Noongar Resistance on the South Coast
“And you know Kimmy, it seems a bit funny that different times when our people travel and been going down, some of thems’ cars have stopped and they have trouble, just like the spirits are trying to stop them, and telling them not to go past [Cocanarup].” … “in the darkness a voice said, ‘Oh, what happened at Cocanarup means a lot to us’ ” . In rediscovering his Noongar ancestry Kim Scott published the first written account of a massacre that occurred near Ravensthorpe towards the end of 1881. The wadjela record is fragmentary and oblique, “terrible stories abound” but no one doubts that something happened. The Noongar record, on the other hand, is specific as to circumstances, numbers and names. In order to examine how these two opposing narratives arose I want to explore the genealogy of inter racial murder and violence on the south coast leading up to the 1880’s from the initial settlement at King George’s Sound (Albany) in 1826.
The colonial history of the south coast makes much of the apparently peaceful co-existence between Noongar and the British colonizers that marked the colony’s birth. Garden, in Albany’s official history, records that “during the 1830’s Albany became the showplace of race relations” . In 1833, following the death of Yagan, Gallipurt and Manyat were sent to Perth from Albany to explain to the local population the value of co-operation. Tactfully, they pleaded ignorance of the local language. The “superior intelligence of the Albany natives” , the qualities of the “men in charge” , and the “small size of the settlement” are cited as reasons that here, at least in the beginning, peaceful settlement was no myth even if it was exceptional.
Fifty years later race relations in Albany were very ordinary indeed and conflict on the south coast from Albany to Eucla reached a peak as the local authorities turned a blind eye to massacres, mass murderers and the concerns of authorities in Perth.
This account, of necessity, skims the surface of the Noongar resistance. Some subjects such as the impact of disease and traditional payback are omitted completely. It begins in the last decade of colonial rule and works backwards to the beginning. Like Alice reading the Jabberwocky, we must hold the colonists’ accounts up to the looking glass to decipher them, to see the view from the other side
Cocanerup and other massacres of the 1880’s
In 1881, R.C. Loftie, a gentleman of the “old school” , took over as the Government Resident at Albany. It was the sort of place “where above all a gentleman is required” and he was “highly popular” . On 27 February 1882 he was most put out, having to return “to my office after four o’clock” to respond to a telegram from the Colonial Secretary that complained “about three shocking cases of natives in want” . The telegram had been sent in response to one sent by Campbell Taylor visiting Albany from his station at Eucla. Taylor found the three lying next to the road “within a mile of the town” near Mr Gardener, the birdman’s house. One was a young girl of 19, “lying in a perfectly helpless state of partly from a great boil on her knee which for want of urgent treatment has become a putrid sore”, another “frightfully burnt about the belly and privates…some boys had put some red hot ashes on him”, the third, Towlett, was to die of starvation and thirst within the week . Taylor had complained that the police “made light of” the incident and his willingness to bypass Loftie may have been due to his knowledge of recent events at Eucla and at Cocanarup.
Six months earlier the telegraph station master at Eucla, G.P. Stevens had taken a statement from Geordie, a Mirning man, which he was to forward later to Loftie, as Chief Protector of Aborigines in the district, and which was the basis of a report made by Constable Truslove . Truslove accused the Kennedy brothers and William McGill of a “wholesale system of murder of natives” on their sheep run at Mundrabilla . The Superintendent of Police in Perth thought it was of “sufficient importance” to pass it on to the Governor, Sir William Robinson, who expressed the hope that “Captain Smith will not lose sight of this case” . According to Stevens, Truslove was shown the graves of 16 natives .
Geordie, much later told his story to the young child Arthur Dimer who grew up to be a man of Ngadju and Mirning descent who, in his 70’s, told it Peter Gifford in 1993 . Gifford was able to uncover the few documents relating to this mass murder. He cannot “excuse his [Loftie’s] inaction” in response to repeated reports “over what were, in effect, accusations of multiple murder of Aboriginal people” by McGill and the Kennedy’s .
In March 1880, John Dunn, one of three brothers who had been running sheep at Cocanarup since 1872, was killed.
It was Granny Monkey’s [Ngurer] brother, Yandawalla, that killed Dunn, you know, for what he was doing to the women.
The truth was, Esmeralda Dabb was thirteen years old when Dunn raped her, and him and the overseer were busy satisfying themselves with the young girls and they locked all the old people up in the harness room…
They were shepherding sheep …and…having initiation ceremonies…she went and told the men…and… they come back and they speared him, they killed him. Yandawalla speared him, at Cocanarup.
Next day, when John still had not come back, he [Walter] and Robert set out to look for him. They followed tracks, lost them; found them again. It was two days before they came upon John’s body and signs of a scuffle. The body had a spear wound in the neck and bruising on the arms as though they had been held.
After much delay Yangala (Yandawalla) was put on trial in October 1881, based mainly on the evidence of Dartaban who had previously been accused of the murder by Yangala. “The Attorney-General told the jury the case rested solely on Dartaban’s evidence”. Yangalla was acquitted leaving the Dunn’s “stunned at the result” .
There is no evidence of when exactly the massacre that followed these events occurred but it seems likely that directly after the trial there would have been a strong motive. The following year, Walter and Robert, bought the women of the family, to see John’s grave. They stayed six months before returning to Albany . The brothers may have felt confident of their situation by then but it was misplaced as the following year in September the Noongar again attacked, James was ‘beaten and left for dead… Robert was also attacked by them, but he shot 2 of them Dead and wounded 3 more”
Many of the Noongar accounts claim that they were “given permission from the authorities”, they “got a permit to kill the seventeen people that were residents of that place”, they “bought back the wadjela farmers and two cops with guns” and that “the police were sent up from Albany” .
“Old Henry Dongup…reckoned that altogether there was over thirty people that were killed down there.” All the people living at Cocanarup were killed except for a couple of children (the impact can be traced in genealogies recorded by Daisy Bates and Gerhard Laves ).
The popular “old school” Loftie’s brother-in-law was Maitland Brown who, in 1865, was hailed as a hero for leading a punitive expedition that killed at least 15 people in revenge for the murder of three explorers at Moola Boola . In his first year as Resident Magistrate and Protector of Aborigines in Albany, it would appear that he has ignored one report of a massacre at Fraser Range and possibly actively encouraged another at Ravensthorpe. It is little wonder that Campbell Taylor, felt motivated to send telegrams and strongly worded letters of complaint in February 1882.
In 1883, Albany residents dislike of “newcomers” and resentment towards Perth found voice in the new Albany Mail. They dreamt of separating from W.A. and annexing to S.A . A viewpoint shared by McGill and the Dempster brothers who had taken up the first leases at Esperance Bay in 1865 .
The Dempsters in 1880 had demanded an apology from the Colonial Secretary when he issued a circular banning the practice of “imprisoning natives on the islands” . They claimed that, “our conduct towards natives generally has been such as to merit esteem from the natives and praise from the public in general” . By 1870, the Dempsters had already twice reported to the Colonial Secretary Barlee that it had been “necessary in self defence to take an Aboriginal life”. They were forgiven “so long as no complaint is preferred.” The Dempsters claimed throughout that they had “very little trouble with the natives” . In 1883 outraged when Loftie connived with the Dempsters by giving them “an authority in blank” to care for “sick natives afflicted with measles” enabling the Dempster’s to charge the Government ₤291 for care that Constable Truslove reported to be greatly exaggerated. The Albany Mail accused the Government of short changing Albany by “thousands of pounds per
By 1890, after 10 years of Loftie’s protection, the Noongar population of Albany was reduced to six who dutifully attended the celebrations of Colonial independence (see below). In 1881, Loftie reported that there were 9 “exclusive of course of those in employ of householders who … would appear in the census” but Loftie was clearly in the business of under-reporting, in the same report he states “It is known that there are a few wild natives between Esperance and York but impossible to return the number – not exceeding 50.” Much later, in 1992, it was claimed that these were the last of the tribe (LOTT) and that the 800 or so Noongar residents recorded in the 1991 Census were from ‘elsewhere’ , although at least 33 Noongar burials are recorded in the Albany Memorial Park Cemetery between 1900 and 1935 . What is clear from the record is that many Noongar people had retreated from the town and the hostility that had developed towards them from the 1870’s on. Fanny Taylor, Campbell’s mother records in her diary in 1873 “[Candyup] Bobby came out but bought us no letters; he is afraid to go to town as Mr McGill is said to be in Albany" .
Resistance 1830 - 1890
The events of the 1880’s did not occur in a vacuum. Noongar resistance along the south coast to the spread of colonial settlement follows a pattern that is, in retrospect, evident in the record from the earliest days of colonization. Wadjelas were cautiously evaluated as they moved into new country, an initial test was how they responded to an offer of guidance through local territory . The consequences of cattle and sheep on native pasture and their kangaroo herds were clear from the beginning to both sides.
The Noongar would demonstrate both their numbers and authority to the newcomers, a late afternoon or evening visit usually timed to occur when the men (and their guns) were absent and only women or servants were around was made. At the same time raids leading to the destruction of sheep or stores in significant quantities occurred.
The guerrilla war that followed was mediated by Noongar ideas of payback and individual honour as well as organised resistance . The front line troops were wadjela shepherds and Noongar women and the war was as much about women’s bodies as it was about men’s land. It is striking how this frontline, so much in evidence between 1840 and 1890 on the south coast, is the progenitor of the policies and politics of the early 20th Century.
The Dempsters had ‘pioneered’ the Esperance region in 1866 and had initially settled at Menbrunup on Esperance Bay. By 1873 they had reported to the authorities on three separate occasions that it was ‘necessary in self-defence to take an Aboriginal life’ and in that year “runners with a maintch stick … collected about a hundred men, women and children…” to raid Dempster’s and drove off “between 300 and 400 young weaners” .
Biggins suggests that this is a “new tactic” but it was first employed on the south coast in 1839 against Sir Richard Spencer’s farm on the Hay River when he lost "300 fine toothed ewes and all the lambs out of 500” . It was a tactic designed to forestall the newcomer, at the same time these new farms were besieged as the local Noongar made clear their proprietary rights.
At Augusta in January 1834 Fannie Bussell records “We had a visit or rather an invasion from a number of natives… they seemed well aware of our unprotected situation, demanding bread in a tone of great authority…” Later at Vasse in 1837, her sister Bessie wondered “How will all these wars and rumours end!” It was to end in bloodshed with mass murders in 1837 and 1840. After the first massacre, (over the killing of a calf) her sister Bessy wrote ‘9 were killed and two wounded. No one in the house looks or speaks like themselves’ and after the second she wrote ‘ I fear more women were slain than men...Three women, one man, one boy are known to be dead, but more are supposed to be dying’
At the Hay River in 1840, Spencer wrote “they came in great numbers about the house towards the close of evening” and at Kendenup in 1841, Hassell wrote “the natives have assembled to an alarming number” . However, John Hassell was quick to recognize the value of diplomacy alongside force majeure and, whereas others were all too willing to preach the value of communal punishment following the putative success of the Pinjarra massacre , he recognized the virtue of protecting and rationing those in the immediate vicinity whose land he had usurped while hiring shepherds who were capable of ‘gross acts of brutality’ and who became his front line in the ongoing guerrilla war . This enabled Hassell to report that there were a ‘great many well inclined natives towards the white people… [and to request that] several native constables be made in the district’
It established a pattern. Shepherds became the expendable front line troops in the war against the Noongar. They were often charged with crimes for their actions although rarely successfully prosecuted. The loss of hunting grounds forced Noongar families to work for rations on the farms and enabled the colonists to divide and conquer. By 1840, most districts had two or more native constables who became crucial in the pursuit of the Noongar resistance. But these men risked everything, in 1847 “300 natives carrying fire beside their spears” surrounded a soldier’s house at Kojonup, they were after Bimbert and his brother George who usually stayed with them. The brothers escaped and apparently prospered but with their bridges burnt forever.
On the Noongar side, women became the front line and the war was fought over the right to their bodies. John Dunn was murdered because “the [Dunn] men were messing around with the women” . The ownership and abuse of Noongar women is a constant theme in the documented conflicts along the south coast. In 1862, Anne Camfield and others petitioned the Governor to change the law to make it a criminal offence “for either black or white to take or retain a native woman contrary to the consent of her husband ” because “in this district…the greater part of the serious crime committed by the natives has originated in this manner” .
Suspicion undermined many well intentioned people. Bobbinet went from being a trusted employee of the Graham’s at Eticup (south east of Kojonup) in 1865, to being a hunted murderer ten years later . Bobbinet was accused participating in the murder of a Noongar shepherd called Jacky Mullish in 1874. According to Bill Baker in 1953 newspaper article, he was a “red ragger” who “had always resented the intrusion of the white man” , but according to his family he was framed. The family history accords more with the facts in the contemporary record.
According to the trial record, Lance Corporal Armstrong and trooper Michael Fahey visited a shepherd’s camp at Beenup Swamp early on the morning of 13 January 1875 where Bobbinet was rumoured to be staying. He along with 6 other Noongar men were in the company of Donald McKellar, a shepherd. McKellar had entrusted Bobbinet with his rifle the previous Wednsday. Armstrong rode into the camp with his gun loaded and bailed up, at Fahey’s direction, a “native I [Fahey] have since found is called Bob Guarich” . Bobbinet had grabbed one of the three loaded guns in the camp and fatally shot Armstrong. Fahey was vilified by the police force and dishonourably discharged thus preventing any alternative view to Armstrong’s ‘heroic deed’ . Bobbinet was captured after a full scale manhunt which, according to Baker, was to result in “a trial with all the trimmings and an execution” He was caught by Constable John McGlade and was hanged in Perth, before his execution he apologized for the murder of Armstrong and prayed for forgiveness . His two children were sent to Swan Native Home and his wife Lucy remarried .
Whether or not Bobbinet was on the side of the resistance, it was still active. In 1880, when ‘notorious hut robbers’, Youngie and Tommy shot a man named George Smith east of the Williams River, the posse of four police, several farmers and trackers that pursued them returned wounded and dispirited, having caught only one out of the six in the gang ( which included three women) after 9 days and a shoot out in the marlock scrub . The resistance was not easily quelled.
While the displacement of kangaroo by cattle and sheep, exacerbated by the hunting and export of kangaroo skins, forced the Noongar to depend upon the colonists’ largesse, in 1841 and 1842 another threat emerged. American whalers arrived en masse on the south coast and decimated the population of Southern Right Whales . The coastal people had opportunistically exploited strandings and, latterly, the waste of the whalers as a source of food. In April 1844 the Government Resident wrote, “this season this source has failed them” .
The consequences were quickly bought home to the residents of Albany. Norn, Denin, Bobby and Wylie (the latter on a native constable’s rations for his assistance to Edward Eyre) staged a series of raids over a period of six weeks on every available store of food in the town . So effective was this action that there only rice available by August. Local trackers refused to co-operate and the Resident was forced to send to York for Mr Drummond, the feared ‘protector’ of natives. . However the ringleaders had given themselves up before he arrived, cheerfully admitting in court to their part in the various crimes. Denin cheekily told the court that he was ‘asleep during the robbery of sugar from Mr Warburton’s station but another man put some of it in his mouth’ .
Although various terms in Rottnest were meted out, it is clear that the Noongar men involved were aware of the political implications of their action. Indeed Norn was to become one of the most well known figures around Albany, and, in 1890, on the occasion of colonial independence, petitioned the crown reminding his Excellency “that in the year 1829, all of this country belonged to my tribe…Since that time we have been gradually deprived of our hunting grounds and nearly all our kangaroos have been killed by the white man” He may also have been the pseudonymous Kyan Gadac who wrote in 1855 to the Colonial Secretary “There is a tract of land in this colony which time out of mind belonged to me and my ancestors. I can point out its marks and boundaries and no blackfellow ever disputed my right…it is true I have no title deeds but undisputed occupation, when continued for a long series of years, you white men I believe, consider a just title.” Both petitions ask for blankets and flour - rent in other words.
The colonial perception of peaceful settlement at Albany owes much to the early interactions between a young man, Mokare, and various early officials. Mokare was an uninitiated man with a great facility for language and the nephew of the local landowners at the time of colonization. De Sainson, Nind, Barker, Wilson and Collie left descriptions of the Minang based upon their interaction with him . His role as an interpreter was pivotal in the survival of the colony but he paid a heavy price. He was ostracised by the wider community and he and his family were regarded with grave suspicion for their apparent alliance with the newcomers . Just prior to his departure Barker, the most perceptive of Mokare’s interlocutors was to write,
There are a few tribes or families of the Will's still trying to preserve peace, chiefly those who live nearest to this part, but the great majority have been stirred up to hostility by Patyarite(Woolangoli's cousin) who since his recovery, has been constantly going about exciting wrath & revenge & has persuaded the young men of some tribes to come from a great distance.(Feb 13, 1831)
The resistance had already begun.
“You know why there are no Aborigines living in Denmark [west of Albany], it’s because it’s taboo – there was a massacre”. It was said in a knowing smug voice in 1986 when I first moved to the south coast conveying a privileged confidence. Later on I discovered that there was at least one Noongar family living there, mistaken for Italians probably because of there surname and I could find no trace of any massacre. “The last Albany Aborigines died out around the turn of the century”, members of the local historical society assured me. There were 800 recorded in the 1987 Census and I’ve identified over 33 Noongar graves in the Albany Cemetery from 1890 to 1930 when many people had abandoned the town because of the persecution of Loftie and his ilk. The persecution only intensified over the next 40 years as Noongar people were corralled into concentration camps of Carrolup and Moore River unless they were able to secure work on farms and stay out of the towns which maintained a curfew against their presence until the 1950’s.
There was a massacre at Cocanarup near Ravensthorpe to the east of Albany. “…and that’s why there are no Aborigines here and most of the locals think that’s just fine”, I was told recently, it was the malice that was the message. The massacre had only become a topic of public discussion in the last few years as local Noongar people have begun to record their history. The Noongar historians wanted it recorded and reconciled but the white descendants resile from this confronting possibility preferring the opiate of forgetfulness to the thorns of haunted memory.
The history wars are personal, my family is chasing DNA tests to prove that they have a touch of Aboriginality – preferring to forget that their pioneering ancestor, Harry Broome, left his DNA in the descendants of the Yorta Yorta women he raped before he died, slowly, from tertiary syphilis. The dementia enabled him to forget.
But this forgetfulness hides the knowledge that an irrevocable bridge has been crossed and as Bessie Bussell put it “no one in the house looks or speaks the same”.