Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda was a Yolngu elder and leader whose country was in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. In April 1934 he was taken into custody in Darwin and charged with the murder of police constable Albert McColl. After a controversial trial in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death.
Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, 1933.
AIATSIS: Wilson.E5.BW, N3636.03
Dhakiyarr's case drew national and international attention to the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. His case was preceded and followed by years of debate about the sufferings of traditional Aboriginals, particularly in northern Australia. Because Dhakiyarr's conviction and sentence were in the Northern Territory, the appeal was to the High Court. This became the first case of an Aboriginal Australian heard in the High Court. The Court's decision overturning the jury's verdict and the judge's sentence affirmed the right of Aboriginal people to a fair trial in Australian courts.
The case, however, ended in tragedy for Dhakiyarr and his family. On 8 November 1934 the High Court directed that Dhakiyarr be released and returned to his country. Within 24 hours of his release from gaol Dhakiyarr vanished. No one knows what happened to him, but some believe he was murdered. Nearly 70 years later, in June 2003, the Wirrpanda family held a Wukidi or burial ceremony in Darwin, to liberate his spirit and cleanse those involved in his death. A Wukidi ceremony is part of Yolngu law, and resolves a conflict between tribes that have wronged each other.
The National Archives of Australia holds the records of a number of the Australian Government departments and officials involved in Dhakiyarr's case. They include the Department of the Interior, the Attorney-General's Department, the Prime Minister's Office and the High Court. Significantly, and this was a key issue in the appeal to the High Court, there is no accepted record of Dhakiyarr's telling of the events. However, the Wirrpanda family has provided the National Archives with their account from the story passed down through the generations of their family. We include it here in the People section.
Note on offensive language
This website includes digital copies of government records and newspaper clippings from the 1930s. Some of the language used to refer to Aboriginal people is considered offensive today.