Archaeology: Strength in What Remains Behind

By Keys, David | The Independent (London, England), April 13, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology: Strength in What Remains Behind


Keys, David, The Independent (London, England)


AFTER a 30-year search, the missing head of a 19th-century Australian Aborigine leader has been traced to a cemetery in Liverpool, and the Australian government is now asking Britain to repatriate the remains.

The head, found in a mass grave in Everton Cemetery, is that of an early Western Australian Aborigine leader called Yagan, who was murdered in 1833 by teenage bounty hunters. His head was cut off and smoked (to preserve it) and subsequently brought to England by a friend of the colony's lieutenant governor.

Yagan's head was displayed in a museum in Liverpool, then put into storage, and finally discarded and buried in 1964 in a public grave. Now Australian Aborigines - backed by the Australian government - want the head exhumed so that it can be reburied in the same area where Yagan's body was interred 161 years ago.

Yagan's head was finally located by a Southampton University post-graduate, Cressida Fforde, who travelled almost 60,000 miles to comb 20 archives in Britain, North America and Australia. Her searches revealed large quantities of unpublished letters, diaries and other material which finally led her to Liverpool where she located the grave.

Ms Fforde's research has taken four years to complete, but the original quest for Yagan's head dates back to the 1960s, when a Western Australian Aborigine, Ken Colbung (who later became president of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies) - a descendant of Yagan's people - started the search.

Yagan himself was born around 1810, the son of an Aborigine leader called Midgegooroo. In 1831, Yagan was declared an outlaw by the colonial government, after murdering two servants of a local farmer in retaliation for the murder of an Aborigine by one of their colleagues.

A price - pounds 20 - was put on his head, and Yagan and two friends were captured by bounty hunters and exiled by the authorities to an island eight miles off the Western Australian coast. However, the trio managed to escape by commandeering a dinghy, and, apparently for political reasons (probably local security considerations), the case against them was unofficially dropped. Within a few months, Yagan staged an Aboriginal ceremony - a corroboree - in Perth, which was attended by Frederick Irwin - the colony's lieutenant governor - and other leading citizens.

The early 1830s were a watershed in Australian Aboriginal history. From the British colonisation in 1788 until around 1830, relations between the Aborigines and the relatively limited number of settlers was comparatively good. But expansion led to increased conflict between settlers and Aborigines.

In early 1833, several Aborigines including Yagan's brother, Domjum, were murdered near Perth, a settlement founded only four years previously. Domjum's head was cut off and displayed in a local newspaper office. In one incident, a group of Aborigines were massacred near Fremantle.

Aborigine law dictated that the murders had to be avenged in some way, so Yagan, his father and 50 other Aborigines made a retaliatory attack against one of the settlers who had been present at the massacre. The settler, John Velvick, was killed - and the lieutenant governor declared Yagan and Midgegooroo outlaws.

A former London police constable called Hunt was sent out into the bush to apprehend Yagan, dead or alive, for a reward of pounds 30. He failed to find Yagan - but did murder Yagan's uncle. Shortly afterwards, a posse of soldiers and settlers captured Yagan's father and 5-year-old brother. Midgegooroo was thrown into jail in Perth, where two days later, tied to the jail door, he was executed without trial. The boy was put in the care of a jailer in Fremantle.

The lieutenant governor issued a proclamation against settlers murdering Aborigines. However, Yagan was not covered by this announcement, as the previous proclamation had called for his capture, alive or dead.

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