Remembering Jandamarra: an Australian freedom fighter

Howard Pedersen’s book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance tells a forgotten story

Settler societies Australia and the US share much in common, including how they took the land from prior inhabitants. But while Native American heroes are part of the US pantheon, Australia does not accord the same respect to Indigenous people that fought invasion. Here the fiction remains the land was taken peacefully, implicit in recent statements by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that before colonisation, Sydney was “nothing but bush”.

Sydney, like the rest of Australia, was well populated before 1788 and local warriors like Pemulwuy fought hard against the “boat people” that took their land. Pemulwuy remains unknown as does another resistance leader in Western Australia. His white name was “Pigeon”, but he deserves to be known by his Bunuba name Jandamarra. Schooled in Indigenous and British ways, Jandamarra struck fear into a colony for three years, before falling to overwhelming force.

His home country, the Kimberleys, was a densely populated indigenous region with 30,000 people speaking 50 languages. They called their formidable dividing mountain ranges “Milawundi” but the first white explorer Alexander Forrest called them the King Leopold Ranges for the Belgian monarch who carved out an empire in Africa. Forrest wanted a similar empire for Britain in north-west Australia. Here rose the mighty river the Bandaral ngarri, which whites called the Fitzroy. Its source was the home of the Bunuba people who lived off fish, freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, turkeys, goannas, emus, snakes and bats that thrived in the lush region. Hunting was governed by strict religious and kinship traditions that ensured a plentiful supply survived across the generations.

The Bunuba lost their land at the stroke of a pen in London. In 1829 Captain James Stirling arrived on the Swan River claiming Western Australia for Britain. George Grey led a party to the north eight years later with a mission to “familiarise the natives with the British name and character”. Grey recommended a settlement which took 30 years to achieve.

At King Sound, the British founded the town of Derby. Land-hungry squatters from Victoria read Grey’s journals and came to graze sheep. Alarmed Perth leaders funded an expedition to Camden Harbour in 1864 where they found lands “equal to the best runs in Victoria”. The land grab began with ships arriving from Perth and Melbourne full of eager settlers. These first settlements were failures with many dying of fever and sunstroke. A few hardy sheep station owners held on despite high transport costs, a low wool price and a chronic lack of labour. Their economic salvation was the discovery of pearl shells abundant along the coast. Aboriginal divers were enslaved to dive deep and stay under water a long time to collect the shells. This trade gradually made European occupation profitable.

Forrest discovered the rich Fitzroy and Ord River valleys in 1879. The first settlers arrived within three years sparking a tit-for-tat war between white guns and Bunuba spears. Police chained black “suspects” and took them to Rottnest Island to be imprisoned or hanged. The Bunuba thought it was fair to take food from newcomers on their land. The settlers saw it as theft and shot and wounded Bunuba leader Ellamarra as a lesson. They disregarded Bunuba warnings about sacred places and allowed their sheep to foul waterways. Ellamarra was taken to Derby and sentenced to six month’s prison.

He escaped after five months. A police patrol surrounded him at a homestead but he escaped again, hurling curses before hiding in the hills. The magistrate blamed conscripted black trackers for the failure and hired two Bunuba prisoners as black troopers. They led police away from hiding grounds and secretly gave information to their own people. Frustrated pastoralists demanded terror to bring the blacks to heel. This was a dilemma for Perth bureaucrats who knew London didn’t like ill treatment of Aboriginal British subjects. The newspapers called for additional police saying the government couldn’t allow colonists to “be massacrers, but on the other hand cannot allow insecurity to chase investors away”.

Some Bunuba attached themselves to white homesteads, including Jandamarra’s mother. Her son was renowned for running speed and agility, traits that earned him the name Pigeon. Jandamarra was an accomplished stock worker, good with horses and shearing blades. He learned how to handle a gun and became an excellent marksman. Ellamarra was an early influence though he had been at large for three years before Jandamarra’s initiation. In 1889 Jandamarra unwittingly led police to the encampment where Ellamarra was hidden and Ellamarra was captured.

When three white gold seekers were killed in July 1892 there were calls for revenge. A white raiding party attacked a Bunuba camp and killed six men. Ellamarra negotiated a peace treaty but other tribes continued attacks throughout 1893.

Jandamarra was arrested for a small role in stock raids. For two years, he was sentenced to the Derby police stables where he tended horses. He returned to Bunuba country in 1891, a solitary figure isolated from countrymen and police. He was expelled from Bunuba society for sexual promiscuity and lived with white settler Bill Richardson. In 1894 Richardson was drafted by new police sub-inspector Overand Drewry who wanted good bushmen to hunt down the tribes that refused to conform to white ways. Richardson was assigned to the Lennard River police outpost and brought Jandamarra with him.

They were an effective unit patrolling a vast area of the Kimberleys. Within days they captured Ellamarra on a warrant of killing sheep. A JP sentenced Ellamarra to three years in a Derby prison but the wily leader escaped yet again after a few months. Richardson’s group captured him again but he broke the chain and escaped once more. Jandamarra may have been complicit in this escape.

Richardson still held 17 Bunuba chained for sentencing. But Jandamarra’s time had come. One of the 17 was Jandamarra’s brother-in-law Lilimarra. In the middle of the night Jandamarra released Lilimarra and they killed Richardson while he slept. They liberated the remaining prisoners and joined relatives camped nearby. Jandamarra collected firearms and waited to ambush drovers bringing cattle to water. The surprised stockmen would not believe their former friend Pigeon would shoot but he killed two while two others escaped. Their wagon contained a sizeable arsenal of weapons though few of Jandamarra’s men knew how to use them.

Word got back to Drewry who sent five constables and six black troopers. Perth MP Francis Connor demanded retribution be “swift, sharp and decisive.” The West Australian newspaper wanted a “sharp lesson be read to the whole band of murderers”. Drewry’s plan was more subtle: he prepared two Queensland Aboriginal servants to infiltrate the band and kill the leaders. However the Queenslanders turned tail, telling Jandamarra of the plan and returned claiming they could not find the Bunuba rebels.

Jandamarra broke his force into small armed parties and waited in ambush. Drewry also looked for surprise and 28 troopers manoeuvred around the Lennard River citadel for a dawn attack. Jandamarra outsmarted them hiding his men in caves with guns pointed at the police. Gunfire erupted but neither side would show themselves. The stalemate lasted eight hours until a bullet shattered Ellamarra’s back as he attempted to cross to Jandamarra’s cave. His death shook Bunuba confidence and the police trained fire on Jandamarra’s position. He was wounded while his people retreated through the caves under his rifle fire cover. Only six women and three children surrendered.

Jandamarra and the others escaped. The news shocked settler society expecting a quick end to the rebellion. The government sent men and weapons under experienced officer, William Lawrence, demoting Drewry. Lawrence said extreme measures were necessary. His men attacked an Aboriginal camp on the Margaret River killing 11 Gooniyandi men. He killed three more in the Milawundi foothills but decided the rugged terrain was too dangerous.

They roamed the region indiscriminately killing all Aboriginals not associated with homesteads. Two troopers massacred 20 Worrora at Oobagooma Station. After three months Lawrence reported to authorities the settlers were happy with his extreme response. The Roebourne newspaper said the blacks now “rightly understand the Mosaic law of a life for a life”. But the Bunuba remained undefeated.

Jandamarra was nursed back to health by his mother and wife and they moved 20km to Tunnel Creek where food was plentiful. Jandamarra was aware of the carnage though white Australians were not, with press coverage heavily censored. Only the Catholic Herald broke ranks accusing the government of “miserable slaughter”.

Premier John Forrest was unconcerned about the plight of the Aborigines but he was worried by British reaction. A report into the killing was a whitewash saying it was “absolutely needful”. The Bunuba lowlands were annexed but the ranges were renamed “Pigeon Country” where no white would dare go. Drewry’s claim Jandamarra was dead was proved false and the inspector resigned in May 1895. In October seven troopers ambushed Jandamarra at a waterhole but he survived again escaping into the caves. His wife and mother were captured. Jandamarra became more daring, taunting would-be captors.

He raided police quarters for food while troopers slept, his identity revealed by floury footprints. His cat-and-mouse game left police wary and fearful. False leads from prisoners added to the confusion. Police fears ammunition would fall into Aboriginal hands were futile as Jandamarra manufactured his own cartridges using captured gunpowder and molten lead for cast earthen bullets. Several times he was intercepted on visits to relatives at Lennard River Station only to escape, as if by magic.

Sub-inspector Ord wanted to wait until after the 1896 wet season before launching his counter-attack. But the commissioner in Perth demanded immediate action and Ord led a posse to Lennard River. For five days they hid in the police station but Jandamarra did not take the bait. He taunted them shouting down insults from the top of the ridge before disappearing for several months.

In June 1896 six Nyikina warriors escaped from Derby prison and returned to Noonkanbah homelands to attack white settlements. They lit fires fanned by hot winds on a 50 km front. Only the mudflats saved Derby from conflagration. Eventually Ord’s force tracked down the Nyikina and they shot nine dead.

Settlers searched for a route over the Milawundi, watched carefully by the rebels. It was a black trooper named Micki who swung the balance in favour of the police. At Christmas 1896 Micki captured Lilamarra as he visited relatives at Lennard River. The invasion of cattle in sacred places and food-gathering areas led to an attack on the Oscar Range homestead killing one stockman. Police from Fitzroy Crossing gave chase. There was a firefight and Jandamarra escaped again in a riddle of confusing tracks.

Ord swung the whole West Kimberley police force into action. Micki led the charge arresting five Bunuba in an hour. After five days the pursuers picked up Jandamarra’s tracks at what would be called Pigeon Creek. Micki and Jandamarra traded rifle fire in a foot race along a cliff face. Micki finally brought his man down as Jandamarra tried to escape. When a white policeman, Blythe tried to finish him off, Jandamarra shot back and disappeared in the long grass despite multiple gun wounds. In the morning the troops retreated to tend Blythe’s wounds, thinking Jandamarra was dead.

But as they got ready to leave, a shot rang out killing one man. The posse escaped using prisoners as a shield. Jandamarra was free but left a bloody trail and was without his women to nurse him back to health. Micki delivered the final blow in his cave. Jandamarra was dead.

White police claimed the credit and hacked Jandamarra’s head off to take to Perth. People paid to see the skull of the famous primitive warrior. But they were tricked. It was another black man’s head – Jandamarra’s skull had been sent to England as a trophy for an arms manufacturer.

The report into his death made no mention of Bunuba stolen lands or the massacres of their people. Jandamarra and his band were “outlaws” and police were enforcing the law. Pastoralists stocked up Kimberley properties, employing Bunuba as workers. Their descendants were sacked after the equal wage award of 1968 and most drifted to Fitzroy Crossing denied access to their own lands.

The tragedy of the Jandamarra story was colonisers unprepared to negotiate with traditional owners. The WA Government is still not prepared to recognise traditional ownership while Jandamarra’s story remains unknown.

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