Yarri of Wiradjuri: The Story of a Gundagai
Aboriginal Hero

Margaret Walters

In the 1830s, settlers making their way south-west in the footsteps of explorers Hume and Hovell were often brought to a standstill by floodwaters on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. While they waited for the river to subside there was ample opportunity to carry out repairs to the wagons, shoe the horses, replenish provisions and ‘before you know it, there’s a town’. But the buildings of Gundagai were erected on the plain between the Murrumbidgee River and its anabranch, Morley’s Creek. Local Wiradjuri people came and warned the settlers not to build on the flat because of the prevalence of floods, but they were ignored; the settlers discovered for themselves that occasionally the river would rise and they would frequently have to contend with water covering the floorboards – but: What’s two inches of mud in the shop To the hopes of profit, the drive of need? ‘Build an attic up in the rafters – done in a day or so – We’ll be safe upstairs when the river rises. What do the primitive natives know!’

The settlers gradually learned that the floods could be quite serious and sought to transfer their free holdings to higher ground – but Governor Gipps said that they would have to pay for any further land and so, when the flood of 1852 descended on Gundagai on a cold night in June, the consequences were devastating. A punt that the local pharmacist used to put out for hire was pressed into service but couldn’t handle the turbulent water and rammed against a tree, drowning six people.

Enter Yarri, a Wiradjuri man who worked as a shepherd. In his bark canoe, he braved the dangers of the raging torrent many, many times, rescuing people from rooftops, and tree branches and ferrying them one by one to the riverbank. He was joined by Jackey and two other unnamed Aboriginal men and they were responsible for saving the lives of most of the white settlers who survived being swept away by the waters of the swollen Murrumbidgee on that dreadful night. Legend has it that 49 people were saved, 80 are known to have died – perhaps many more among isolated settlers in the district. Jackey and Yarri were rewarded with engraved brass breast plates.

How could anyone hearing the story be unmoved? The Wiradjuri and other Aboriginal people from many parts of the country know of this amazing act of heroism, and many of the non-indigenous folk in the surrounds of Gundagai also know and have commemorated Yarri in several ways. But why isn’t it the stuff that every child in Australia learns at school?

Enter John Warner. A writer and folksinger who has written many songs rich in Australian history, John was told the story of Yarri by a friend who had learned the basics at a landcare conference in Gundagai in 1997. (Discussing landcare in that region inevitably leads to a recital of the events surrounding the flood of 1852.)

John travelled to Gundagai and surrounds on several occasions wearing the ‘stout pair of boots’ that are recommended equipment for a historian. He got a feel for the land and he spoke to many people there, and especially the people from Yarri’s community at Brungle. John began to retell the story in the ways he knows best, weaving the elements together using bush verse and traditional song forms. An important source was a booklet called ‘Yarri – Hero of Gundagai’ by Allen Crooks, which contains the basic story, and some recent work by Canberra historian, Brendan O’Keefe, who was consulted by the Old Gundagai Committee to report on aspects of history in the region.

But the poet in John is stronger than the historian or the politician, and he has captured in powerful images the drama and emotional power of this amazing story which unfolds like a Greek tragedy. The names of the people are real, but John’s imagination lifts them out of obscurity to tell their parts in the tale.

What emerged was a song and verse cycle which acknowledges indigenous ownership of the land; it recognises several aspects of European culpability in the dispossession of the Aboriginal people of Australia. Most importantly, however, it celebrates the Aboriginal people as heroes rather than seeing them as victims.

It is difficult to select from the collection of songs one that is most representative of the range of ideas involved, but the dialogue between Richard and Sarah Hunt encapsulates the central issues between Europeans, and between the Europeans and the Wiradjuri people.

RICHARD AND SARAH (song)

Sarah: Richard, my love, let’s move up to the high ground,
I’m sick of the drudgery after each flood.
Richard: Sarah, we need to stay here for the business,
We can’t lose the trade for six inches of mud.

Sarah: Richard, my dearest, old Black Sally warned me,
The river can rise higher up than we know.
Richard: Sarah, stop heeding the tales of the natives,
The attic’s quite safe, be the stream high or low.

Chorus: Some of our dreams are of homes we are making,
Children and laughter and joy for the taking,
But older dreams warn us of dread and heart breaking,
As the land’s ancient spirits go hunting.

Sarah: Richard, let’s trade this old place for a new one,
Build on the high ground to comfort my fears.
Richard: Sarah, the Governor says we must buy land,
And paying off such a loan might take us years.

Sarah: Richard, I dreamed of two tall, native women
Who netted our children like blacks do their fish.
Richard: Sarah, I’ve debts for my leather and harness,
But I’ll ask around town, love, if that’s what you wish.

Chorus: Some of our dreams are of homes we are making etc

Sarah: Richard, I beg of you, move for the children,
Emily, Caroline, Richard and John.
Richard: Woman, desist from your fears and your nagging,
There’s work at the crossing, I have to be gone.

Richard: Sarah, I’ve spoken to Ryan this morning,
We’ll move up the range to his place in July.
Sarah: Richard, my love, hold me close for a moment,
I fear for this good news, though I don’t know why.

Chorus: Some of our dreams are of homes we are making etc

The song is revisited later in the drama when the entire family is lost in the flood:

Grieve for the memory of Richard and Sarah,
Emily, Caroline, Richard and John,
For great Murrumbidgee took them in her raging,
In the net of that cold, ancient mother – they are gone.

The song ‘Reward’ depicts settlers offering Yarri a reward for his heroism. Yarri questions the value of those rewards, since he needs nothing that Europeans have to offer, and they are taking the only things he really values.
Chorus What reward do we give the hero, Money, property, tools or food?

Solo How dare one of your race be Ungrateful for our gratitude?

Yarri What I have done, I do for the people, Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, Would you not have done this for me, Were I the prey of the Mother’s flood?

The penultimate song is a reprise of the Yarri of the River – Questions theme and asks What kind of folk are we? and contrasts us (i.e. Europeans) with Yarri’s character.

Can we let go what we hold? Can a thief let go of gold?
Can law and business let go of the land?
For as long as we insist to keep our greed clutched in our fist,
What chance is there to take another’s hand?

Yarri of Wiradjuri, what kind of folk are we?
Is there reconciliation? What hope we can agree?
Your voice cries out from the wounded land,
Your bark wheels round at your command,
And now you’re reaching out a hand,
Yarri, if only we could see,
Yarri, if only we could see.

The characters mentioned in the play are based on historical figures. Most of the songs can be set for dance and the author has tried introduce musical variation for this. There is plenty of scope for consultation with indigenous and other dancers to add interpretations. Musical themes are repeated throughout as unifying elements. Many of the songs have easy response choruses in several places so that the audience is drawn into chanting the deeds of the hero. Major verse sequences are recited by several different voices to add colour and variety. John visualises dance with spoken poetry as a very powerful image, contrasting starkly with the songs. It is envisaged that the drama would end with indigenous and non-indigenous dancing together, tangible symbols of the process of reconciliation started by Yarri 150 years ago.

The song and verse cycle has been performed as a concert piece, but the full flowering of the work depends on collaboration with indigenous singers and dancers and for the moment remains a work in progress.

If anyone is interested in the concert presentation or other aspects of the work, please contact John Warner, PO Box 615, Glebe NSW 2037 Tel : (02) 9698 2206 Fax : (02) 9698 2115 Email : mwalters@mail.usyd.edu.au

Margaret Walters works in a duo – ‘Walters and Warner’ – with John and together they have a formidable repertoire of Australian and British folk songs, traditional and contemporary – with a marked preference for songs of labour history. Information about their recordings is available at the above contact numbers.