The Aboriginal Nat Turner: 9 Facts About Native Australian Freedom Fighter Jandamarra

The Aboriginal Nat Turner

The Australian Aborigine Jandamarra was born c. 1870 and died April 1, 1897. In 1894, the great aboriginal leader began defending his people’s territory against the encroaching white settlers who were willing to do anything for more farmland. He was a member of the Bunuba tribe — an indigenous group living in the Kimberley district of Western Australia. The district’s mountainous terrain became a strategic stronghold during the three-year fight against colonizers.

The Origins of Jandamarra

Since he was 11 years old, Jandamarra worked for white settlers as a stockman and field-hand. His many relationships with white Australians would play a crucial part in his journey to becoming a rebel. From the age of 15 to his early 20s, the man would go back and forth between the white world and his ancestral homeland. At one point, the Bunuba tribe excommunicated him for his faulty sense of loyalty to them.

Late in 1889, Jandamarra and his uncle Ellemarra were captured by police at Windjina Gorge. They were arrested for allegedly killing sheep on a white farm. It has been documented that Aborigines would kill off white farmers’ livestock in an attempt to drive them away. History shows that tactic was ineffective. The two men were chained together and marched to Derby Gaol, an area in western Australia.

The only way he could save his uncle was to agree to serve the police by taking care of their horses.


Jandamarra’s skills as a horseman, marksman and hunter became useful to white settlers. In 1894, he was employed by western Australian police to serve as a native tracker. At this time, natives were not used in this role, but they made an exception for him. While there, he became friends with Bill Richardson. The two had a real connection primarily because they were both stockmen in their youth.

As the Aborigine raids on settlers’ lands increased, Jandamarra agreed to help colonizers hunt down — and even kill — his own people because of his friendship with Richardson. During one run-in with warriors from the Bunuba, Jandamarra saved Richardson’s life during the attack.

The Path to Rebellion

Jandamarra’s friendship with Richardson began to change when he was ordered to find his uncle and Bunuba chief, Ellemarra. His uncle was still leading attacks on white farms and killing many of the farmers’ livestock. The future rebel had to decide if he wanted to sacrifice his family and culture or serve those who colonized his homeland.

Jandamarra found his uncle and took in 16 Aborigines. According to legend, he and Richardson took the 16 back to the Lillimooloora station. When Richardson and the prisoners slept at a resting stop along the way, Jandamarra turned on his friend and shot Richardson in his sleep. Then he released the 16 Aboriginal prisoners and became a rebel with a cause.

Phase One of the Rebellion

After killing his former white ally, Jandamarra began helping his fellow tribesmen. He saw that his family and culture needed him more than the colonizers ever did. This renewed sense of pride launched the first armed rebellion against white Australians in the country’s history.

His uncle informed him that white settlers were planning to invade Bunuba territory. The newly established band of freedom fighters staged a counter attack. On November 10, 1894, Jandamarra and some of his followers attacked five white men who were driving cattle to set up a new farm in the heart of Bunuba land. They killed two of them and took the leftover guns and ammunition.

The Battle of Windjana Gorge

Two weeks after Jandamarra killed Richardson, his motley crew of fighters were hunted and tracked by white Australians. On November 16, 1894, 50 freedom fighters and the police came face to face. Both groups were heavily armed and ready to die at the Windjana Gorge. For eight hours, both sides fired upon one another. Jandamarra’s uncle Ellemarra was killed in the gunfight, but Jandamarra escaped with minor wounds. The police could not find the wounded rebel.

The Immortal Jandamarra

After the battle, many white settlers believed that Jandamarra was killed, but that was far from the truth. He went into hiding. He used the numerous caves in the Bunuba region as outposts for his guerilla tactics. From 1895-96, Jandamarra raided the police station of Lillimooloora twice. He took guns and killed livestock as he went undeterred. While most of the band of fighters were either dead or wounded, he continued to give white settlers hell.

The Final Standoff

By 1897, many white settlers and native Aborigines believed that Jandamarra was a supernatural being. His ability to escape capture, run on the rugged Australian terrain barefoot, and withstand extreme gunfire made him legendary. In March, Jandamarra and 20 fighters attacked a homestead in western Australia. A large number of his party were killed and wounded, but their leader Jandamarra escaped through a tunnel.

Western Australian police recruited a fellow Aborigine, Minko Mick, to track Jandamarra down. Mick discovered that the freedom fighter was hiding out at a geographical landmark called Tunnel Creek.  When Mick found him, the two exchanged gunfire and Jandamarra was shot dead on April 1, 1897. The white troopers came to cut off Jandamarra’s head as proof that he was dead. The police preserved his head and sent it to a firearms company in England. In an act of complete disrespect, Jandamarra’s head was used to sell firearms. Within a year, white settlers took over the Bunuba region.

Legacy and Impact

Jandamarra’s life inspired Aborigine writers to tell his tale. The two most famous were Ion Idriess’sOutlaws of the Leopold (1952) and Mudrooroo’s Long Live Sandawarra (1972).

The three-year rebellion was turned into a 2008 stage play called “Jandamarra.” Also, ABC Australia and indigenous independent production company Wawili Pitjas produced “Jandamarra’s War.” This 2011 documentary talks about his life and the rebellion he help lead.

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