On this day in history: The death of an Aboriginal resistance fighter

By Courtenay Rule 7 November 2013
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The Aboriginal legend who turned his back on the Europeans to incite a three-year guerilla warfare resistance.

HERE IN AUSTRALIA, WE’RE gradually rediscovering a deliberately forgotten side of our country’s history: the stories of active Aboriginal resistance to European invasion. One of the most compelling examples is that of Jandamarra, a young Aboriginal freedom fighter who met his death on this day in 1897.

Born in about 1873 in the Kimberley, Jandamarra worked on the white settlers’ newly established pastoral stations from a young age, becoming a talented stockman, a fluent English speaker, and a crack shot with a rifle. In his teens, he returned to his people, the Bunuba, to be initiated in traditional law. Growing up between these two worlds – Bunuba and European – he was eventually forced to make a fateful choice between the two.

During the 1880s and ’90s in northwest Australia, many Aboriginal people were jailed or driven off their lands for stealing livestock. Jandamarra too was imprisoned for spearing sheep. Soon, with his skills and local knowledge, he was recruited by the police as a tracker to hunt down other Aboriginal offenders. He became the right-hand man of Constable Bill Richardson, a white man whom Jandamarra had befriended when they worked on a station together. Then in October 1894, the two tracked down and captured a group of the Bunuba – Jandamarra’s own people.

That night, after speaking with his captured uncle – a Bunuba elder – Jandamarra made his decision. He shot his friend Richardson, returned to his people, and armed them with European weapons to begin a guerrilla war against the invaders.

FOR NEARLY THREE YEARS, Jandamarra eluded capture as he and his followers raided properties and harassed settlers, while the police tried to crush the rebellion, often indiscriminately killing Aboriginal people who had nothing to do with Jandamarra. He became legendary for his ability to disappear without trace, and Aboriginal people held that only a man with similar magical powers could defeat him.

Finally, the police found their man in Micki, an Aboriginal tracker from the Pilbara. With his help, they tracked Jandamarra to his hideout in the Napier Range. On 1 April 1897, the Bunuba resistance ended when Jandamarra was shot dead.

More than a century later, Jandamarra’s name is kept alive by his people. Bunuba elder June Oscar told the ABC TV history program Rewind in 2004: “The story of Jandamarra in the Bunuba is a very, very important part of our history. And it’s helped to shape the people that we are today.”

The Bunuba people have collaborated with historians and dramatists to present Jandamarra’s story in an award-winning book and a stage play, which sold out its premiere season in Perth in 2008. The producers now plan to stage the play in Jandamarra’s own country of the Kimberley in 2011.