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Australia’s first POW an indigenous hero

There have been prisoners-of-war (POWs) as long as there has been war, but international recognition of their right to protection from abuse is much more recent.

The Red Cross has counted over 500 recorded texts attempting to regulate hostilities prior to modern laws of war.  The Chinese, for instance, were debating treatment of POWs as early as 500 BCE.  The Qur’an advocates respect for one’s adversaries.  Prisoners-of-war were finally accorded international legal protection by the 3rd Geneva Convention in 1929.

Robert Hitchcock's statue of Yagan unveiled in 1984 at Heirisson IslandA century earlier, the Noongar hero Yagan was a wanted man with a bounty on his head.  Probably Australia's first recognised POW, he remains a figure of controversy and adulation to this day, 175 years after his slaying.

Yagan was a leader of the indigenous resistance to the colonisation of Australia by Britain in the 19th century.  Born in 1795 in Beeliar, in the vicinity of what would become the Swan River Colony (modern-day Perth), he grew to be tall and imposing, a man of 'infinite grace and dignity'.

Armed resistance to British invasion escalated in 1831 after a member of Yagan's family was killed by a white settler.  Attacks and counter-attacks ensued.

Carnac Island, off Western AustraliaThe 'terrifying desperado' Yagan was captured along with 2 compatriots in October 1832.  A Scotsman with military background named Robert Lyon intervened to prevent their execution, arguing that they were prisoners-of-war, and their conduct was not criminal, but acts of war.  The three warriors were thus sentenced to exile on Carnac Island instead, with Lyon required to 'civilise' them.  Yagan escaped after only five weeks, but that, and the remainder of his short life, is another story.

Acceptance by the authorities of these men's POW status is remarkable, implying as it does acknowledgment by at least some British of the frontier violence in Australia as warfare and the humanity of their opponents.

In the 21st century we have been made keenly aware of the importance of POW status and the protection afforded by the Geneva Conventions by the determination of the Bush Administration to withhold 'Geneva' from its captives at Guantánamo Bay.

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