Archaeology: Strength in what remains behind: An Aborigine head has been discovered in a mass grave in Liverpool, writes David Keys

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The Independent Culture
AFTER a 30-year search, the missing head of a 19th-century Australian Aborigine leader has been traced to a cemetery in Liverpool, and the Australian government is now asking Britain to repatriate the remains.

The head, found in a mass grave in Everton Cemetery, is that of an early Western Australian Aborigine leader called Yagan, who was murdered in 1833 by teenage bounty hunters. His head was cut off and smoked (to preserve it) and subsequently brought to England by a friend of the colony's lieutenant governor.

Yagan's head was displayed in a museum in Liverpool, then put into storage, and finally discarded and buried in 1964 in a public grave. Now Australian Aborigines - backed by the Australian government - want the head exhumed so that it can be reburied in the same area where Yagan's body was interred 161 years ago.

Yagan's head was finally located by a Southampton University post-graduate, Cressida Fforde, who travelled almost 60,000 miles to comb 20 archives in Britain, North America and Australia. Her searches revealed large quantities of unpublished letters, diaries and other material which finally led her to Liverpool where she located the grave.

Ms Fforde's research has taken four years to complete, but the original quest for Yagan's head dates back to the 1960s, when a Western Australian Aborigine, Ken Colbung (who later became president of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies) - a descendant of Yagan's people - started the search.

Yagan himself was born around 1810, the son of an Aborigine leader called Midgegooroo. In 1831, Yagan was declared an outlaw by the colonial government, after murdering two servants of a local farmer in retaliation for the murder of an Aborigine by one of their colleagues.

A price - pounds 20 - was put on his head, and Yagan and two friends were captured by bounty hunters and exiled by the authorities to an island eight miles off the Western Australian coast. However, the trio managed to escape by commandeering a dinghy, and, apparently for political reasons (probably local security considerations), the case against them was unofficially dropped. Within a few months, Yagan staged an Aboriginal ceremony - a corroboree - in Perth, which was attended by Frederick Irwin - the colony's lieutenant governor - and other leading citizens.

The early 1830s were a watershed in Australian Aboriginal history. From the British colonisation in 1788 until around 1830, relations between the Aborigines and the relatively limited number of settlers was comparatively good. But expansion led to increased conflict between settlers and Aborigines.

In early 1833, several Aborigines including Yagan's brother, Domjum, were murdered near Perth, a settlement founded only four years previously. Domjum's head was cut off and displayed in a local newspaper office. In one incident, a group of Aborigines were massacred near Fremantle.

Aborigine law dictated that the murders had to be avenged in some way, so Yagan, his father and 50 other Aborigines made a retaliatory attack against one of the settlers who had been present at the massacre. The settler, John Velvick, was killed - and the lieutenant governor declared Yagan and Midgegooroo outlaws.

A former London police constable called Hunt was sent out into the bush to apprehend Yagan, dead or alive, for a reward of pounds 30. He failed to find Yagan - but did murder Yagan's uncle. Shortly afterwards, a posse of soldiers and settlers captured Yagan's father and 5-year-old brother. Midgegooroo was thrown into jail in Perth, where two days later, tied to the jail door, he was executed without trial. The boy was put in the care of a jailer in Fremantle.

The lieutenant governor issued a proclamation against settlers murdering Aborigines. However, Yagan was not covered by this announcement, as the previous proclamation had called for his capture, alive or dead.

Two white teenagers, William and James Keates, who had been friends of Yagan, then conspired to earn the reward by killing him. On 11 July 1833, they gave Yagan some bread and kept him company for most of the morning. William, aged 18, then shot his friend through the back of the head, and James, 13, killed another Aborigine who tried to retaliate.

William was then killed by a third Aborigine, and James fled. The bodies lay on the ground until collected by local settlers, one of whose servants cut off Yagan's head and removed a decorated section of skin from his back, allegedly turning it into a belt.

Yagan's body was then buried, but his head was smoked in a hollow tree over a eucalyptus fire for many weeks in order to preserve it. The head was then acquired, presumably for money, by a soldier, Robert Dale, who sailed with it for England on 29 September 1833.

Once in England, he tried to sell the head, for which he hoped to receive about pounds 30. As part of his marketing plan, he lent the head to Thomas Pettigrew, an anatomist and expert on Egyptian mummies, who displayed it at a scientific gathering at his home in London.

By 1835, Yagan's head remained unsold and was returned to Dale, who donated the head to the Liverpool Royal Institution which exhibited it in their Insect Room. In 1894, the head was permanently loaned to Liverpool City Museum.

By 1964, the decision was taken to get rid of the head and some other human remains, on the grounds that 'slow decomposition is making the specimens disagreeable roommates.' Local council permission was then obtained to have the remains - Yagan's head, a second Aborigine unidentified head, an ancient Peruvian mummy and a set of ancient Peruvian intestines - interred at Liverpool's Everton Cemetery.

There may yet be difficulties in exhuming Yagan's head. The remains - all buried in a plywood box - lie beneath several boxes containing the bodies of 20 stillborn, and two neo- natal babies, sent there by at least one local hospital in the late 1960s. These remains do not need to be removed from the cemetery, but would have to be briefly lifted so the plywood box and its gruesome contents could be recovered.

In Western Australia, the return of Yagan's head would be of great significance to the Aborigines. He is regarded as a martyr and a hero, and a statue of him has been erected in Perth.

Above all, the story of Yagan's head symbolises and commemorates the appalling treatment meted out by the British Empire and Australian Commonwealth to Aborigines in the 19th century and the first half of the present century.

Between 1800 and 1930, at least 20,000 Aborigines were shot and massacres were frequent. In 1838 in New South Wales, up to 300 were murdered by police and convicts, and in 1857 in Queensland, many more were killed. Even as late as 1928, 100 Aborigines were shot by police in Northern Territory. At the beginning of this century, Aborigines were still being killed and turned into anthropological specimens, according to new historical evidence discovered in the last few years.

In a previously little-known massacre of 40 men and women in 1900, the heads and limbs of the victims were converted by rudimentary scientific methods into anthropological specimens at the site of the atrocity.

A skull and femur of one victim was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons in London which, until 1941, had a substantial collection of Aboriginal remains on display.

With such a history of horror - a history usually brushed under the carpet - the return of Yagan's head will mean much more to the Aborigines than just the repatriation of a long-dead hero's last remains.

(Photograph omitted)