Yagan was a member of the Noongar people of Western Australia. After the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, Yagan became an inadvertent symbol of aboriginal resistance to white settlers.
Initially, relations between the Noongar and the settlers were harmonious. However, differing conceptions of property, land use, and food acquisition inevitably led to conflict between the two groups. In 1831, a farmer's servant killed a member of Yagan's family who was raiding a potato patch. Yagan and some other Noongar raided the farm and killed a different servant. To the Noongar, honor was satisfied, but to the settlers, it was an unprovoked murder. Yagan eluded arrest and after another attack the next year which killed a laborer, a reward of £20 was posted for his capture. In October, he was finally captured after being tricked into a boat by some fishermen. Though sentenced to death, through the efforts of Robert Lyon, an early advocate for aboriginal people, Yagan was treated as a prisoner of war and not as a murderer.
Yagan and his band were exiled to Carnac Island. Lyon learned about the Noongar language and customs and thought that, given enough time, an accord could be reached between the Noongar and the settlers. But after only a little over a month on the island, Yagan and his group escaped in a stolen boat. The settler government did not pursue them and they returned to raiding supplies from the settlers. This kept up until Yagan's brother was shot and killed during a flour theft. In retaliation, Yagan led a group of Noongar in an ambush which killed two settlers. A reward was again posted for his capture, this time £30.
On July 11, 1833, two teenage brothers, William and James Keates, attacked a group of Noongar in an effort to claim that reward. William Keates shot Yagan but was speared to death and James Keates escaped. When he brought back reinforcements, Yagan was found dead. The settlers decapitated Yagan and skinned his tattooed back for a trophy. James Keates claimed his reward, but fled the colony the next month, probably fearing retribution.
Yagan's head was preserved by smoking it. It ended up in the hands of explorer Lieutenant Robert Dale, who brought it to England. After failing to find a buyer for it at £20, he loaned it to antiquarian Thomas Pettigrew. Pettigrew put it on display adorned with fresh feathers of the Australian red-tailed black cockatoos and published a pamphlet with a drawing of the head (pictured above) by the artist George Cruikshank, who would later gain fame by illustrating the works of Charles Dickens.
Back in Dale's hands, he gave the head to the Liverpool Royal Institution, and at the end of the century, it was inherited by the Liverpool Museum. In 1964, the Museum disposed of the deteriorating head and other unwanted human artifacts, a Māori head and a Peruvian mummy. They were buried in a cemetery and a few years later a hospital buried 22 dead babies on top of them.
In the 1980s, aboriginal groups began demanding the return of Yagan's head, but by then, no one knew where it was. A researcher finally tracked it down in 1993, but the British government wouldn't allow exhumation because it would disturb the babies in the way. Finally, after an extensive geophysical survey, in 1997 the head was retrieved by digging down an adjacent plot, then tunneling over horizontally. Legal squabbles over who was allowed to claim the head ensued, but it was finally handed over to an aboriginal delegation on the day of Princess Diana's death. One of them, the outspoken activist Ken Colbung, started a media firestorm with comments that were thought to link the two events, but Colbung insisted he was misinterpreted. The squabbles continued in Australia and Yagan's head languished in a bank vault while arguments about where and how to bury him continued and attempts were made to find the rest of his remains. The body was never found, but the head was finally buried in a private ceremony on July 10, 2010.