The Repatriation of Yagan

Duncan Howitt-Marshall and Diana O'Carroll discuss the repatriation and reburial of the head of Yagan, the Australian aboriginal warrior who was killed and beheaded by...
15 August 2010


Duncan -   The first news item is the repatriation and recent reburial of the head of an Australian aboriginal warrior who was killed and beheaded by colonial settlers in 1833.  In line with common practice at that time, his head was transported to England where it was put on display in a museum as an anthropological curiosity, and eventually buried in an unmarked plot in a cemetery in Liverpool.  His head is now being finally laid to rest in a traditional ceremony in a memorial park near the site where it is believed the warrior was killed 177 years ago in Western Australia.

Diana -   Who was he?

Portrait of Yagan by George CruikshankDuncan -   We know bits and pieces from the Noongar of Western Australia.  There are accounts from white settlers at that time.  His name was Yagan and he was the leader of the Noongar tribe at the time when British settlers were first moving into the area around modern day Perth.  Relations between the Noongar and newly arrived British were initially very good, but sadly this harmony didn't last and there were misunderstandings regarding land management practices where white settlers were essentially fencing off land for farming.  Now Yagan and the Noongar led something of an uprising against this and as a result, were implicated in the killing of several settlers.  They were declared outlaws and reward was offered for their capture.

Diana -   But what happened next?

Duncan -   But Yagan wasn't without sympathy from members of the settler community, but even so, on the 11th of July, 1833, Yagan was killed by two teenage brothers and his head was cut-off to claim the reward.  The head was transported to England and eventually put on display in Liverpool Museum.

Diana -   That sounds more medieval than 19th century, but what's happened since then?

Duncan -   Well the Noongar people have been campaigning for the return of Yagan's head since the early 1980s, entrusting tribal elder Ken Colbung with the task of locating the head in England.  Then he used the help of University of London Archaeologists, Peter Ucko and Cressida Fforde and successfully located the head in 1993.  But it took nearly six years for it to be repatriated to Western Australia, due to political wrangling and reported divisions within the Noongar community itself.  It's taken another 12 years for his remains to be reburied.  The delayed reburial of the head, which took place in the 10th of July, the last full day Yagan was alive 177 years ago, was due to disputes over the actual location of the site where he was killed.  Now the site is now the Yagan Memorial Park and the traditional ceremony was attended by around 300 people including Noongars and state representatives.

Diana -   That's quite a turnout, but do you think that this will prompt the repatriation and reburial of other remains of aboriginal people which are in museum collections all over the world?

Duncan -   That's absolutely right.  This certainly isn't a new phenomenon.  In fact, the repatriation of aboriginal remains has been going on for quite some time now.  I was attending the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin in 2008 where the issue of repatriation of human remains was very much on the agenda.  The overwhelming feeling among the archaeological community is to work side by side with the descendant communities to bring the remains of their ancestors back and rebury them according to their traditional beliefs.  I think we'll see much more of this in the future.


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