Miago's Story

Our friend Migo having subsequently very narrowly escaped drowning while swimming to this island, I distinguished it by the name of “Isle Migo” in remembrance of him and his many sterling good qualities.

John Septimus Roe’s diary

Miago (sometimes spelt Migo in documents) was a well-known figure in Perth in the 1830s. According to his granddaughter Fanny Balbuk Yooreel, Kuraree, the site of the Perth Town Hall, was one of Miago’s favourite camp sites. 

Miago’s boodja was in the Upper Swan area, but he had family links across the whole of the Swan and Canning, as well as towards Pinjarra and the Murray River. He was related to many other well-known Nyoongar leaders of the time, such as Munday, Yagan and Midgegooroo. 

Miago was well-known to the settlers, and friendly with some of their leaders. Local newspapers often describe him as a ‘messenger of peace’ and ‘ambassador’. He had a great reputation as a tracker and guide. 

Elder Farley Garlett tells the story of Miago

A respected leader

When the settlers arrived in 1829, Miago was quick to grasp what was happening and quick to position himself as an interpreter and mediator between his people and the settlers. Miago worked hard to make peace by building relationships with the settlers and finding ways for his people to maintain their culture.

In 1833, he went with Munday to meet Governor Stirling. They explained how the actions of the settlers were affecting the daily lives of Whadjuk Nyoongar people. In 1835, Miago organised a peace meeting between Governor Stirling, Swan River people and the people from the Murray River, after the Pinjarra massacre. This included persuading the Governor to host a jeena middar (corroboree). This was held in the Kuraree area, close to the site of the Perth Town Hall. 

Miago was obviously well-respected by his people. At a gathering in 1849 he was chosen as a leader of the Whadjuk Nyoongar living in the Perth area. 

Many of the settlers respected him too. This gave him a chance to try to explain the Nyoongar way of life. For example, he lived in George Grey’s house for several months, teaching him about Nyoongar customs and language. 

C.D. Wittenoom’s sketch of Perth in 1839, as Miago would have known it.
C.D. Wittenoom’s sketch of Perth in 1839, as Miago would have known it.

A brave traveller and song man

Miago must have been brave. He travelled with explorers as guide and interpreter – even to strange places where he believed the people would be hostile. 

Miago travelled with John Septimus Roe to the Albany area, where Roe named Migo Island after him. He also sailed on the Beagle’s expedition to the Northwest. Stokes often mentions him in his diary of the voyage. 

Stokes tells us in his diary that Miago often sang during the Beagle voyage to keep his courage up when he was homesick. None of Miago’s songs were written down, but Grey wrote down other Nyoongar songs about his adventures at sea. Miago’s mother sang about her worries about him going into danger on the ship – her song became well-known and was sung by other Whadjuk Nyoongar travellers.

Extract from Grey’s handwritten notes on the Nyoongar songs associated with Miago. National Library of South Africa, Capetown

Reviving Nyoongar songs

George Grey wrote down the words for two songs associated with Miago.

Dr Clint Bracknell, songwriter and music researcher at Edith Cowan University, has composed music for these words. They are performed here by celebrated singer-songwriter Gina Williams and guitarist Guy Ghouse.

The first song is introduced with the spoken words Ngany norp, baal bokadja woora (my son, he away far).

Grey recorded the words of this song as: ship bal win-jal bat-tar-dal gool-an-een. He translated it as ‘Whither is this lone ship moving away’. This song was said to have been sung by Miago’s mother while he was away on the Beagle voyage.

The second song is introduced with the spoken words Baal kaarlak koorl, yeyi ngaala waangk (he home go, now we say).

Grey recorded the words as Kan-de maar-o, kan-de maar-a-lo, Tsail-o mar-ra, tsail-o mar-ra. His translation is: ‘Unsteadily shifts the wind-o, unsteadily shifts the wind-o, The sails-o handle, the sails-o handle-ho’. This song was popular after Miago’s return and seems to describe his experience aboard ship.

This project has been supported and endorsed by the City of Perth’s Nyoongar Elders advisory committee.

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