplies of the settlers, their animals and birds, their stocks of flour and sugar, while the indigenous kangaroo, duck, swan and fish flourished abundantly. Even the genial G. F. Moore wished sadly that they would not steal his pigs, while many a small settler, when he saw his few but self-replacing cattle and sheep killed, and knew that his small capital was gone, and he and his young family far from home, suffered violent feelings toward the thieves, and found it hard to control his trigger finger. Why could they not eat their own food, he must have wondered.

Ten months after settlement, on the 3rd May, 1830, the first clash between natives and colonists is reported by Captain Irwin of the 63rd regiment. The natives had speared poultry and rifled a house, the settlers had defended their property, the military had chased the offenders and fired over their heads. No-one was killed, but this was the beginning of trouble. (CSO 6/H6). By 1831, Stirling in a despatch to Lord Goderich of 30th November mentions “the pertinacious endeavours of the Savages to commit Depredations on Property having called forth the determined Resistance of the Settlers ...” and says that in three or four instances, lives of white persons were sacrificed.

Yagan first appears on the threshold of history in 1832. Up to that time, though he had been active enough, he was not known by name, the natives being scarcely distinguishable as individuals to the settlers, who were, however, gradually becoming aware that attacks on property and person on the Canning River and further banks of the Swan were led by a certain native of striking appearance. In May 1832, the murder of a man named Gaze occurred, and the native concerned was identified by the survivor of the attack as Yagan, the son of Midgigoroo, who also was identified as concerned in several recent attacks. A reward of £20 was set on the head of Yagan, but he eluded capture for four months, until September, when he was seen by three men who were fishing in a boat on the river. They enticed him into their boat by offering him and his two companions some bread. Greed prevailed over caution, as it so often did with the blacks; Yagan and his mates were overpowered and bound and conveyed to Perth. An eye-witness says: “I happened to be passing through Perth at the very moment when they were carried bound to the guard-house, amidst a concourse of people who were running from all parts to see them ... which would seem to imply that Yagan had already achieved some fame as a person to be dreaded. (C.O. 18/11,pl143)


The prisoners were then transferred to Fremantle gaol now known as the Round House, while the Executive deliberated on their fate. (SWP 18/54)

Many settlers by this time had given a good deal of earnest con-sideration to the problem of how to deal with the aborigines, their continuous thieving, and the reprisals and revenge that followed their 'depredations.' A meeting held at Guildford on the 26th June, 1832, was of the opinion that settlers might as well abandon the colony if their property could not be protected; but lest it should be thought that this implied any threat of force to be used against the aborigines, let me recapitulate the resolutions passed at this meeting, which were signed by the twenty five gentlemen present. Remarkably restrained and broad-minded, they were: (1) That Government intervention to improve understanding with the natives was called for. (2) That the settlers would render all possible assistance to whatever conciliatory measures the Government might adopt. (3) That if such rneasum were not forth-coming there would be no point m settling the co on, (4) That the immediate appointment of an agent to go amongst natives to conciliate them was recommended.

This last viewpoint had been pressed time and time again at other gatherings and in private conversations by a settler named Robert Menli Lyon. He had begun by asking that the Church Missionary Society be asked to send missionaries to impart Christian principles to the natives, but while waiting for this to happen, he had felt that nothing could really be achieved until a knowledge of native language and habits was acquired, and had set out to acquire it. After the capture of Yagan, when the Executive Council decided that Yagan and his fellow prisoners be sent to Carnac Island for a period, in charge of two soldiers, one of the Council members, J. S. Roe, recommended that Mr. Lyon (who had volunteered his services) should be sent with them to study their ways and speech.

Something should now be said about this Mr. Lyon, because it is largely through his eyes that we see Yagan. He lived in close daily contact with Yagan for several weeks and came to have great admiration for his intelligence and proud bearing. “He must be ranked among the princes of the country,” Lyon was to write, “he has greatly distinguished himself as a patriot and a warrior. He is, in fact, the Wallace of the Age ...” A Scot himself, it was a comparison that would occur to Lyon, and I submit that with this picturesque phrase, he helped to shape the feeling of the time.

To judge history as truly as we can, we should not accept contemporary pronouncements without knowing something about those


who passed them, so that we can see how much weight to attach to them. So now there must be a small digression to consider Robert Lyon.

Robert Menli Lyon was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1789. At the age of forty, he emigrated to Western Australia, arriving in the Marquis of Anglesea on the 23rd August, 1829, with two servants and their four children. He was single, and described himself in his application for land as an agriculturist. As will appear later, he seems to have had a good classical education, and to have had a career in the army. He was evidently one of those odd characters who from time to time appear among the early worthies,—a person individualistic to the point of eccentricity, but none the less able for that. A letter written by him to Captain Stirling early in 1831 shows that the Governor had reproached him with having neither the means nor the inclination to improve the land assigned to him. He replied that he had been obliged to dismiss his servants for bad conduct shortly after arriving, and went on to state his means. He had built a house at Fremantle, the first in the colony to be let, and let for £13 per annum at that! Then he had built two small houses on two allotments at Perth which had been pulled down by the Governor’s steward. On building another, it was burnt down through the carelessness of a neighbour, while the potatoes he had planted were eaten by the Governor’s cow just after they had come up. He had tried farming at the head of the Swan, but his stock suffered from ‘wolves and natives’, so he retired to Rottnest Island. This move did him no good, because his hut there was burnt by some sailors and he lost all his clothing and other articles. The tone of this letter is one of hurt indignation, and obviously he thinks the Governor gave him no credit for his generosity in resigning “a favourite grant of land, the second choice that was made in the colony in favour of a gentleman with a large family.” That he did in fact give up a large tract of land to Lieutenant Shaw is attested for by W. L. Brockman. It is quite obvious from other letters that he did not get on with the Colonial Secretary, Peter Brown. He seems to have had the unfortunate characteristic of annoying those in authority. He peppered the Colonial Office in London with extremely well-written letters containing lengthy descriptions of the colony, its settling and government, the treatment of the native people—who he called “a harmless, liberal, kind-hearted race ... in simplicity of manners, generousness of disposition and firmness of character they much resemble the ancient Caledonians ...” (SWP 10/84). The Colonial Office was at first interested, but after the return of Stirling to London in 1832, when he apparently gave them his views on the character and worth of Lyon, Lyon


was asked not to trouble to continue his correspondence as it could not lead to any practical results, unless through the proper channels, i.e. the Governor's despatches. (SWP 16/34).

Whatever men thought of him, he was devoted to the question of native rights. On going to Carnac with Yagan, Dommera and Ningina, (as he gives the names of the prisoners) all sons of chiefs: he says, (writing to the Governor) that he un-ironed Yagan and the others and gave them their freedom, allowing them spears for fishing to divert their minds from the terror of their supposed fate. In what we would regard as wishful thinking, he says that Yagan had been seen more than once on his knees, which made him suppose that the aborigines had religious notions. Yagan, he says, seemed to have the best capacity but the most violent temper of the three. None of the natives would assist in the digging of a well to get water. On the first Sabbath Lyon assembled them for divine service and “Carnac, probably for the first time since creation, heard the sound of prayer.” He was a master of the vivid phrase: Carnac, a bare rock off an arid coast, is the essence of the primeval.

A week later he reports that one of the soldiers was ordering the natives to work, when Yagan, not having quite finished his breakfast, thought it rather too unceremonious a proceeding towards the son of a prince, and refused. The soldier went to get handcuffs and Yagan, on seeing them, seized his spear. The soldier then ran for his musket, while Lyon, who had watched the incident, went up to Yagan to disarm him, although the native’s fierce anger made him afraid. To his surprise, Yagan yielded up his spear to him. (C.0.18/11)

Lyon was able to learn a great deal of the native language and of the geography of their country from the prisoners; this was when he ascertained the different districts and their chiefs as quoted earlier; but in the learning of their language and ways, he realised how long a time it would take to teach the aborigines civilization. This was from one who had the greatest hopes of them. He also thought they were filthy beyond belief in their personal habits, and took great heart when they appeared to become cleaner and more orderly, and respectful at divine service. One cannot help thinking that he was very optimistic, but then, by the records, most of the settlers were optimistic about the blacks to begin with.

Yagan and his associates were on Carnac for about six weeks. At the end of that time, whether while they were on their knees or not, they had done their share of observation. They had been visited by J. Morgan, the colonial storekeeper, who found them “clothed and in outward appearance very much like civilized beings,” but just after that, while Lyon and the soldiers were asleep, Yagan and


friends went softly to the Government boat, anchored in the small bay of the island, unmoored it, and pulled away for Woodman's Point—a distance of six to eight miles. “When it is borne in mind," says Morgan, “that these people knew nothing of a boat, had never been in one before they went to the island and they must have carefully watched the movements of every person who visited Carnac, in order that they might be able to know how to effect their escape when an opportunity offered—I know not which to admire most, their ingenuity or their courage.” (C.O. 18/13).

Yagan’s escape was a great disappointment for his mentor and interrogator. Robert Lyon returned to Perth and went into the bush alone, by his own account, unarmed, and met Yellagonga, chief of Mooro, who gave him assurances of peace and friendship, and presented him with a womera and a spear. “Of all the chiefs here mentioned,” Lyon says in a series of articles which he contributed to the Perth Gazette in the following year on the habits and vocabulary of the natives, “Yellagonga is the most distinguished for a humane, peacable disposition. And yet he is a man of the most distinguished martial courage. When he is fully aroused, no warrior, not even Yagan, dare stand before him. To him the settlers are greatly indebted for the protection of their lives and property.”

Yellagonga must now take the stage for a moment. In comparison with Yagan, he was “quiet and inoffensive” as Lyon in another place refers to him. He never appears in records as the cause of any trouble, though two of his wives, Yangan and Windan, were notorious thieves, nor did he try conclusions with Yagan, who was inclined to usurp his prerogatives and trespass on his tribal grounds. If Lyon had not borne witness to Yellagonga's martial valour, one might have thought him craven. He did, however, manage to live on until 1843, at peace with the colonists, apparently respected by them and known by them as “the King of Perth.” It was under that title that the newspaper The Inquirer, referred to him in headlines, small by our standards, when he died. It said: “The mild amiable Yellagonga, acknowledged by the natives as the possessor of vast tracts of land between Perth and Fremantle, is no more. He fell from a rock on the river's bank and was drowned.” It may be considered as thanks to Yellagonga that Perth proper, the centre of his district, did not suffer the attacks and murders of the other districts. It is a pity that more is not known of him, for obviously he deserves credit as a native who learnt how to co-exist with the whites.

Yagan, who had returned to his old haunts, was by tacit consent of authority, left undisturbed for a time. He himself seems to have boasted of his cleverness in escaping from the island, for the Perth Gazette mentions that the "chuckling style in which Yagan gives us to


understand the manner in which they efl'ectcd their escape from Carnac is highly amusing.” In January 1833, he expressed a wish to meet two natives from King George's Sound who had been brought to Perth, and they were taken by Ensign Dale to meet him on the shores of Monger’s Lake.

Shortly after Dale and the two K.G.S. natives, Manyat and Gallypert, arrived, Yagan and about ten of his tribe made their appearance well-armed (for it should be realised that they were on Yellagonga’s territory) and welcomed their visitors in a cordial way. To the great interest of the whites, a corroboree was danced, followed by an interchange of names and spears. Neither party of natives seemed to understand the other’s language, but derived their meaning from gestures. A trial of skill in throwing spears then took place between Gallypert and Yagan. The latter struck down a walking stick vertically placed at a distance of about 25 yards, no mean feat. Dale tells elsewhere of Yagan’s power to bury the whole head of his spear in the hard wood of a gum tree from a distance of 60 yards. There were no women visible, though it could not be said they were not present: they merely knew their place. The meeting continued for about four hours. During that time, much conversation took place between the two lots of natives, the gist of which is said to have been (though it should be remembered that not much was known yet of the native language) a description of the King George’s Sound district, of the kind treatment and benefit Manyat and Gallypert had received from the white people, and an exhortation to Yagan and his followers to conduct themselves in a friendly and peacable manner towards the whites. Yagan appeared to give a description of his late imprisonment on Carnac and his escape, and what he considered to be his connection with the whites.

The K.G.S. natives stayed in Perth for several months. Their good behaviour, in contrast to the surrounding tribes, excited attention and gave them a sense of pride. Comment was made on “the stately air of Manyat as he parades the streets with his feather-tufted stick and feather cap, approaching closely to some of our most distinguished and polished citizens.” At this time, early in 1833, the Government was distributing rations to natives as part of its policy of appeasement and goodwill, the rations consisting of bread and rice. The Perth Gazette disapproved of this policy and asked the public not to give money or bread to the natives, as they were fast becoming accomplished beggars. Robert Lyon, however, wrote to the newspaper asking the Government not to cease distributing rations, though he did urge the impropriety of allowing Yagan to distribute the bread in preference to Yellagonga, the leading chief on the Perth side of the water. He was fast absorbing a nice sense of native etiquette.


About the 3rd March, 1833, a native corroboree was held by the Swan River and King George’s Sound men at dusk. The Lieutenant Governor was there and most of the population of Perth, including several venturesome ladies. Yagan was the Master of Ceremonies, and according to eyewitnesses, acquitted himself with infinite dignity and grace. If he had only stuck to the dance all would have been well, but on the 6th of the following month, April, there is a report of his entering the house of a Mrs. Watson and frightening her into running to a neighbour’s because of his violence. Nor could he be found afterwards to have it explained to him that if he did that again he would be punished. The Perth Gazette refers to “the reckless daring of this desperado who sets his life at a pin’s fee ... (who) is at the head and front of any mischief.” (P.G. 2/3/1833). He was indeed. At the end of April, having returned to his tribal grounds on the further side of the Swan, he and his tribe visited Fremantle where they received their rations, apparently not enough for their tastes, for they made their way back into the town and stole some flour from a store. They were surprised while doing this, and fired at, and one of their number named Domjum, a brother of Yagan, was killed. The rest made off towards the Canning, passing a settler at whom they shouted that they would spear a white man soon! At Bull’s Creek they met a party of settlers loading some carts with provisions. This proceeding they watched intently, asking many questions as to where the carts were going. Then they vanished. The lure of delicious food, the desire for revenge for the death of Domjum, impelled Yagan to his final crime. He and his followers ambushed the leading cart and killed the two young men, John and Thomas Velvick, who were in it. The Governor’s report to the Colonial Office following this event says in cold official language that the drivers were “murdered with circumstances of great barbarity,” their cries bringing up the owner of the carts, Mr. Phillips of Maddington Farm, in time for him to recognise Yagan in the act of repeatedly plunging his spear into the body of one of the deceased; but the Perth Gazette’s account is more graphic: it describes one body as having over a hundred wounds, while the other was found about two hundred yards away in the bush, where the young man had crawled on his hands and knees for refuge.

Not only Yagan was recognised at the fell work: the official report goes on:— “The head or leader of the tribe, an elderly man, well-known by the name of Midgigoroo, is father of the above-mentioned Yagan and the native killed at Fremantle, and has long borne a bad character as the repeated perpetrator of several acts of bloodshed and robbery. He, Yagan, and another of the tribe named Munday (remarkable even during the friendly visits of his tribe to Perth for his sullen behaviour and ungoverable temper,) were recognised by several credible witnesses as being present . . .” (C.O. 18/12).


This murder occasioned great alarm. The settlers who, according to various accounts, had not much feared the blacks at first, having indeed a kind of tolerant scorn for them, now began to find them treacherous and incalculable. It was easy enough to understand that they might take revenge when one of their men was killed; it was not easy to understand, as frequent occurrence had shown, that vengeance might be taken not on the person who had done the killing, but on any white person who presented an easy prey, regardless of the fact that this person might have been good to them. This put all whites, however good their intentions and behaviour, in jeopardy. Something had to be done. The Lieutenant Governor, Captain Irwin, summoned the Executive Council, which decided that the natives had attributed the settlers’ lenience with their murders as weakness, and that an example must now be made. A Proclamation was issued on the 1st May, 1833, couched in the weighty phrases of the law:

“NOW therefore I the Lieutenant Governor do hereby in virtue of the power in me vested, pronounce and declare the said Egan to be an OUTLAW deprived of the protection of the British laws and I do hereby authorise and command all and every His Majesty’s subjects residents in any part of this colony to capture or aid and assist in capturing the Body of the said Egan DEAD OR ALIVE and to produce the said body forthwith before the nearest Justice of the Peace AND I do further as an encouragement offer a Reward of THIRTY POUNDS to any Person or Persons so producing the said Body in manner as aforesaid. AND whereas there is every reason to believe that two other natives well known by the names of Midgigoroo and Munday were present aiding and abetting the said Egan in the perpetration of the said Murder, I do hereby further proclaim the said Midgigoroo and Munday to be OUTLAWS . . .” —(P.G. 4/5/1833)

In the four days following the murder several parties of determined men had been out in pursuit of Yagan. Lieutenant Carew and a party of the 63rd regiment were stationed on the Flats beyond Perth where they could prevent Yagan from joining the women and children of his tribe. A fortnight later some news of the outlaws must have come in, for Captain Ellis and Mr. Hardey from the Peninsula Farm and a party proceeded along the Helena River towards the mountains. They went along on foot in a wide sweep, each about 10 yards from the other. Captain Ellis caught the first glimpse of a black hardly visible among the deceptive blackboy grass trees, and gave the order, “Right shoulder forward.” They advanced and closed in, and surrounded a native who proved to be Midgigoroo, along with


a child about five years old. Jeffers, a private of the 63rd, rushed forward and seized Midgigoroo by the long hair, while Captain Ellis snatched at his spears and broke them off, leaving the barbs in his hands, with which he struck desperately at Jeffers, loudly calling for Yagan to come to his rescue. The valley of the Helena echoed his calls, but no Yagan appeared.

Midgigoroo was incarcerated in the Perth lock-up while the courses of the law proceeded. Depositions were taken before the Executive Council relative to certain charges of murder, robbery and assault preferred against him. Of these, the most terrible tale came from a boy of twelve years old, Ralph Entwistle. Two years ago, he said, a party of natives had attacked the house where he lived on the Canning, thrusting their spears through the wattle and daub walls. His father went out and was immediately speared. Ralph saw the tall native, Yagan, throw the first spear, and Midgigoroo the second. When his father fell, Ralph and his younger brother hid under the bed, and were not found. He saw an old woman break his father’s legs and cut his head to pieces. His father had always been good tb Midgigoroo’s tribe, and had been on good terms with them. (P.G. 25/5/1833).

Young Entwistle must have been shown Midgigoroo to identify him, and we can imagine the old native with dark-bright eyes in side-long glance, the fair-haired child with direct gaze eyeing each other, the past and the future unknowing that each was each. When Entwistle was taken away, the Executive Council was not long in deciding the fate of the prisoner. Immediately they had reached their conclusions, Captain Irwin went to the lock-up to tell the prisoner his fate. The small native boy was taken away and well cared for. All natives in the vicinity were sent out of sight and sound, and Midgigoroo was led out of the gaol, tied to its outside door, and shot.

But Yagan was still at large. Such was the state of mind of the community that natives were likely to be fired on at sight, as they never had been before, and the Lieutenant Governor was obliged to re-issue his earlier proclamation that “if any Person or Persons shall be convicted of behaving in a fraudulent, cruel or felonious manner towards the aboriginal race of inhabitants of this country such Person or Persons will be liable to be prosecuted and tried for the offence, as if the same had been committed against any other of His Majesty's subjects.” It did not seem to carry the same weight. Initial goodwill towards His Majesty’s black subjects had been altered by the actions of Yagan and Midgigoroo.


On the 27th May, a settler, G. F. Moore the diarist, whom one must regard as extremely reputable in his narration of facts, met of a sudden what he described as “the very spirit of evil himself ... the notorious Yagan.” Moore lived on the Upper Swan, and there was Yagan, on Yellagonga’s territory. Munday, the other outlaw, was there too. Moore was a little perturbed on finding himself so close to such desperate characters. When Yagan saw that he was recognised, he came forward and began a long speech which Moore, who knew a little of the native language and was later to produce a book on it, deduced to be a defence of his conduct. Moore tried a little logic in reply, to the effect that if white man stole, white man was punished ; if black man stole, white man punished black man. “The moody chief,” as he called Yagan, stepped forward and placing his left hand on Moore’s shoulder while gesticulating with his right, delivered a speech looking earnestly into Moore’s face. “I regret that I could not understand him,” says Moore, “but I conjectured from the tone and manner that the purport was this: You came to our country; you have driven us from our haunts, and disturbed us in our occupations; as we walk in our own country we are fired upon by the white men; why should the white men treat us so?”

Did Yagan in fact say this? Did his thoughts run like that? Moore only ‘conjectured’ that that was what he said, but the conjecture denotes a feeling of conscience on the part of the white men. Moore too refers to Yagan as “the Wallace of the Tribe,” but the date of this reference in his diary is about a week later than the article by Robert Lyon in the Perth Gazette, calling Yagan “the Wallace of the Age.” It was a title that caught on, but was it justified? Did Yagan commit the ghastly murders he had done as a protest against the white men settling in his land? Or did he commit them for the sake of the food to be gained? Did he show any signs of uniting native tribes to resist the settlers as a body? Not really. Yellagonga never resorted to Yagan’s tactics, though Munday did.

Whether Moore sympathised a little with Yagan or not, he felt obliged to send word to the nearest magistrate that Yagan was in his vicinity, but he confessed to his diary: “The truth is, every one wishes him taken, but no one likes to be the captor. How could any person, unless a professed blood-hunter, spring upon a man in cold blood, and lead him to the death? How could anyone who has a heart fire upon him treacherously from a secure ambush, though he be an unfeeling and reckless savage? There is something in his daring which one is forced to admire.” (Moore, p. 192).

Though Moore could not bring himself to capture Yagan, the hunt went on. Two weeks later, on the 11th July, 1833, two brothers, James and William Keats, while driving cattle on the Upper Swan, met Yagan and some other natives. Yagan spoke to the Keats boys—


they were aged 13 and 18—and stayed with them all the morning,— one wonders for what purpose. Then they all joined the other natives who had made a fire and cooked damper. Yagan refused to go any further with the Keats, who, if they tried to persuade him to go on, doubtless had the £30 reward in mind, and when he became threatening and began to raise his spear, William Keats cocked his gun and shot him, while James shot Heegan, another native, who was throwing his spear. James then ran for his life down to the river where he plunged in out of sight, and turned to see four natives driving their spears into his brother. He escaped and brought help, but William was found to be dead, and so were Heegan and Yagan. (P.G.18/7/1883)

Captain Irwin had made an official report to the Colonial Office on the murder of the Velvicks and on the capture and execution of Midgigoroo, and had received from the Secretary of State a reply so dispassionate as to reveal a complete lack of understanding of the settlers’ trials,—a not completely unknown English attitude even today. The Secretary of State’s letter remarked that the murdered Velvicks should have been more on their guard and they would not have been murdered. It lamented the death of Midgigoroo, because this would “increase the exasperation of his tribe,” and it trusted when the other two natives were caught, that capital punishment would not be resorted to. (C.O. 18/12, p. 274) This reply crossed Irwin’s despatch now reporting that Yagan, “the most ferocious and influential of the three (had) also paid the debt of justice . . .” In describing the manner of Yagan’s death, Irwin used the unfortunate phrase about the young Keats brothers, that “with boyish precipitancy” they had attacked and despatched him. This called down the wrath of the Secretary of State, who seemed to think the affair had not been treated seriously enough. The whole thing, however, was well regarded by the settlers. The Perth Gazette commented: “We look with some degree of curiosity for the result of the death of Yagan, to see whether he has left his sovereign influence to an equally daring successor.” The paper was inclined to believe that such would be the case, but a few weeks later it was reporting that Yagan’s tribe had been temporarily united with that of Yellagonga, and that Migo, one of Yagan’s men, and Munday, from whose head the order of outlawry had been withdrawn, had asked if they could visit and talk with the Lieutenant Governor, which they did, though the visit appeared to be of a purely social nature and they made no complaints nor demands. The Lieutenant Governor was relieved that no retaliation followed Yagan’s death, and with Yagan and Midgigoroo gone, the natives were peaceful for a while.

There was an element of Greek tragedy, as G. P. Moore felt, in the life and death of Yagan: an uncivilized being opposed to a force too strong for him and by his own nature bringing calamity upon


himself, the Fates contriving that for killing two youths, by two youths he was killed. Nor was a final horror lacking. When his dead body was found, his head was cut of by a settler’s servant, hung in a hollow tree and smoked for three months to preserve it. Moore, who saw it before the smoking had started, said the features were well preserved and made a sketch of it, observing that he would have been glad to have had the head himself, but Ensign Dale, who apparently took it back to England, says in a small booklet about the colony printed in 1834, that the features shrank very much in the smoking. There is a picture of the head in this very rare booklet, showing Yagan to have had long slightly wavy hair, a small beard and moustache. The eyes are closed and the nose is more like that of an Indian than an aborigine, but looks as if the nasal cartilege had shrunk and had been replaced from imagination by the pen of the artist. Moore commented, when he had been sent a copy of Dale’s book, that the smoke-dried head bore no resemblance to the living face of Yagan, which was “plump, with a burly-headed look about it.” The head was submitted by Ensign Dale to T. J. Pettigrew, Esquire, F.R.S., F.S.A., F.L.S., to have phrenological observations made about it. These observations fill three printed pages but do not reveal any more of Yagan’s character than his own actions did. Dale calls Yagan, “passionate, implacable and sullen, in short a most complete and untameable savage.” This was a soldier’s opinion. G. F. Moore, more of a philosopher, saw him as a tragic figure, while a third man saw him as a hero, and a symbol of a deeply wronged race.

Nine months after the death of Yagan, Robert Menli Lyon, who had so much admired him, and whose sympathy for the aboriginal race had led him to study their ways and language, left the colony. He was something of a mystery, this Lyon. Moore, when producing his “Vocabulary of the Language of the Aborigines of Western Australia” acknowledged Lyon’s contribution towards knowledge of the native tongue, alluding to him as “a person who had assumed the name of Lyon.” His real name was Robert Milne. He may have been entitled to military rank, as in one of his letters to the Colonial Office he refers to service with the army, and for reasons of his own did not choose to use it in coming to Swan River. Instead, he preferred to be Robert Milne only, and then made an anagram of it, becoming Robert Menli Lyon. He appeared later in South Australia in 1838, as the Reverend R. L. Milne, and in New South Wales in 1839 as Captain Robert Milne. After leaving Western Australia, and previous to reappearing in South Australia, he had been at Mauritius as Robert M. Lyon, acting as Professor of Latin and Greek at the College of Port Louis, where James Backhouse the Quaker had met him, and had heard him discourse on the treatment of natives in Western Australia. (Backhouse’s Travels, 6th part.) Backhouse was very im-


pressed by him and was pleased to receive two papers by Lyon on the aborigines, which were later published by the Aborigines Protection Society in London in 1841. (Ibid. Vol. 2., No. 4) Lyon never lost his interest in the welfare of natives, and as late as 1863 he was still writing on the subject.

With Yagan dead, native attacks ceased for a while but not for long. Suffice it to say that in the next year various native outrages led up to what Moore was to christen “The Battle of Pinjarra.” It is not in the scope of this paper to consider that; the incident had nothing to do with Yagan, except to show that he was typical of his race. Yagan was not, I think, a patriot in the true meaning of the word. I doubt very much whether he consciously thought of the white men as invaders, as people who wanted his land; on the evidence it seems more as if he thought of them as people who had something he wanted,—food. By his life and deeds, however, by being the striking character he was, he did draw attention to the problem of his people. If the settlers themselves, with their background of civilisation, thought of him as a patriot, and to a certain extent they did, as we have seen,—then to that extent, he was.

Nor, considered as the Wallace that Robert Lyon had called him, was he completely unsung. There is a curious and rather grandiose poem, with more of bathos than of pathos in it, but still denoting that feeling of conscience towards the aborigines, which was inscribed by one Mr. Trimmer in Lady Stirling’s Album sometime in the years between Yagan’s death in 1833 and Lady Stirling’s departure in 1839. It says:

Sudden he starts, arising from the dead
The ghost of Yeagan stands, without a head!
And thus addressed him in a guttural note,
His voice proceeding from his severed throat:
“Squatter! what brought thee here?
Did hapless woe, or vile ambition teach
Thy steps to rove? Or worse than these
The cursed love of gold, alike the idol of the young and old,
That crowns the sovereign, forms the noble star,
Gilds the child’s gingerbread, and glittering far
Controls each circumstance of peace and war,
And adorns the trappings of the bold hussar,
Send thee, a sordid wanderer to a barren land
Of rock and stone, of iron-stone and sand?
On the Swan’s banks shall rise no future home
Nor these light sands support one splendid dome,
On our rude mountains little else appears,
Than man, and wood, the native and his spears.”


This was found among Sir John Kirwan’s papers, and indicates his interest in Yagan. One cannot help wondering what discussion, what argument between Mr. Trimmer and Lady Stirling called the poem forth, to be copied into a dainty feminine scrap book. Nor can one help wondering in what dusty English attic, retained like the head of Oliver Cromwell, or a grisly sacred relic, rests the head of Yagan now.

Garry Gillard | New: 19 July, 2020 | Now: 16 October, 2022