Jandamarra - An Aboriginal Hero

The story of Jandamarra is a tale worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. In 2008, his story was told in a stage play co-produced by Bunuba Films and the Black Swan Theatre Company. This was first performed at the Perth International Arts Festival and showed Jandamarra as a compelling tragic hero, caught between two worlds.

Jandamarra (Tjandamurra) was an indigenous Australian who led an organised revolt against European settlement in Australia. He was also known as Pigeon by the Europeans.

Few of the insurrections of aborigines against white settlers were documented and information is sketchy about most, and often slanted in its view. Jandawarra is remembered by indigenous Australians as a great warrior, a 'Jalgangurru' or man bestowed with spiritual powers.

King Leopold RangesCredit: Wikimedia

Jandamarra was of the Bunuba people and was born around 1873. The land of the Bunuba people is in the southern part of the Kimberley region, in the far north of Western Australia, stretching from Fitzroy Crossing to the King Leopold Ranges and taking in the Napier and Oscar Ranges. About the time Jandamarra was born, pastoralists were pushing the frontiers of civilisation into the Kimberleys, carving out cattle and sheep stations and settlements throughout the lands regarded by the Bunuba as theirs.

When Jandamarra was around 11 years of age, he and his mother came to live on Lennard River Station. Jandamarra learnt to ride and shoot, becoming proficient in both. He was soon speaking English fluently.

However he returned to the bush and lived a traditional life until caught in a police raid and jailed in Derby for stealing sheep. When he was freed, he worked at Lillimooloora (Lillimilura) Station with an Englishman called Bill Richardson.

Jandamarra and Richardson established a close but uneasy friendship. In the 1890s, Richardson joined the police force taking Jandamarra along as his native tracker. Like most of the indigenous people of the area, Jandamarra was an expert tracker.

As a tracker, he helped capture many of his own people and watched as they were taken off to gaols miles away. Many were never seen again.

Richardson and Jandamarra were regarded as an outstanding team with Jandamarra being treated as an equal. This was highly unusual for those times. He gained a reputation as one who flouted kinship and skin laws of the indigenous people.

One day Richardson and Jandamarra took in a group of aborigines for spearing a sheep. One of the men was Jandamarra's uncle, Ellemarra. Ellemarra escaped. Suspicion fell on Jandamarra for releasing him; however Richardson swore Ellemarra has snapped his chains.

Later, during a patrol through the Napier Ranges in the West Kimberley, a group of aborigines were captured. Almost all the most senior Bunuba elders and leaders were in the group. One of the group was Ellemarra. The men and women were detained at the Lillimooloora Police Post. Jandamarra was unable to cope with seeing his own people locked up and loyalty to his fellow tribesmen took over. On the night of 31 October, 1894, he gunned down Richardson, stole guns and ammunition and set his tribesfolk free.

A guerrilla war was about to begin. Jandamarra's first attack was on a group of five white men who intended to set up a large station in the middle of the Bunuba land. As they drove their cattle into the region, Jandamarra and some supporters attacked the group. Two of the men, Burke and Gibbs, were killed. It was November 1894. So the 'Bunuba War' began. It was the first organised attack against white settlers. When news got back to Derby and Broome of the attack, the settlers were outraged. Around 30 heavily armed police and civilians set out to capture the group.

Windjana GorgeCredit: Wikimedia - Author Peter C. Espenschied (Pc-espe at de.wikipedia)

The aborigines were found in Windjana Gorge. Jandamarra was wounded but escaped. Indiscriminate reprisal killings by the troopers now took place throughout the Fitzroy River valley. This was done in a mostly random fashion with many blacks killed, purely on suspicion that they were involved in some way with Jandamarra's 'army'. This was normal practice at the time.

The Bunuba changed their tactics and began to target property, stock and crops. They harassed and stalked the pastoralists but without taking lives. The progress of pastoral expansion was severely hampered by their activities.

Over the next three years, Jandamarra's prowess became the stuff of myth and legend. His ability to hit and run, then to disappear became legendary. Although police could follow him to his hideout at Tunnel Creek, he would disappear, supposedly into thin air. Many years later, a collapsed section on the creek was discovered which allowed entry and egress from the top of Napier Range.

The superstitious aborigines began to believe Jandamarra was immortal, a spirit being who materialised from a water soak near Tunnel Creek. The pursuing police were also in awe of his toughness and disappearing feats as he regularly escaped through the ranges bare-footed while their boots were cut to ribbons by the rocks.

Jandamarra's downfall came when police recruited Micki (also cited as Mingo Mick). Micki was also believed to have magical powers and was renowned as a tracker. Police abducted his children, forcing Micki to help them. Micki was not a Bunuba man so didn't have allegiance to the Bunuba. He was also not in awe of Jandamarra. Micki tracked Jandamarra to Tunnel Creek and shot him dead on 1 April, 1897.

The troopers severed Jandamarra's head as proof of his death. The head was preserved and sent to a firearms company in England. A second head, labelled Jandamarra, was put on public display in Perth. His people placed his body inside a boab tree in the Napier Range area.

In 1952, Ion Idriess wrote of Jandamarra's life in Outlaws of the Leopold. In 1972, Mudrooroo wrote Long Live Sandawarra. This was written for an indigenous audience to inform them of the heroic actions of Jandamarra. The story incorporates Jandamarra's story (Sandawarra in the book) and that of an urban lad Sandy.

Howard Pedersen recently wrote the award-winning Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance which was adapted into the stage play.