CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains depictions of violence that may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s December 1831 in the Swan River Colony in Western Australia.
A British servant named Thomas Smedley works in the fields of his employer’s farm. As he swings his scythe through heads of golden wheat… he hears some commotion from the nearby chicken coop. Smedley looks in that direction.
He sees that a group of Aboriginal men have broken into the enclosure – where they’re now helping themselves to the poultry. Smedley also sees several more indigenous people raiding the potato crops in the neighboring field. He narrows his eyes, and strides to the field’s edge, where his flintlock musket is resting against the trunk of a eucalyptus tree. Smedley picks up the weapon… and cocks back the hammer.
Slowly, Smedley approaches the Aboriginal men, his musket raised. Once he’s within earshot… he yells at them to get off the property.
The men look up. But if they’re alarmed by the sight of the musket, they don’t show it. And they don’t obey Smedley’s demand either. They simply turn their backs and continue collecting chickens and potatoes.
Smedley shifts uncomfortably, unsure how to proceed. He expected the Aboriginals to just run. He tries again, calling out: “I’m warning you!” But again, they ignore him. Smedley is getting angry now. If these thieving savages won’t listen – he thinks, he's gonna make them. He closes one eye and raises his musket...
Smedley’s aim is true. One of the Aboriginals falls to the ground, riding in pain. The rest of the natives turn and stare at Smedley, their eyes filled with rage. Smedley grips his musket; his hands tremble as he realizes he’s heavily outnumbered.
Smedley begins to frantically reload his musket. But the Aboriginals don’t rush him. They slowly back away toward the treeline close by and disappear into the forest. Only one man remains in the open, standing and staring. He is tall and muscular, his bare torso tattooed with tribal markings.
Smedley finishes loading his weapon and takes aim at the bare-chested native hoping to scare him off. But the man doesn’t run. He just calmly turns around and disappears into the bush.
Established in 1829, the Swan River Colony is the first British settlement in Western Australia. When the settlers arrived, they believed the region was an empty, uncharted land on which to expand and glorify the British Empire. But the region was not empty. For 40,000 years, it has been home to the Noongar people, an Aboriginal Australian tribe with a rich culture, history, and language. And as the British colonists continue expanding their settlement, encounters with the Noongar will become increasingly violent. Soon, one Noongar warrior named Yagan will emerge as a hero of his tribe. In the face of foreign invaders, Yagan will stand up and fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, until his violent death at the hands of the British on July 11th, 1833.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 11th, 1833: Yagan: Death of a Freedom Fighter.
Act One: Blood for Blood
It’s August 12th, 1829 – four years before Yagan is killed.
On a riverbank in Western Australia, a group of British colonial administrators has gathered to lay the foundation stone for a new settlement. Among those assembled is Lieutenant James Stirling.
Stirling is a naval officer who led the first British expedition to Western Australia, exploring the region along the Swan River in the hopes of establishing a colony on its banks. Stirling and his party are not the first Europeans to set foot on Australia’s Western shore. Dutch merchants arrived here in the 17th century. But the land was originally deemed too inhospitable to colonize. But with the British settlement of Sydney in New South Wales now thriving, Stirling felt it was time to develop an outpost in the West; and Stirling was confident he was the man for the job.
Now, sweating in his stiff tailcoat and necktie, Stirling watches with pride as the Union Jack flag is hoisted above the clearing. He’s decided to call this new settlement Perth – after the city in his native Scotland.
Stirling and the colonists were not able to find a suitable foundation stone for their new community. So they decided to chop down a tree to mark the occasion. Today, the honor of swinging the ax is given to Mrs. Helena Dance, the wife of one of Stirling’s men. Mrs. Dance picks up the ax and approaches a young eucalyptus. As Mrs. Dance strikes repeatedly at the knotted trunk, shards of bark fly through the air. The colonists laugh and applaud as the tree finally topples to the ground, sending a flock of startled cockatoos flapping into the late winter sky.
But meanwhile… across the river – concealed in the shadows of the dense treeline – a group of Aboriginal people from the Noongar tribe watch in silence. Among them is an elderly man with long, graying hair – a tribal leader named Midgegeroo. Standing by Midgegeroo’s side is his son, the renowned warrior Yagan. The two men watch the colonists' strange, tree-chopping ceremony with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
The Noongar have inhabited this part of southwestern Australia for over 40,000 years. And by 1829, approximately 10,000 tribespeople still live in the region, hunting its wide river valleys and fishing along its rocky coastline. The Noongar have seen many white people come and go over the centuries. They don’t know where they come from – or where they go when they leave. But they have a name for them “djanga” or “white spirits”. To the Noongar, the djanga speak in a strange tongue. They wear strange clothes. And they practice bizarre rituals. But still, the Noongar have generally been welcoming to these visitors as they passed through.
Soon, though, it becomes clear that this latest group of djanga have no intention of leaving. Houses and farms spring up with the colonists developing the land along the Swan River into what will come to be known as the Swan River Colony. And as the colony grows, the white settlers begin encroaching onto the Noongar tribe’s hunting grounds, erecting fences and raising livestock. Pushed from their ancestral lands, and with no place to hunt, the Noongar are often forced into a desperate situation.
In December 1831, Yagan, his father, Midgegeroo, and a group of Noongar hunters sneak onto one of the colonists’ farms to steal chickens and potatoes. An English servant named Thomas Smedley shoots and kills one of the Noongar hunters. Yagan, his father, and the rest retreat to the safety of the trees. But watching his fellow tribesman murdered at the hands of a colonist leaves an indelible mark on Yagan. He flees from the incident determined to seek revenge.
A few days later, Yagan, Midgegeroo, and a group of warrior tribesmen approach the farm at dusk. As they creep through an adjacent field, fruit bats flash across the darkening sky, and the sound of crickets resonates from the surrounding bush. Silently, the warriors surround the farmhouse. They begin striking at the mud-brick walls with their spears, trying to break inside. Suddenly, the front door flies open, and Yagan sees a white man standing there, another servant, named Erin Entwistle. Yagan raises his spear and hurls the weapon with power and accuracy. Erin staggers backward.
A moment later, two pale young faces emerge from the gloomy threshold. Erin’s children stare in horror at their father’s blood-soaked corpse. Then they look up with wide eyes at the towering Aboriginal warrior looming over them, his face painted with tribal markings, a red and black feather protruding from his headband.
Yagan has no intention of killing the children. The murder of his kinsman has already been avenged; there is no need for further bloodshed. Yagan, Midgegeroo, and the others run off into the night. According to the principles of tribal law, killing a member of Thomas Smedley’s family group is not merely retribution, but justice– blood for blood. But the colonists will not see it this way. Instead, the murder of Erin Entwistle will cause outrage throughout the Swan River Colony, prompting colonial authorities to place a bounty on Yagan’s head, and sparking a deadly period of bloody violence.
Act Two: Arrest and Escape
It’s early October 1832 in Western Australia; two years before the death of Yagan.
As Yagan walks along the banks of the Swan River, he sees a fishing boat. Yagan instinctively raises his spear – but the fishermen insist they mean no harm. They hold up a loaf of bread and offer it to Yagan. The Noongar warrior is hungry, so he approaches the boat.
Over the last few months, relations between the local Aboriginal tribe and the British colonists have become increasingly fraught. And many colonists believe Yagan is responsible. So the authorities put a price on his head. And soon, word spread throughout the colony of the reward on offer for anyone who can capture Yagan – dead or alive. But Yagan doesn’t know he’s a wanted man. All he knows is that he and his people cannot hunt because of the presence of the white settlers. And he is desperate for something to eat.
Now, Yagan climbs aboard the fishing boat, enticed by the promise of bread. But as soon as Yagan boards the vessel, he realizes he’s fallen for a trap. The fishermen open their coats to reveal muskets hidden beneath. They quickly bind Yagan's wrists with rope and set sail for Fremantle – a colonial settlement at the mouth of the Swan River.
There, Yagan is marched through the streets toward the Round House prison. By now, Yagan’s infamy has spread throughout the colony. When the locals hear that Yagan has been captured, the streets fill with onlookers craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the fearsome Noongar warrior.
Yagan is thrown into a cell in the Round House. He looks around in puzzlement at this strange and unfamiliar environment. He approaches the bars of his cell and grips the cold metal with his hands. Anger rises in his chest. These white men have invaded his home, driven him from his ancestral lands, and subjected him to foreign laws alien to his culture. And for breaking those laws, they have put him in chains. Yagan rests his forehead against the iron bars and moans softly.
Meanwhile, colonial officials discuss what to do with the prisoner. In a meeting chaired by the governor of the colony, Lieutenant James Stirling, it’s decided unanimously that Yagan should be put to death. But during the discussion, one man steps forward in Yagan’s defense.
Robert Lyon is a British ethnographer tasked with studying the indigenous peoples of Australia. Robert is appalled by the Swan River colonists’ treatment of the local Aboriginal population. He argues that Yagan is not a common criminal, but rather a freedom fighter for his people. And as such, Robert argues, Yagan should be punished as a prisoner of war. Robert makes a passionate but reasoned plea. And ultimately, Governor Stirling is moved. He concedes and reduces Yagan’s sentence to exile on Carnac Island – a desolate out-crop six miles off the coast.
So in October of 1832, Yagan and two other indigenous prisoners are shipped to the isolated and windswept Carnac Island. There, they are locked in a rudimentary prison, and guarded by two disinterested officers. Robert Lyon is granted permission to supervise the prisoners, and using the time to study indigenous culture, he attempts to bridge the divide between the colonists and the natives.
As the weeks go on, Robert spends hours each day with Yagan, teaching him English and attempting to convert him to Christianity. Robert ultimately hopes to persuade Yagan to accept colonial authority. And gradually, Yagan does seem to soften to Robert. Robert is relieved, delighted, and vindicated in his belief that Yagan deserved more human treatment. He scorns the fools in the colonial administration who wanted to execute Yagan as if violence ever solved anything. Instead, Robert thinks proudly, through kindness and education, I have turned a savage into a gentleman.
On November 15th, Robert heads to the prison building for his morning lessons with the captives. But as he approaches the facility, he notices movement down on the beach. It’s Yagan and the two other prisoners. Somehow, they’ve broken free and stolen a small boat. With a jolt of panic, Robert races down to the shoreline to halt their escape. He calls out to Yagan to stop, but it’s too late; the boat is already beyond earshot. Deflated, Robert watches as the boat recedes to a mere speck on the horizon.
Immediately, Yagan returns to his homeland, but the colonial authorities do not give pursuit. They decide he’s already been punished enough for his crimes. In the months that follow, relations between the colonists and the Noongar begin to improve.
In January 1833, Yagan and several other tribespeoples meet with a delegation of white settlers on the outskirts of Governor Stirling's colony, Perth. The meeting takes the form of a traditional Aboriginal gathering or corroboree. Yagan and his kinsmen perform traditional dances and compete at spear-throwing. The atmosphere is one of convivial good cheer. And the Perth Gazettewill later describe Yagan as “the master of ceremonies'' who “acquitted himself with infinite grace and dignity.”
But the neighborly spirit will not last. Only months later, in April, Yagan and his father, Midgegeroo, will lead an ambush on a wagon train near Bull Creek, outside Perth. The raid will turn ugly, and two colonists will be killed in the struggle. In retaliation, the colonial authorities will capture Midgegeroo and execute the tribal leader by firing squad. With his father dead, Yagan will once again vow vengeance, ending all hope of a reconciliation between the Noongar and the colonists.
Act Three: Yagan’s Head
It’s July 11th, 1833.
Yagan leads a small group of Noongar warriors along the Swan River.
Back in April, Yagan and his father, Midgegeroo, led an ambush on a wagon train that resulted in two dead colonists. In retaliation, the colonial authorities captured Midgegeroo. And after a brief show trial, they executed the tribal leader.
But Yagan didn't know it. He knew his father had been captured. But he didn’t know where he'd been taken, or of his ultimate dark fate. Trying to find more information, Yagan walked onto the property of a colonist named George Fletcher Moore. But Yagan was not looking for a fight. He only wanted to know where his father was. But Moore lied to him, telling Yagan that his father had been arrested and was awaiting trial on Carnac Island. Yagan looked Moore in the eye and in broken English warned: “if the white man shoots his father, Yagan will kill three white men.” And with that, he turned and vanished.
Today, months later, Yagan stalks along the Swan River, scanning the bush for signs of danger. Suddenly, he stops. He sees two white teenage boys herding cattle on the river bank. The boys turn and see the Noongar warriors, who brandish their spears. But Yagan calms down his men. He can see that they are merely children and no threat.
The teenage boys – brothers William and James Keates – approach the Noongar. They recognize Yagan and tell him that the area is crawling with colonists seeking his capture, dead or alive. The brothers invite Yagan to shelter with them until it’s safe to continue on. Hesitantly, the great warrior agrees. But as soon as the Noongar lower their spears, William and James produce pistols. Yagan backs away slowly. But just as he’s about to turn and run, William pulls the trigger - shooting Yagan dead.
The brothers quickly mount their horses and ride away. But they can’t outrun the Noongar spears. One of Yagan’s kinsmen takes aim and throws his weapon, piercing William through the chest and killing him instantly. James manages to escape by abandoning his horse and swimming across the river to safety. He’s lost his brother, but he proclaims the news of Yagan’s death and claims the reward.
Yagan was one of the first resistance fighters to stand up for Aboriginal rights against the colonizing British. Yagan’s murder is part of a long, and troubled history of colonial aggression and dispossession that persists long after he’s gone.
Immediately after Yagan’s killing, his severed head is sent to England, where it is displayed at the Liverpool Museum as a curiosity. Over one hundred and fifty years later - in 1997 - a lobbying group of Noongar activists finally reclaim and repatriate Yagan’s head. On July 10th, 2010, following the creation of the Yagan Memorial Park in Western Australia, the warrior’s head is finally laid to rest; putting an end to a sad saga that began following Yagan’s murder on July 11th, 1833.
Next onHistory Daily.July 12th, 1804. American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, dies from a fatal wound he suffered during a duel with his longtime adversary, Aaron Burr.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Derek Behrens.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.