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Caledon Bay Crisis

Category: Event
Date: 1932

Woodah Island, Caledon Bay, North-East Arnhem Land

State/Country:Northern Territory , Australia

Subject Matter:Law - Policy and Justice
Summary Information:


On 29 September 1932, the Daily Telegraph reported that five Japanese trepang fishermen had been murdered by local Aboriginal men on 17 September, with a sixth having escaped (Daily Telegraph, 1932). Historian Peter Read notes that the murders took place after the fishermen entered an Aboriginal Reserve without a permit (Read, 2007), but other reports state that the murders were a retaliation after the fishermen attempted to 'seduce' or 'interfere' with local women (Egan, 1996). A European trepanger, Fred Gray, thought to be close with both the Japanese fishermen and the local Yolngu people reported the murders to police in Darwin (Egan, 1996).

Police were initially cautious in their response to the reported murders, with the 1928 Coniston Massacre in the Northern Territory having drawn international outcry only four years prior (Egan, 1996). While two police constables were sent to investigate in 1932, the police decided to delay further investigations until the next dry season, as they felt confident they would make no progress during the impending wet season (Egan, 1996). However, with public speculation and pressure from Japanese authorities, a police patrol, including Constable Albert McColl, left Darwin on 7 June 1933 to investigate (Read, 2007; Egan, 1996). 

Death of Constable Albert McColl

In 1933, a group of police officers including Constable McColl went in search of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolngu elder, and two other men who they believed to be accomplices in the murders of the trepang Fishermen (Tuckiar v The King, [1934] 52 CLR 335 (Tuckiar), 348). During their search, the officers came across, captured, and handcuffed a group of Yolngu women, some of whom were described as Wirrpanda's wives (Tuckiar, 348). 

There are various accounts of McColl's death, including the two Yolgnu men's translated statements used at trial. Both statements agreed that McColl, having brought one of the captured women into the bush where Wirrpanda was hiding, fired three shots including one misfire, but was killed by Wirrpanda's spear, found later next to McColl's body on Woodah Island (Tuckiar, 349). The accounts differ regarding when Wirrpanda was asserted to have thrown his spear in relation to McColl firing the shots, and also with regards to whether McColl had sexually assaulted the woman he was holding captive.

Author and former administrator for the Northern Territory, Ted Egan also points to potential inconsistencies in the police patrol's version of events, namely a lack of clarity regarding how they spent their time and how long they had kept the Yolngu women captive (Egan, 1996). Egan notes further that there was no clear reason cited for the significant amount of time that the police patrol spent on Woodah Island, 100 kilometres north of the site of the murders that they were investigating at Caledon Bay (Egan, 1996). 

Media and Community Response 

As news of McColl's death at the hands of Aboriginal men reached Darwin, concern grew that white Australians in remote regions might be at risk of further attack (Read, 2007). Fears were increased when two white prospectors also went missing at Caledon Bay, prompting media speculation that the two men had also been killed by Aboriginal people (The Mercury, 1933).

The Northern Territory Administrator, RH Weddell, reportedly expressed an eagerness to 'teach' the Aboriginal community 'a lesson', and proposed a large police deployment in order to gather suspects (Read, 2007). 

Local missionaries and welfare groups, however, were concerned about the possibility of an indiscriminate response similar to what had occurred in Coniston, with the Australian High Commissioner in London also reporting that there was concern in Britain about the potential response being raised (Read, 2007). 

Consequently, a missionary group led by Reverend E. Wynne Evans traveled to Arnhem Land in order to bring suspects to Darwin (The West Australian, 1933). Wirrpanda, along with sixteen other suspects and potential witnesses, was brought to Darwin in April 1934, after the group had reportedly been convinced to volunteer themselves to the police and face trial (Read, 2007).

Legal Response

Wirrpanda (referred to as Tuckiar) was charged with murder, tried in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, found guilty, and sentenced to death. However, Wirrpanda's conviction was quashed on appeal in the High Court of Australia (Tuckiar v The King, [1934] 52 CLR 335, 335), and was notably the first case of an Aboriginal person to reach the High Court in Australia (Read, 2007).

The High Court quashed his murder conviction primarily on the basis that the conduct and comments of the trial judge and counsel for the defence had deprived Wirrpanda of a fair trial, and that due to public comments made by counsel for the defence, a new trial could not be conducted fairly (Tuckiar). 

Subsequent Developments 

Wirrpanda disappeared shortly after his conviction was quashed and he was released from custody (Waterford, 2007). Historian Henry Reynolds recorded that it was 'widely believed in Darwin that he was shot by police and his body dumped in the harbour' (Waterford, 2007). 

Academic Commentary

Egan characterised the series of events within the context of the early days of a settler colony. 'The Anglo-Saxon-Celtic majority' saw Australia as an 'idyllic country' and refused to acknowledge Aboriginal Australians as citizens, while the Yolngu were unaware of the 'white man terms' that their Country was now governed by (Egan, 1996). Egan proposed that in 1934, the Yolngu were 'able to feel that they were the undisputed owners of their land', and retribution was an 'inevitable' part of the Yolngu process of justice and reconciliation (Egan, 1996). The crisis and subsequent trials demonstrated that the colonial governments of the time had no understanding of how to create and enforce policies about Aboriginal Australians, with the events signaling a 'turning point' for policymakers (Egan, 1996). 


In 2003, the family of Wirrpanda held a ceremony at the Northern Territory Supreme Court to 'guide his spirit's return to his ancestral land' and 'heal the wounds caused by this tragedy' (Multicultural council of the Northern Territory, 2003). Wirrpanda's descendants and family were joined by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Clare Martin, judges from the Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, and 30 members of the McColl family (Screen Australia, 2014). 

In 2004, the case was the subject of a documentary film entitled Dhakiyarr v The King, directed by Tom Murray and Allan Collins (Edwards, 2005). 

Tuckiar is referred to as a landmark decision in Australian legal history, it being the 'first instance of an accused's conviction being quashed, and a verdict of acquittal being entered, on account of the potential prejudicial effect of pre-trial publicity' (Burgess, 63, 66).

Tuckiar also continues to be cited in case law in relation to counsel's duty of confidentiality owed to their client (Waterford, 2007). For example, in Mokbel v Director of Public Prosecutions (Cth) [2021] VSCA 94 (Mokbel), following the publicity surrounding the behaviour of Victoria Police and Mokbel's counsel, Ms Gobbo [34], Tuckiar was referenced by the Court in its assessment of both the possibility of an acquittal [21] and the likelihood of a fair retrial [33].

Related Entries

Case Law
  • Tuckiar v The King [1934] HCA 49

  • References

    General Reference
    Peter Read (06/02/2006) Djakiyarr Wirrpanda: Appeal for Justice
    Ted Egan (1996) Justice All Their Own: The Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings, 1932-1933
    Book Chapter
    Jack Waterford (2007) The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia
    Journal Article
    Craig Burgess (2009) Prejudicial Publicity: When Will it Ever Result in a Permanent Stay of Proceedings?
    News Item
    Screen Australia (04/03/2022) About the Making of the Film
    Multicultural Council of the Northern Territory (April 2003) Multicultural Council of the Northern Territory, Newsletter, April 2003
    The Mercury (29/09/1933) Murder by Blacks: Missing Tasmanian, Little Hope Entertained, Awaiting Confirmation
    The Daily Telegraph (29/09/1932) Killing of 5 Japs. Reported: Native Crime at Caledon Bay - One Escapes to Safety Inland

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