Sometimes the stories we forget reveal more about us than those we remember.
Yagan was a freedom fighter who lobbied for peace between Australia’s first peoples and the first British colonists. His exploits and efforts to bring peace to the Swan River Colony made him a celebrity in his time, however today his legacy is little known.
The son of a Noongar elder, Yagan was in his early twenties when colonists arrived in 1829 and quickly proved himself a bold and charismatic leader. In 1831 he was declared an outlaw after seeking revenge against an settler who murdered one of his tribesmen - one of the first examples of Aboriginal resistance in the Swan River Colony. Over the months that passed, Yagan’s exploits became legendary as he evaded authorities.
His trust in settlers, many of whom he considered friends and relatives, resulted in his eventual capture in September 1832 however he soon escaped. In an act of incredible bravery, instead of going into hiding Yagan boldly walked into Perth and negotiated a treaty between the Noongar and European settlers.
Yagan’s celebrity grew and the Perth Gazette newspaper made frequent mention of his doings, praising his good nature. Settlers went so far as to compare him to a Scottish resistance hero, William Wallace.
The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 20 April 1833
Peace was shattered when a visitor to the colony murdered a group of Noongar women and children. This unprovoked slaughter sparked a series of revenge attacks and the incarceration and execution of Yagan’s father. Once again, Yagan was an outlaw and once again his good nature was his undoing.
Three months later a teenage boy, who Yagan considered a friend, shot Yagan to claim a reward. The Gazette reported his death with ‘mingled feelings of gratification and regret’ later calling his death ‘treachery’. Yagan’s head was preserved and sent to England where it was studied and displayed an anthropological curiosity - before finally being forgotten in a distant archive and buried in an unknown grave.
Since the early 1980’s attempts were made by the Noongar community to locate and repatriate Yagan’s head. After being located in Liverpool in December 1993, permission to exhume it was granted by the British government in 1997. The return of the head by a delegation of Noongar elders was highly symbolic to Noongar people and one which was likened by some to the repatriation from Gallipoli of Australia's Unknown Soldier. Yagan’s traditional burial took place this year, more than 170 years after his death.
Australian historian Henry Reynolds once asked ‘ if we are to continue to celebrate the sacrifice of men and women who died for their country, can we deny admission to fallen tribesmen?’. Unless we come to terms with frontier conflict and our part in it, Yagan will be doomed to be remembered for controversy rather than his extraordinary courage and stance against injustice.
This failing will be ours and we will be lesser for it.