The Pinjarra Massacre, otherwise known as the Battle of Pinjarra, would go down in Western Australia’s history as one of the State’s most bloody and darkest days. On the 28th of October, 1834, a party of men, led by Governor James Stirling, surrounded the camp of the Bindjareb Bilyidar Nyungars in Pinjarra and opened fire, killing up to 30 tribesmen as they fled for cover.
European Settlers in Pinjarra
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Murray Region (now the Peel Region) in Western Australia’s South-west was inhabited for many thousands of years by the Bindjareb Bilyidar (river) Nyungars.
In 1829 white settlers arrived in Western Australia under the leadership of Captain James Stirling to establish the Swan River Colony. Stirling proclaimed the Nyungar people British subjects and therefore subject to British law. The Whadjuk Noongar people, led by Yagan, had little choice but to accept the decision.
In 1830 Thomas Peel was granted a substantial area of land (250,000 acres) from Cockburn Sound to the Murray River. The area, now known as the Peel Region, intended for farming use, as all of the fertile lands near the Swan River Settlement had already been taken up. Included in the Murray region was Pinjarra and in 1831 land for the townsite was reserved.
Unfortunately, the town did not get off to a very good start. The conflict between the new settlers and the Nyungars slowly increased as tribal lands near the river were taken up by the farmers. The unrest led to cattle being speared and so too some settlers. The area became a treacherous and dangerous place to live and work. Apart from stock and both settlers and Aborigines being killed or speared, crops and buildings were also being destroyed mainly by fire.
The Nyungars would often set fire to the bush (firestick farming) to flush out animals to eat and encourage the germination of undergrowth. Unfortunately, sometimes this resulted in the destruction of the settlers’ houses and crops. The settlers oblivious to Aboriginal culture believed the fires were deliberately lit to force them off the land. Leading to a silent war being declared on both sides.
Further Signs of Discontent
Meanwhile, the situation in Perth was not fairing any better. Discontent amongst settlers and the Nyungars was also increasing. At the time Stirling was also struggling to sustain the colony, with many settlers leaving due to the harsh conditions, lack of fertile land and dwindling supplies. To make matters worse the new settlers saw the Aboriginals as nomads with no claim to the land and thus felt they had a right to fence off any land they pleased.
The Noongar grew continually frustrated as they were denied access to their traditional hunting grounds and sacred sites (especially along the river). As a result, the local tribes were forced to take the settlers’ crops and spear their cattle for food. The first significant conflict between settlers and Aboriginals occurred in December 1831 after Thomas Smedley ambushed a small group of aboriginals who were raiding a potato patch, and shot dead one of Yagan‘s family members. This incident would mark a turning point in the relations between white settlers and the Aboriginal people.
Incident at Shenton Mill
In early 1834 Stirling cut off all flour rations to the Nyungars due to a shortage of supplies with-in the colony. The Aborigines saw this as a form of punishment, as they believed the rations were a form of payment for the use of their land. This act led to a raid on the Shenton’s Mill (South Perth) by a group of Bindjareb Nyungars led by Gcalyut. Having collected a large amount of flour, the Aboriginals fled to Pinjarra but four were caught near Mandurah. They were returned to Perth where they were publicly flogged. Gcalyut for his troubles spent several weeks imprisoned.
Death of Nesbit
In July 1834 the Bindjareb tribe made plans to ambush Thomas Peel and kill him as retribution. They stole one of Peel’s prize mares in the hope Peel would join the search party. Instead, Edward Barron and servant Hugh Nesbit went out in search of the horse. The Nyungars attacked the two men, killing Nesbit. Barron escaped and fled to the Peel settlement.
During the Nesbit incident, Stirling was in England making plans for the expansion of the Swan River Colony. When he returned in August (now as Governor) he was full of enthusiasm for developing the settlements to the west where there was fertile land aplenty. His plans included the development of a series of towns to be connected by road through the south-west region. As for the settlers, they were keener for the new Governor to take action against the waring Bindjareb Nyungars.
Stirling must have been somewhat shocked to learn of the trouble happening in the Peel region as his planned expansion ran right through the middle of the offending Bindjareb Nyungars territory. Something had to be done quickly to control the Aboriginal issues. Now strongly politically motivated, Stirling used the Nesbit incident as a way to justify his plan of attack against the leaders of the Binjareb tribe. He informed his superiors in Britain, it was a necessary course of action to stop other tribes from attempting resistance to the establishment of the colony. Stirling also suggested if they weren’t stopped immediately other tribes might join forces to exterminate the white settlers.
Battle of Pinjarra
On the 25th of October 1834, Governor Stirling and colonial surveyor John Septimus Roe rode to Thomas Peel’s settlement in Mandurah. The following day the party numbered 26 with the inclusion of Thomas Peel, Captain Ellis, five of his mounted police, soldiers of the 21st, and a few settlers eager to defend their farmlands against the Nyungars.
On the 27th, under the cover of night, they sought shelter at Jim-Jam (Ravenswood) and woke at dawn. At around 8 am they were following the Murray River southeast when they heard the sounds of the Binjareb Nyungars. The party took up strategic positions on both sides of the river surrounding the camp armed with double-barrelled shotguns. Captain Ellis, with his men, rode towards the group of up to 70 Aboriginals to positively identify the offending tribe. When they recognised some of Nesbit’s murderers a signal was given to Stirling who also advanced forward. Ellis and his men charged the camp, opening fire on the surprised Nyungars.
In response the Nyungars grabbed their spears, managing to knock Captain Ellis of his horse, before retreating. The Nyungars ran to the river intending to seek refuge in the hills but were met by Stirling’s men who began firing at them. It was estimated that between 15-30 Bindjareb tribe members were killed during the ensuing battle of the Pinjarra Massacre. The true figure of the dead has never been verified.
The only casualty on the British side during the attack was Captain Ellis who later died from his injuries. Though the casualties on Nyungar’s side was reported by the British to be between 15-30, the real figures may never be known. Some believe the death toll could have been in the hundreds. Although Stirling said no women or children were killed during the massacre the Nyungars claims the attack took place during a ceremonial time when most of the men were away in initiation rituals.
The real truth of what happened on that fateful day will never be known. There is and will always be conflicting reports of how many Aboriginal men, women, and children were massacred. What is known is there were no male prisoners taken alive. Conflicting reports from Stirling and Roe suggested between 15 to 30 Binjareb were left dead, with no mention of the women or children.
Captain Daniel, who was later sent by Stirling to survey the site, believed there were many more killed than officially acknowledged.
Stirling used the massacre as a warning to the Noongar people. If there was any retaliation for the October massacre he told them “no one would be allowed to remain alive on this side of the Mountains”
The only thing known for certain is the 28th of October, 1834, the Pinjarra Massacre became one of the bloodiest and darkest days in Western Australia’s history.