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After 160 years, it's time for Yagan to go home

Graham Nown and Andrew Rosthorn on how a dispute over a Liverpool grave is denying a homeland funeral to a legendary Aboriginal leader

Graham Nown and Andrew Rosthorn

Australia's entire Aboriginal nation has united to demand the immediate return of the head of one of its greatest heroes, interred in a Liverpool cemetery. But Home Office officials have refused a request for exhumation after objections from relatives of stillborn babies buried in the same public grave.

The return of Aboriginal remains, severed as gruesome souvenirs by early white settlers and displayed as mantlepiece ornaments, or sold as scientific curios, has become a burning political issue in Aboriginal Australia.

The head of Yagan, the first Aboriginal in Western Australia to speak up for his people's rights in the face of European settlement, has become the focus of a campaign demanding that museums return Aboriginal relics. Many have been reluctant over the years, claiming skulls and other bones to be exhibits of scientific interest.

Yagan's head, the subject of a 10-year search by Aboriginal elders and anthropologists from Southampton University, was buried by Liverpool Museum in 1964. The unmarked grave in the Kirkdale Cemetery, Everton, also contains the remains of a Peruvian mummy.

Professor Peter Ucko, formerly of Southampton University, now head of the London Institute of Archaeology, led the search for the head at the request of the Aboriginal nation. His findings left little doubt to its identity.

After receiving no satisfactory response from petitioning the government and appealing to Liverpool City Council and the Home Office, Aboriginal rights activist Ken Colbung MBE, a JP in Western Australia, is travelling to Britain this week to demand the immediate return of the head of Yagan, shot dead by a teenage sheep farm labourer in 1833.

"I really need to talk to the mothers of those babies," says Mr Colbung, who is one of Yagan's descendents. "I need to put it to them properly, explain what it will mean to us if they will just change their minds.

"I've been working on this for years. The Australian government takes no interest in helping us. It's actually the British government that's paying for me to come over. They were getting nowhere talking to the mothers, so I hope they'll give me a chance. They came to our committee of elders and asked if me if I would help.

"The best course appears to be to remove Yagan's head from Britain without ceremony and return it to Western Australia, where it can be joined with the rest of his remains.

"It is Aboriginal belief that because Yagan's skeletal remains are incomplete, his spirit is earthbound. The uniting of his head and torso will immediately set his spirit free to continue its eternal journey. The planned full burial of this warrior and leader will have enormous cultural and social impact on the Aboriginal people."

Yagan, a leader of the Tondarup Ballaruk clan to which all South-West Australian Aboriginal people belong, is regarded as an outstanding leader who tried to reconcile whites and blacks in the 1830s. A statue by Australian sculptor Robert Hitchcock was erected to his memory on Herisson Island, Western Australia, in 1980.

It was here that Yagan first encountered Europeans, led by Captain James Stirling, who described the Aboriginal elder as "one of the most intelligent men I've met, black or white".

His brother, Domjum, was shot while allegedly trying to steal flour from a store, and his head hacked off. Yagan had a pounds 30 bounty placed on him by settlers fearful he might exact revenge.

When Yagan's father was killed, he speared two soldiers who had taken part in the murder. The Lieutenant Governor administrator of the Swan River area stepped-up military patrols to search for him. Yagan was eventually shot for the reward by a farm boy, William Keats, and his head preserved and brought to Britain.

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