Jandamarra - Bunuba warrior

A number of books on the life of Jandamarra are held in the AIATSIS print collection.
A number of books on the life of Jandamarra are held in the AIATSIS print collection.

A proud and strong Bunuba man, Jandamarra is one of many Aboriginal warriors around Australia that defended his country upon the arrival of the colonialists in 1788. This is his story.

In the late 1800s, in the central Kimberley region of Western Australia, Jandamarra held off the encroachment of pastoralists on his land for over three years, using every ounce of his knowledge of country and understanding the ways of the white man to protect his people and country.

When one thinks of the stunning outback landscapes set against epic waterways and soaring cliffs in this part of the Kimberley, it’s not too hard to understand why Jandamarra led the Bunuba people to fight against invading colonists. This war occurred on some of todays most visited and beautiful country in central Kimberley, such as the Lennard River, Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge, and across the rugged King Leopold, Oscar and Napier Ranges. This is a land known for boab palms, spinifex and saltwater crocodiles, and raging torrents of water with two distinct seasons, the wet generally in the months from November to April and the dry, from May to October.

The warrior Jandamarra was borne into the world around the year 1873. He was still just a child when the first colonist moved into his country in the early 1880s, and his early years were surrounded by fighting, with the Bunuba people using their knowledge of the terrain and weather patterns in the area to resist the onset of the white man and herds of sheep and cattle taking over their country.

The eleven year old Jandamarra and his mother left his father’s country to escape the fighting, taking refuge in his mother’s country on the Lennard River.  The Lennard River flatlands were was now part of a million‐acre cattle station owned by pioneering pastoralist William Lukin, who quickly found that the young Jandamarra was going to be a great asset on the station. In no time, Jandamarra became the station’s best horseman, a crack shot and tracker, locating cows that had wandered away from the herd, all the while learning about his country, like no other. He remained at Lennard River station until it was time for him to be initiated into Bunuba law and become a man.

He was taught by his Uncle Ellemarra in the rituals of Bunuba manhood and the two shared an exceptionally close bond. While learning about his rite of passage, Ellemarra and Jandamarra speared a pastoralist’s sheep. This resulted in a police manhunt, who tracked down and threw both Ellemarra and Jandamarra in prison, halting Jandamarra’s passage to manhood. After being released from custody, Jandamarra faced his biggest test of resilience. As he was not viewed as a man, he was banished from Bunuba society after breaking strict kinship rules through relationships with various women prior to his arrest.

With no other option, Jandamarra turned back to what he knew, gaining work at another pastoral property on Bunuba country Lillimooloora Station, which was owned by pastoralist William Forrestor and bordered Lukin’s Lennard River Station on its northern boundary. Jandamarra’s exceptional skills with horses and guns soon led him to become the right hand man to station manager Bill Richardson. When Richardson joined the police force, Jandamarra became his tracker, where he excelled with his knowledge of country.

His close but uneasy friendship with Richardson came to a dramatic end on 31 October 1894 when a large group of Bunuba elders had been captured after repeated reprisals against the colonialists, including his Uncle Ellemarra. Jandamarra had to stand guard over them whilst they waited to face white man justice.

There was no question in Jandamarra’s mind as to what would happen next. He had to shoot Richardson to free the Bunuba elders, restoring his place in Bunuba society, and so a warrior was born.  He then attacked a delivery wagon, taking hold of rifles, ammunition and rations which would fuel the war against colonial settlement on Bunuba land.  

A group of Bunuba men led by Jandamarra and Ellemarra became outlaws on their own country. After spotting the dust kicked up by the hooves of a large herd of cattle at the entrance of Windjana Gorge, the main permanent watering hole in the rugged Napier Ranges, Jandamarra and Ellemarra launched their first attack and killed two white men. It was the first time that guns had been used by Aboriginal people against white men in the Kimberley, and the newspapers across Western Australia seethed with letters and articles from enraged settlers screaming for vengeance.

A heavily armed expedition of 30 police and colonialists was mounted in response. Their destination was Windjana Gorge, an important part of Bunuba country where the expedition was sure they would find and wipe out Jandamarra, Ellemarra and any other Bunuba that would pose a threat and resist the white man. A fierce battle raged between the Bunuba and the mounted expedition, with Bunuba women fighting alongside Jandamarra, loading and reloading guns.

One of the white man’s bullets found its way to Ellemarra, who was killed as a result of his injuries. In a rage, Jandamarra leapt toward the mounted expedition and shot furiously, he was also seriously wounded. With the white man retreating, Jandamarra escaped through a labyrinth of caves using his knowledge of country and with the help of surviving Bunuba. The Bunuba women nursed Jandamarra until he recovered from his injuries, and he never forgot the strength and courage of his Uncle Ellemarra.

As soon as he was able, Jandamarra began a guerilla war from hideouts in the caves and surrounding ranges of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek targeting encroachers on Bunuba land.  Police and station owners retaliated by massacring Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region, shooting down whoever wasn’t perceived to be on the white man’s side. To stop this bloodshed, Jandamarra refocused his tactics and started targeting the animals and possessions of the white man. He deliberately left behind footprints and other traces that told the colonists that he had been there and could have killed them very easily, had he wanted to.

The police tried to pursue Jandamarra after his raids, but he was always one step ahead, nowhere to be found. His ability to suddenly vanish became legendary, the Bunuba and neighbouring regions believed that he was a magical person, and that he could only be caught by another Aboriginal person possessing similar mystical powers. The white man found that trying to catch him was like trying to catch smoke with their bare hands. Some of the colonists grew so afraid of Jandamarra that they abandoned their homesteads and fled to the safety of Derby, a tiny colonial town on the coast. Their invasion was halted. There were many who sat around campfires and on the patios of ration sheds, whispering rumours about a man who could be Jandamarra.

Desperate, and with no-where to turn, the Lennard River police hired Micki, a tracker from the Pilbara. After several expeditions which saw no sign of the elusive Jandamarra, a pool of blood near a cave system at Tunnel Creek led Micki to Jandamarra on 1 April 1897. Shots were exchanged, with a bullet delivering Jandamarra to his death. In a final act of mockery against Jandamarra, the Lennard River police beheaded his corpse as a trophy and sent it to Britain as a scientific specimen. 

The heroic and tragic story of Jandamarra, legend to the Bunaba, lives on. It was one of many untold stories in our nation’s history that is now being shared and the Bunaba community has worked with researchers, writers and film makers to take the story of Jandamarra to the outside world.

In our collection, there is at least one recording that features an oral history account about Jandamarra, told in Bunuba language by Jimmy Bird who was born just a few years after Jandamarra was shot dead in 1897. This audio recording was created by Howard H J Coate between 1961 and 1966 and is part of almost 100 hours of audio recordings that was donated to the AIATSIS Collections. AIATSIS returned digitised copies of the Coate audio recordings to the community at Fitzroy Crossing in 2007.