Mokare: 1800 – 1831
Not since the time of Mokare has there been more future driven anxiety facing the South Coast’s Indigenous.
As final deliberation on the Single Noongar Claim looms, Western Australia’s South-Western Aborigines face acceptance of the decades long Native Title case against the Government of Australia, an issue as much rooted in the story of Mokare and first contact at King George’s Sound as with Midgegooroo and Yagan at Perth.
This post comes as response to the Noongar artefact exhibition Yurlmun: Mokare Mia Boodja at the West Australian Museum, Albany, a co-incidental display which ties physical objects from Mokare’s time to the resolution of an approaching two-hundred year ordeal.
Sponsored by the British Museum, the exhibition runs from Wednesday, 2nd Nov, 2016 to Sunday, 9th April, 2017.
The exhibition title translates as Returning: Mokare’s Home Country, words of such symbolic magnitude they render the artefacts transcendent. As if possessed by Dreamtime elements, these original spears, spear throwers, axes, hammers and boomerangs come as direct representation from a time long past; the era of the military garrison.
190 years ago last Spring, when heightening European interest resulted in the establishment of a New South Wales military outpost at a place where he and his family group happened to keep their home fires, an enduring image of Mokare was first drawn. Since then, his frequency of mention in the papers of the South Coast’s earliest documenters has attracted and maintained interest.
Indeed, most who have reviewed this literature accept Mokare bridged the determined but guarded endeavours of both British and French navigators who pre-dated settlement, before befriending the command at the vanguard of the town’s physical beginnings. These views hint at the notion the young Menang man played lead role in what may be imagined a Shakesperean style tragedy, the repercussions of which are still keenly felt today.
From all aspects, Mokare’s place in the history of settlement along the South Coast is assured, but this does not mean he was, or is even now, universally approved as cross-cultural hero.
Mokare was not the seat of Menang authority at King George’s Sound, but he was the communicator, the one through which most of the relationship was conducted and through whom a good deal of what is understood about original Menang culture in the immediate Albany area was gained.
We know this because of the documents left behind.
Nonetheless, as the history we know can only be the history that was written, and the only people who wrote of and at the place and time we are concerned with were who historian Gwen Chessell called, ‘the incomers’ -that is, the invading colonial force- that history lacks balance.
What exists is the picture of a man favourably perceived by the conquering colonial force, the same force (for example) revising its history through these very pages. i.e. White writing on black history. The emergent Mokare is someone who accepted the incomers, did all he could to facilitate their integration into his factional Aboriginal world, but who ultimately lost his life and the lives of others very close to him in pursuit of it.
The Mokare most analysts have come to know has been championed since Robert Stephens began assembling greater Albany’s past in the wake of its first centenary and furthered when Neville Green began publishing in earnest from the late 1970s. Green’s untapped resource was historical data relating to Western Australia’s Aborigines, a significant portion of which comprised Albany initiated files. In 1992 he co-authored Commandant of Solitude, a compilation of the journals and commentary on the life of Captain Collet Barker who knew Mokare perhaps best of all. Nationwide interest in Mokare spiked when a sparkling pro-Noongar piece called Mokare’s Domain, by little-known local Acheaologist Dr William Ferguson, appeared in Australians to 1788, one of five volumes comprising the bicentennial historical extravaganza Australians: A Historical Library, published late in 1987. Ferguson’s contribution, which asserts Mokare as peacemaker, someone to whom ‘all Australians of the southwest, black and white, owe a debt‘, was lifted as a highlight piece and published in The Canberra Times in October of the same year. During the 1990s Mokare’s cause was taken up by Bob Howard, an Albany based historian of Aboriginal descent determined to compile, unify and promote local Noongar history. Howard was instrumental in having a statue of Mokare commissioned and erected (1997) close to the Albany Town Hall, the site of which subsumed Mokare’s grave, dug for him way back in August 1831.
Largely because of Mokare original Aboriginal/Settler relations at King George’s Sound are seen as having run as smoothly as any across Australia’s entire colonial experience. For this reason, amongst the majority population anyway, he is now remembered as that man of peace and become an icon of European/Aboriginal relations in an All-Australian context.
For others however, Mokare’s welcome is regarded as a defection from Aboriginal tradition and a betrayal of his ancestral responsibilities. To some who comprise what is now a minority community very much in touch with its origins, with its disintegration and subsequent regeneration, Mokare represents Aboriginal failure to stand against the invading force.
Many of today’s Noongars take pride in the resistance put up by Perth’s Yagan and Midgegooroo, and through the massacre at Pinjarra find fuel for their protesting voice, essential armour in the ongoing fight for justice, whereas down on the South Coast there remains the dilemma of having no such banner to wave.
For many Southern Noongars, Mokare, and others like him, are yet to be reconciled as acceptable Aboriginal men.
Mokare was born at the turn of the 19th Century. Without a known date but with fairly solid reckoning from writers who actually knew him we can reasonably assume the year 1800. By further reckoning Mokare’s name is derived from the Noongar season Mokkar or Moken, he was born in winter, sometime between April and July.
Adopting that measure, Mokare therefore died a few months after his 31st birthday.
To those who eschew superstition, it is accepted his death was likely caused by influenza contracted from the European presence with whom he had been sharing living quarters, on and off, for five and a half years. There remains a belief however, that Mokare’s slow demise was the result of having been sung by his enemies, those who could not abide his alliance with the new white presence. To them it was invoked magic, what some might call spiritual justification, which killed their enemy.
Such is the power of his actions and the weight of history.
Above: Mokare as depicted in the Spring of 1826 by Louis de Sainson, artist on the French ship Astrolabe. Source: State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Mokare made it his business to be with and among the visitors and settlers of his era, befriending most to the point he was regarded by them with genuine affection. This is not something that sits comfortably with a descendant Aboriginal community that is still struggling today.
Mokare’s white friendships weren’t with just anyone either. He made close association with the leaders, and of them with those he found he could communicate best with. In the case of pre-settlement visiting ships he made impressions upon their officers, in the case of Major Lockyer’s original command it was across the board but most beneficially with Dr Isaac Nind. Afterwards, it was the Commandant of Solitude himself, Captain Collet Barker. Post Barker, the original free settlement leader, Resident Magistrate Dr Alexander Collie, by whom most of the exhibition’s artefacts were collected.
From one to the next Mokare’s influence segued and grew.
Mokare’s confidence was inherited, aided by stories passed down by his elders. His father was named Patyet and his grandfather Mongheron (Nonglleron), who he told Collet Barker in Februray 1831 he had never met but believed was a very large man with ten wives. Mokare will have been just one of many grandchildren of Mongheron, and therefore confident of his place among the coastal dwellers both east and west of what we incomers identified as King George’s Sound two and a quarter centuries ago.
Indeed, it would seem to me the coastal country centred around Albany, certainly the greater reaches of King George’s Sound, possibly extending around 30 miles either side as far as Denmark and Two People’s Bay, may have at one time been the domain of Mongheron and that it was at the time of Mokare his sons and grandsons who maintained most of the coastal fires along that stretch. Without doubt, the familial relationship between the two sets of own-brothers, Mokare & Nakinah and Coolbun & Dr Uredale, was very close.
One or more of Mongheron’s many wives may have been source of the clan warfare which dogged relations between Mokare’s Mob and the inland Aborigines we have come to know as the dreaded ‘Willmen’ tribe during and well after the military era. But while this is very much of interest today, as far as these pages are concerned that can only ever be speculation.
It is therefore best to stick with what we can more readily determine.
The kind of cross-cultural friendliness Mokare personified was first documented in December 1801, when Mokare was an infant, by the navigator Matthew Flinders who landed at King George’s Sound in Investigator, staying almost a month. Flinders’ sojourn at the Sound came thirteen years after the first fleet had landed at Botany Bay and was the first by the great ocean-going navigators of that era to connect with the Albany Aborigines. Mongheron, Patyet and Mokare’s older brother Nakinah, who was around twelve years of age at the time, probably engaged with Flinders’ crew but it is now understood it was Burduwan, a man who made war spears, who forged the lasting impression.
Burduwan took elements of a full-dress navy drill theatrically performed by the crew of Investigator, in which he humorously participated, and introduced a mimicry of it into Menang dance. Menang being the general language group Albany’s Aborigines belong to. Memory of the dance and of the brilliant original event then entered Menang oral tradition and was transferred to other groups, eventually being related to Daisy Bates at Katanning by Burduwan’s own son Nebinyan, in his seventies by that time, over a century later. Burduwan’s home fire was said to be Two People’s Bay, not part of Mokare’s kala but certainly within his domain, while Nebinyan was born at Kattaburnup, north shore of Oyster Harbour.
It is vital to understand that those whose inherited fires ranged along the coast belonged to a southern Noongar subgroup first identified in the literature of the 1880s by the pioneer pastoralist Campbell Taylor. Taylor called them Ngokgurring, or Shell People. These families, or members within families, shared a dialect and particular dreaming stories. Like all groups they were bound through kinship, only their domain was exclusively coastal, a narrow band which may have extended over many hundreds of miles.
While in the literature of the military and early free-settlement era there are endless references to conflict with inland Aborigines, there is only mention of co-operation and alliance between Mokare’s Mob and the groups ranging east and west. Those Aborigines with their backs to the sea may have had seasonal fish as part of their diet but the primary food source was wallaby and kangaroo, game far more prevalent upriver on the inland plains.
Food resources, of course, were nothing less than critical to survival, but in a country where survival was not threatened, abundance versus limitation became matters of want and contest. Being people, amongst themselves Aboriginal groups had to argue and fight over something.
Mokare was not exclusively coastal. His father’s connections look to have run inland, to the heads of the Hay and Kalgan Rivers beyond Mount Barker, and eastwards past the Porongurups to the Stirling Ranges. Patyet’s mother perhaps a conquest wife of the legendary Mongheron.
Above: Unknown Albany Aborigine from 1801 by William Westall, artist aboard Flinders vessel Investigator. The sketch is to a classical style intended to portray the so-called Noble Savage but is not an inaccurate portrait. The man is wearing a tuft of feathers in his hair and his stance and frontal physique are in keeping with other sketches and photographic images of Albany Aborigines. Westall’s choice of subject is interesting; a proud, athletic looking young man around 30 years of age, his facial features not unlike Patyet, Mokare’s father. Image courtesy The National Library of Australia accessed through Trove.
Seventeen years after Flinders, Philip Parker-King, the Australian born cartographer, arrived at Albany waters. It was the first of three visits which King would make to that small stretch of coast which just happened to be home to Mokare’s Mob. Aboard King’s ship, Mermaid, was a young lieutenant-in-waiting named John Septimus Roe. This first visit, which lasted a couple of weeks, was uneventful by way of Aboriginal interaction but almost claimed the life of Roe. According to King’s journal, he anchored inside the channel entrance to Oyster Harbour but with not much to do allowed Roe go exploring alone. At the Northern end of the harbour Roe tried to swim the mouth of the Kalgan River and came very near to drowning. Returning to the ship late, he was distressed and utterly exhausted.
For the Aborigines of Albany, Oyster Harbour and the mouth of the Kalgan River (Kattaburnup and Candyup -Barker’s Commandyup) represented one of many physical demarcations of territory. Going up the Kalgan River toward the Porongurup hills was one thing, going over it was another. Many Albany Aborigines had family connections eastwards along the coast, but not everyone, and unless you were in good company you did not stray too far into unfamiliar territory.
A lone Noongar in country where he or she was not known, regardless of age, was very liable to meet with death.
The reason for the absent Menang over the course of King’s first visit most likely stems from the arrival of commercial sealing ships in the lead up period. These smaller ships and boats brought a brand of men whose primary interest in Aboriginal contact was trading seafood for meat and the opportunity to forcibly acquire their women. I made a comprehensive study of the sealing gangs known to have operated around King George’s Sound but these were not active until around 1824. However, having been so numerous and open toward Flinders’ crew, and given it was summer, a time when Noongars tended to congregate by the coast, it seems clear the Menang had run into other negative encounters in the meantime.
(See Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection – Parts 3a, 3b and 3c for full detail on the sealing gangs of Australia’s southern littoral.)
In any case, King and Roe returned three years later, in 1821, and an occasion entirely in keeping with the Flinders experience was had. During this visit King became the first to record the name Nakina, Mokare’s older brother and chief guardian of the Albany town kala.
Mokare was not identified, not by that name anyway.
By 1821 Mokare was a young adult and quite possibly (by way of multiple opinion) the one King and his botanist, Allan Cunningham, called Jack. Jack, who was ‘truly remarkable for his mild manners, great native intelligence, and special communicative dispositions.’ Jack, who not only gained unrivalled access to the ship because of those qualities, but access as and when he pleased.
John Host gave his feeling on King’s much studied journal of that expedition in It’s still in my heart, this is my country, when he said; …bonds of real affection were established…
King briefly returned to King George’s Sound a third time in 1822 when he was welcomed back by the Aborigines as a friend, though there is no mention of the same Jack.
Four years later, when the French expedition of the Astrolabe under Jules Dumont Durville spent time repairing their sails close to where both Flinders had landed and where Lockyer’s command also established just three months on, those bonds of real affection were still in evidence, as was Mokare and his infectious likability. Louis de-Sainson, who made drawings of Mokare’s brothers and father as well as the portrait of Mokare above, was the artist aboard the Astrolabe. de-Sainson said Mokare had fallen in with some junior officers and befriended one (M.Guilbert) who described him as a young man with an open face, who was more lively than his comrades. Other drawings made by de-Sainson reflect a general conviviality between the two parties which is consistent with the journals kept by Flinders and King.
Above: Loius deSainson’s portrait of harmony between the crew of the French corvette Astrolabe and Albany’s Aborigines. The original drawing was made in October 1826, little less than three months before British settlement commenced with the establishment of a military garrison at very near to the same location. Image courtesy The Wordsworth Collection, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
So we can see, prior to the establishment of the military camp Mokare’s mob weren’t afraid of the white men in uniform. From the time he was a babe in arms Mokare learned the visiting men from the big ships could be fun and trusted and that through the trade of native artefacts for ship’s biscuit, tomahawk axes and clothes, a feature of all the expeditionary encounters, a good deal of time otherwise spent hunting could be exchanged for a period of novel celebratory living.
Something Daisy Bates in a wider context scripted as decadence or deviation. Drift from the strictures of the ancient ways.
These must have been exciting liberating experiences for the Albany Aborigines. Encounters of great wonder and learning. The white men in uniform did not pose an easily understood threat, rather billowing sails on the horizon signalled a boon. The uniformed men in big ships did not want anything, did not cause harm. They were interested and essentially friendly, and evidence shows the Menang responded in kind.
On King’s second visit he collected hundreds of tools and weapons made by the Menang, paying on average an eighth (of a pound in weight) of ship biscuit per item. The items were hastily fashioned and cheap quality, reflecting the Menang’s hunger to trade. To the Aborigines, these strange pale visitors who arrived by ship did not bring ancient magical artefacts of stone, items of tremendous spiritual value which traditionally made their away across Aboriginal Australia, they brought functional tools, items of clothing and most eagerly accepted food and drink.
Ship’s biscuits were typically four ounces each, in 1821 King therefore paid half a biscuit per item. Though quality improved and volume markedly decreased, by 1830 the Menang had pushed the price of their artefacts up to 2lbs (eight full biscuits) per item. From the collector’s view point the increase reflects a shift towards true authenticity, while from the Menang viewpoint it was as much a more accurate value of their wares as it was a reflection of their desire to build biscuit into their diet. (Shellam, quoting Dr Davis, Shaking Hands on the Fringe, Pg 185).
During the pre-settlement period Albany’s Aborigines did not just climb aboard visiting ships seeking to trade and party the time away. There was cultural exchange, the visitors spent time with the Aborigines ashore. They went hunting together, sport as it was often referred to, and slowly built relations. If the Aborigines had learned and forgotten of guns from previous visitors -navy, merchant and rogue sailors alike- they learned it, and the gesture of shaking hands, all over again from King, from the French and from the sealing gangs well before Lockyer and the Amity arrived.
It’s fair to say, whether they understood it or not, Mokare and the Albany Aborigines came to see the future before any other of the southern Noongars. Food did not have to be painstakingly hunted using traditional means. While trade could be had, burning out or stalking kangaroo, scaling trees for possum and wading out for flatfish in the chilly harbour shallows could be substituted for weights of biscuit or flour and glugs of wine and ardent spirit. During times when there was no-one to trade with, ownership of ammunition and a gun would make all the difference. Likewise, the cumbersome task of making fire by transferring smouldering Banksia cones and bark shreds from one hearth to another could be alleviated through the possession of flint sparkers or a burning glass. And then, once the garrison was established, there came gardens and domesticated animals, whole paddocks full of edible plants as well as sheep and cows and pigs and goats and chickens, animals loosely caged or just standing there in the open largely untroubled, waiting to be slaughtered.
Now, you have to be careful with history because it plays with time. Mokare and Nakinah’s conversion, if conversion is the equivalent of adapting, didn’t happen overnight. Far from it. There were twenty years between Flinders and King, five years between King and the French arrival and another five after that before the garrison drama drew to a close. Besides, European ways were at such odds with the old Aborigines. Certain cultural practices were literally poles apart.
Mokare was subject to influence from his peers. Though he was a dominant personality, he did not and could not act in isolation. Not when it came to the garrison and the value it brought to them all. The question of whether Mokare was seduced, corrupted by the white man’s offering, and whether he wanted to use it as a means of singular personal gain is valid. But then so too is the counter-question. The white presence was powerfully armed, not something easily altered. Was Mokare simply compelled by necessity to accept what was just plain good sense?
Down at Kinjarling the whiteman’s means were impressive and his hospitality comforting, but one way or another the Menang knew there would be a price to pay for indulging in it.
That price being heightened clan conflict.
Above: Ships biscuit or hard tack as forerunner to damper. Acquisition of food by alternative means is central to the disruption of traditional Aboriginal culture caused by the arrival of Europeans at Albany. From the beginning, biscuit was a key item of purchase for the Albany Aborigines. Across the settlement experience, particularly as it progressed into the 1840s, references to Menang hunger and requests for food are persistent in the texts. Image courtesy SavouringThePast website.
Due to the timing and location of his existence, Mokare came to front a fundamental shift in cultural focus amongst his group. This being the transfer of the traditional male practise of hunting towards the new business of trade, along with the uptake of European technology. This is a defining characteristic of the Albany Aborigines association with the incomers and is central to understanding the relationship which came to exist at the settlement for many years afterwards. From the outset, acquisition of food was at the core of the relationship.
But we have to be careful here. Despite the temptation to think Mokare simply moved in to the British garrison in order to benefit from the food, protection and relative comfort on offer, it was in fact the opposite. The Albany Aborigines demanded exchange from the incomers for settling where they did. The incomers had to pay the Menang for moving in to their territory.
The complexities of the agreement are myriad and minute, tangled and complicated as much by separate motivations as by language and cultural barriers, but they still fuse into a simple uncomplicated understanding implied through almost every act each party participated in, individually and collectively.
In the history of the world, no one ever came to stay at someone else’s place on amicable terms without contributing to the larder.
The question has to be asked, how could Mokare and his mob be blamed for becoming distracted, for adapting, when his home fire happened to be exactly where the settlers decided to land? The opportunity was too great. It was exploitation through exchange which was at the heart of Mokare’s acceptance. The incomers could not have it their own way.
And the military knew that, foremost the N.S.W. command back in Sydney.
The idea of Mokare’s innocence (i.e. ignorance) of the situation, that he was starry-eyed and gormless or that he became a sycophant of the soldiers, isn’t realistic. Remember, the price of Menang artefacts multiplied 16 times over just a handful of consequential trades. Once the enormity of what the Albany Aborigines were facing dawned on them, and dawn it most certainly did, the challenge was first and foremost political. Once they understood the white presence was there to stay, the only avenues open to Mokare’s Mob were rejection, which meant confronting overwhelming military supremacy, or acceptance, which meant continuing bargaining, the consequences of which could only raise already volatile clan rivalry stakes.
Mokare, his brother Nakinah and their equally influential neighbours Coolbun and Dr Uredale, could have acted to unite the Menang with their northern foes. They could have sought to bring all together as one in an effort to bare down on the white military presence and destroy them. They could have attempted that and surely considered it at length. Perhaps they tried? Had it happened, things would be different today. God knows what diabolical consequences will have followed from a settlement point of view, but loyalties between the clans will have been forged as a result and relations in that department would most likely be different today.
Instead, Mokare’s Mob were drawn toward factional superiority, an alliance with the incomers, which meant on-going bargaining. In choosing that path Mokare’s Mob shipped the vexation and ire of the onlooking, suspicious and far less tolerant inland clans, thereby exacerbating that already volatile relationship and, sadly, because no one could have foreseen all that was to follow, placed themselves at the point of blame for the ruin that was to come.
Albany’s Aborigines, Mokare’s Mob, not only isolated themselves from the wider Noongar world by way of their white military alliance, they set themselves up to be pushed aside by the ruthless economics of free-settlement which was to follow.
When Alexander Collie, who we shall discuss as we go on, asked late in 1835 could he be buried alongside Mokare, he did so to my mind because he found himself dying alone in the fledgling settlement knowing very well the bargain Albany’s Aborigines had struck. In fairness, the white leadership at Albany also recognised that deal and upheld it, at least for a while. (See The Hay River Brigade for more.) Collie’s request and the Albany Aborigine’s acquiescence of it made for a grand gesture, one hugely symbolic and forever resonant, but yet it was sought to be undone by the man who nearly drowned at Oyster Harbour some fifteen years earlier, Philip Parker King’s lieutenant-in-waiting, now the Swan River Colony’s Surveyor General, John Septimus Roe.
Roe was executor of Collie’s will and took it in to that remit to exhume his friend’s body, to go against his dying wish and remove the grave to what he considered a more fitting place. That being the newly designated Anglican Cemetery a mile down the way. In those two acts lies the essence of Aboriginal relations at Albany. There was genuine friendship and genuine respect but the divide was not to be bridged. Roe’s act was cloaked in social and religious responsibility but served as one of cross-cultural sanitation.
In order to maintain progress white settlement could not run hand in hand with Mokare’s Mob. The directive came from Perth, the two were not compatible.
Above: John Septimus Roe as naval lieutenant. Seven years after accepting the position of Surveyor General to the Swan River Colony Roe was made executor to the will of his friend Colonial Surgeon Dr Alexander Collie. When Collie was buried next to Mokare in Albany in December 1835 Roe made it his business to exhume the body and relay Collie’s remains at Albany Memorial Cemetary.