Following my review of That Deadman Dance

Following (coincidentally not consequentially!) my recent review of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance there has been a debate in the letters pages of the West Australian about the killing of a number of Noongar in 1834 by a force led by Governor Stirling. In the context it must be said of a remarkably pagan debate about whether Stirling’s bones should be brought back to WA where they might be more suitably venerated than in their present about to be disturbed location in England.

The following letter, by Associate Professor Simon Forrest, Curtin University Elder in Residence, appeared on 1 June 2015. [I trust my transcription turns out, I am typing on the screen of my Galaxy tablet, having been stuck for 10 hours and counting, waiting to unload at a mine 1,000 km north of Perth]. For the information of non West Australians, Pinjarra is about 80 km south of Perth and inland of Mandurah and the Peel Estuary.

“The story of the events on October 28, 1834, near what is now the town of Pinjarra has historically been referred to as the Battle of Pinjarra.

The letter by Alex Munro (21/5) says the modern day reference to the battle as a “massacre” is historically incorrect.

The battle, he says, occurred because of an attack on settlers in the Swan River Colony and the burning of the flour mill at South Perth, now the Old Mill.

His letter faithfully keeps to the non-Aboriginal version of events. Any efficient analysis of John Septimus Roe’s journal of the punitive expedition will, together with research around the historical events leading up to the battle or massacre,  question Mr Munro’s viewpoint.

Although the South Perth mill is part of the story, it was not burnt by Noongar, as implied by Mr Munro. The Aboriginal leader, Calyute, and his men did raid the mill to take flour that was normally given to them but because of a not so good season of crops in Guildford, flour was rationed and the first to miss out was the Noongar.

Also contrary to what Mr Munro states as an attack by Noongar on the colony is not so.

Governor James Stirling was certainly concerned about a possible alliance of the local Noongar groups that may have led to an attack on the colony but it never eventuated.

One of his reasons to travel to the Pinjarra area was to try to stop the Bindjareb people (this is where Pinjarra gets its name) joining such an alliance.

The West Australian of the time listed 21 Noongar who were killed, including women and one child. If the conflict at Pinjarra on that fateful day was a battle, a battle normally takes place between armies of warring men, but this was not the case.

Also, if it was a battle,  the armed conflict between the two groups of men may have taken possibly five minutes because Noongar men were only armed with spears.

Roe’s journal states the conflict started at around 8am and the killing of Bindjareb people continued until around 10am. The use of the word “battle” becomes questionable and a word like “massacre”, particularly from a Noongar perspective, challenges the view of the perpetrators.

It is also interesting to note that Stirling endeavoured to keep his expedition secretive. Only he and Roe left Perth on horseback, so Noongar spies would not get information about an armed expedition.

On the way to Peel’s place in modern day Mandurah, Stirling arranged reinforcements to his expedition at points along the way.  When the expedition left Peel’s place the expedition now numbered 24, comprising five civilians (including Roe) and 19 mounted police and soldiers (including Stirling).

On that fateful morning Stirling’s group surrounded the Bindjareb Noongar on three sides.  The initial skirmish that started with one of the two smaller groups of Stirling’s men and the Bindjareb men led to the rest of the Bindjareb retreating in the direction of the Stirling-led larger group hiding behind a hill, as stated in Roe’s journal: “On approaching an abrupt rising ground, the rest of the party halted out of sight”.

Stirling’s group opened fire as the Bindjareb tried to escape towards the river.

This event has been well researched by Noongar scholars and non-Aboriginal scholars.  I take many people to Pinjarra and follow Stirling’s exact route and talk about the events of the day in a spirit of reconciliation, an acknowledgement of our shared history.

The “Battle of Pinjarra” was certainly not a battle, and it may not have been a massacre. But we know the leader of the Swan River Colony led a secretive, punitive expedition to attack a group of Bindjareb people, living and camping on their land, as they had done for many thousands of years.

The Bindjareb retaliated against Stirling’s punitive force, fighting for their freedom, land, culture and way of life.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


Update 18/11/2019: story in Guardian (here)

11 thoughts on “Following my review of That Deadman Dance

  1. […] Healy writes, ‘Literature is a search for meaning by an individual, which becomes meaning for the writer and his society.’ And goes on to claim that because massacres such as Myall Creek or Pinjarra were not written about they remained ‘acts’, and without reflection acts have no meaning. ‘Governor Stirling lived in his actions of destruction; whatever meaning might have emerged from Pinjarra was stifled’. (My post on the Pinjarra massacre here). […]


    • Hi Andy, thanks for getting in touch. I have become increasingly interested in the way that contact between Whites and Indigenous peoples is written about, or in the case of massacres, not written about. My sources are nearly always secondary, that is to say books, though I will sometimes use Trove to see what was written in newspapers at the time. For the post on the Kukenarup Massacre my material came from Kim Scott when I contacted him after reading Kayang and Me.

      I wish you well with the Noongarpedia. I am of course quite happy to be referenced and for you to use material that I might have discovered elsewhere (in old books usually) but I’m not sure you need an old white guy to be a contributor.

      Write to me at if you think I might be able to help with information, rgds, Bill Holloway

      Thinking about it, I might go back through my posts and tag those that deal with Noongars, for instance


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