The View From Mount Clarence

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

Interlude Pursued – Part 7

Originally Published 31 October 2014:

Background to Violence


The events at Cocanarup during the 1880’s did not take place in a vacuum. Precedents of violent repression had been set along the Swan River since 1829, more forcibly at Pinjarra in 1834, the Vasse River and York District between 1835 and 1841 and at various localities in the North West including Boola Boola Station, Broome, in 1865 and Murujuga, Karratha, in 1868. Stories of put downs, battles and clashes both locally and from around Australia were carried in the newspapers of the day, the vulnerability and protection of the isolated settler being the prime concern of the publishing entities.


Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre

Above: Mounted police engaging Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838: Artist Unknown- Source; Wikipedia – Australian Frontier Wars

To get a flavour of the most notorious episodes of  Australian frontier violence visit Australian Frontier Wars and List of Massacres of Indigenous Australians (both Wikipedia entries). These document the better known incidents but in reality only skim the surface of what actually happened. For a moving account of one such event at Myall Creek Station in New South Wales, go here, but be careful, it will affect you. Such accounts are distressing.

So much in remote areas went unreported, existing today, as with Cocanarup Station, only as myth or rumour. It is the intention of these pages to explain and expose what happened at the Phillips River during the 1880’s.

In Western Australia, an historical case of colonial leniency had taken place in 1853 when John Jones who had been tried for the murder of the Wardandi Aboriginal man Neader at Dunsborough (curiously, where I write from this morning) was found guilty of manslaughter. The charge was one of wilful murder, and the evidence indicated that “if ever a foul and deliberate murder was committed, it was on the occasion which led to this trial.”

Jones’ trial took place three years after the first convict ship arrived and the colony’s moral conscience was examining itself closely. In the face of a heretofore ‘pure’ society Western Australia was publicly discussing its obligation to be just, not only towards itself but toward the native as well.

“Crime is a great leveller,” stated The Inquirer in October 1853. “Policy requires that we should convince the native population that in our Courts of Justice they really are what we profess and tell them they are—the equals of the white man, whatever they may be elsewhere.”

The verdict that Jones was guilty only of manslaughter, the paper continued, was indicative of the jury’s disregard of the law’s impartiality when a white man was on trial for the murder of an Aboriginal man. If the law was to make a distinction between white and black, “let it be declared: but to say there is none, and to act as if there were, is a mockery.”

Nonetheless, the result of settler punitive actions on a collective basis  up until that time combined with Jones’ manslaughter verdict gave confidence to settlers in more remote areas that taking matters into their own hands, though illegal, remained not only tolerable but expected.

John Jones’ trial for the murder of  Neader was covered by the Perth Gazette on 7 October 1853 and was the subject of an important article by Professor Amanda Nettlebeck published in the American journal Law and History Review in May of last year.

In relation to the courts and what happened at Cocanarup, the Attorney General of the time, Alexander Onslow, was discussed in relation to the trial of Yungala/Yandawalla, in Interlude Continued (03/08/14). Onslow took the role of court procedure literally, effectively dismissing the case brought by the police and Dunn brothers as corrupt. Onslow’s commitment in that regard, even today, appears criticised in his ADB entry. From the investigations these pages are dedicated to, Onslow’s interpretation represents an application of theory over practise when it came to prosecuting Aboriginal people for violence committed against settlers.

Ned Kelly

In addition to raw native/settler conflict during the time we are concerned with, Australia’s colonial authorities were also battling the scourge of the Bushranger, or outlaw. Moondyne Joe had been at large in Western Australia through the 1860’s and 70’s -though in a mostly benign fashion, and of course Ned Kelly had been troubling the law in Victoria throughout the 1870’s. The height of the Kelly Gang’s notoriety played out between 1878 and 1880, the immediate lead-up period to John Dunn’s death.

Right:  Ned Kelly in 1880. Image Wikipedia Entry

From all of this, which still excludes the localised experiences of the Dunn brother’s and their immediate South Coast neighbours, the Hassells, Dempsters and Moirs, we can assuredly say that by 1870 the pioneer settler did not go into remote country ignorant of the risks, nor ignorant of the prevailing attitude amongst its leading protagonists. That attitude being, when it came to matters of law, order and defence, acting for oneself was simply the unofficial half of a dual process.

Also, relative to this particular post, it’s important to point out two aspects of society influencing the pioneers. These were; (a) the utter dominance of men, and (b) violence as a means of punishment. Western society today continues along a path toward complete equality between the sexes and, for the most part, we have left capital punishment behind, but floggings and hangings were common in the era of early settlement and women played an obedient, practically subservient role to male governance.

With regard to male dominance, there are still examples of men being paid more than women for the same jobs but back in the colonial and post-colonial era when Daisy Bates was at work amongst the Noongars of the South West, women were not regarded in anything like the same light. Daisy Bates, despite living out of a suitcase in a tent and on a subsistence diet, was paid half what other Government employees were getting simply because she was a woman. The Suffragettes may have been having their hour in the era of Daisy Bates, but Cocanarup took place in the backwoods of perhaps Australia’s most backward colony of the time. In all these pages, though I’m at pains to include and emphasize the role and importance of its female characters, it is the deeds of men which govern almost everything; and the same applies to both races.

I make the point because Aboriginal society was also governed in a strictly patriarchal manner. In some ways the differences were incomprehensible to the settlers, but in others though unrecognised they were plainly similar. For example, Aboriginal men practised violence against offenders of lore just as European society did, the death penalty for extreme cases employed by both; it’s just one method of execution differed from the other.

Whites held the idea of racial superiority which allowed them to dismiss what they didn’t understand as primitive or barbaric. Many failed, for example, to see the difference between a spear and a cat-o-nine-tails whip, or a series of spears and the hangman’s noose; the native tool and method being declared uncivilized or wild.


Aboriginal Man - Classic Figure - Unknown Origin

Above: This man, given on one website as from the borderland Fraser Range group whose totem according to Daisy Bates was the “native cherry”, represents the archetypal traditional Aboriginal male. Daisy Bates said the “native cherry” group wandered the lower south west seeking “white protection”. This is because during her time there (1908-1910) most of their men were dead and the families constituted mixed race children. The protection they sought was from the hard line remnants of their once tightly bound family group whose lore they had transgressed. Unattributed image widely used across the internet. This version taken from Janes Oceana website.

Aboriginal men also exercised sexual and economic dominance over their women. Their practise was different because their lifestyles were different, but just as European men made and upheld the law by which their society was governed, which included responsibility for and the maintenance of wealth as well as sexual rights over their wives, Aboriginal men made arrangements to partner women and generate new families in a way which was strictly governed by lore but which functioned fundamentally along economic lines.

In European society social class was matched to social class (for financial as much as cultural compatibility), but the female took domestic responsibility and carried out much of that work. With regard to sexual dominance, in European society men’s behaviour was coded to provide for deviancy where as women’s wasn’t. Poor Henrietta Gillam discovered that. In both societies not every couple were the same, but European men held an implied sexual rite and while following a code of monogamy, frequently disregarded it. In both Aboriginal and European societies men took ownership of the sexual rite. Women, in both cases, at least when it came to the law, had little to do with the decision making process.

In Aboriginal culture, however, the economic role of the married woman was far greater, to the point where it subsumed the sexual role. In European society sexual jealousy prevented a man from easily sharing his woman, where as in Aboriginal society sex was a traded or bartered favour or service. I’ll go into detail about this below because many a settler met his fate at the point of an Aboriginal spear because he didn’t understand the rules of engagement. Understanding Aboriginal lore in respect to kinship, trade and taboo is vital to understanding what might have happened to John Dunn.

Male domination, kinship lore, and the road to inter-racial violence


All societies recognise family relationships and classification of relations necessarily apply. All people understand the associations of mother, father, brother, sister, aunty, uncle etc. Accordingly, laws of sexual conduct as well as inheritance also apply.

In European society the concept of ownership applied to belongings. A man’s measure of wealth was countable by how much money he had, a thing visibly displayed through his dress, his means of transport, his land which he used to farm or upon which he lived. The more grandiose in appearance and manner, the more apparent wealth a man had. When a European man died he generally passed his wealth down in patrilineal fashion. The eldest son acquiring the fixed assets, the remaining children acquiring division of the liquid or movable ones.

In Aboriginal culture ownership (or property, or wealth) came in the form of the woman or women a man was married to. This was his property. Beyond his woman or women, by way of lore, of obligation, all else was shared. What an Aboriginal man owned didn’t come in a form beyond human. He could not trade his place of living and he did not build or create objects that could not be easily carried. What he could trade were knowledge, artefacts of perceived magical or spiritual value and the services of his woman or women.

In Aboriginal society what was passed down or inherited was the person’s classification of being; their moiety, totem and place of birth, each of which were inextricably attached to lore. Depending on where an Aboriginal person lived and the nature of his or her birth, this descended from either the father or the mother.

The way Aboriginal culture evolved, the physical and spiritual health of the people -small in number and roaming over a large area, hunting and gathering according to the availability of resources- effected a small scale economy. Because of the way of living, economy was a limited form of expression but still very much a source of competition and tension.

Crucially too, the structure of the Aboriginal family differed from the European model. Laws applying to conduct between immediate family relations were at odds with each other and neither race appears to have understood each other in those terms. In the reading I have covered it was not until the time of Daisy Bates that a European understanding of Aboriginal family structures was detailed. How much the early settlers truly understood is impossible to know now but it seems to me it was either lack of understanding or disregard for it which led to the ruin of John Dunn and the Aboriginal group whose kala he and his brothers came to inhabit.


Ravy family group (2)

Above: An Aboriginal family group thought to be from the Phillips River area. The era here looks to be early 1900’s. By the time the Dunn brothers came to live at Kukenarup/Cocanarup, from around 1870, traditional Aboriginal family structures were irreversibly broken down and many groups were in disarray. Being in the Bates described borderlands, transgressions of traditional family law were still subject to prosecution. Daisy Bates believed those who chose to live near White settlements, such as these above, were seeking protection from the old ways. The photograph was taken from theKaartdijin Noongar- Noongar Knowledge website  but also appeared in  ‘And The Dingoes Howled’ a collection of stories by Southern Scribes from the Ravensthorpe area. The book was published in  1999.


In two previous Interlude Pursued posts, Parts Two and Six, I  also talked a little about kinship and traditional Aboriginal marriage rights. I talked about male dominance and the practise of arranged marriages, how over time Lore recognised the need within small population groups to retain clear bloodlines by establishing a classification system which identified new-borns by their parent’s moieties and totems. Now, I want to talk a little bit more about Aboriginal kinship and how today it is as strongly understood and applied as ever.

Anna Haebich in her ground-breaking work on the fragmenting of Indigenous families across Australia’s period of European settlement, ‘Broken Circles’, opens as follows . . .

Overlapping circles of extended family lie at the heart of the lives of most Aboriginal Australians. Networks of family relationships determine day-to-day activities and shape the course of destinies. From an early age Aboriginal Australians learn who belongs to whom, where they come from and how they should behave across a wide universe of kin. These are highly valued and integral components of Aboriginal cultural knowledge.


Kinship in Noongar culture today is as strongly understood and applied as ever, with people referring to themselves and each other according to their family relationship rather than by name.  For example; cousin, brother, sister, pop.  Those who don’t understand the complexity of these relationships need to be careful because the words may be similar in Noongar as they are in the English language but the meanings and associations differ. We won’t go too deeply into this but it is important to understand the generalities of Noongar kinship.

“Two primary moiety divisions existed, the Manichmat or ‘fair people of  the white cockatoo’ and Wordungmat or ‘dark people of the crow’, which were the basis of  marriage between a further four class subdivisions: Tondarrup, Didarruk and Ballaruk,  Nagarnook (Bates, 1985). Bates describes the only lawful marriage between the groups to be “the  cross-cousin marriage of paternal aunts’ children to the maternal uncles’ children”, and states that  the four clan groups and relationships, under different names, are “identical in every tribe in Western Australia, east, north, south and southwest…” (1966:24-25).


Moiety is the broadest defining category of Noongar kinship. There are only two, Manichmat and Wordungmat. For the purposes of these pages it’s necessary to understand that in traditional Aboriginal society matching moieties could not marry. It was taboo, forbidden, a great sin of the tribe and an enduring problem of conscience for anyone who transgressed.  The Bates reference above, says that cross cousin marriages were the only lawful kind. The below diagram helps to explain how this worked.

Noongar Kinship Graphic

Above:  An Aboriginal man’s brother’s children were  regarded as his own, his sister’s children as his nieces and nephews. This widening of the immediate family relationship prevented marriages between close relatives. During the time of early settlement, when European men were accepted into an Aboriginal family they could ‘marry’ whomever they chose but once married inherited the same position of an established family member and the laws relating to his conduct applied. Diagram taken from  ‘Anthropology and the Human Condition’ a Wikifoundry page maintained by the National University of Singapore


According to Daisy Bates, cross-cousin marriage laws stated that children could only partner with the the sons or daughters of either their father’s sister or their mother’s brother. This part of Aboriginal law was sacred up until the arrival of the Europeans.  By the early 1900’s along the South Coast, when daisy was at work there, she says she found only one true example of the old cross-cousin marriage law. This reflects the dissolution of the old tribal family groups along with the abandonment of their kalas, their local places of living. By 1910 the new practise of loosely related groups wandering around what was their wider tribal region had fully taken hold.

At the time when the first white men were finding their way into Aboriginal family groups (along the South Coast effectively from 1800 onwards) they were viewed and accepted as returned ancestors. They were identified as spirits belonging to specific deceased persons and given the Aboriginal  name of that ancestor. With that name came identity and with identity all the kinship obligations of that now un-dead returned person.

Some European men did not stay long enough to discover the nature of the culture they had entered into, or perhaps they did, and this is what made them leave. Other’s may never have understood but stayed because their own sense of right and wrong prevented them from transgressing the laws anyway. Others again may have understood and were satisfied enough with them to remain. Largely though, through impassable language barriers, it is most likely very few understood much at all.

Big problems arose when men of European origin stayed within the locality of their new Aboriginal marriage (their wife’s kala) and then broke the kinship rules by making sexual partners of women who were taboo.

This, in all likelihood, is what happened at Cocanarup.

Below I’ve taken an excerpt from a paper called: Gender relations in Aboriginal society. What can we glean from early explorers’ accounts; by Sandra Bloodworth. The paper draws from and considers the experience of early settlers and explorers, some of which we are familiar with here. Namely; George Grey and Edward John Eyre.

Bloodworth says;

The most common view of marriage amongst the Aborigines expressed throughout the observations of the Europeans in the nineteenth century is that women were chattels exchanged amongst the men for their benefit. The relationship is described as one where the woman is a slave, cruelly beaten or speared if she shows any infidelity, often denied her share of the food yet performing the most arduous tasks, working all day, minding the children and carrying all the family’s belongings including the man’s when they travel. This picture has been the basis for many anthropological studies. The fact that marriages are arranged for girls at a very early age or even before birth seems to be proof of the degraded life of Aboriginal women. E.J. Eyre’s statements are typical;


The females, and especially the young ones are kept principally among the old men, who barter away their daughters, sisters or nieces, in exchange for wives for themselves or their sons. Wives are considered the absolute property of the husband, and can be given away, or exchanged, or lent, according to his caprice … Female children are betrothed usually from early infancy … (14)


Eyre concluded that; “little real affection consequently exists between husbands and wives,  a young man values a wife principally for her services as a slave.” (15)

. . .


Eyre also said; “marriage is not looked upon as any pledge of chastity, indeed no such virtue is recognised“. (22) And again, “illicit and almost unlimited intercourse between the sexes” existed. Here, Eyre wants to explain that these habits “are well known to check the progress of population“, so he unwittingly exposes the weakness in his arguments about marriage. (23) . . .


The recorded observations of Europeans in the nineteenth century reveal many contradictions. When read in the context of the work done by Leacock and Sacks, it does seem viable to argue that the gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of “damned whores and god’s police” were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement. Men had every reason to emphasise that Aboriginal women were traded freely amongst Aboriginal men, when they were involved in a society which mostly turned a blind eye to their capture and rape by whites. But even those who were critical of such behaviour could not understand the relations of women and men in terms other than those they learnt in the Old World. This is not something to be surprised at. . .

So we begin to see how the settlers and many of the shepherds who took jobs with the likes of the Dempsters, Dunns, Moirs, Hassells, Pontons, Muirs, Kennedy’s and McGill fell in with the local native population along the South Coast and how their attitudes toward the use of native women will have allowed them to behave freely. This freedom, essentially greed and lust, brought about the downfall of more than one or two.

To explain further, native marriage was a legal union, agreed in advance between a daughter’s parents (her father and his family) and another (much) older man. The arrangement was sacred in terms of bloodline but fundamentally economic in every other way. The man to whom the daughter was betrothed had to pay for her. His obligation was to supply food to his in-laws. In return for this the husband had absolute ownership over his wife.  He could mistreat her, barter her skills and services, even exchange her.  But even after all that, he maintained his ownership; the sense she belonged to him until the day one or the other died.  In that respect, after safeguarding the genetic health of the family, marriage functioned as an economic tool with inalienable ownership rights.

This isn’t easy to comprehend because a man’s wife was also the property of his family. A man’s brother held second right of ownership. If the husband failed to provide, his brother was obliged (or legally entitled) to assume ownership, which also gave him sexual rights. There are many instances recorded in the Bates genealogies where a husband’s brother becomes the second partner of his wife.

The practise looks to have most frequently occurred when the husband died before his wife, but there will have been many instances of family conflict due to this law. The tragic tale of Hoppy, an Esperanace Bay man with a hip disability, recorded through the newspapers, police and court hearings of the day, illustrates not only the settler attitude toward Aborigines of the time but their inability to comprehend native lore, the code by which the old Aborigines still tried to live by, but which was being fatally eroded by the permanence of the new European presence.

Thus, by the time John Dunn returned from South Australia to regain his position as Station-Master at Cocanarup, the property he and his little brother George set about establishing in 1870, the Phillips River people were a mix of wandering families from the north and east and its own fixed people who were influenced by the remaining circumcised and ritualistic hard-line lore abiders from the borderlands just over the Ravensthorpe Range to the north. An unsafe place for the wanderers, ‘who sought White protection’ or anyone White who transgressed old tribal lore.

I’ll finish here by posting a link to a video produced and directed by Glen Stasiuk of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Glen took the case of Weewar, the first Aboriginal West Australian convicted of murder of another Aboriginal person under European law. Weewar avenged the death of his son so the case differs from one of sexual transgression but the video does a very good job of portraying the era and how different the two cultures were. The video is six minutes long and of very high quality, I urge anyone reading to take a look. Because of the quality, the video may take a few seconds to commence.


One response to “Interlude Pursued – Part 7”

  1. Roberta Walley Avatar
    Roberta Walley

    Hello I follow your stories because of my connection with Stephen and William Ponton who had a relationship with an Aboriginal Woman and I am one of the descendants dark in colour I am searching myself for my ancestry..I am intrigued by your findings I do have some information also about my grandfathers identity Arthur Ponton son of William Ponton and Susan Indich daughter of Henry

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