Derby region: history

The Derby region was first explored in 1688 by William Dampier. This statement, now widely accepted, is, in part, one of those strange cases of the rewriting of history. Dampier was one of the crew of the Cygnet which sailed around the King Sound area for three months in 1688. The Cygnet was actually under the command of Captain Read but it was Dampier who, upon his return to England, published A New Voyage Round the World and thus was incorrectly credited as leading the expedition which anchored in Cygnet Bay and sailed around King Sound.

It was in A New Voyage Round the World that Dampier made his observations about the Aborigines of Western Australia and the poor quality of Western Australia. These observations ensured that no one in Britain took any great interest in Australia for the next century.

'The inhabitants of the Country,' he wrote, 'are the miserablest People in the world. The Hodmadods or Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these; who have no Houses and skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, and Fruits of the Earth, Ostrich Eggs &c. as the Hodmadods have: And setting aside their human Shape, they differ but little from Brutes. They are tall, strait-bodied, and thin, with small long Limbs. They have great Heads, round Foreheads, and great Brows. Their Eye-lids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their eyes; they being so troublesome here, that no fanning will keep them from coming to ones Face; and without the assistance of both Hands to keep them off, they will creep into ones Nostrils; and Mouth too, if the Lips are not shut very close. So that from their infancy being thus annoyed with these Insects, they do never open their Eyes, as other People: And therefore they cannot see far; unless they hold up their Heads, as if they were looking at somewhat over them.' Inaccurate as it certainly was, it did nothing to encourage other Englishmen to explore the southern continent.

Near the jetty is a bicentennial monument to William Dampier who arrived near the present site of Derby in 1688. He reached the head of King Sound on 5 January 1688.

After Dampier came Phillip Parker King who, from 1818 to 1822, explored the coasts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory including King Sound (which is named after him) upon which the port of Derby is located. King's explorations generated no interest in the region.

In 1837 George Gray and John Stokes explored the eastern coast of the sound naming the Fitzroy River after Captain Robert Fitzroy R. N. and also naming Stokes Bay.

It wasn't until 1879 that any European settlement of the area occurred. Isolation and harsh conditions had combined to ensure that only the most tenacious of pastoralists and workers came to the area.

In 1879 Alexander Forrest travelled through the area and sent back reports which were clearly exaggerated. He described the area around Derby as being 'well watered land suitable for pastoral purposes, besides a large area suitable for the culture of sugar, rice or coffee'. Such a glowing report attracted pastoralists to the area but they soon found that tropical diseases, unreliable seasons, horrendous transportation problems and very antagonistic local Aborigines made life in the area almost unbearable.

In 1880 the Murray Squatting Company established a sheep station at Yeeda some 45 km from Derby. They initially transported their goods from Cossack near Roebourne but this was clearly impractical. That same year a landing port was created at Derby and the following year a ship called The Ruby under the command of Captain Pemberton Walcott landed the first cargo. Derby was never an ideal port. Steering ships through the narrow channels off the islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago required remarkable skills. The area is swept by vicious rips and whirlpools and there are tidal variations of up to 11.3 metres. The tidal range ensured that all the ships at the port were left high and dry at low tide. This created its own special problems with goods being left on the mud flats to be ferried to and from the ships anchored off the shore.

In 1883 a simple grid pattern was placed over the area to the south of the present jetty and the township of Derby, named after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Edward Henry Stanley, the 15th Earl of Derby (1826-1893), who was Secretary of State for Colonies when the town was proclaimed. The eight sheep stations in the area now had their own port and police protection. It was also in late August of 1883 that a shipment of wool waiting on the mudflats for delivery to a ship was swept away by the tidal wave caused by the Krakatoa volcanic explosion in Indonesia.

The first jetty was built in 1885. The timing was impeccable. That same year Charlie Hall discovered gold at Halls Creek and miners and prospectors poured into the port on their way to the goldfields.The jetty ran out across the mudflats beyond the town and the ships that brought the miners in were only to eager to depart with cargoes of gold (1886), pearl shells and wool. The goldrush was shortlived and by the 1890s the port was used almost exclusively for the export of live cattle and sheep.

1885 saw the arrival of the MacDonald brothers in the area. They had overlanded cattle an incredible 6440 km from Goulburn in NSW. They arrived in the area with only 30 head of cattle.

It was during this time that major problems broke out between the local Aborigines and the pastoralists. The leader of the local Aborigines, a true hero and remarkable guerrilla fighter, was a man named Jandamarra who became known to the pastoralists and the police as Pigeon. An excellent account of Pigeon's reign of terror and a discussion of the places connected with his operations around Derby can be found in The Pigeon Heritage Trail: Aboriginal-European Relations in the West Kimberley, 1890s which is available from the Derby Tourist Bureau in Clarendon Street, Derby. It has clear directions to the Old Derby Gaol in Loch Street and the old cemetery in Sutherland Street which has the grave of Pigeon's first victim, Police Constable Richardson.

Pigeon shot Richardson on 31 October 1894 after the pair had tracked and rounded up 16 Aborigines accused of stealing and killing stock. What Richardson didn't realise was that had used Pigeon to track members of his own family. These prisoners duly explained to Pigeon that if he didn't set them free their tribal lands would be overrun by white pastoralists. They explained that stockmen had been seen with over 500 head of cattle in the vicinity of the beautiful Windjana Gorge. It is not known precisely what happened but it is reasonable to assume that the prisoners convinced Pigeon that a stand must be taken against white invaders. Pigeon duly shot Richardson, freed the prisoners and, with himself as their new leader, headed off to attack the stockmen at Windjana Gorge. The attack was successful. Pigeon and his men killed the two head stockmen and it was only because another stockmen, following some kilometres away in a wagon, heard the shots and fled that news got through to the police at Derby.

The police sent reinforcements to the area and in the battle that followed Pigeon was shot but, with the help of some Aboriginal women, he managed to escape capture.

The old principal of indiscriminate reprisals occurred over the next six months as police and vigilantes indiscriminately killed hundreds of Aborigines most of whom had no connection with Pigeon.

For two years Pigeon hid in the Tunnel Creek Cave to the south of Windjana Gorge. The white police were convinced he had been killed but in early 1896 he raided the Lillimooloora Police Station and stole a rifle and ammunition. This remarkable 'return to life' did much to ensure the legend of Pigeon. For the next few months Pigeon taunted the police and pastoralists. He was a superb bushman and his contact with the police allowed him to outwit them. He was finally cornered in 1897 and killed near his hideout at Tunnel Creek.

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