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We-Wa and Tommy Dower's "Fremantle-Mandurah Tribe", 1870

In 1927, a man calling himself ‘Old-Timer’ wrote a reminiscence for the Geraldton Guardian about his boyhood in the 1870s.

The story recalls an elderly Aboriginal man who was buried in the Hamilton Hill area when he passed away, and gives a seldom-recorded insight into the practices of Aboriginal groups in the Fremantle region in a period when white settlement was beginning to increase dramatically.

Old-Timer remembered a group of Aboriginal people who lived along the Cockburn coastline, a ‘remnant of a large tribe of the original lords of the soil, under the leadership of his Majesty, King Dower’.

King Tommy Dower

‘King Dower’ was Tommy Dower, a very well-known Aboriginal man who accompanied Alexander Forrest on his 1879 expedition through the Kimberley, and who was a local character in Fremantle until his death in 1895.

He often dictated letters to newspapers and spoke with important men of the day about the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people, and was ‘regarded as the spokesman for the remnant Aboriginal community’ after the death of many senior Aboriginal men in the measles epidemic of the 1880s.

The tribe and their borders

When Old-Timer knew them, there were about 60 members of what was called by white society the ‘Fremantle Mandurah tribe’. He thought that about 30 of their number had been killed in the 1834 Pinjarra Massacre and still more had died through contact with white people, from disease
Tommy Dower (centre), leading figure of Cockburn Aboriginal groups, 1894
and deprivation, reducing them to a shadow of their former numbers. 

The borders of this tribe’s lands extended from Fremantle to Mandurah, with their ‘northern headquarters’ approximately on Russell Street in Fremantle, and their southern boundary being inland of Peel Inlet at Mandurah. These lines correspond roughly with R.M. Lyon’s boundaries of the Beeliar people, and it is probable that any territory in Fremantle must have been long ago subsumed by white settlement.

We-Wa’s illness and burial rituals

Old-Timer had a story to tell about one particular old warrior, known as We-Wa, rumoured to be the only man still alive who was at Pinjarra in 1834. We Wa was elderly, and when he fell ill in 1870 his tribe cared solicitously for him, but to no avail. He died, and Old-Timer recounts the burial rituals of the Fremantle-Mandurah tribe: after ‘great weeping, howling and aboriginal lamentation’ they
dig a hole in the sand about four feet deep, three feet wide, and four feet long, in which the dear departed is placed in a sitting position. Quantities of dry leaves are then packed all around the body and on top up to within three or four inches of the surface, the grave being finished off with a layer of sand.

Post-funeral travel to Mandurah

This was how they buried We-Wa, and as was their custom after a funeral, they decamped from Fremantle and travelled south to Mandurah. But We-Wa had not died, but rather been in some kind of catatonic state, and soon after his tribe left he woke up, got out of his grave, and followed them south. 

It took nearly a week to get there, and Old-Timer recounts that ‘they had just reached their destination, fixed their mia-mias and were sitting around a well earned tea of damper, roast gohanna and such like delicacies’ when We-Wa caught up with them.

Apparently this caused a terrible confusion amongst the tribe, who, ‘with their hair on end, and yelling and screaming’, ran to the white settlement at Peel Inlet and asked for help. 

Old-Timer paints the whites living at Peel Inlet as sensible, rational folk, pacifying the terrified Aboriginal families, but it is not difficult to imagine how alarmed someone of any race would be to see their grandfather arrive punctually at his own wake...

We-Wa’s life after death

When the situation was cleared up, We-Wa was ostracised. He lived with his tribe for two more years but was not acknowledged or included, and had to eat, drink, and sleep alone. Another account of the story has him as a shepherd for John Dixon's killing flock at Hamilton Hill, keeping watch over sheep destined for the chopping block at Dixon's small abattoir nearby.

When he did die, the tribe made certain he would not emerge from the grave once more by ‘breaking both his arms and legs, and substituting 'booners' (big stones) for leaves, when they placed him to rest beneath the rural shade of the white gums at Hampton Hill swamp.

Hampton Hill swamp was a small lake on the Dixon’s property at Hamilton Hill, approximately where Dixon Reserve now stands.

The last of the Fremantle-Mandurah tribe

Old-Timer recalls having great fun scaring the 60-odd tribe members still living with shouts of ‘We-Wa’s coming!’, making them leap and scream and swear at the white children.

Though the cruelty of children may be excused as playfulness, Old-Timer’s patronising eulogy which includes the phrase ‘here endeth another chapter of a defunct tribe, who before their final passing, despite their depredations, provided the early settlers with many good and faithful servants’, is less pleasant to encounter.

This tale has the flavour of a ghost story about it, and it is impossible to know how much is true, how much is lost in the fog of memory, and how much is entirely fabricated for a tall tale. Old-Timer clearly loved to tell a yarn, and his many digressions into the habits and behaviour of Aboriginal people read as someone telling a highly comedic story. 

Behind the paternalistic twentieth-century attitudes, however, remains an insight into Western Australian Aboriginal habits and land stewardship that is not often recorded.

Discovering bones at Hamilton Hill

The same story told to another reporter in 1913 was brought up because several human bones were being discovered at Hamilton Hill Swamp while the land was being dug up for market gardening. The account, in detail, goes as follows:
Gruesome things are constantly being unearthed at Hamilton Hill Swamp; this day a human jaw bone, that day a shin, and some other day a skull. Some time ago there came to the surface the perfect skeleton of a good-size native, the frame of which was perfect, excepting that both arms and legs had been broken. This discovery caused great excitement among the Oldest Inhabitants. They gathered around the remains, and all instantly recognised them.
"Wee Waw!" said one. 
"Yes," muttered another, as he gazed at the broken bones, "that was Wee Waw."

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