After 160 years, it's time for Yagan to go home

Graham Nown and Andrew Rosthorn on how a dispute over a Liverpool grave is denying a homeland funeral to a legendary Aboriginal leader

Australia's entire Aboriginal nation has united to demand the immediate return of the head of one of its greatest heroes, interred in a Liverpool cemetery. But Home Office officials have refused a request for exhumation after objections from relatives of stillborn babies buried in the same public grave.

The return of Aboriginal remains, severed as gruesome souvenirs by early white settlers and displayed as mantlepiece ornaments, or sold as scientific curios, has become a burning political issue in Aboriginal Australia.

The head of Yagan, the first Aboriginal in Western Australia to speak up for his people's rights in the face of European settlement, has become the focus of a campaign demanding that museums return Aboriginal relics. Many have been reluctant over the years, claiming skulls and other bones to be exhibits of scientific interest.

Yagan's head, the subject of a 10-year search by Aboriginal elders and anthropologists from Southampton University, was buried by Liverpool Museum in 1964. The unmarked grave in the Kirkdale Cemetery, Everton, also contains the remains of a Peruvian mummy.

Professor Peter Ucko, formerly of Southampton University, now head of the London Institute of Archaeology, led the search for the head at the request of the Aboriginal nation. His findings left little doubt to its identity.

After receiving no satisfactory response from petitioning the government and appealing to Liverpool City Council and the Home Office, Aboriginal rights activist Ken Colbung MBE, a JP in Western Australia, is travelling to Britain this week to demand the immediate return of the head of Yagan, shot dead by a teenage sheep farm labourer in 1833.

"I really need to talk to the mothers of those babies," says Mr Colbung, who is one of Yagan's descendents. "I need to put it to them properly, explain what it will mean to us if they will just change their minds.

"I've been working on this for years. The Australian government takes no interest in helping us. It's actually the British government that's paying for me to come over. They were getting nowhere talking to the mothers, so I hope they'll give me a chance. They came to our committee of elders and asked if me if I would help.

"The best course appears to be to remove Yagan's head from Britain without ceremony and return it to Western Australia, where it can be joined with the rest of his remains.

"It is Aboriginal belief that because Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey. The planned full burial of this warrior and leader will have enormous cultural and social impact on the Aboriginal people."

Yagan, a leader of the Tondarup Ballaruk clan to which all South-West Australian Aboriginal people belong, is regarded as an outstanding leader who tried to reconcile whites and blacks in the 1830s. A statue by Australian sculptor Robert Hitchcock was erected to his memory on Herisson Island, Western Australia, in 1980.

It was here that Yagan first encountered Europeans, led by Captain James Stirling, who described the Aboriginal elder as "one of the most intelligent men I've met, black or white".

His brother, Domjum, was shot while allegedly trying to steal flour from a store, and his head hacked off. Yagan had a pounds 30 bounty placed on him by settlers fearful he might exact revenge.

When Yagan's father was killed, he speared two soldiers who had taken part in the murder. The Lieutenant Governor administrator of the Swan River area stepped-up military patrols to search for him. Yagan was eventually shot for the reward by a farm boy, William Keats, and his head preserved and brought to Britain.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before