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The Battle/Massacre of Pinjarra 1843

This was a bloody encounter between settlers and Noongars 28 October 1834. On this site may be found: Stirling's report of 1834: Irwin's account of 1835; three papers from the 1927 number of Early Days (see the references at the bottom of the page); Cyril Bryan's 1934 account of the 'battle'; a 'memory' of the event from Jack Abrahams from the 1970s; part of a bio of Theophilus Ellis; an except from Statham's book on Stirling; and an article by Chris Owen published in The Guardian in 2019.

Stirling, 1834

In the forenoon of the 27th we reached the Upper Ford...and had just crossed the River when we heard the Natives shouting. Keeping the party out of sight, Captain Ellis, the Superintendent of the Mounted Police, was sent with Mr Norcott and three of his Corps to re-cross the Ford, and advance towards the Natives for the purpose of ascertaining whether they were the offending tribe. This he accomplished with great celerity, and on his approach towards them he recognised several of them to be of those who were present at Nisbett’s murder, and amounting in all to about 60 or 70. He accordingly made a preconcerted signal to me, and advanced towards them. The Natives very resolutely stood their ground, as I am informed, and then threw a volley of spears by which Captain Ellis was wounded in the head, and one of his men in the right arm, and another was unhorsed. Stunned and dismounted by the blow, and having his horse speared, Captain Ellis’s party was thus in great peril; but at this critical moment, the men with me got into position and commenced firing, and threw the Natives into confusion. They fled to a ford about 100 yards below the other, but being headed by the Corporal's party, they were forced back into the bed of the stream. The Upper Ford being also occupied by Mr Roe, as well as the two banks, they were completely surrounded and overpowered. The number killed amounted probably to 15 men. The women were kept until after our company had been collected around the two wounded men; they were then informed that this punishment had been inflicted because of the misconduct of the tribe, that the white men never forgot to punish murder, that on this occasion, the women and children had been spared, but if any other person should be killed by them, no one would be allowed to remain alive on this side of the mountains. Upon this they were dismissed, and after a long march, we succeeded in getting the wounded men back to the station.

Frederick Chidley Irwin's account, published in 1835

The natives of the Murray river, forty miles to the southward of the Swan, are a more warlike and athletic race than those already mentioned. They have, from the first, evinced a desire to dislodge the settlers located in their district; and have, from time to time, killed and wounded several of them, with little or no apparent provocation, contriving, on repeated occasions, to evade parties of military sent against them after these outrages.
Recent accounts from the colony contain the report of an encounter with this tribe, wherein they lost from twenty-five to thirty men, of whom fifteen were recognised as having been noted offenders. The party engaged with them was under the conduct of the Governor, who was proceeding on an excursion to examine a fertile district, with the view of forming a settlement there. It consisted of some gentlemen, and a few soldiers and mounted police, twenty-four in all. On arriving at the place, they heard the natives talking loudly in the vicinity; and the party, with the exception of the police, halted at a ford. The police rode forward, when the natives, who proved to be seventy in number, and well armed with spears, seeing only five men, commenced the attack. This little band, however, repulsed them; but the natives continued the fight, retreating until they reached the ford, where they found themselves placed between two fires: they, notwithstanding, fought on resolutely, till they had sustained the above severe loss. That, on the part of the colonists, was Captain Ellis (commanding the police), and a constable wounded; the former mortally. Captain Ellis had served in the 14th Dragoons in the Peninsular war, and was a gallant and enterprising officer. The great utility of a few mounted police in the colony was very apparent in this skirmish.
Though the loss of life in this affair is a very painful consideration, and deeply to be deplored, yet it seems manifest that without some severe defeat to convince this tribe of their inferiority in power to the whites, a petty and harassing warfare might have been indefinitely prolonged, with ultimately much heavier loss on both sides. It may now be confidently expected that this tribe will cease to assume a hostile attitude, and will follow the example of the tribes on the Swan and Canning rivers, who are evincing, as before shown, a desire to be on friendly terms with the settlers.

Jane Elizabeth Grose, 1927

The first shot fired by the party led by Captain Ellis, and the shouts and yells of the natives supplied a signal to Sir James, who rode forward at full speed, followed by the soldiers. At that moment Mr. Norcott saw a native ship a spear to throw. He called, “To your right Sir James,” and he shot the native dead. They were on the opposite side of the river. All were well armed. It was a critical moment for the blacks. Some of them were in the river and others were scrambling up the right bank. They were utterly confounded when they saw the second party before them.
Only the faces of the natives could be seen peering out of the water, where they had taken refuge. The whites opened fire. About 80 blacks were killed and the bodies of many of the dead floated down the river. A bugle then blew to cease fire, after which the native women and children were gathered together and Sir James Stirling warned them that similar punishment would come to blacks in the future if any more whites were killed or molested.
About 50 natives were buried in one great hole, which was afterwards located in Mr. Oakley’s field beside Captain’s Fawcett’s property at Pinjarra Park. Upon that spot fruit trees were planted and I remember as a girl gathering pears from one of these trees. Grose, Early Days, 1927: 34-35.

The Battle of Pinjarra. A Hundred Years Ago

By 'Cygnet' [Cyril Bryan] , West Australian, Saturday 27 October 1934, page 6.

It is often alleged against us by the tourist-Australian it's no history, its birds no song, its flowers no scent. But even as I write the birds are filling the air with their sweet notes, the fragrance of boronia is all around me, and the calendar is reminding me of a day when this virgin land of ours re sounded to the din of battle and its green earth was dyed red with the blood of the combatants.
A battle? In Australia? Why, yes, and in Western Australia, too. And of all places to stage a battle, in a sleepy little hamlet like Pinjarra! On Sunday next we will be celebrating its centenary; just one hundred years will elapse from that other day when Governor Stirling rode forth with his miniature 'army' to do battle with the blacks and to teach them once and for all that the white man had come here to stay for good. It was not like Stirling to take a life for a life, but as he saw it, and as his advisers saw it, the very existence of the colony depended on a cessation of atsoldiers; and, even more than that, the success and the progress of the settle ment depended on the recognition by the blacks of the white man's supremacy and of the fact that they, the black people, would have to accommodate their future life and ways of living to the needs and necessities of their white supplanters in the ownership of the soil.
If ever a battle in this world's history can be said to have achieved the pur pose for which it was fought, it was this Battle of Pinjarra waged in the solitude of the Australian bush on October 28, 1834. With no desire to excuse any kil ling of any human being it is a plain fact that this bloody lesson spared more lives than it took, and not only white lives but especially black lives! for human nature being what it is, and what it was then, it is obvious that, excited as they were at the attitude of the natives, individual settlers would have taken what they called 'the law' into their own hands and no black Australian's life would have been worth a moment's purchase from the moment he came within distance of a gunshot. But if we are to explain the white man's point of view, it is only barest justice that we first of all make up a case for the black man who had no Governor, no guns, large wood, newspapers, no education, to present his case at the time.
Making Friends.
The first contact of White with Black in Western Australia was peaceful, and friendly relations continued for some time. The blacks seemed to be content to watch what the white people were doing, clearing the ground, erecting houses, doing all sorts of things which must have seemed weird in the extreme to them. The blacks, too, were a novelty with them, and in the most natural way in the world gave them some of the white man's food— sugar, bread— with the double purpose of watching their surprise at tasting such dainty foodstuffs and of gaining their goodwill. But after a while the novelty wore off and the colon ists ceased to be so lavish with these gifts of food, again with a double rea son actuating them; foodstuffs were not too plentiful with them in those early days, and the novelty of watching the black man's satisfaction as he ate this new food soon wore off. But by that time the blacks had acquired a taste for the white man's food, so that when voluntary gifts were withdrawn it seemed quite a natural thing for them to help There was another excuse for them help ing themselves in this clandestine man ner. The white man had calmly come along and driven them off the very places where their native and natural food abounded, and that being so they reasoned out that the white man owed them a duty to repay this loss in kind.
It was a point of view that did not appeal to the white man and it was the root of all the trouble that was to come. At first they chased the blacks away, then they threatened them, then they caught some and thrashed them. It was not long before shots were fired, mostly in the air at first, then in the direction of, and finally directly at parties of blacks espied in the distance. The blacks retired into the bush and planned revenge, and emerging from the bush made it plain that they would retaliate. Within a year of the foundation of the settlement the inevitable happened and the first white man was killed by the blacks, McKenzie at the Murray River. Before the year was out another white man, Entwhistle, while at work at Butler's Garden, near Melville Water, was killed.
More Killings.
That was the beginning, and it was with these killings that we first read of Midgegaroo and Yagan, father and son, Perth in the stand against the whites. The story of how Midgegaroo was captured and shot in front of the old jail where now the Deanery stands, of how Yagan was treacherously murdered by a white lad of 18 who instantly paid for the deed with his own life, cannot be told here. We must also skip over the killing of the two soldiers, Budge and Nesbit, to the imprisonment in the Soldiers Barracks at the Murray of a native charged with theft. He attempted to escape, whereupon the sentry Larkin shot him dead. Weeip, a native who came into prominence on Yagan 's death, coolly plan ned a revenge. Paying an apparently friendly visit to the Barracks, he shook hands with the soldiery and then, making as if to depart, he suddenly turned and drove a spear through Larkin's body with such force as to transfix him to the wooden post against which he stood! It was the climax and the final gesture on the part of the blacks in this colony.
Governor Stirling's 'army' which he marched against the 'enemy' was conspicuous by its size and its motley-ness. With him marched, or rather rode, the Surveyor-General (Captain Roe), Cap and his son; Thomas Peel, the man who tector of Aborigines; Surveyor Smythe, Captain Ellis, Superintendent of Police (for want of a better name); and ten members of the 21st Regiment. On October 27, 1834, they bivouacked for the night at Jim Jam, some eight or ten miles from Pinjarra, and early next morning moved off to strike terror into the natives who were known to be assembled near Pinjarra. They divided into two parties, one party under Stirling's command hiding in the deep grass and giant trees on the other bank of the Murray, Captain Ellis with the second party going straight for the natives. These latter were soon observed by the white men, but so busy were they over some private rumpus of their own that they either did not see the approaching horsemen or they considered their own business of more importance. At any rate, they continued their wrangle until Captain Ellis suddenly gave the order to charge. Then for the first time the blacks realised their danger and seizing their spears wheeled to face the attackers.
The Battle.
Whatever Governor Stirling intended, the business soon developed into a battle, and as the Battle of Pinjarra it will go down into history. And into history will go the fact that these despised aborigines with their primitive spears stood up man to man with white soldiers on their horses, armed with guns. In the reports of the battle one black especialy stood out. Mr. Norcott spied him and called out: 'There's that old rascal Noona!' 'Yes, Noona, me!' the 'old rascal' boldly replied. They were his last words, for Norcott shot him dead on the spot. Another version develops the story somewhat. Noona is aiming his spear at Stirling when Norcott calls out: 'To your right, Sir James!' and then shoots Noona down. But Stirling was not in the affray as yet. He was still with that first party beyond the river, waiting for them to be caught in a trap.
That is what happened. The onslaught was too great to be borne by the blacks and they fled to the river. At that moment Stirling's party came into view and put a volley into them. The thing was finished, and Stirling had no wish to prolong it or to cause more loss of life than necessary. He gave orders for the "cease fire" to sound, and thus came to an end the only battle ever fought—or ever to be fought must be our devout prayer—on West Australian soil. You may put the native casualties at what you will. They range from one estimate of eighty to another of fourteen, 10 men, three women, one child On our side the casualties were a mere two. A soldier named Heffron was wounded in the arm, while Captain Ellis was struck in the head with such force as to be knocked off his horse. He picked himself up, but later in the day fell off his horse unconscious. Some days later he died at his residence "near Mt. Eliza." National Library of Australia

Old Man Didong

Article in a newspaper by Howard Sattler: Jack/Didong's 'memory' of the Pinjarra event - tho he could not have been there:

‘We was out after rabbits along creek, when we hear shots up near bridge. We look round bend and see lotsa black fellas lying there on ground.
‘We plenty scared and we got out o' there quick and run away to Pingelly.’
Old ‘Didong’ turned the logs on the fire he had lit outside his native reserve house before 5 am and talked about the day when he and his boyhood mate ran all the way from Pinjarra to Pingelly. His description of the massacre which preceded it fits that of the famous Battle of Pinjarra when an ‘official’ party of whites armed themselves and shot down dozens of almost defenceless natives ... except that it took place almost 140 years ago, and Didong (Jack Abrams) is only 108! The horrific experience which planted itself In the young boy’s mind was never recorded, and the culprits went unpunished.
With Jack (he doesn’t know why he’s called Didong) seeing out his twilight years In the harsh conditions of the Pinjarra Native Reserve, their reputations will probably go untarnished.
One of five children. Jack was born in the Dale River district, near Brookton, and grew up to a life of servility under the early white settlers in the south west.
His cracked, garbled voice could recall little of the Great War and his complete lack of memory of World War II was testimony to his age.
Another is his memory of Pinjarra before its church was constructed about 100 years ago.
The ancient face which has watched the loss of pride of the Aborigines since his childhood days sits atop a figure which is as trim as it was 75 years ago.
'It’s the devil of a life that’s kept me going,' he croaked, then mimicked a kookaburra when he gauged the gullibility of his audience, which included several of his greatgrandchildren.
Apart from the handed-out service station shirt he sports proudly, Jack, with broad-brimmed hat added, is still every wiry inch a bushman.
His culinary inadequacies (his old stove has not felt a flame for several years) are supplemented by the meals he receives from his neighbours.
Though his relatives tell Jack he is a greatgrandfather, he is unable to recognise if any, or all of the children on the reserve are his descendants.
But he still talks vaguely about the two wives he has had and who have long since passed away.

Theophilus Ellis:

... Ellis and several members of the troop went to the Murray River with a party which included the Governor and Surveyor General. A detailed journal of the latter official - John Septimus Roe - indicates without any doubt that the purpose of the journey was to survey the area thoroughly and set-up a military outpost for a squad of soldiers from the 21st Regiment of Foot. The mounted troop members came along as 'bush-wise' protectors because a couple of young soldiers had been attacked and killed or hurt in the preceding months. One was murdered under very nasty circumstances.
The outcome was an encounter with aborigines at Pinjarra on 28 October that exploded into violence. Identifying the aboriginal people posed problems and some mounted constables rode in to take a closer look. One officer recognised a 'wanted' man, called out, and tried to make an arrest. The result was chaos and an exchange of spears and bullets. Very early in the affair, Theophilus Ellis (who was probably unarmed) was hit in the head by a spear and knocked from his horse. It is quite likely the severe fall caused his most serious injuries. Superintendent Ellis seems to have lapsed quite soon into a semi-comatose state and died on November 11, 1834. Peter Conole.

Statham-Drew, James Stirling

Accounts of what followed differ considerably and, to this day, events at Pinjarra remain the most contentious issue of Stirlings governorship. To the Europeans, the ensuing clash with the Murray tribe was a skirmish which Stirling elevated to the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. To the Aborigines, whose evidence relies on oral histories, it was a massacre. There were four eyewitness accounts from Europeans: an anonymous Perth Gazette report of 1 November, attributed to either Meares or Norcott; Stirling’s report to the Colonial Office; Roe’s field book notes; and a much later account by Seymour Meares in 1868.63 The best written exposition of the Aboriginal viewpoint (the Nyungar view64) can be found in a research report written for the Murray District Aboriginal Association in 1998. Between the eyewitness reports and this Nyungar perspective there have been many interpretations of the battle, varying in length, detail and bias. In fact, when Henry Reynolds published the first of his calls to recognise our ‘hidden history’ in the early 1980s (and included the Battle of Pinjarra among his examples of the ‘exemplary violence’ used against the indigenous people), the incident already had a long historiography. There had been no cover up in this instance—the story had already been told many times, mostly from the European perspective, but also by Neville Green who was the first to argue that the Murray tribe was not just punished, but ambushed. In all accounts there are differences over particular details of events during the hectic confrontation.

'The Pinjarra massacre: it's time to speak the truth of this terrible slaughter'

Article by Chris Owen in The Guardian:

2019 is the 185th anniversary of the Pinjarra massacre – one of the bloodiest events in Western Australian history.
The attack began at 8am on 28 October 1834.
Led by the governor of Western Australia, Captain James Stirling, an armed party of 25 people – alongside Stirling were the colony’s surveyor general, JS Roe; the police superintendent, Theophilus Ellis; a leading settler, Thomas Peel; five mounted police officers;eight soldiers of the 21st Regiment; and eight civilians – attacked a Pindjarup Noongar encampment on the Murray River, 85km south of Perth.
Over the next hour they shot and killed between 15 and 80 (or possibly more) Noongar men, women and children. The police superintendent was speared and later died and a police constable was wounded.
Was this a battle or a massacre?
The historian Keith Windschuttle argues that Pinjarra was “a real battle between warring parties, with casualties on both sides, rather than a massacre of innocents” and a prominent lawyer of the early Swan River colony, George Fletcher Moore – who endorsed Stirling’s actions – appears to have used the term “battle” shortly after the event.
But three witness accounts of the killings survive, and provide a very different view: Stirling’s letters to the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg in London, JS Roe’s journal, and an account published in the Perth Gazette provided by an unnamed officer in the 21st Regiment.
Stirling wrote that a “check” on Noongar was needed after they killed one of Thomas Peel’s employees, Hugh Nesbitt. Stirling called it a “skirmish” and declared that he had set out to “overawe the Murray tribe” and “reduce [them] to weakness” by inflicting “such acts of decisive severity as will appal them as people.”
He told survivors: “If any person should be killed by them, not one [Noongar] would be allowed to remain alive this side of the mountains.”
Glenelg responded to Stirling’s report with alarm, suggesting that the attack was more a form of warfare than enforcement of British law. He pointed out that Aboriginal people were British subjects and thus protected under the law.
Roe called the event a “rencontre” – a hostile meeting. His journal entry describes finding the “obnoxious tribe” of 70 to 80 people. The Noongar were cornered hiding among the “bushes and dead logs of the river banks and were picked off”.
He wrote that “many were hiding in the river with only their nose and mouth above water”. Over a period of an hour, “15 – 20 were shot dead” until “it was considered that the punishment of the tribe for the numerous murders it had committed were sufficiently exemplary”.
The Perth Gazette in 1834 called the attack an “affray”. It was a “successful and decisive encounter” where the firing did not stop “until between 25 and 30 were left dead on the fields and in the river”. The Gazette declared “a severe but well merited chastisement” had been handed out and warned that if there were any more trouble “four times the present number of men would proceed amongst them and destroy every man woman and child”.
An 1868 account attributed to Corporal Haggarty of the 63rd Regiment, published in the Western Australian Church of England magazine, called it the “indiscriminate slaughter of a harmless and unoffending tribe” where “200 to 300 peaceable natives [were] deliberately shot down”. An as-yet-unidentified painting with Stirling in the foreground was produced to commemorate the event.
Then, in 1927, a report in the Royal Western Australian Historical Society’s journal revealed more. Jane Elizabeth Grose, citing the diary of her grandfather and mother, who lived near Pinjarra at the time, wrote that: “About 80 blacks were killed and the bodies of many of the dead floated down the river … about 50 natives were buried in one great hole.”
If the encounter were really a battle, how was it that only one member of the attacking group of 25 people – the police superintendent – lost his life? The overwhelming evidence cited above of these extrajudicial killings leaves us in no doubt that the attack at Pinjarra was a massacre. Yet for more than 180 years, Western Australians were taught that it was a battle.
It is time surely that the truth of this terrible slaughter is acknowledged.
( Dr Chris Owen from the University of Western Australia was a researcher on massacre sites in WA on behalf of the University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacre Map Project and is the author of Every mother’s son is guilty: policing the Kimberley frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905.) The Guardian, 18 November 2019.

References (in chronological order) and Links

Stirling, James, Letter to the Colonial Office, 1 November 1834.

Irwin, Frederick Chidley 1835, The State and Position of Western Australia, London, ch. 2.

Ilbery, Mrs. B.S 1927, 'The Battle of Pinjarra: The Passing of the Bibbulmun', Early Days, vol. 1, part 1: 24-30.

Grose, Jane Elizabeth 1927, 'The Battle of Pinjarra: The background to the encounter', Early Days, vol. 1, part 1: 30-35.

Battye, J.S. 1927, 'The Battle of Pinjarra: The official records of the encounter', Early Days, vol. 1, part 1: 35-37.

'Cygnet' [Cyril Bryan] , 'The Battle of Pinjarra. A Hundred Years Ago', West Australian, Saturday 27 October 1934, p. 6.

Sattler, Howard, 'Old man Didong', newspaper article, unknown date (early 1970s?) and source: above. Internet search suggests the interviewee was Jack Abraham.

Conole, Peter nd, 'Superintendent Theophilus Ellis - his Life and Services', policewahistory.org.au.

Statham-Drew, Pamela 2003, James Stirling: Admiral and Founding Governor of Western Australia, UWAP: 163 etc.

Owen, Chris 2019, 'The Pinjarra massacre: it's time to speak the truth of this terrible slaughter', The Guardian, 18 November: above.

Wikipedia page for Pinjarra massacre.


Garry Gillard | New: 6 June, 2020 | Now: 25 July, 2020