R.M. Lyon and early encounters with Beeliar Nyungar, 1830s

The earliest recording in Western documents of the name Beeliar, the Aboriginal name for the land and people of the Cockburn and southern regions, was a series of articles written by Robert Menli Lyon. He learned not only the names of Aboriginal districts in the Perth area, but also their boundaries, their social structures, and their languages. 

Robert Menli Lyon: early settler, 1829

Robert Menli Lyon was born in Scotland in 1789, and arrived in the Swan River colony in August 1829 on the Marquis of Anglesea.  He was one of the earliest white settlers in the colony, and although he was granted over 3000 acres in the Upper Swan, he gave them up to another settler, and took instead a 2200 acre grant somewhere closer to Fremantle,  as well as town lots in Fremantle and Guildford.

Interest and sympathy with Aboriginal groups

From the beginning of his days in the colony he was interested in the fate of the Aboriginal people on whose land he was living. He wrote letters to the colony’s earliest newspaper, the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, lamenting the treatment of Aboriginal groups, ‘a people whom we have despoiled of their country’.
He argued passionately against violent reprisals for Aboriginal behaviour, saying that they ‘were guilty of no crime but that of fighting for their country… they had a right to make war after their own manner’.  At a meeting of an early Agricultural Society in 1834, he described the need for a treaty with Aboriginal people: ‘The sooner the national rights of the Aboriginal inhabitants are recognised by some regular deed or charter, the better it will be for them’.

Voluntary imprisonment with Yagan

In 1832, noting with disgust the treatment of Aboriginal warriors - particularly Yagan, the ‘terror of the colony’ - he offered to accompany three prisoners to Carnac Island so as to prevent them being executed by colonial powers. He operated from a sincere desire to learn the language and culture of the Aboriginal people, although bringing them to Christianity was one of his stated aims.

Articles for the Perth Gazette

By 1833, he had spent much of his time with Aboriginal people, learning some of the languages of the different groups around the colony and noting the strict boundaries of their lands. In March and April 1833, he published a series of long articles in the Gazette that moved strangely between sensitivity and a curious kind of ethnic comparison. 

He repeatedly tried to equate Aboriginal people with other cultural groups known to the wider world; they resembled the ancient Caledonians in ‘simplicity of manners, generousness of disposition, and firmness of character’. When he gave a man a pen, paper, and ink to write, what resulted was ‘hieroglyphical… it seems to have some resemblance to Chinese’. They had ‘some resemblance to Malays’, some of the first words Lyon learned were ‘pure Hebrew’, and as a result, the people themselves were most likely ‘of Asiatic origin’.

In a segment which records the name Beeliar for the first time, he calls Yagan ‘the Wallace of the age’ who ‘greatly distinguished himself as a patriot and a warrior’.  He refers here to William Wallace, the Scottish warrior who rebelled against unjust occupation by an English king.

Descriptions of Beeliar territory and language

Lyon describes Beeliar as both a language and a place. The Beeliar district, he said, stretched north-south from the Swan and Canning Rivers to Mangles Bay, and east-west from the sea to the Darling Scarp. It was Midjegoorong’s district, which made him a ‘chief’, and Yagan, as his son, ‘one of the princes of the country’.

Where he uses Beeliar as a language term, he distinguishes between two different versions of a word. For example, the word for full moon is ‘Meega-newmap, in Mooro, ngoomon, in Beeliar’.  Mooro was the name for territory on the north side of the river, stretching to Ellenbrook. A certain species of acacia was ‘wanee in Mooro, manee in Beeliar’.

Lyon’s later life

Lyon was a champion of Aboriginal land rights and the defender of the groups who had been so displaced by the arrival of white men. His actions and letters alienated him from his contemporaries, who were often fiercely jealous of their newly-granted land, and put him at odds with the government of the day. He left the colony in 1834, and after a period of years in Mauritius he returned to Australia, living in various parts of South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria until he returned to England, where he died 1874.

References

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