There is a sculpture in the main street of Gundagai (NSW) that honours two Wiradjuri men, Yarri and Jacky Jacky, local heroes in the Great Flood of 1852.
The inscription notes that the Gundagai community, including Wiradjuri and descendants of those saved, honour and commemorate Yarri and Jacky Jacky who saved many lives. Unlike so many Australian monuments, this statue does not memorialise and legitimise colonialism or celebrate nationalism and white male ‘heroes’.
The monument is testament to the Wiradjuri men’s bravery and skill.
It asks many questions.
Unveiled in 2017, on the 165th anniversary of the flood, the bronze sculpture depicts the two men and a bark canoe used to save 69 townspeople from the floodwaters. At the time, Gundagai’s population was 250. It was estimated that 89 people died in the flood.
Who’s counted and who went uncounted?
The flood remains one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded in Australia. After unveiling the sculpture, MP Michael McCormack tweeted, the ‘statue marks one of the greatest acts of bravery in Australian history’.[i] Even more so given Australia’s racist, violent colonial history. Wiradjuri had warned the colonisers not to build the town on the flood plains of the Murrumbidgee River. Their knowledge of Country was ignored.
The rescue continued over several days and nights, yet only Yarri and Jacky Jacky are named. Although it is noted that other Wiradjuri joined the rescue, their names are lost to (public) history. The colonial records resound with generic names for Aboriginal people, like Jacky Jacky, erasing and denying people’s uniqueness, humanity and relationships to people and place.
The sculpture, unmissable on the main street of Gundagai, reminds even the most forgetful onlooker of colonialism. Its presence recounts and recalls local history. As Roslyn Boles, a descendant of Yarri, told the ABC News, ‘Yarri and Jacky Jacky could’ve walked away and said, ‘We told them, we told them and they decided not to listen’, but they didn’t.’[ii] Standing before the monument I was dumbstruck. Why? Despite the violence, land theft, oppression and ignoring of Wiradjuri warnings, they risked their lives.
The memorial sets me into a reflective mood. It unsettles, troubles and disturbs my trajectory. We were heading to Tumut, stopped over to grab a coffee and now I’m waylaid by a bronze sculpture. Borrowing from Meaghan Morris, ‘it raises familiar questions about the past represented in the present’, but it does so in the context of everyday activities. Buying a coffee, grocery shopping or tourists meandering along. Unlike the plaque on the Henry Parkes Motor Inn, Tenterfield, which honours a ‘founding father of the modern nation’, the Gundagai legend engenders altogether different effects of place.[iii]
A legend in which Aboriginal men are celebrated for their courage, ingenuity and compassion.
Aunty Sony Piper, Wiradjuri Elder and member of the ‘Yarri and Jacky Jacky Sculpture Committee,’ said:
‘To be Aboriginal men, there’s not many statues around and we wanted that to be in Gundagai.
For a lot of the tourists to come through and see about these heroes – these two Aboriginal heroes.’[iv]
On Saturday the 25th of June 2022, to mark the 170-year anniversary of the flood, the Gundagai Aboriginal community presented the Yarri & Jacky Jacky Commemoration Corroboree. Writing for NITV, organiser Joe Williams wrote: ‘Anyone who was in attendance would agree, that the spirit of the Wiradjuri heroes, and our many ancestors, were with us.’[v]
The statue slowed me down; interrupted my course. Cultural studies, and CSAA, taught me to value everyday disturbances. To not brush aside the affects or pass on by, but to follow the disquiet.
[iii] 1988, ‘At Henry Parkes Motel’, Cultural Studies, 2:1, 1-47.
Lisa Slater is an Associate Professor, University of Wollongong