In February, 1876, a young Balladong man was laid to rest on a beautiful beach track near the town of Esperance, southern Western Australia. Today, 140 years later, an integrated team is working to locate and protect the gravesite of the great tracker – Tommy Windich.
Tommy is well-known for his critical role in guiding surveyors on expeditions across the interior of Western Australia and beyond. The Forest brothers were the colony’s great surveyors at the time; and became one of the most prominent, influential families of early Western Australia. The brothers spoke highly of their friend and guide, and in gestures uncommon of the time, repeatedly recognized Tommy’s contribution to the success of their expeditions. These words were inscribed on his headstone:
“Erected by John and Alexander Forrest in the memory of Tommy Windich. He was an aboriginal native of Western Australia, of great intelligence and fidelity, who accompanied them on exploring expeditions into the interior of Australia, two of which were from Perth to Adelaide. Be Ye Also Ready“.
Somehow, with the passage of time, and in the face of a massive port development across the western edge of Esperance Bay, Tommy’s grave site has been disturbed, and the location of his burial remains a point of conjecture. A memorial has been established within the present-day Port of Esperance, noting that his resting place is somehow ‘in this vicinity’. Whereas some local historians believe that his resting place lies undisturbed beneath his current memorial, others are not so sure.
Information pertaining to the exact location of Tommy Windich’s original gravesite is problematic. There is evidence to suggest that the gravesite has been moved since the original burial in 1876, perhaps several times. The original headstone is now housed in the local Esperance Museum. The reasons why and how this was moved, and whether the actual remains were re-located as well, remains unknown. Some preliminary research is beginning to unravel a sequence of events.
The search for Tommy has been a concern for the Traditional Owners of this area and local historians alike for many years. This search has been amped up in recent days, in light of a new development within the Port, as part of an overall road upgrade and expansion project.
Doc Reynolds, Elder and Cultural Coordinator for the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNAC), entered into discussions with Southern Ports Authority (SPA) to voice his concerns over construction activities in the vicinity of the resting pace of Tommy Windich.
“Burial grounds are sacred places for our People,” Doc stated. “We have a cultural obligation to protect the spirits of our ancestors, and we will always will.” Doc also explained that Tommy Windich is a hero to his community, even though Tommy’s traditional lands are not of his own. “Tommy is a Balladong Man. But he died in Esperance. So we have an obligation to Tommy and his People to let them know what is happening, seek guidance from them. It is a cultural thing – respect. We have started that process now. But sometimes, when there is a development threat – well we need to act fast.”
After an agreement reached with SPA, Doc coordinated representatives of each of the six Traditional Owner families of the Esperance area, and a community-led investigation was carried out. The goal was to also guide the way construction activities are undertaken in this culturally- and historically-sensitive area.
The Traditional Owners engaged support from the team from Applied Archaeology Australia (AAA), and together, they set out on field surveys, oral and archival research, ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys, and analysis of historical maps and images. “Archaeology is about pulling all lines of evidence together,” said David Guilfoyle, managing director of AAA. “Traditional knowledge is primary. Cultural leadership is primary. It always is with our team, as there are cultural and spiritual considerations anywhere you work in Australia. From here, we build in archaeological methods to the project, and work with technical specialists, local historians, surveyors. Every project requires collaboration – integrating diverse sets of information and data – ensuring cultural respect through every step.”
Due to the risk that an intact, unmarked burial site may be located outside the memorial area, and in the context of a highly intensive construction zone in a narrow corridor, AAA engaged with WKC Spatial to carry out a GPR survey of the area. At the same time, a cultural monitoring plan was instigated to examine areas already disturbed, that included archaeological screening of excavated sediments from construction trenches that took place prior to the heritage assessment.
The collaborative effort has been well received by SPA representatives, and the construction team themselves. “What a privilege to see such a professional, community-led approach to this investigation,” said Mick O’Shea, works supervisor for the technical services team at SPA. “This is not your usual construction site – and we fully support the heritage team in their work. We see this as an opportunity to learn from each other, while working together. We all feel the spirit of Tommy out here.”
The team identified an area of intact sand dune some 40 metres away from the current memorial. The GPR survey identified an anomaly consistent with the profile of a burial site. Oral histories and historical photographs and maps also pointed to this vicinity. An area has been marked off and meetings were held to guide construction activities and plans away from this area of interest.
Additional work was undertaken with the support of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Landgate, with some historical sources including a zoning map from March 1886, showing the original gravesite location. The historical maps were superimposed by GIS specialists that places the burial southeast of the memorial – almost exactly at the GPR point of interest.
“We have compiled a body of evidence now that indicates we may have located the actual resting place of Tommy” said Doc Reynolds on February 20th, 2016 – 140 years to the day of Tommy’s passing. “This was the first stage. To take action that guides construction activities, the contractors, and work with SPA to amend their approach and plans – we can’t allow any inadvertent disturbance to occur.”
With mitigation measures in place, the next stage begins. As Doc explains: “First and foremost, from our point of view, is to make contact with Tommy’s People, his descendants. We will facilitate this and speak with the Elders there. From here, we will follow their advice on what we do next. But regardless of the outcomes of these investigations, this area needs to be protected, it needs to be revitalized. Tommy’s contribution to the wealth and development of Western Australia; the way he broke down barriers between two cultures – his legacy, his spirit, deserves this.”
Matt Devinish, technical services manager of SPA, wholeheartedly agrees. “Our team are doing everything we can to support the Traditional Owners, and the heritage team. This is a special area, and we want to ensure that mechanisms are in place to protect the historical and cultural values.”
The resting place of Tommy notwithstanding, the area is a sensitive cultural zone and archaeological landscape. “We know this area was a traditional burial ground;” said Elder Graham Tucker. “Our people used the coastal dunes to keep the spirits of our ancestors.” The anomaly identified by the GPR may in fact be a burial of an Esperance Traditional Owner, from the distant past.
The archaeologists are also investigating ways to manage and protect these cultural values, linked to patterns of changing landscapes over time. As David Guilfoyle explains: “The rising seas that formed the Recherche Archipelago and created the recent coastline around Esperance, ensures that that there is always a chance of locating buried cultural material within the coastal zone, linked to an ancient landform system. This project area along the Port is at the interface of the high tide mark as it has been in recent times. But we must remember that this area was once an inland landform, and over time the evidence of people using this area has been buried by windblown deposits and the rising ocean itself.”
The ETNTAC is leading a new era of cultural heritage management. “Ultimately, this project is about our shared heritage, working together and protecting the past,” said Annie Dabb, co-chair of ETNTAC. Fellow co-chair, Gail Reynolds-Adamson agrees: “Our organization is working hard behind the scenes to support this and many other important projects. We are a new organization, but we want to ensure that there are strategies in place that formalize this type of goodwill and high-level methods of fieldwork, research, collaboration and partnership“.
This project is now starting toward Phase II, based on cultural sharing, revitalization and ongoing management.