Tjangamarra: a fighter for his country

Actor Keithan Holloway as Tjangamarra in the film Jandamarra’s War.

It’s just before the turn of the 20th century, and colonial Australia is desperate to forge a “nation” and pull away from self-governing British colonies.

So-called native-born Australians are swept up in a wave of nationalism, keen to cut the apron strings of mother England. At the same time, on the southern edge of the Kimberley, another battle for independence is underway.

But this one won’t result in a constitution or the formation of a Commonwealth; it will end in rivers of black blood and the deaths of many.

Bunuba country stretches from the town of Fitzroy Crossing to the King Leopold Ranges, including the inhospitable Napier and Oscar Ranges. The country was home to a young Aboriginal leader named Tjangamarra (or Jandamarra). Tjangamarra would become a fierce resistance fighter throughout Bunuba lands. He led a feared unit of Bunuba warriors in repelling colonial squatters intruding on his people’s sacred lands.

Born sometime around 1870, Tjangamarra didn’t have a typical Bunuba upbringing. He was born into a turbulent time in the stunning Kimberley region. It was a time when pastoralists and squatters where descending on Bunuba hunting lands like an irreversible tide.

Tjangamarra was different for a number of other reasons too. As a youngster he became inextricably linked with the Lukin family, Europeans who “owned” the Lennard River station.

A bright young all-rounder, Tjangamarra was soon a near permanent fixture at the station, fascinated by the white man’s horses, firearms and strange foods. William Lukin came to adore the young Tjangamarra. He happily coached him in horsemanship, marksmanship and versed him in the English language.

Tjangamarra was a fast learner too, and though barely out of his teens he was widely known throughout the region for his skills on the land and as an excellent drover. Lukin called him “Pigeon”, because he was small, cheeky and fleet footed.

But his stint on Lukin's station would come to an end at age 15, when, by Bunuba lore, he was taken away for initiation into manhood.

Much like his skills with the white man's rifles, Tjangamarra was also an exceptional traditional hunter, Bunuba’s best. Just before his 20th year, the peace Tjangamarra had come to know in his two worlds was shattered forever.

In 1889 he was arrested and taken to Derby by the white police for spearing a sheep on Bunuba hunting lands. He was sentenced to jail, although being able to speak English confidently, Tjangamarra made a deal. He’d take care of the police horses and, in exchange, stay out of a police cell.

It worked, and after a spell in Derby, he gained trust and a reputation as an outstanding horseman. Tjangamarra’s world was trouble free again for a time. He went back to Lennard River to work as a stockman and later to Lillimooloora station where he became close friends with Bill Richardson, a fellow stockman. In 1894 Richardson joined the police force and Tjangamarra was recruited as a tracker.

Tjangamarra was assigned to “Constable Richardson” at the abandoned Lillimooloora homestead, 113 kilometres from Derby, which had been taken over by the police as an outpost. The two became a tight unit.

Although it was not official policy to use tribal members against their own people, Tjangamarra helped to locate and capture Bunuba warriors. He once saved Richardson’s life during an attack by Bunuba.

What happened next would spark all out war in the Kimberley and, to this day, it’s impossible to tell what Tjangamarra’s intentions had been all along. A year into his role as a police tracker, Tjangamarra and Richardson captured a group of Bunuba, which included Tjangamarra’s uncle Ellemarra. They’d allegedly speared a sheep.

Ellemarra escaped and constable Richardson swore that Ellemarra had displayed super-human strength and snapped his chains. However,
it’s suspected that Tjangamarra freed him. During a later patrol of the Napier Ranges in the West Kimberley, Tjangamarra helped to capture his uncle again. But this time they’d walk free together.

Tjangamarra turned the gun on his friend Richardson, killing him instantly. He then released 16 Aboriginal prisoners, among them Ellemarra. Tjangamarra’s well-armed gang planned a military defence of their country by using firearms. Indeed, they held a vision of an Aboriginal uprising that would push beyond tribal boundaries.

Panic engulfed the small settler community, scattered as it was over an area of nearly 29,785 square kilometres. The police gained sweeping powers to crush the uprising and killed many Aborigines, not just Bunuba. Fifty ochre-painted warriors fought the whites in the major battle of Windjina Gorge on November 16, 1894, this perhaps the most vicious and famous battle of the Tjangamarra story.

Ellemarra was killed and Tjangamarra was severely wounded, but recovered and spent two years hiding in an elaborate cave systems to the south. Although his strategies had caused them great suffering and reprisals, the Bunuba credited him with supernatural powers.

In November, 1895 he emerged again, raiding Lillimooloora police station, shocking the whites who had thought him dead. Late in 1896 he again humiliated the police at Lillimooloora. By this stage many of his gang had been captured and others killed.

In March, Tjangamarra and 20 others attacked Oscar Range homestead; a number of his party were killed and wounded, but their leader escaped through a tunnel. Revered Aboriginal trooper “Minko Mick” finally shot him dead at Tunnel Creek on April 1, 1897.

Tjangamarra’s body was beheaded, his head shipped to the manufacturers of the rifle that took his life as a trophy and an example of the rifle’s efficiency.

Another Bunaba head was severed and stuck on a pike and put on public display in Perth, an enduring sign of European civility.

[This article is republished from Tracker Magazine.]