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The Caledon Bay crisis refers to a series of killings at Caledon Bay in the Northern Territory of Australia during 1932–34. These events are widely seen as a turning point in relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

In 1932 five Japanese trepang fishers were killed by Aboriginals in the Caledon Bay area of northeast Arnhem Land. In another incident on Woodah Island, two white men named Fagan and Traynor were killed. A policeman investigating the deaths, Constable Albert McColl, was subsequently also killed by Yolngu people.[1] McColl had handcuffed a Yolngu woman as part of a plan to catch Dhakiyarr (also known as Takiar, Tuckiar and Takiara) but was killed by a spear through the heart while being led by the women to where she had told him Dhakiyarr was camping.[2]

The killings triggered panic in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, generating fears that Aborigines — the majority of the population in the Territory at the time — might stage an uprising. A punitive expedition was proposed by police to "teach the blacks a lesson".[3] (In 1928, during a previous "punitive expedition" in the Northern Territory, police had killed up to 110 Aboriginal men, women and children; an event known as the Coniston massacre.)

Many feared another such slaughter, and a party from the Church Missionary Society travelled to Arnhem Land and persuaded Dhakiyarr and three other men, who were sons of a Yolngu elder, Wonggu, to return to Darwin with them for trial. In Darwin, to the horror of the missionaries, Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death by hanging, and the three other men were sentenced to twenty years hard labour.[4] On appeal to the High Court of Australia, Dhakiyarr’s sentence was quashed,[5] and he was released from jail, but disappeared. Rumours suggested he had been killed by police.

The resulting crisis threatened to bring about even more bloodshed. To defuse the situation, a young anthropologist, Donald Thomson, offered to investigate the causes of the conflict. He travelled to Arnhem Land, on a mission that many said would be suicidal, and got to know and understand the people who lived there. After seven months’ investigation he persuaded the Federal Government to free the three men convicted of the killings and returned with them to their own country, living for over a year with their people, documenting their culture.

He formed a strong bond with the Yolngu people, and in 1941 he persuaded the Army to establish a special reconnaissance force of Yolngu men known as the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, including Wonggu and his sons, to help repel Japanese raids on the northern coastline of Australia.

The historian Henry Reynolds has suggested that the Caledon Bay crisis "was a decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations. The High Court condemned frontier justice, the punitive expedition did not ride into Yolngu country and there had been an unprecedented outburst of public sentiment demanding a new deal for Indigenous Australians."


  1. Egan, Ted, 1996, Justice All Their Own. Melbourne University Press.
  2. This incident is dramatised in the documentary film Dhakiyarr vs the King (2004) by Tom Murray and Allan Collins.
  3. Howard Morphy, 2005, "Mutual Conversion? The Methodist Church and the Yolŋu, with particular reference to Yirrkala", Humanities Research, vol. XII, no. 1, p. 43]
  4. Murray, Tom (2002) Producer. Tuckiar vs the King and Territory. ABC Radio National Hindsight.
  5. Tuckiar v R (1934) HCA 49; (1934) 52 CLR 335 (8 November 1934) HIGH COURT OF AUSTRALIA

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