Opinion

Bunbury, WA – just one of Australia’s many places named after the killers of Indigenous people

Just who is remembered, even eulogised, in the nomenclature of place is becoming one of the most burning questions at the heart of 21st-century public history.

No less vexed than the so-called “statue” wars that flare up intermittently across the world (not least in the United States over confederate “heroes”, in the UK over slavers and here, in Australia, over murdering colonisers) are place names given to towns and other landmarks.

Of course, much of this continent was already named when James Cook, having telescopically sighted Tolywiarar from the deck of Endeavour on 19 April 1770, promptly renamed it Point Hicks and continued that process all the way up the east coast.

The renaming gathered pace with successive waves of colonial exploration, exploitation and violent dispossession of First Nations inhabitants. What is surprising is how many places – towns, streets, buildings, landmarks, federal and state electorates, local government areas – named in honour of the murderers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain unchanged today.

In recent years some progress has been made in Australia when it comes to righting some of the egregious wrongs of Australian nomenclature, not least in regards to John Batman, Angus McMillan and “Moreland” (the name given to a council in Melbourne’s inner north whose genesis was a Jamaican slave estate).

It’s a beginning. But there are plenty more to reconsider. Bunbury in Western Australia, for example.

Perth historian Chris Owen recently focused on WA’s third-largest city – situated on Noongar Wardandi country – in a recent post on his Darkest West Australia page, where he routinely chronicles the state’s shocking pre- and postcolonial violence against Indigenous people.

Bunbury is named after Colonel Henry William St Pierre Bunbury, a British army officer who arrived in the colony in March 1836 and who, in just a year-and-a-half, earned a reputation as one of the harshest proponents of colonial “justice” (a genteel euphemism for “killing”) in the history of the place.

First, a necessary digression before I recount a little about Bunbury based on the research of Owen and others. It’s worth remembering that Bunbury was in the service of James Stirling, WA’s first governor and the architect of the shocking Pinjarra massacre of 1834, who is commemorated variously in statuary and with a federal electorate and local government.

In 1836 Stirling despatched Bunbury and his redcoats to York, 100km east of Perth in the Avon district, to repel the “warlike” and powerful Balladong Noongar, who were violently resisting the invading colonists. Bunbury went with Stirling’s orders to “tranquilise the district” and to give the Noongar “proper examples of the severity to the full extent to which the law warrants in such cases … so that the natives may be deterred from the Commission of further outrages”.

Bunbury wrote in his journal that the country wasn’t much to his liking, but “the Natives seem inclined to be quiet since I shot a few of them one night”.

Owen writes: “Bunbury wrote of shooting at least 25 Aboriginal people himself in multiple locations. In 1837 Bunbury recorded the names of 11 Noongar shot at York – Warangwert, Dudum, Boonyup Wanup or Weinepwer, Wonnup, Boongang, Nookinman, Darraman, Wurap, Duir and Yoayoungwort.

“What occurred around York (and nearby towns such as Northam and Toodyay) is less well known but it differed very little from what occurred at Pinjarra three years earlier. Force (often lethal) was used to pacify the Noongar into subservience.”

It is equally clear that Stirling’s reference to adherence to “the law” when it came to his intent to “tranquilise” (another quaint euphemism) the Indigenous warriors (and their non-combatant families) was nothing but a charade.

Theoretically, according to English law, the Indigenous custodians of the land upon which the WA colony was imposed were British subjects and, consequently, subject to – and protected by – empirical law.

But Bunbury’s diaries make his contempt for this clear, as evidenced by this entry from July 1837: “The state of this district is at present moment most alarming, and I feel confident that it would not only be injudicious, but would lead to great loss of life, to act strictly according to law, by apprehending the perpetrators of the late dreadful murders; since the natives have now at different farms expressed their determination to spear a white man for every native either killed or apprehend … it appears to me necessary by severe measures to deter the natives from the commission of further outrage.”

At York and elsewhere, other colonists murdered with similar impunity.

As Owen writes, Bunbury lived in WA barely 18 months. “But it is a measure of how he was valued as a soldier that the honour of naming a town was bestowed on him – the conquerer’s legacy. Secure possession of the colony through murder, however illegal it may have been … and you were celebrated.”

(Instructively, missionary Louis Giustiniani was hounded out of WA for exposing state-sanctioned slaughter of Aboriginal people – including Bunbury’s 1837 punitive expedition.)

Visitors to – and some residents of – Bunbury might like to know the true story of the man the city is named in honour of. After which they – like many Aboriginal people – might, rightly, challenge whether his name should remain attached to the place.

Meanwhile, I’ll periodically bring you more, here, from the Australian atlas of places named in honour of the killers of Indigenous people.

Until then another name and another WA town – Busselton, named after John Garrett Bussell – to contemplate.

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