Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are advised that this article includes names of people who are deceased and may contain research, views, or events from a period which may be culturally sensitive.
The Irwin River flows about 410 kilometres from Perth, between the towns of Dongara and Port Denison in Western Australia’s Midwest. Bordered by the Greenough and Arrowsmith Rivers to its north and south, the name of the 140 kilometre body of water pays tribute to a questionable figure in West Australian history.
According to Irwin Districts Historical Society chair Bruce Baskerville, the river, known locally as Yarranoo Muraja, and the estuary as Thungarra (meaning the place of seals), was renamed to honour Frederick Chidley Irwin.
The Irwin River was given its current name by explorer Sir George Grey following a failed expedition in 1839 in which he and his troops attempted to make their way past the Murchison, a further 200 kilometres to the north. After being left shipwrecked, Grey and his troops walked to the area that later became Dongara. By 1850, settlers had moved in and the area was colonised.
Who was Frederick Irwin?
As a Captain Frederick Irwin led the 63rd regiment tasked with providing military protection for the fledgling Swan River Colony between 1829, and 1834, when he returned to England. He came back to the colony in 1837 and was appointed commandant of all military forces until he retired and left again in 1856. He also served as the acting governor of WA twice, the first during Captain James Stirling’s absence for a year from September 1832. The second time was in 1847-48 after the death of Governor Andrew Clarke. Irwin was an unpopular administrator mostly due to his treatment of First Nations people.
Biographer David Mossenson described him as a “severe and stern officer who identified himself with spiritual welfare and religious observance”.
Under Irwin’s watch in 1833, Aboriginal elder Midgegooroo was executed after someone allegedly attacked settlers in resistance to the expansion of the Swan River colony. At the same time Midgegooroo’s son, the warrior Yagan, was outlawed as a resistance fighter. According to Mossenson, he vowed he would avenge his father’s death, but he was killed in 1833 and his head was publicly displayed as a warning to others.
While the written accounts of the history of Irwin aren’t extensive, the Irwin Districts Historical Society is doing its best to preserve what is known and to share a side of the story that may otherwise go untold. The society keeps most of its artifacts in an old police station which serves as a museum and records office, open to the public.
Baskerville says what is written about Irwin tends to be mostly friendly, despite his role in the colonial project, including his connection to Stirling and participation in the Stolen Generation.
“There’s the formal positions he held, including military roles and acting governor, and on that level, you’d say he’s a significant person,” Baskerville says.
But if you look into Irwin’s history and his relationship with Aboriginal people and views about “the colonial project”, you get a different insight into who he was. The colonial project refers to the occupation of indigenous lands, via the assumption that indigenous people had no rights or legitimate claims.
Baskerville says Irwin played a significant role in helping settlers in the Swan River colony and impressed his views of colonisation onto his troops, which left First Nations People fighting, or dying fighting, for their own land.
“I’d probably say to people look, he’s a significant person in WA history, not just because of the roles he held, but because he helped the settlers shape a self-affirming view of the colonial project,” Baskerville explains.
Based on material, like letters, newspapers, and diaries, produced during the time of Irwin’s administration, Baskerville says there was evidence of doubt about the colonial project. He says some of the people under Irwin’s command who were part of the Swan River settlement questioned if stealing someone else’s country had ‘bad’ aspects.
“This would be countered by Irwin who called it a ‘temporary collision’ between races, claiming colonisation would bring benefits which traditional owners would later recognise,” he says.
Baskerville says while Irwin wasn’t the only one attempting to justify the actions of the settlers, his influence played a key role in developing settlements and he provided his troops with psychological and emotional reason to overcome fears, doubt or guilt.
What’s in a name
For tourists exploring the Midwest, the historical society can be the first point of access to delve into the Shire’s history. A common question asked by newcomers to the region is where the district gets its name from. Baskerville says people are curious but don’t really understand the significance of place names and naming practices.
He sees a place name as history in a few potent words, that summarise the story of a place: “People don’t really understand the significance of place names and naming practices, so to them it’s just a bit of curiosity.”
The Bundiyarra Irra Wangga Language Centre is a program run by the Bundiyarra Aboriginal Community. It works to provide better socio-cultural, economic, and community engagement for Aboriginal people across the Midwest to the Gascoyne. The language workers in this article are from the nearby Wajarri lands, and while they don’t speak for the specific country around the river, they have strong views on the issue of colonial names in general.
Wajarri woman Bernie Jones works at the language centre. She says, “places deserve recognition as ownership on the original name because of the importance and the significance it has to us, as Aboriginal people.”
Senior language specialist from the centre and Wajarri woman Nadine Taylor says there’s many places, especially in the Midwest, named after explorers who “weren’t very nice” to their people.
Irwin was the son of an Irish reverend and had a strong connection to Christianity with ties to the Church of England during his term. By Irwin’s own account, he preached his beliefs to other settlers. Irwin wasn’t just honoured in the Shire of Irwin but also had a school named after him: the Frederick Irwin Anglican school in the Peel region.
Room for change?
In 1846 three brothers, Augustus, Frank and Henry Gregory trekked up to the Dongara area and officially gave English names to three rivers. But Baskerville says they may have been confused about which river Grey had called the Irwin.
He says the names are contested among historians, with some arguing Grey named the Greenough River the Irwin River, and the now Irwin River was called Arrowsmith River. The other two Englishmen honoured in the naming process were George Bellas Greenough, a geographer and cartographer, and map maker John Arrowsmith.
Baskerville says it comes up as a local question, with some suggesting the area should perhaps be called Arrowsmith.
When he asks people why they believe the name should be changed, he says: “They never say it’s because Irwin had a questionable historical record. They see it more as correcting a surveying error.”
Baskerville says if the name of the river were to change, Landgate’s geographical names committee may consider a dual naming convention. But changing the name of the river may result in re-naming the Shire including the middle, upper, and lower Irwin.
“It sort of becomes more than just a name applied to one thing, and I don’t know how people would respond to that,” Baskerville says. He adds that place names mean more to people than they realise and this could lead to opposition to name change proposals.
Nadine Taylor says honouring original names in the community, and in general society, is more powerful than we realise: “That’s our language, it’s giving us an identity again.”
Bernie Jones agrees: “We are here, we haven’t left, we’re still here and the names are still there.”
She says renaming sites back to their traditional name is an act respect and that original names play a significant role particularly for younger generations who can grow up knowing the correct names of sites and the meaning of those names.
“It’ll be good for when their little people grow up. They’ve got it already there and they’re aware of the original names of the sites around here,” she says.
President of the Shire of Irwin Michael Smith says no one has proposed a name change of Irwin River to its traditional name or otherwise, nor have there been discussions to do so.
A Reconciliation Access Plan is a documented strategy to strengthen relationships between non-Indigenous peoples and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. They are used by many schools, workplaces, businesses and communities, but there is no RAP in place for the Irwin districts.
However, through the WA Department of Premier and Cabinet agreements have been made through the Yamatji Nation Indigenous Land Use Agreement. According to the State Government, Yamatji country is the land the Irwin River flows through.
The Land Use Agreement includes a recognition package, that gives Yamatji people non-exclusive rights to access certain areas for traditional purposes. It recognises the diversity in the groups within the Yamatji nation and guarantees that the state will consult with the Regional Corporation about the naming of new places within the agreement area.
A way forward
While the names of old landmarks, like the Irwin River were chosen by and honour colonial figures, Jones encourages non-Indigenous Australians to learn the original names of frequented locations and sites.
Despite the colonial names being displayed on street signs, in maps, and in conversation in non-Aboriginal contexts, Taylor says original names continue to be passed down, as they have been for thousands of years. She adds, that it is important to look at the history of the people sites are named after, and to consider whether they are worthy of being honoured in that way.
Taylor says to move on in this country, we could start by looking at these names, especially those named after explorers and historical figures.
Both Wajarri women say instead of places being named in honour of historical figures with shameful pasts, it would be more appropriate to name places after warriors or family groups from the local area.
Taylor says, “for me, we’re reclaiming our land again, and to name it back to the original names, that’s saying we have it, it’s still the same, and it’s not going to change.”
Yamatji and Wattandee spokespeople contacted declined to comment.
This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.