The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

Interlude Pursued – Part 5

Originally Published 1 October 2014:

Why so slowAbove:  Research takes time – I can’t go any faster. Photo Credit –

Today is the first of the month of October and I realised in the column alongside that there was only one entry for the whole of September.  No wonder I’m feeling all antsy and on edge.

When it comes to research, the process of discovery can be thrilling but mostly it’s about trawling endlessly through old records looking for clues, for avenues that lead somewhere. But in order to even get to those avenues you often have to go down blind alleys first, taking risks on some in the hope they’ll open out and bring you on.

James DempsterI’ve made the point before that ‘The View‘ is a work in progress and subject to continual revision. I make assertions and come to conclusions that, at the time of writing, seem entirely logical and justified but which later turn out to be wrong because something I had thought was the truth was in fact, not.  Whenever I discover this I go back and make the correction.

The most recent case of this was removing Andrew Dempster’s name from the Interlude Continued post about Yungala’s trial at the Perth Supreme Court in 1881. It wasn’t Andrew Dempster who was there at all, it was his older brother James. That post has now been corrected and updated; incidentally too, giving me opportunity to add something about the aggressive and brutal nature of James Dempster and his brothers when it came to managing ‘people’ problems.

Opposite: J.P. Dempster in 1890

Kim Scott said once that historical writing for him was like excavation work, a slow laborious process of careful cutting away, of sifting through debris so that important little things didn’t get lost. The end result being the uncovering of something previously formed, a story or a truth that matters. I’m with him on that. It is like brushing away layers of dirt and it’s important to be thorough and gentle and patient all the way through.

I’ve said before that I’ve found it almost staggering that the story of Cocanarup has never been properly researched and told. In recent weeks, while this blog has been stagnating, I’ve been engaging in conversations with various people trying to gain access to photographs and information that will greatly help to bring it to life. These conversations have involved members of the Ravensthorpe Historical Society (RHS) who have been very helpful, providing me with information from sources I hadn’t previously known of. They have taken the time to read and respond to my mails and I’m extremely grateful for it. The story of what happened at Cocanarup is not pleasant and it can’t be easy having people constantly approach you looking for the dirty details of the Noongar massacre of a hundred and thirty years ago, but once I showed genuine interest and a desire to be  absolutely thorough, Ann and Richenda went out of their way to help me.


Fitzgerald National Park - Long ShotAbove: Fitzgerald River National Park from Point Ann – Where Ravensthorpe and a whole lot more is. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons 


There’s far more to Ravensthorpe and the Fitzgerald River National Park area than just Cocanarup. The RHS, as they state themselves, ‘strives to be an active contributor to the richness of life, work and industry in the community by documenting and highlighting the uniqueness of the district’s history, to foster pride in the district’s past and enthusiasm for its future.’ The RHS has the job of promoting what has been and is a unique and magnificent environment in which new Australians have lived since first settlement commenced with the Moir holding at Oldfield River in 1867. I’m aware of that and sensitive to it. These pages are not out to get Ravensthorpe. They are out to tell a story which hasn’t been told yet. However, because Cocanarup happened close to what later became Ravensthorpe town, and involved people who are historically entwined with that town’s coming into being, there is no escaping the association between the two.

What I’m getting at here is an attempt to further the argument for openness, discussion and revision, and for the admitting of culpability and denial where and when necessary. With that behind, the process of moving on can occur, the so-called healing can commence, but without it -like these pages over the month of September- very little happens. The White side harbors its secret and goes about its business as if Cocanarup were a place far, far away in time while the Black side continues to resent the denial as a form of continuing repression. This is what staggers me. In over a hundred and thirty years no-one on the White side has ever attempted to tell the story. It was preferred forgotten, the shame of it preferred to be buried with those who carried the memory, the thought of having to face up to all those sad Noongar faces asking for information too much to have to deal with. But guess what? More than a hundred and thirty years later that shame and discomfort is still there. Today, in the hands of a few families, there is information and photographs, images and answers to questions that instead of allowing history to proceed are locked away in order to protect their custodians from an association they are afraid of and ashamed to admit.


Unknown Noongar Man -Above:  An unknown Menang Noongar man photographed at Mnt Melville, Albany, around 1905. The picture tells a story but imagine if we knew who he was. Photo courtesy Historic Albany on facebook.


A week or so ago I was contacted by a descendant of an old Katanning family who after reading these pages saw names he recognised and came forward to say he had a photograph with Mulyal in it. The photo was taken near Katanning in 1894 and can be found on the inside cover of Merle Bignall’s history of Katanning, ‘A Place To Meet’. The beauty about the information this gentleman had is that in his possession was also the list of names of the Aborigines in the photo. When I put them together, in my mind Mulyal and Dartamabaum and Kitty instantly went from vague anonymity, from named but unknowable persons of the past who were hard to identify with, to front-line characters. Because I was able to put a face to their names I was able to recognise their identity.

If that happened for me, then think what it would do to help bring the story of Cocanarup to life. Think what it would do to help bring the story of Noongar history along the South Coast to an audience whose responsibility it is to know about it.

That photograph was bought from the estate of the man who commissioned it and the original is privately owned. Digital reproductions, after much negotiation, were eventually distributed to certain persons who could prove their ancestral links to those listed, but even then the issue of these images came with conditions. The descendants of those Aboriginal people in the photograph were not at liberty to make public that image and for various reasons still aren’t.

Initially, I thought this was because the owners of the original may have wanted to profit from it but as with almost everything, there is more to the story. Regardless of the reasons,  the end result, for the time being anyway, is that I am not able to use the official image here. I may publish a scanned copy from inside ‘A Place To Meet’ but it wont contain any detail relating to names.


BlockageAbove:  Not an historical image. There’s been a blockage. Photo Credit –


A second research blockage also occurred over the last few weeks, this one related to the story of Henrietta Gillam. The custodians of that family’s history do not appear willing to share it. Through my own hard work I’ve been able to uncover quite a bit about the relationships which existed between the Dunn and Gillam families of the Porongurups and of their movements between Albany, the Phillips River, Adelaide, Port Augusta and Newcastle, NSW. Most of which I have already made public here. The blockage regarding the confused and mysterious love story of Henrietta Gillam and John Dunn stems from the discovery of a child named Amy Selina Dunn who died in Adelaide in 1877, aged two. She is buried at the West Terrace Cemetery in central Adelaide. The father’s name is John Dunn. Carpenter. (John James Dunn was an apprenticed ships carpenter). The mother’s name was not recorded and there is no birth registration either. The discovery of  baby Amy’s death in Adelaide aligned to other information including the discovery that the father’s name given on Grace Gillam’s birth registration was James (possibly John’s brother) throws a whole new light on what might have taken place.

The relationship between John Dunn and Henrietta Gillam was compelling from the outset. To know it and understand it more fully will add immeasurably to the human story behind what went wrong at Cocanarup.

Keeping silent about information relating to such an important historical event, especially when asked, is hard to understand. John and Henrietta’s relationship ended over 130 years ago, there can only be good that comes from it now.

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