The Heroes of Gundagai

In BlogX, History by Luke Pearson

Author: Karen Wyld

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KAREN WYLD IS A FREELANCE WRITER, AUTHOR, CONSULTANT AND FACILITATOR. OF MARTU ANCESTRY, SHE LIVES ON KAURNA COUNTRY.

Colonisers of Australia were often out of their depth.

Sometimes they needed rescuing from themselves, or during natural disasters. And First Peoples were often their rescuers.

These heroic stories rarely feature in the dominant narratives, but they should.

One such story is that of Yarri (Coonong Denamundinna), Jacky Jacky and other Wiradjuri men that rescued an estimated 69 people during the great flood of 1852, at Gundagai. 

Photo credit: Karen Wyld

The township of Gundagai was established close to the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales. It was built on Wiradjuri Country. Murrumbidgee River was known to flood in that spot, but despite being warned by local Wiradjuri, the new arrivals built their town on low-lying ground.

By 1852, 250 settler-colonisers lived in the township.

In the years before, minor floods had caused damage to the township. During the great flood of 1852, seventy-one buildings were destroyed. Only three houses were left standing after the flood waters receded. And there was a significant loss of life – both human and livestock.

The 1852 flood caused the most recorded Australian deaths by drowning in written history, with an estimated 89 settler-colonisers perishing.

It is impossible to know just how many died as, being on a drovers’ route, the region experienced a high number of visitors. And the number of Aboriginal people that drowned, if any, does not appear to have been recorded.

The death count would have been much higher if help had not arrived. Because, despite conflict and violence of colonisation, including the nearby Coolac Massacre in the 1830s, local Aboriginal people came to the rescue of settler-colonisers.

The two most-known heroes during the 1852 flood are Yarri and Jacky Jacky. They were assisted by other Aboriginal people, including Long Jimmy and Tommy Davis. Using traditional bark canoes, and a recently-repaired wooden canoe, they were able to locate people stranded on rooftops and in trees.

Photo credit: Karen Wyld

The rescue operation occurred over three days and nights, with the men being urged by settler-colonisers to venture out on the flooded River again and again. Unfortunately, they were not able to locate and rescue everyone they were sent to find.

Yarri, Jacky Jacky and Tommy Davis were later honoured with bronze breastplates from the government (which are on display in the Gundagai museum). A pension was allocated in 1875, but Jacky Jacky was deceased by then. And Long Jimmy had passed away not long after the rescue, probably from exposure. Yarri died in 1880.

There are numerous tales of Yarri, who had more than one rescue to his name, and a few allegations of murder. On 7 September 1990, the Tumut-Brungle Local Aboriginal Land Council erected a monument in memory of Yarri at the local cemetery, where he was buried.

On 25 June 2017, on the 165th anniversary of the great flood, a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky was unveiled in the main street of Gundagai. The sculpture, titled The Great Rescue of 1852, was created by Melbourne artist Darien Pullen.

Photo credit: Karen Wyld

Through this sculpture, the township of Gundagai has honoured their past heroes. However, broader recognition of Yarri and Jacky Jacky’s bravery is yet to be achieved. In 2016, they were nominated for an Australian Government Bravery Award. This was not successful, but the Brungle Tumut Local Aboriginal Land Council are intending to re-apply.

Many Wiradjuri lost their lives due to the colonisers’ violence during the settlement of Gundagai and surrounds. And racism was rife in the region. Even the rescuers were treated badly after the flood.

Nowadays, there are many Gundagai residents that can trace their family connections to the region, right back to the 1852 flood. And other residents’ ancestors have walked that Country for countless generations.

Unlike the older Dog on a Tuckerbox statue, which is a homage to drovers and their dogs, perhaps statues such as this newer one in Gundagai can help unite First Peoples and new arrivals through a shared story of courage amid tragedy.

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