The View From Mount Clarence

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

White Man Goes To Cocanarup

I stood there as that White Man. As part of the colonial influx which created and then sustained the aftermath of that particular story.



Above: Under a matching sky, looking southwest across the Phillips River scrub plain toward the homestead at Cocanarup. This is the primary site of the South Coast’s late -1800’s Aboriginal massacres. Image: Cellphone camera capture, 11.30 a.m. Sunday, 18th September, 2022. Source: Ciaran Lynch Private Collection


The first post on The View From Mount Clarence blog was dated 27 March, 2014. In it I set out my motivations and intentions. I wanted to be certain about Indigenous history in the place I grew up. There were important people in my early life who I never got to know properly, and at the time of writing (because I was living in Dublin, Ireland) there seemed small chance I was going to reconnect  again.

There were other reasons too. Often, people are compelled to do things by forces they don’t necessarily understand. Or find hard to articulate. They just go about doing what they have learned to do; daily, monthly, yearly. I guess, however, if you choose writing as a means of addressing those driving forces it is likely somewhere along the line you are going to set something down that comes close to explaining them.

The View From Mount Clarence started out as a vehicle for educating myself, as best I could, on the subject of racial integration at Albany, Western Australia, and along the South Coast between Albany and places east of there as far as Adelaide. I had started that education by going in search of Noongar literature and by dint of spatial timing came across the work of Kim Scott. I then wanted to do more research because Scott’s work had inspired me to write a series of short stories which, I thought, needed support by way of a dedicated weblog. I thought they needed support because I wasn’t sure what I’d written amounted to an acceptable whole and what I didn’t want was to have set out upon a misguided narrative. What I didn’t want to do was make something and then have it discredited as biased, wrong or incomplete.

Criticism still comes, but I know I didn’t just make stuff up to fill the gaps.

In a way, I needn’t have bothered. The internet at large is an unprotected web of deceit, even within it’s most trusted domains. Designed or otherwise. There are so many errors everywhere, whatever meagre concepts I put forward as tales of historical fiction could form no more than another ubiquitous drop in that infinite indeterminate ocean. Yet somehow, the idea and importance of telling the truth, or at least attempting to do so with as much integrity as one can muster, remains a vital tenet of these pages. As it does, I must say, with many other contributors out there.


Above: The very first post on The View From Mount Clarence, a title driven by the eastwards aspect as you look out over King George Sound from the summit. Albany and its cross-cultural history emerged from the east and leads back the same way. Ours, as we have found here, is a uniquely South Coast story. Image: Screenshot cropped from TVFMC’s inaugural post; 27 March, 2014. Source: Ciaran Lynch Private Collection


So, when I eventually made it to Cocanarup last Sunday morning, on the back of a weekend retreat in Hopetoun, I found myself looking out over an open scrub plain down into the valley of the upper Phillips River at the reflective face of a distant homestead thinking how ordinary and unremarkable it was. Thinking how the veneer of the history I was interested in, had spent the last 12 years investigating, offered nothing but a disheveled sky over a land whose soil was so poor nothing grew more than a few feet from the ground. Yet on the inside I was all a-jelly, quivering, going on sick. Questions of validity, of the right to even be there, of the right to talk about what happened and the result of what happened. The process of building content for my precious blog and protecting it with claims of proprietorship, of interpretive copyright, as if aspects of this history somehow belonged to the time I had taken to find them again and to lay them out as new. As if my work, driven in the first place by someone else’s revelations, held some kind of tangible value that entitled me to realise it. To in some way profit from it.

Readers who have come to these pages on a repeated basis know what I’m talking about when I say Cocanarup. For those who don’t, Cocanarup is a massacre site. Co-ordinates upon the South Coast which delineate settler intolerance and ultimate capitulation. Cocanarup is a spread of infertile acreage whereupon the willingness to face hardship and difficulty fell to the overwhelming forces of hatred and destruction. If one thing tells us about humanity, how good we are, or can be, it is the stories we tell. All of the best stories are based upon the overcoming of difficulty. Triumph over adversity, as it were. They are not based upon capitulation. They are not about giving up. This is why what happened at Cocanarup still hasn’t been admitted to by the families and authorities behind it. Because if its your story, it isn’t a good one.


No one settler-side of the equation is willing enough to initiate discussion, let alone stand up and proudly tell the tale of Cocanarup. Because settler-side of the equation there’s nothing to be proud of.  Because there is a very big difference between navigating difficulty and ignoring it, then attempting to destroy that difficulty when it keeps coming back. As Jordon Peterson once put it; You can’t twist the fabric of reality and expect it not to snap back. Such are the lessons of life, whether it be yours singularly or the entire nation/religion/culture to which you belong.


The weekend at Hopetoun came courtesy of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories group, a retreat I was privileged enough to be offered a place at. This group has been active for around 20 years now. It is made up of persons who identify with the bush stone curlew as representative fauna of the South Coast. Among the indigenous of  W.A.’s South Coast the bush stone curlew is known as the wirlo bird. Hence Wirlomin. Although it is a family or clan association, members don’t necessarily have to be from the South Coast, nor do they have to be indigenous. They just have to identify with the significance of the Wirlo as the group’s icon and with its presence between (roughly) Albany and Cape Arid, and of course recognise the work of the group as culturally restorative.

It is no co-incidence the Wirlomin group and their work fits with these pages as it is no co-incidence I found myself at Cocanarup with members of their supporting families. The work of these pages led from first contact to Cocanarup and then from Cocanarup to today.  A circuitous route perhaps but what happened at Cocanarup remains the key pivot point of the history. Last Sunday morning, for me, was the moment at which every word (both read and written) behind the creation of these pages spilled out upon the landscape before me. Like the waxy shrub leaves, the twigs, the lumps of red and grey soil, the rocks and stones scattered across it, every crazy wildflower that happened to be blossoming at the time, every spider and ant crawling about and every insect and bird above, those words flooded the ground and air as it panned away over the valley to the hazy outline of Middle Mount Barren in the distance. Significance, or validation, is a powerful thing. It can leave you kind of shaky sometimes.

Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories is concerned with bringing people back to country largely through written and spoken word, but also song, music and picture. It is concerned with identification with a place and a time, or more precisely, an era. The era of conflict and domination, of conquest and the bloody means of conquest. The group is concerned with healing and regeneration. It is concerned with welfare and education. It is a humble force for good and it is run and managed by good people. Very good people.


Above: Wirlomin Language and Stories Inc. website, one entry point to the enormous regeneration work being done by members of the South Coast Indigenous community.  Image: Cropped image of the front page of  Wirlomin Language and Stories website. Source: Wirlomin Langauge and Stories Inc website.


This is no easy post, as none of this has been an easy journey. I am reminded of another tenet I set when starting out with this. That I cannot speak as or for anyone or any group which is Aboriginal. Although they relate and are useful, these pages are not intended for people of Indigenous origin, they are intended for people of European extraction, white people like myself, who came to settle this corner of the world over the last two hundred years and who played a part, knowingly or not, in the supression of the Indigenous presence.

I am not Aboriginal, I cannot pretend to be. I am Irish. 99% Celtic, 1% Scandinavian, as the DNA shows. Knowing where and how to stand while addressing our cross-cultural history as wadjela, as a white man, is irksome. The role of these pages is to ackowledge the legitmacy of Noongar claims regarding what happened in the past and to support the process of recognition, culpability and reconciliation on the part of the post-colonial settler community. It’s about putting your hand up and saying, yes, it’s true. That did happen and I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

I stood at Cocanarup (Kukenarup Memorial) as White Man. As part of the colonial influx which created and sustained the aftermath of that particular scenario. One of various along the South Coast and  one of dozens that occurred across Australia during the worst of the colonial period. Because I’ve done the reading, because I’ve looked closely at the records, I know what happened along the South Coast and how it came about. Albeit interpreted my way, it’s all here in these pages.

The past is less about pointing the finger and apportioning blame than it is, for both groups, about recognition. Simply acknowledging what happened did in fact occur. Then it’s about working through that to find reconciliation and progress. For people coming from the Aboriginal families however,  there’s more. For them, the other, it is about healing and reclamation and regeneration and restoration. It is about renewel and rebuilding, about regaining strength enough to derive a positive and powerful presence in the future world.

It’s about starting again, pretty much from scratch. Far, far easier to put into words than actual practice.


Above: Assorted photographs from the Wirlomin weekend at Hopetoun, Ravensthorpe and Cocanarup, courtesy of various attendees.

Wirlomin are not the only family group to recognise Cocanarup as belonging to their past, there are others too, but the Wirlomin group is lucky because Kim Scott is a founder of the association and a primary source of the energy and direction within it. In that leadership Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories has not only the history but the wisdom to manage that history in today’s world. Through the reconstruction of language, the reuse and revitalisation of language, and the stories of that language, comes identification and with identification comes recognition. The South Coast’s Indigenous are no different to any or all of the other Indigenous groups across Australia. All suffered the same fate, more or less. And still do. Management of that predicament comes first through recognition of what once was, of what happened and the results of what happened. Management of that predicament avoids victimisation and the pitfalls of subjugation. It focuses on personal and group validity, on pride and esteem, and it progresses from there toward a safe, healthy and rewarding life.

What is required is a pathway, a pathway which starts with the young and builds in scope. Language and story are fundemental to intellectual growth, they are the mechanisms by which we learn to see and negotiate the world. Easier for possessors of the dominant language and culture. Easier as well to stick with the prevailing narrative.  Harder to go back to the scraps of information pertaining to your original tongue which remain, and to piece that tongue together again. Much harder to stitch sounds into words, words into sentences and verses, and they into stories and songs. Harder to go out into country where death and desolation came and to tell those stories to yourself. Then to encourage a shy audience, an audience who doesn’t like to hear of what happened, and tell them.

Above: Wirlomin Language and Stories has rebuilt aspects of traditional South Coast language to the extent traditional stories can now be told through picture book format as well as song. Published through UWA Press, there is a collection of stories relating to traditional life and legend along the South Coast, incorporating the significance of both land and sea. Image: Book cover of one of the stories, Dwoort Baal Kaat. Source:  UWA Press website.


Resistance, struggle and adversity. None of the stories we want to remember survive if these things are neither met nor overcome. If these things are conquered by incomplete or unfair means, if we twist the fabric of reality in an attempt to disguise or obliterate, that reality snaps back. Some time, some place, it bites hard. The hurdles, the barriers to continuity have to be negotiated. They have to be resolved, they have to be overcome by fair means. Otherwise they manifest as illness and take their toll that way.

I hope I’m able to convey some sense of scale here.

The enormity of colonisation upon an unsuspecting people. The enormity of that people’s suffering. The enormity of two hundred years of supression. The enormity of a waking conscious that wrestles with that realisation, then tackles it through the easy language. The enormity of mastering that easy language to the point where you can turn it back on itself. The enormity of a lifetime of focus and dedication toward a cause whose rewards aren’t tangible. The enormity of founding something with genuine substance, with building block material reclaimed from the ashes of the past, knowing that it must not falter. That it must continue. That this is only the beginning. The enormity of knowing you will never see the grown tree you have planted and can only hope your life’s work amounts to what you imagined over the very long haul ahead.

Wirlomin Language and Stories is lucky to have Kim Scott. The South Coast is lucky to have Kim Scott. The whole of Noongar Boodja is lucky the same way, as is the State of W.A.  As Australia is among other colonised countries whose Indigenous suffered similarly.

Last weekend the enormity of what my Irish immigrant parents brought their young family into almost 60 years ago lay in a spread of poor soil beneath a patchwork of cloud skudding onwards as indifferently as time itself. And me in the midst, surrounded but alone. A White Man at Cocanarup who knows what happened there 142 years ago, and the jobs going on all around still trying to deal with it today.

What happened at Cocanarup occurred in 1880. You can read about it here by going to the category The Dunn family of Woodburn and Cocanarup. It is an extensive read over multiple posts and will take some time. For an overview of the entire history in one piece read A Short History of Aboriginal Relations along the South Coast through the story of the Albany Aborigine Norngern and his King George Town Contemporaries.


Above: Kim Scott, Distinguished Professor at the Curtain University School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry. Source: Curtain University on-line staff profile.


Following is an excerpt from a paper titled Ever-widening circles: Consolidating and enhancing Wirlomin
Noongar archival material in the community by Clint Bracknell of Edith Cowen University and Kim Scott. The entire paper comes from the Edith Cowen University online research repository and can be accessed by clicking on the link.


Who are Wirlomin?


The Noongar word for bush stone curlew, Burhinus grallarius, is wirlo and -min is a suffix used to describe a collective of people associated with or similar to something. Wirlomin is used as a proper noun to name our clan, group and family. The wirlo is a predominantly nocturnal, skinny, long-legged and large-eyed bird that relies on camouflage for survival. When we visit schools, Hazel Brown sings out its eerie call to groups of children and delights in telling them how scared she was when she first heard its voice. As she says, wirlo can disguise itself so well you might never see it. Partly because of its blood-curdling call, some Noongar groups regard wirlo as a messenger of death. For us Wirlomin, it is a spiritual companion and, often being invisible, its defining characteristic is its voice. This vulnerable bird speaks from the realm of spirit to remind us of our place and of who we are. Noongar language can also function in that way.


Wirlomin is a communal identity used to refer to a particular Noongar community that is now stretched across a wide area of southern WA. Hazel Brown and Helen Hall are amongm the last of a generation of senior Noongar people who have ensured the survival of the term. Hazel Brown explains:


Old great-great-grandmother’s old father used to shout like a curlew, and disguise himself to look like a curlew. And that’s why that family called themselves Wirlomin. Wirlo, that means curlew, see? And actually they’re a very shy bird. You’ll hear them, but you’ll very seldom see ’em. Unless you’re very quiet, very quiet … (Scott & Brown 2005: 22)


She refers to a specific Wirlomin site and ritual:

We got right in the swamp, freshwater, got right up there close, and just before we get towards where the old camps were, Daddy said, “You gotta stop here now and make a fire. You gotta make smoke and let ’em know that you’re coming.” So he cleared the ground and he got a little bit of dry grass and he dug a hole and he lit a fire. He had to be very careful ’cause it was summertime and we didn’t have any water. The fire burned up and he chucked some green bushes on; and then the smoke, see. Soon as the smoke went up … well, you shoulda heard the curlews, boy. Hear them singing out. They singing out over there, and then on this side. All around us … Daddy sang out: “Wirlo wii wii wii …” He said, “That’s it, you’re right now. That’s the Wirlomin people letting us know. We’re right now.” And he just hit the two sticks together like that, and no more. We heard ’em, but we didn’t see one. (Scott & Brown 2005: 24)


The wirlo may be hidden from view but heard by those who go through certain processes, wait and listen out. One might benefit from working with endangered Indigenous languages in a similar fashion. The network of Noongar people connected to Wirlomin heritage covers a large area of ancestral country, ranging from approximately Cape Riche along a quite narrow strip of land reaching beyond Esperance. This area intersects with territory specified in the Tindale map (1974) as: Koreng – after the southeastern dialect Kurin (Laves 1929–1932); Wudjari – a term from the neighbouring Ngatju language, according to von Brandenstein (1988: 131); and Njunga – presumably one of the many alternate spellings of Noongar. The southeastern Noongar region is also referred to as Ngokgurring – ‘shell’ people (Taylor in Curr 1886: 392) and Kwetjman – ‘boney’ people (Douglas 1976: 6). More than anything, these names suggest a multiplicity of relationships between people and place.


Above: Courtesy Birdlife.Org.Au website,  Wirlo – The bush stone curlew


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