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Portrait of Yagan by George Cruikshank.This portrait was painted from observations of Yagan's severed head, which had shrunk substantially during smoking. According to George Fletcher Moore, it bears little resemblance to the living face of Yagan, which was "plump, with a burly-headed look about it."
Portrait of Yagan by George Cruikshank.
This portrait was painted from observations of Yagan's severed head, which had shrunk substantially during smoking. According to George Fletcher Moore, it bears little resemblance to the living face of Yagan, which was "plump, with a burly-headed look about it."

Yagan ( IPA: [ˈjæɪgən]; rhymes with pagan) (c. 1795– 11 July 1833) was a Noongar warrior who played a key part in early indigenous Australian resistance to European settlement and rule in the area of Perth, Western Australia. After he led a series of attacks in which white settlers were killed, a bounty was offered for his capture dead or alive, and he was shot dead by a young settler. Yagan's death has passed into Western Australian folklore as a symbol of the unjust and sometimes brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples of Australia by colonial settlers.

Yagan's head was removed and brought to London, where it was exhibited as an "anthropological curiosity". It spent over a century in storage at a museum before being buried in an unmarked grave in 1964. In 1993 its location was identified, and four years later it was exhumed and repatriated to Australia. Since then, the issue of its proper reburial has become a source of great controversy and conflict amongst the indigenous people of the Perth area. To date, the head remains unburied.

Yagan's life

Early life

A member of the Whadjuk Noongar people, Yagan belonged to a tribe of around 60 people whose name, according to Robert Lyon, was Beeliar. Lyon's information is not entirely reliable, however, and it is now thought that the Beeliar people may have been a family subgroup of a larger tribe that Daisy Bates called Beelgar. According to Lyon, the Beeliar people occupied the land south of the Swan and Canning Rivers, as far south as Mangles Bay. It is evident, however, that the group had customary land usage rights over a much larger area than this, extending north as far as Lake Monger and north-east to the Helena River. The group also had an unusual degree of freedom to move over their neighbours' land, possibly due to kinship and marriage ties with neighbouring tribes.

Yagan is thought to have been born around 1795. His father was Midgegooroo, an elder of the Beeliar people; his mother was presumably one of Midgegooroo's two wives. Yagan was probably a Ballaroke in the Noongar classification. According to Green, he had a wife and two children, but most other sources state that he was unmarried and childless. Described as taller than average with an impressive burly physique, Yagan had a distinctive tribal tattoo on his right shoulder which identified him as "a man of high degree in tribal law". He was generally acknowledged to be the most physically powerful of his tribe.

Relations with settlers

Yagan would have been about 35 years old in 1829 when British settlers landed in the area and established the Swan River Colony. For the first two years of the colony, relations between settlers and Noongars were generally amicable, as there was little competition for resources, and the Noongars welcomed the white settlers as Djanga, the returned spirits of the Noongar dead. As time passed, however, conflicts between the two cultures gradually became more frequent. The settlers took the view that the Noongars were nomads with no claim to the land over which they roamed, and so they considered themselves free to fence off land for grazing and farming. As more and more land was fenced off, the Noongars were increasingly denied access to their traditional hunting grounds and sacred sites, so by 1832 Yagan's family group was unable to approach the Swan or Canning Rivers without danger, because land grants lined the banks. The Noongars' response to the loss of their hunting and gathering grounds was to take the settlers' crops and spear their cattle. They also developed a taste for the settlers' food, and their constant theft of flour and other food supplies became a serious problem for the colony. Another cause of conflict was the Noongar practice of firestick farming, firing the bush to flush out game and encourage germination of undergrowth, which threatened the settlers' crops and houses.

The first significant Aboriginal resistance to white settlement in Western Australia occurred in December 1831 after Thomas Smedley, a servant of farmer Archibald Butler, ambushed some natives who were raiding a potato patch, and shot dead one of Yagan's family group. A few days later, Yagan, Midgegooroo and others stormed the farmhouse and, finding the door locked, began to break through the mud-brick walls. Inside was another of Butler's servants, Erin Entwhistle, and his two sons Enion and Ralph. After hiding his sons under the bed, Entwhistle opened the door to parley and was instantly speared to death by Yagan and Midgegooroo. Noongar tribal law required that murders be avenged by the killing of a member of the murderer's tribal group, not necessarily the murderer. The spearing of Entwhistle may therefore be understood as retribution under tribal law, as the Noongars would have thought of Butler's household as a family group. The white settlers, however, saw the act as the unprovoked murder of an innocent man.

In June 1832 Yagan led a party of Aborigines in an attack on two labourers who were sowing a field of wheat alongside the Canning River near Kelmscott. One of the men escaped, but the other, William Gaze, was wounded and later died, possibly through infection of the spear wound. In response to this, Yagan was declared an outlaw with a reward of £20 offered for his capture. Yagan managed to avoid capture until early October 1832, when a group of fishermen enticed Yagan and two of his friends into their boat, then pushed off into deep water. The three Noongars were initially taken to the Perth guardhouse, then later transferred to the Round House at Fremantle. Yagan was sentenced to death, but he was saved by the intercession of a settler named Robert Lyon, who argued that Yagan was defending his land against invasion, and was therefore not a criminal but a prisoner of war, and was entitled to be treated as such. At the recommendation of John Septimus Roe, Yagan and his friends were instead exiled on Carnac Island at the Governor's pleasure, under the supervision of Lyon and two soldiers.

Lyon was convinced that he could civilise Yagan and convert him to Christianity, and hoped to use his tribal standing to obtain the Noongars' acceptance of white authority. To this end Lyon spent many hours with Yagan learning his language and customs. However, his efforts were cut short when, after a month, Yagan and his companions escaped by stealing an unattended dinghy and rowing to Woodman Point on the mainland. No attempt was made to recapture the men; apparently, the Government considered that they had been sufficiently punished.

In January 1833 two Noongars, Gyallipert and Manyat, visited Perth from King George Sound, where relations between settlers and natives were amicable. Two settlers, Richard Dale and George Smythe, arranged for the men to meet a party of local Noongars in the hope that it might encourage the same friendly relations in the Swan River Colony. On 26 January Yagan led a group of ten formally armed Noongars in greeting the two men near Lake Monger. The men exchanged weapons and held a corroboree, though neither group seemed to understand the language of the other. Yagan and Gyallipert then competed at spear throwing, Yagan striking a walking stick from a distance of 25 metres.

Gyallipert and Manyat remained in Perth for some time, and on 3 March, Yagan obtained permission to hold another corroboree, this time in the Post Office garden in Perth. The Perth and King George Sound men met at dusk, chalked their bodies, and performed a number of dances including a kangaroo hunt dance. The Perth Gazette wrote that Yagan "was master of ceremonies and acquitted himself with infinite grace and dignity".

During February and March, Yagan was involved in a series of minor conflicts with settlers. In February settler William Watson complained that Yagan had pushed open his door, demanded a gun, and taken handkerchiefs, and that Watson had had to give him and his companions flour and bread. The following month, he was among a group who received biscuits from a military contingent under Lieutenant Norcott; when Norcott tried to restrict his supply, Yagan threatened him with his spear. Later that month, Yagan was with a group of Noongars that entered Watson's house while he was away. The group left after Watson's wife called on neighbours for help, but were brought back the next day to be lectured about their behaviour by Captain Ellis. The constant conflict prompted The Perth Gazette to remark on "the reckless daring of this desperado who sets his life at a pin's fee ... For the most trivial offence ... he would take the life of any man who provoked him. He is at the head and front of any mischief."

Wanted dead or alive

On the night of 29 April, a party of Noongars broke into a Fremantle store to steal flour and were fired upon by the caretaker Peter Chidlow. Domjum, a brother of Yagan, was badly injured and died in jail a few days later. The rest of the party then moved from Fremantle to Preston Point, where Yagan was heard to vow vengeance for the death. Between fifty and sixty Noongars then gathered at Bull Creek, within sight of High Road, where they met a party of settlers who were loading carts with provisions. Later that day, the group ambushed the lead cart, spearing to death two white men, Tom and John Velvick. Tribal law only required a single death; the native Munday later explained that both were speared because they had previously mistreated Aboriginal people. The Velvicks had previously been convicted for assaulting Aboriginal people and coloured seamen. Alexandra Hasluck has also argued that a desire to steal the provisions was an important motive in the attack , but this has been refuted elsewhere .

For the killing of the Velvicks, the Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Irwin declared Yagan, Midgegooroo and Munday outlaws, offering rewards of £20 each for the capture of Midgegooroo and Munday, and a reward of £30 for Yagan's capture dead or alive. Munday successfully appealed against his proscription. Midgegooroo and Yagan must have realised that they would be hunted by settlers, as their group immediately moved from their territory north towards the Helena Valley. Four days after the murder, Midgegooroo was captured on the Helena River, and after a brief, informal trial was executed by firing squad. Yagan, however, remained at large for over two months.

Late in May, Yagan was seen by George Fletcher Moore on his property in Upper Swan, and the two held a conversation in pidgin English. Yagan then spoke in his own language; Moore wrote:

Yagan stepped forward and leaning with his left hand on my shoulder while he gesticulated with the right, delivered a sort of recitation, looking earnestly into my face. I regret that I could not understand it. I thought 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?

Since Moore had little knowledge of Yagan's native language, Hasluck suggests that this conjecture is probably more indicative of "a feeling of conscience on the part of the white men" than an accurate rendering of Yagan's state of mind.

Yagan then asked Moore whether Midgegooroo was dead or alive. Moore gave no reply, but a servant answered that Midgegooroo was a prisoner on Carnac Island. Yagan responded with a warning: "White man shoot Midgegooroo, Yagan kill three." Moore made no attempt to capture Yagan other than to report the sighting to the nearest magistrate; he wrote, "The truth is, every one wishes him taken, but no one likes to be the captor ... there is something in his daring which one is forced to admire."


Map of skirmish area showing gravesite and Henry Bull's mill
Map of skirmish area showing gravesite and Henry Bull's mill

On 11 July 1833, two teenage brothers named William and James Keates were herding cattle along the Swan River north of Guildford when a group of Noongars approached on their way to collect their rations of flour from Henry Bull's house. Being on friendly terms with Yagan, the Keates brothers suggested he remain with them to avoid arrest. Yagan remained with them all morning, during which time the boys decided to kill Yagan and claim the reward. William Keates tried once to shoot him but the gun stopped at half-cock; no further opportunity arose before they were rejoined by the other natives. When the natives attempted to depart, the Keates took their last opportunity. William Keates shot Yagan, and James shot another native, Heegan, in the act of throwing his spear. Both boys then ran for the river, but William was overtaken and speared to death. James escaped by swimming the river and returned shortly afterwards with a party of armed settlers from Bull's estate.

Moore records that a party of soldiers passed by the area shortly after the incident, and speculates that they must have "frightened the natives (I supposed) or they would have carried off the bodies". When the party of settlers arrived, they found Yagan dead and Heegan dying. Heegan "was groaning and his brains were partly out when the party came, and whether humanity or brutality, a man put a gun to his head and blew it to pieces." Yagan's head was then cut from his body, and his back was skinned to obtain his tribal markings as a trophy. The bodies were buried a short distance from where they had been killed.

James Keates successfully claimed the reward, but his actions were widely criticised; The Perth Gazette referred to Yagan's killing as "a wild and treacherous act ... it is revolting to hear this lauded as a meritorious deed." Keates departed the colony the following month; the reasons are unknown, but it is possible that he left from fear of being murdered in retaliation.

Yagan's head

Exhibition and burial

A portion of George Fletcher Moore's handwritten diary, showing sketches of Yagan's head.
A portion of George Fletcher Moore's handwritten diary, showing sketches of Yagan's head.

Yagan's head was initially taken to Henry Bull's house. Moore saw it there and sketched the head a number of times in his unpublished, handwritten diary, commenting that "possibly it may yet figure in some museum at home". The head was then preserved by smoking, by hanging it in a hollow tree over a fire of Eucalyptus wood for three months.

In September 1833 Yagan's head was taken to London by Ensign Robert Dale. According to Paul Turnbull, Dale appears to have persuaded Governor Irwin to let him have the head as an "anthropological curiosity" . After arriving in London, Dale approached a number of anatomists and phrenologists attempting to sell the head for £20, claiming that it was worth twice that much. Having failed to find a buyer, he then entered into an arrangement with Thomas Pettigrew for the exclusive use of the head for one year. Pettigrew, a surgeon and antiquarian who was well-known in the London social scene for holding private parties at which he unrolled and autopsied Egyptian mummies, displayed the head on a table in front of a panoramic view of King George Sound that was reproduced from Dale's sketches. For effect the head was adorned with a fresh corded headband and feathers of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.

Pettigrew also arranged for the head to be examined by a phrenologist. Examination was considered difficult because of the large fracture across the back of the head caused by the gunshot. The findings, which were predictably consistent with contemporary European opinion of Indigenous Australians, were published as part of a pamphlet by Dale entitled Descriptive Account of the Panoramic View &c. of King George's Sound and the Adjacent Country, which Pettigrew encouraged his guests to buy as a souvenir of their evening. The frontispiece of the pamphlet was a hand-coloured aquatint print of Yagan's head by the artist George Cruikshank.

Early in October 1835, both Yagan's head and the panoramic view were returned to Dale, who was then living in Liverpool. On 12 October he presented them to the Liverpool Royal Institution, where the head may have been displayed in a case along with some other preserved heads and wax models illustrating cranial anatomy. In 1894 the Institution's collections were dispersed, and Yagan's head was lent to the Liverpool Museum; it is thought not to have been put on display there. By the 1960s Yagan's head was badly deteriorated, and in April 1964 the decision was made to dispose of it. On 10 April 1964, Yagan's head was placed in a plywood box, along with a Peruvian mummy and a Māori head, and buried in Everton Cemetery's General Section 16, grave number 296. In later years a number of burials were made around the grave, and in 1968 a local hospital buried 20 stillborn babies and two babies who had lived less than twenty-four hours directly over the museum box.

Lobbying for repatriation

For many years, at least since the early 1980s, a number of Noongar groups sought the return of Yagan's head.

It is Aboriginal belief that because Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey.

It was unknown at that time, however, what had happened to the head after it left Pettigrew's possession. In the early 1980s, Ken Colbung was entrusted with the search for the head by tribal elders. In 1985 he engaged Lily Bhavna Kauler as a researcher, and a number of unsuccessful enquiries were made to various United Kingdom museums. In the early 1990s, Colbung enlisted the aid of University of London archaeologist Peter Ucko. One of Ucko's researchers, Cressida Fforde, was funded by the Government of Australia to conduct a literature search for information on the head. She successfully traced the head in December 1993, and in April the following year, Colbung applied for permission to exhume it under Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857. Home Office regulations required next of kin consent for the remains of the 22 babies to be disturbed, but Colbung's solicitors requested that this condition be waived on grounds that the exhumation would be of great personal significance to Yagan's living relatives, and great national importance to Australia.

Meanwhile, divisions in the Perth Noongar community began to show, with Colbung's role in the repatriation questioned by a number of elders, and one Noongar registering a complaint with the Liverpool City Council over Colbung's involvement. There was much acrimonious debate within the Noongar community about who had the best cultural qualifications to take possession of the head, some of which was publicly aired. On 25 July a public meeting was held in Perth, where all parties agreed to put aside their differences and co-operate to ensure that the repatriation was a "national success". A Yagan Steering Committee was established to co-ordinate the repatriation, and Colbung's application was allowed to proceed.

In January 1995 the Home Office advised Colbung that it was unable to waive the necessity of obtaining next of kin consent for the exhumation. It then contacted the five relatives whose addresses were known, receiving unconditional consent from only one. Accordingly, on 30 June 1995, Colbung and the other interested parties were advised that the application for exhumation had been rejected.

The Yagan Steering Committee then met on 21 September and decided to proceed by lobbying Australian and British politicians for support. This approach led to an invitation for Colbung to visit the United Kingdom at the British government's expense. Colbung arrived in the United Kingdom on 20 May 1997. His visit attracted substantial media coverage and increased the political pressure on the British Government. It also allowed him to secure the support of the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, after gate crashing the Prime Minister's June visit to the United Kingdom.


A horizontal colour contour map of ground conductivity of Yagan's grave site, showing an anomaly in the electromagnetic signature caused by metal artifacts buried with Yagan's head.
A horizontal colour contour map of ground conductivity of Yagan's grave site, showing an anomaly in the electromagnetic signature caused by metal artifacts buried with Yagan's head.

While Colbung was in the United Kingdom, Martin and Richard Bates were engaged to undertake a geophysical survey of the grave site. Using electromagnetic and ground penetrating radar techniques, they identified an approximate position of the box that suggested it could be accessed from the side via the adjacent plot. A report of the survey was passed to the Home Office, prompting further discussions between the British and Australian Governments.

Of concern to the Home Office were an undisclosed number of letters that it had received objecting to Colbung's involvement in the repatriation process; it therefore sought assurances from the Australian Government that Colbung was a correct applicant. In response Colbung asked his elders to ask the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to tell the British Home Office that he was the correct applicant. ATSIC then convened a meeting in Perth at which it was again resolved that Colbung's application could proceed.

Colbung continued to press for the exhumation, asking that it be performed before the 164th anniversary of Yagan's death on 11 July, so that the anniversary could be the occasion of a celebration. His request was not met, and on the anniversary of Yagan's death, Colbung conducted a short memorial service at the burial plot in Everton. He returned to Australia empty-handed on 15 July.

The exhumation of Yagan's head eventually proceeded, without Colbung's knowledge, by excavating six feet down the side of the grave, then tunnelling horizontally to the location of the box. Thus the exhumation was performed without disturbing any other remains. The following day, a forensic palaeontologist from the University of Bradford positively identified the skull as Yagan's by correlating the fractures with those described in Pettigrew's report. The skull was then kept at the museum until 29 August, when it was handed over to the Liverpool City Council.


On 27 August 1997, a delegation of Noongars consisting of Ken Colbung, Robert Bropho, Richard Wilkes and Mingli Wanjurri-Nungala arrived in the UK to collect Yagan's head. The delegation was to have been larger, but Commonwealth funding was withdrawn at the last minute. The handover of Yagan's skull was further delayed, however, when a Noongar named Corrie Bodney applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for an injunction against the handover. Claiming that his family group has sole responsibility for Yagan's remains, Bodney declared the exhumation illegal and denied the existence of any tradition or belief necessitating the head's exhumation and removal to Australia. Another Noongar, Albert Corunna, then came forward with a claim to be Yagan's closest living relative. The Supreme Court had no power to grant an emergency injunction binding the Government of the United Kingdom, so instead it asked the Government of Western Australia to object formally to the handing over of Yagan's remains. The United Kingdom Government responded favourably to the objection, agreeing to withhold the head until the injunction application had been considered. On 29 August the court rejected the injunction application, on the grounds that Bodney had previously agreed to the current arrangements, and on the evidence of another Noongar elder and an anthropologist, both of whom refuted Bodney's claim to sole responsibility.

Yagan's skull was handed over to the Noongar delegation at a ceremony at the Liverpool Town Hall on 31 August 1997. In accepting the skull, Colbung made comments that allegedly linked Yagan's death with the death of Princess Diana, who had died that day:

Because the Poms did the wrong thing they have to suffer. They have to learn too, to live with it as we did and that is how nature goes.

Colbung's comments prompted a media furore throughout Australia, with newspapers receiving many letters from the public expressing shock and anger at the comments. Colbung later claimed that his comments had been misinterpreted.

On its return to Perth, Yagan's head continued to be a source of controversy and conflict. Responsibility for reburial of the head was given to a "Committee for the Reburial of Yagan's Kaat", headed by Richard Wilkes. However the reburial was delayed by disputes between elders over the burial location, mainly due to uncertainty of the whereabouts of the rest of his body, and disagreement about the importance of burying the head with the body.

A number of attempts were made to locate the remains of Yagan's body, which are believed to be on a property on West Swan Road in the outer Perth suburb of Belhus. A remote sensing survey of the site was carried out in 1998, but no remains were found. An archaeological survey of the area was undertaken two years later, but this also was unsuccessful. Disputes then arose over whether the head could be buried separately from the body. Wilkes has claimed that it can, so long as it is placed where Yagan was killed, so that Dreamtime spirits can reunite the remains.

In 1998 the Western Australian Planning Commission and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs jointly published a document entitled Yagan's Gravesite Master Plan, which discussed "matters of ownership, management, development and future use" of the property on which Yagan's remains are believed to be buried. Under consideration was the possibility of turning the site into an indigenous burial site, to be managed by the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board.

To date, Yagan's head remains unburied. It spent some time in storage in a bank vault, before being handed over to forensics experts who reconstructed a model from it. Since then it has been in storage at Western Australia's state mortuary. Plans to re-bury the head have been deferred or delayed numerous times, and this has caused ongoing conflict between Noongar groups. The reburial committee have been accused of acting against the wishes of the Noongar community, by deferring its burial in the hope of making money out of it with elaborate parks and monuments. Richard Wilkes, however, says that the committee has direct kinship lines to Yagan, and wants the head to be buried properly, but has been delayed by searches and burial site negotiations. Alternative proposals have been put forward: for example, early in 2006 Ken Colbung called for the head to be cremated and the ashes scattered on the Swan River. In June 2006, Wilkes stated that the head would be buried by July 2007.

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