Documentary · 13 October 2013
When Lieutenant-Governor James Stirling established Western Australia's Swan River colony (later the city of Perth) in 1829, times were tough. Seed refused to grow, food was scarce, and the initially good relations between British settlers and local Indigenous Noongar people tragically spiraled out of control into a conflict over land and resources. Standing out during this period were the actions of a Noongar warrior named Yagan. Confused by the actions of the settlers and refusing to submit to their strange British laws, Yagan fought back against the colonizers, murdering a settler in retribution for the death of one of his family. His reputation grew quickly, and he was soon a wanted man. Tricked into being captured, Yagan was on the cusp of execution for his crimes when he was saved at the last minute by an enigmatic Scottish pastor named Robert Lyon. Lyon was a firm advocate for the rights of the Noongar people during this clash of cultures. He saw Yagan as the "William Wallace" of his people. During Yagan's exile to a remote island off the coast of Perth, he and Lyon formed a friendship and mutual respect that was unheard of at that time. Yagan passed on culture and language to Lyon that allowed the settlers to finally understand the Noongar people. But a tragic set of circumstances quashed any chance of reconciliation, and Yagan eventually paid the ultimate price. By 1833 he was murdered - shot in the back by a young settler boy he trusted - and his head decapitated and sent to England as a trophy for scientific study, before disappearing from history's records. 180 years later Noongar elders - led by Ken Colbung and assisted by archaeologist Cressida Fforde - became history detectives in a renewed search for Yagan's skull. They fought a long, drawn out battle with both Australian and British governments, coming up against misunderstanding, bureaucracy and political interference. Sheer determination overcame, and they successfully saw the repatriation of Yagan's lost skull to Noongar country. It was a victory both celebrated and mourned. Yagan's story is not just one of the earliest examples of Indigenous resistance. It's also a sad reminder of a missed opportunity - a genuine chance to unite both black and white Australia right from the beginning of the country's birth.
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