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One of the sons of Whadjuk Noongar elder Midgegoroo was Yagan, who was shot a couple of months after his father, on 11 July 1833, by colonist youth William Keats, to gain a monetary reward offered by the government, Yagan having been declared 'outlaw'.
YAGAN. An Aboriginal of Perth district d. 1833, son of Midgigoroo. He was identified as the murderer of William Gaze 5.1832. Was caught & detained with 2 other Aboriginal offenders on Carnac Island where Robert Lyons [Robert Lyon Milne] volunteered to teach them civilised ways. They escaped & were soon in trouble stealing flour. Yagan's brother was killed. The Aborigine retaliated by killing 2 carters. Midgegoroo was caught & shot. Yagan was at large for 2 months & was shot 11.7.1833 by William Keats, who was killed in the affray. Yagan's boldness earned him [from Robert Lyon Milne] the name of "The Wallace of the Age". He was commemorated in 1979 in a brass plaque in Perth pavements for the year 1833. A statue was later erected in his honour. (Erickson)
Irwin reported [in Portsmouth in person to Stirling] that three soldiers, a settler and two boys (the Velvick brothers) had been murdered in the twelve months following Stirling’s departure, with reprisals killing far more natives. There had also been a considerable number of raids on stock and crops. In January 1833 one of the native leaders, Yagan, had been caught and incarcerated with some of his tribesmen on Carnac Island. In March relations were not improved when soldiers at Perth Barracks opened ﬁre on unarmed Aborigines who approached them for food. The natives had become understandably agitated when food was offered, but half taken back, and the soldiers had responded with gunﬁre. There is no record of reprimand. On 20 May Yagan’s father, Midgegooroo, was also captured, identified as one involved in the murder of the Velvicks, imprisoned and then executed by ﬁring squad two days later in the yard of the Barracks—with Irwin in attendance. There was no trial. This Stirling would have been aghast to hear, given his Proclamation guaranteeing equal rights. Irwin assured him (as he later put in writing to the Colonial Office) that the Executive Council had deliberated extensively before taking action, and had been convinced of its necessity founded on a knowledge of the character and disposition of the aborigines, after near four years intercourse. The previous lenient measures and forbearance of the Government, after they had with impunity murdered several of the settlers, having been considered to have had an injurious effect in causing the natives to believe the course pursued to be the result of fear of their superiority?
The Colonial Office later disapproved of the execution, not for reasons of injustice but for fear of reprisals. And more unrest had followed. Irwin had not had time to report in dispatches that Yagan had managed to escape from captivity and, after learning of his father’s fate, had became even more threatening. Stirling had met Yagan and would have agreed with George Fletcher Moore’s description of him as a ‘Wallace of the tribe’. He managed to evade capture for two months, continuing his raids on outlying properties, but committing no murders. As Moore recorded, ‘The truth is everyone wishes him taken but no-one likes to be captor ... there is something in his daring which one is forced to admire’ He was ﬁnally trapped on 15 August 1833 by two boys who met him in a pretence of friendship, then shot and killed him. Moore observed:
The arrest of Yagan was man's work! Boys unfortunately undertook it, without sufﬁcient steadiness; they were frightened at their own act, discharged their guns injudiciously, and ran away, by which the life of one of them was sacriﬁced.
Most of the settlers were more concerned with that death, of 16-year-old William Keats, than about Yagan. Yet the power and mystique of this native had impressed all, and led to his head and body cicatrices being preserved and sent for study in England (in fact, they arrived on the very same ship as Irwin). An uneasy peace had reigned in the colony after Yagan’s death, Irwin reported, which he hoped would last. Statham-Drew: 247-8.
Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 4 May 1833, page 70:
By His Honor Frederick Chidley Irwine [sic] Esquire, Captain in His Majesty's 63rd Regiment of foot, Lieutenant Governor, Commander in Chief, and Vice Admiral of the colony of Western Australia and its Dependencies.
WHEREAS it appears from information received, that a Murder was committed yesterday between the hours of two and three o'clock, on the road from Fremantle to the Canning two miles beyond Bull's creek, on the Bodies of two white men named Velvick, servants to Mr. Phillips of Maddington Farm on the Canning River, and as there is no reason to doubt that the Murder was committed by a party of Natives, headed by a particular Native named "Egan or Yagan" supposed to be the chief perpetrator ; 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 authorize 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 Midgigooroo, and Munday were present, aiding and abetting the said Yagan in the perpetration of the said Murder ;—I do hereby further proclaim the said Midgigooroo and Munday to be outlaws, deprived of the protection of the British Laws,—and I do hereby offer a Reward of TWENTY POUNDS for the apprehension of each of them, the said Midgigooroo and Munday, dead or alive. GOD SAVE THE KING ! ! Given under my Hand and Seal at Perth, this first day of May, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-Three F. C. IRWIN. Lieutenant Governor. By His Honor's Command, PETER BROWN, Colonial Secretary.
Do you recollect my having mentioned, some time ago, the murder of an outsettler on the Canning River by the natives ? One of these, called Ya-gan, identified (on oath by a boy who escaped) as the principal actor, who took the spears from his companions and deliberately drove them one by one into the deceased (who had become entangled in a hedge while trying to escape), has been taken. The Government offered a reward for the apprehension of this Ya-gan, and some days ago he and two others, almost equally concerned, were seized by two boatmen, and brought to Perth : they had been fishing, and were enticed into the boat and there secured ; they have been sent to Carnac, where they are to suffer solitary confinement and be taught our language. One of them escaped by swimming and diving across the river, where it is fully a mile in breadth. (144) ...
... Captain Irwin ... tells me that the natives that were imprisoned on Carnac Island have completely outwitted their guards ; a boat was incautiously suffered to remain at the island before night, when they managed to get into it, and were miles ofif before their escape was discovered ; and as there was no boat for pursuit, they reached the land. Their boat was found at Woodman's Point, with one oar ; but no natives have been seen since. This occurrence is extremely provoking, as a knowledge of their language would soon have been acquired by us ; and they were rapidly learning to make themselves intelligible. I understand they were very accurate in describing the rivers which lie to the north. Mr. Lyon, who superintended the native prisoners at Carnac, says they describe several rivers to the north; one of them large, and abounding with fish ; but they could not be understood in their description of distances. It seems that the land is all parcelled out into districts among themselves, and that they rarely travel far from their own homes. The chief of this district is called "Worragonga" : Ya-gan is the son of Worragonga. I write this from recollection; but it is no great matter if I should have made a false heraldry in blazoning his pedigree. (146) ...
... you seem only to have heard incidentally about the spear thrown at me by the natives, and some other affairs which have been nearly forgotten by me. I must now tell you about the spear. One day (as children's tales commence) I was standing in the parlour between two windows, when I was startled by a smart heavy blow on the window frame at my left side ; thinking it was a practical joke of some passing friend, I went out leisurely and was surprized to see two natives running away. On looking at the window, I found the point of a spear buried about two inches in the corner of the window frame ; the spear lay under the window. I was, as you may suppose, more satisfied to see it there than sticking in my side, for which it seemed well aimed. This occurred long ago, and I have never seen a native here since ; it was the celebrated Ya-gan, who so complimented me. (153-4) ...
... A murder was committed by the natives the day before yesterday, on the road between Fremantle and the Canning, in consequence of the following provocation. Some time ago, a man who had come from Van Diemen's Land, when escorting a cart to the house of Mr. Phillips, on the Canning, saw some unoffending natives in the way, " D—n the rascals," said he, " I'll show you how we treat them in Van Diemen's Land," and immediately fired on them. That very cart, with two men who had been present at the transaction, was passing near the same spot the day before yesterday, when they were met by about fifty natives, who had lain in ambush, and the two men were deprived of life so suddenly, that Mr. Phillips (who was accompanying other carts about two hundred yards behind) was hardly in time to see Ya-gan thrust a spear into one of them as he lay on the ground. A reward has been offered for the head of this Ya-gan, whether dead or alive ; and several others who were active in the affair, will probably be proclaimed also. A native was shot a few days since at Fremantle, in the act of breaking into a store at night. (183) ...
... 4th, — Two natives came here to-day ; one of them is learning to speak English, and is very intelligent. I discovered the names of more than a dozen who were concerned in the recent murder ; among others, two sons of Ya-gan, Narah and Willim, the latter a young imp not more than ten or eleven years of age : we are greatly in their power, and must keep on good terms with them, if possible. One of them had a number of frogs (which I think he called "dweep ") nicely packed up in the bark of the tea-tree, and tied with grass ; these he signified they roasted for food, with a long white root, growing like a parsnip, which they dig up in wet weather. (184) ...
--- One of the parties which have been sent after Ya-gan have fallen in with some of the hostile tribe, and shot the brother of Midgegoroo, who is Ya-gan's father. Twenty-four natives made their appearance at the opposite side of the river, wishing to get across. I made signs that the boat was out of order, and that they must go round by the ford ; which gave me time to get some wheat ground, and coarse cakes made, which I distributed amongst them. I had previously taken care that all my arms and ammunition should be in readiness, but they were very quiet. Among them were two very well-looking young women, one of whom suckled her child, supporting its body under her arm, whilst its legs were in the bag which hung at her back. Weeip gave me a very good knife, with a wedge of quartz. I was almost alone when this party came ; but by good fortune a number of neighbours and runners happened to come immediately after.
20th. — Midgegoroo, one of the proclaimed natives, has been taken, and there is great perplexity as to what should be done with him : the populace cry loudly for his blood ; but the idea of shooting him with the cool formalities of execution, is revolting: there is some intention of sending him into perpetual banishment.
22nd. — Midgegoroo, after having been fully indentified as a principal in three murders at least, has been shot at the gaol-door, by a party of the military. We are all anxious to see how the others will conduct themselves after this execution, if they discover it; there were none of them present at it. His son had been sent on board the Ellen previously. (188) ...
... 27th. — Have had a long, angry, and wholly unexpected conference to-day with the very spirit of evil himself, I mean the notorious Ya-gan. On seeing several natives approach the house, I went towards them as usual, thinking they were my old friends. To my surprise, the first I met was Migo, whom I had known well at Perth, as the servant of Captain Ellis, and the friend of the chieftain Mundy. On looking round, I then saw Munday himself (who is proclaimed, with a price on his head) : this made me look still closer, and at last I saw Ya-gan standing a little aloof, scrutinising my countenance narrowly, and my manner of receiving them. I had been taxing Migo with having been present at the murder, which he energetically denied. When my eyes first fell upon Ya- gan, I said immediately " What name ? " They all answered " Boolgat." I said " No ; Ya-gan." At first he was inclined to persist in the assumed character ; but seeing that I knew him perfectly, he came forward, avowed himself, and entered into a long argument and defence of his conduct, in a way that I can hardly make intelligible to you ; and I confess he had almost as much of the argument as I had. Both parties seemed to consider us as respectively arguing the question. Ya-gan listened with respectful anxiety, and used bold and emphatic language and graceful gesture, with abundant action; he delivered himself boldly. I did not understand him, but replied, " If white man queeple (steal), white man shoot white man ; if black man queeple, white man shoot black man ; if black man no gydyell (kill) cow, no gydyell sheep, no gydyell pig, white man all same as brother to black man, shake hands plenty, co-obbery* plenty." Here I advanced with open hands to them, which all ran eagerly to grasp, save the moody chief himself. They had grouped around, evidently attending to the arguments on both sides with great interest, and glad of anything like a friendly termination. Ya-gan again stepped forward, and leaning familiarly with his left hand on my shoulder, while he gesticulated with his right, delivered a sort of recitative, looking earnestly at my face. I regret that I could not understand him, 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 ?"
[1884 editor: * I suppose we are to understand by this word "associate in friendship," — "co-robbery " to our ears conveys a somewhat discreditable meaning.]
This reminded me of a chorus in a Greek tragedy ; and the other natives seemed to act as subordinate characters to Ya-gan. After a short interval, the chief approached again, and fixing his eyes as if he read my countenance, said inquiringly, " Midgegoroo shoot? walk?" (meaning was Midgegoroo dead or alive ?) I felt that the question was full of personal hazard to me, and gave no reply. Even Weeip came, and anxiously asked the same question, putting his finger to my ear, to know if I heard or understood him. I answered slowly, "White man angry, — Governor angry." However my men assured them that both Midgegoroo and his son were gone on board a ship. Ya-gan still continued to read my countenance, and when he could obtain no answer from me, he said with extraordinary vehemence of manner, distinctness of utterance, and emphasis of tone, " White man shoot Midgegoroo, Ya-gan kill three " (holding up three fingers). I said, "Ya-gan kill all white man, soldier man and every man kill Ya-gan." He scowled a look of daring defiance, and turned on his heel with an air of ineffable contempt. During the latter part of this conference, he held a beautifully tapered and exquisitely pointed spear, grasped like a stiletto, about fourteen inches from the point, while the shaft lay over his shoulder, with a seeming carelessness. He evidently suspected treachery, and was on his guard against it, taking care not to let my men press on him too closely, and keeping some of the natives between myself and them.
Nothing short of an overpowering force (which I did not possess), or a cold-blooded deliberate treachery (of which I was incapable), would have enabled me to have secured him as he then stood : it was, perhaps, my duty to have attempted his arrest, dead or alive ; however, consider the circumstances of my situation, — I had gone among them unarmed, little thinking that the "Wallace" of the tribe was there ; he did not relinquish his spear till he was certain of my pacific intentions ; and there were ten of them, and only three of us, — myself rather invalided.
I despatched a letter instantly to Mr. Bull, as a magistrate, apprising him of Ya-gan's vicinity. He went off for the soldiers ; and in the meantime this proclaimed and dangerous outlaw, with a price on his head, and threats (not idle) on his tongue, in sight of the military quarters, and of a magistrate's residence, hemmed in between three or four settlements, and almost in presence of a large force of armed men, was suffered to escape unmolested. 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 any one 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.
In the evening I heard a trampling of horses, and Captains Irwin and Dale arrived. I told the story; they both gallopped off immediately for the soldiers.
28th. — A party was out last night after Ya-gan, but without success.
The Government have sent a band of resolute men here to do their utmost to take him. The man who commands this party is called " Hunt," a most appropriate name. On one occasion he followed a party of natives for thirteen days and nights, thinking it was Ya-gan's tribe ; at last he got into such a situation that the natives attacked his party. He shot the most forward, who turned out to be Midgegoroo's brother. Hunt was a constable in London ; he has just been here to request I would send him word if Ya-gan appears again in this quarter : his party is to lie " perdu " at Mr. Bull's for some time.
29th. — No appearance of the natives here to-day. I have heard that Ya-gan has been seen at a house four miles down the river, on the other side ; so that strong hopes are entertained of his being shortly taken.
31st. — I have just returned from Mr. Brockman's, where I have been all the morning, settling an arbitration affair which had been referred to Mr. Brockman and myself I hope we have finally settled it to the advantage and satisfaction of both parties; but I fear I have not served my health by exposure to the air.
While I was away the natives called at Hermitage, but not accompanied by Ya-gan. One of Midgegoroo's widows was among them, in great grief for the arrest of her son. (191-193) ...
... Old Yellogonga, with three women and children, came here to-day. They begged hard for some sugar. I gave them a little each. The old man asked me to allow him to go down to the house. I led him down, showed him the kitchen, and then my room, in which I had spread out my guns, pistols, &c. " No, no, no," he said; " no, no." He was quite surprised and puzzled at the looking-glass, peeping over and behind it. After he was gone, Weeip and four others came, one of whom was Ya-gan's son, and it is probable that Ya-gan himself was not far away; but aware of the danger of appearing. I am told they have since expressed their satisfaction at my conduct, saying, that "Mitzer Moore be very good man." Weeip has intimated that no injury shall be done in this neighbourhood; and altogether we hope for peace from this friendly intercourse with them. Weeip to-day received a blanket, which Captain Trwin sent to him, — the women were very inquisitive about Midgegoroo and his son. About the former I still shook my head, and said, he "kill white man." (194) ...
... The natives have had some row among themselves one of them has come to tell us that Ya-gan is the person who has been doing all the mischief; that he killed my pig, and speared two of Mr. Burgess's; and declares that he will kill cows, sheep, and every living thing he can come at; if the white people will accompany my informant with a strong party, well armed, he will lead them within a short distance of Ya-gan, so as to take him. Now, whether they find Ya-gan interfering with their assumed privileges of plundering us, or encroaching on their grounds, or are really in earnest in their desire to prevent mischief to our flocks, it is an opportunity that ought to be taken instant advantage of. (201)
Perth Gazette, Saturday 20 July 1833, p. 114-5:
During the past week the Natives have been in considerable numbers in the neighbourhood of the Bush Inn, on the Fremantle road. Information having been received at head quarters, Captain Ellis and a party were immediately dispatched in that direction ; they however only found two old women, and a few children. We suspect they are now strongly disposed to be reconciled to us, we must however be cautious how we admit them into our confidence. Migo, we understand, came into Perth yesterday ; again we caution the public not to encourage any of them, as an indiscriminate supply of provisions, will render them independent of the advances from the proper authorities, and regardless of that influence which it will be necessary for them to maintain, in order to arrive at a permanent and amicable understanding with the Aborigines.
We look with some degree of curiosity for the result of the death of Yagan, the native chief, to ascertain whether he has left his sovereign influence, to an equally daring successor ; we are inclined to believe it will be the case ; but if not, a favourable time has arrived for adopting some decisive and amicable system of proceeding. Unlike some of our neighbours, we are disposed to place a certain degree of reliance upon the word of a native, we should therefore be glad to hear Weeip's relation of the affray, which took place last week and terminated in the death of two natives and the youth Keats. We strongly suspect he will argue with us—that the origin, was a wild and treacherous act ; and not the heroic and courageous deed, which some unthinkingly have designated it. The unfortunate youth has suffered for his temerity, and has entailed upon us, a stigma, which it will be the work of time to eradicate. The penalty of death, we have been led to understand, is attached to crime—for the effect of example, as well as punishment.—What a fearful lesson of instruction have we given to the savage !—We have taught him by this act, to exercise towards us, deceit and treachery, which, in him, we have daily reproved ; and led him to draw no very favourable conclusions of our moral and physical superiority. Yagan met his fate justly—but let it henceforth be our duty in inflicting punishment to convey such an idea of our power and influence, as will strike terror into those who witness it, and from the conviction of the impossibility of avoiding retributive justice, deter them from acts of further aggression. We do not remember to have heard of one instance, in which the aborigines of this country have abused our confidence, when we have encountered them in the bush ; we must therefore again deplore, an act, which it appears to us will annihilate the surest road to perfect amity—mutual confidence. We must remember Yagan was killed, after spending the morning in company with the youth, who shot him, and when upon the point of taking his frugal repast, a portion of which he would not have
withheld from the hand that slew him ; we are not vindicating the outlaw, but we maintain it is revolting to our feelings to hear this lauded as a meritorious deed. It was a rash, and unadvised adventure of youth, which we should regret to see held up, by children of larger growth, as a laudible example of courage to our rising generation.
Erickson, Rica et al. 1987 (etc.), Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, UWAP.
Hallam, S.J. 1981, 'The first Western Australians', in C.T. Stannage ed., A New History of Western Australia: 36-71.
Hasluck, Alexandra 1961, 'Yagan the patriot, and some notable Aborigines of the first decade of settlement', Early Days, vol. 5, part 7: 35-48.
Hasluck, Alexandra 1967, 'Yagan ( - 1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU.
Moore, George Fletcher 1884, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines, Walbrook, London; facsimile edition, UWAP, 1978. Moore sometimes spells the name Ya-gan.
Statham-Drew, Pamela 2003, James Stirling: Admiral and Founding Governor of Western Australia, UWAP.
Williams, A.E. 1984, Nedlands: From Campsite to City, City of Nedlands: 1-8.
The photo (from Wikipedia) is that of the Yagan memorial statue on Heirisson Island.
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