By 1832 economic conditions in the infant colony of Western Australia had stagnated. Captain Irwin, appointed lieutenant governor in James Stirling's absence, frequently resorted to military methods of social control; even minor breaches of the peace stemming from privation, such as the theft of food, were met with an iron fist.
In December 1833, the Perth Gazette reported that four ‘young urchins’ had been apprehended and brought before the magistrate for ‘robbing the Government garden, of grapes, peas, &c’. As punishment, two of the boys ‘were placed in the stocks, with a label stuck over their heads, indicating the nature of the offence’; they were then ‘all delivered over to their parents, with the understanding that they were to receive a severe flogging’.
The Gazette did not criticise this draconian form of retribution; rather, it implied that the sentence was lenient, commenting that ‘the next offender, we should hope, will be prosecuted with rigour, as it is of the greatest importance, that the various exotics, fruit-trees and plants, now coming to maturity, should be protected’. These unfortunate boys were not the only minors to suffer the indignity of the stocks; others still were flogged at the public whipping post erected on St George’s Terrace.
Yet it was the increasing number of bloody confrontations between settlers and Noongar communities that presented the most serious threat to the stability of the colonial state during Stirling’s absence. By the early 1830s the expanding British settlement had seriously restricted indigenous people’s access to and use of land in and around Perth. Hints of ‘impending unrest’ had first emerged in 1830 when the theft of flour and potatoes, and the spearing of pigs and sheep, resulted in a skirmish between a colonial militia and a Noongar group near Lake Monger.
By 1832, continuing indigenous opposition combined with settlers’ anxiety and uncertainty about the colony’s future ‘brought tension to a flash point’. Bloody attacks were followed by even bloodier reprisals and over the following two years several settlers and scores of Noongar people were killed. The ongoing conflict clearly had the potential to undermine the authority of the government, and Captain Irwin had little compunction in employing drastic methods in his efforts to crush indigenous opposition and curb settler vigilantism.
Irwin concentrated his attention on breaking the back of Noongar resistance in Perth and in the process overlooked many atrocities committed by colonists. Furthermore, he frequently dispensed with legal procedures altogether and resorted to summary justice. In early May 1833 the lieutenant governor issued a proclamation declaring the prominent indigenous leaders Yagan and his father Midgegooroo to be outlaws ‘deprived of the protection of the British laws’ after they were suspected of heading a ‘party of Natives’ that killed two settlers near Bull’s Creek. The proclamation also authorised and commanded ‘all and every [one of] His Majesty’s subjects’ residing in the colony to capture or assist in capturing the two men ‘dead or alive’ and offered significant financial rewards as an incentive.
A military party captured Midgegooroo two weeks later. He was denied the opportunity of a fair trial in open court; the Executive Council instead issuing a death warrant after briefly considering a series of depositions presented on 21 May. The sentence was carried out shortly afterwards, when Midgegooroo was ‘pinioned and blindfolded, and bound to the outer door of the Jail’ before being executed by a firing squad drawn from the 63rd Regiment. Lieutenant governor Irwin himself gave the signal to fire. This terrible spectacle was witnessed by a ‘great number of persons’ who generally expressed a feeling of satisfaction and, in some instances, ‘loud and vehement exultation’. Midgegooroo was buried in the grounds of the jail, now the site of the Deanery, a short walk away from St George’s Cathedral.
Map of Perth showing Barracks and Jail (J. Arrowsmith, London, 1833).
'Execution', Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 25 May 1833. Accessed via Trove (http://trove.nla.gov.au).
Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 4 May 1833; 25 May 1833; 14 December 1833.
Neville Green, ‘Aborigines and White Settlers in the Nineteenth Century’ in C.T. Stannage, A New History of Western Australia (Crawley, UWA Press, 1981).
Neville Green, Broken Spears: Aboriginals and Europeans in the Southwest of Australia (Perth, Focus, 1984).
C.T. Stannage, The People of Perth: A Social History of Western Australia’s Capital City (Perth, Perth City Council, 1979).