Honouring early Aboriginal resistance

25 January 2019
Kim Bullimore

In April 1770, James Cook became the first European to see the east coast of the continent now known as Australia. Claiming the territory for Britain, he declared the land terra nullius, despite it being far from empty. As Cook sailed down the coast, his expedition was observed by the Dharawal, Eora, Bundjalung and other coastal peoples.

The subsequent European invasion of Aboriginal lands – and Aboriginal resistance to it – was well recorded by both Cook and botanist Joseph Banks. In his journals documenting the Endeavour expedition, Banks described Aboriginal warriors brandishing weapons, attempting to prevent the expedition from landing in what would become known as Botany Bay.

Banks notes that the warriors “remaind (sic) resolute” in their opposition to the landing party and “a musquet was fird over them”. Despite their initial fright at the gunshot, the warriors picked up their weapons to oppose the landing party.

According to Banks, only after more “musquet” shots were fired, wounding at least one warrior, were the British able to land. Cook similarly recorded the armed resistance, writing in his journal on 30 April 1770, “All they seem’d to want was for us to be gone”.

British colonial settlement, which officially began in 1788, was far more violent, hundreds of massacres being carried out against Indigenous communities resisting European encroachment. A conservative estimate by historian Henry Reynolds puts the number of Indigenous deaths in the frontier wars, which lasted from 1788 until as late as the mid-1930s, at 30,000. Researchers Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen put the figure at 60,000 for Queensland alone.

Between 1788 and 1900, about 90 percent of an estimated 750,000 Aboriginal population was wiped out. But resistance was widespread, and deserves to be remembered and honoured. Here are the stories of just a handful.


One of the earliest Aboriginal resistance leaders, Pemulwuy, led a guerrilla war against British invasion from 1790 until his death in 1802. A Bidjigal man whose country encompassed the area in and around Botany Bay, he united several of the Eora clans. Burning huts and crops, Pemulwuy’s war bands also plundered livestock.

The lieutenant governor of New South Wales, David Collins, described Pemulwuy as “a most active enemy to the settlers, plundering them of their property, and endangering their personal safety”. However, he also noted that the attacks were often “payback” for atrocities committed by the British settler-colonists, including the kidnapping of Aboriginal children.

In 1797, Pemulwuy led 100 Aboriginal warriors in an attack on a government farm at Toongabbie. The following day, a settler hunting party tracked down the warriors, killing at least five and capturing Pemulwuy, who had been shot seven times. Despite the severity of his injuries, he escaped from the hospital where he was being held captive.

In May 1801, governor Philip King, to drive back the “hordes of natives” around Parramatta, the Georges River and Prospect Hill, ordered that Aborigines be shot on sight. Six months later, he announced a reward of 20 gallons of rum and two new suits of clothing for the capture of Pemulwuy. On 1 June 1802, Pemulwuy was shot dead. King had his body decapitated and sent his preserved head to Joseph Banks in England.

As European settler-colonisation spread, so did the Aboriginal resistance to it. In central-western New South Wales, the resistance during “the Bathurst War” was led by Wiradjuri warrior Windradyne. As in other parts of Australia, the arrival of European settler-colonists resulted in increased scarcity of food and violence against the Indigenous population.

In 1824, open conflict erupted, and over the next three years, Windradyne and the Wiradjuri fought a guerrilla war to protect their lands and people.

In response, Bathurst was placed under martial law by governor Thomas Brisbane, who dispatched 75 soldiers to the area. He also offered a reward of 500 acres of land for the capture of Windradyne. Over the next three months, Brisbane’s soldiers, along with mounted colonial police and settlers, carried out indiscriminate massacres of the Wiradjuri people.

Writing in his memoir, Australian Stories Retold and Sketches of Country Life in 1877, pastoralist and politician W.H. Suttor recounted the impact of military law the on the Wiradjuri: “When martial law had run its course, extermination is the word that most aptly describes the result. As the old Romans said, ‘They made solitude and called it peace’”. Approximately 1,000 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed during the Bathurst War.

Brisbane rescinded martial law on 11 December 1824, telling his military commander that “the aboriginal natives have learnt to respect our power”. A week later, Windradyne, who had eluded capture, arrived in Parramatta accompanied by 400 warriors to negotiate a makarrata (treaty) with Brisbane. Agreement was reached on 28 December, with Windradyne receiving an official pardon.

Yagan and Jandamarra (Western Australia)

In the 1830s, resistance to the West Australian Swan River Colony was led by Noongar leader Yagan. As the British colonists fenced off more and more of the Noongars’ land, preventing access to sacred sites and traditional hunting grounds, Aboriginal hunting parties raided settler crops and livestock to feed their families.

In 1831, Noongars who raided a potato field were killed by a settler. In retaliation, Yagan and his father Midgegooroo stormed the settler farm, killing a servant. Over the next two years, Yagan and his warriors continued their guerrilla attacks, resulting in Yagan being declared an “outlaw”. Captured in 1832, he was sentenced to death. But a settler, Robert Lyon, argued that the Noongar man was simply defending his land and should be considered a “prisoner of war” rather than a criminal.

Yagan was exiled to Carnac Island but escaped a month later. In April 1833, another bounty was placed on Yagan’s head, and he was shot dead several months later. As with Pemulwuy, he was decapitated and his head was sent to London as an “anthropological curiosity”.

Jandamarra, a Bunuba man in his early 20s, led the guerrilla war against European settlement in the Kimberley region between 1894 and 1897. Despite establishing a friendly relationship with several pastoralists in the region, he was accused of stealing a sheep at the age of 15. To avoid being jailed, he agreed to work for the colonial police.

According to historian Howard Pedersen, in 1894 Jandamarra carried out a “dramatic defection” after 16 Bunuba resistance fighters – many of whom were his relatives – were captured. Killing the constable he was assigned to work with, Jandamarra released the warriors and together they formed a war band to defend their country. Armed with captured guns, and operating from caves in the Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, Jandamarra and the Bunuba staged hit and run attacks on settler colonies, farms and colonial police stations.

The colonial police were given orders to crush the resistance and could kill with impunity. On 1 April 1897, Jandamarra was killed by Aboriginal trooper Minko Mick. Like Pemulwuy’s and Yagan’s, Jandamarra’s head was sent to England – this time to a firearms company, which used it to promote the effectiveness of its weapons.


In Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the frontier war reached its peak between 1823 and 1834, as four of the nine Aboriginal nations on the island banded together to defend their traditional lands. By the end of what Europeans dubbed “the Black War”, more than 90 percent of the 6,000-strong Aboriginal population had been annihilated. The survivors were exiled to Flinders Island.

Lieutenant governor George Arthur initially tried to drive Aborigines off their lands by hanging any who attacked European colonists. When this failed, in 1828 he declared martial law, allowing the military and settlers to kill with impunity. Over the next two years, the locals defied all efforts to suppress them, resulting in Arthur implementing the “Black Line” in 1830.

According to historian Lyndall Ryan, Arthur called on all able-bodied male settlers to make themselves available for eight weeks to join forces with the military and colonial police to “form a human cordon across the Settled Districts and drive the four Aboriginal nations from their homelands” and locate them on a reserve. While some contemporaries of Arthur argued that the Black Line failed, others believed it laid the groundwork for the subsequent “pacification” of the Aboriginal population.

Among the leaders of the Tasmanian Aboriginal resistance was a 28-year-old Tommeginne woman name Wayler. According to conflicting historical reports, Wayler (also known as Tarenorerer) may have been banished by her clan and sold to sealers working the Bass Strait. Escaping in 1828, she returned to her country in northern Tasmania, where she formed a war band made up of Aboriginal men and women.

Trained by Wayler in the use of firearms, the war band carried out a three-year insurgency. The misnamed chief protector of Aborigines on the island, G.A. Robinson, declared Wayler’s capture “a matter of considerable importance to the peace and tranquillity of those districts where she and her formidable coadjutors had made themselves so conspicuous in their wanton and barbarous aggression”.

Initially exiled to the Furneaux Islands, Wayler attacked her captors on the way and was transferred back to Swan Island, where she once again attempted to incite rebellion. Exiled once more to the Furneaux Islands, she continued her agitation. She died in May 1831 after contracting influenza.


In Queensland, as in other parts of Australia, the frontier wars raged as the colonisers encroached on more Aboriginal land. In north-west Queensland, due to the late arrival of European colonialists, Aboriginal resistance continued into the 1880s and 1890s. In 1870, the first copper and gold mines were established in the region, and four years later, the first pastoralists arrived. The settler-colonists were immediately met by armed resistance from the Kalkadoon people, whose land ran from Mount Isa to Conclurry.

Forming disciplined war bands, the Kalkadoon carried out a fierce guerrilla resistance over the next decade, often staging simultaneous attacks on European pastoral stations and outposts. In March 1884, a detachment of the Queensland Native Mounted Police led by inspector Frederic Urquhart was sent to suppress the Kalkadoon resistance.

After a prominent pastoralist was killed by the Kalkadoon in July, Urquhart penned a poem vowing vengeance. Over the next nine weeks, Native Police and armed pastoralists carried out a “war of vengeance”, wantonly killing Kalkadoon men, women and children.

In September, the last major battle between Urquhart’s colonial forces and the Kalkadoon took place, with 600 Aboriginal warriors – armed only with traditional weapons – battling a well-armed colonial force. After initially having the upper hand in the battle, the Kalkadoon could not defeat the modern weaponry of the forces arrayed against them. More than 200 warriors died at “Battle Mountain”, breaking the back of the resistance.

About 900 Kalkadoon lost their lives either fighting or from arsenic-laced flour, blankets infected with measles or poisoned water holes when they were forced into fringe camps on the outskirts of pastoral stations.

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