Gwoya Tjungurrayi was a Warlpiri man from the Northern Territory desert. You’ve probably never heard of him, and yet, chances are, you know him by sight.
The Tanami Desert, west of Alice Springs, is one of the most isolated areas in Australia.
It is our northernmost desert, and one of the last to be explored by European settlers. This is proper outback country; red sandy plains, spinifex, salt flats, and 45 degree days.
But while the Tanami is remote, and the environment hostile, it is not without human activity.
Two of Australia’s largest gold mines are found here, and they are serviced by a 1000 km dirt highway, the Tanami Track, that stretches from Alice Springs to Halls Creek, in Western Australia.
But these developments were date only from the 1970s. In the years before that, this stretch of desert was known only to the local Indigenous population.
The Warlpiri tribe consists of 5 000 – 6 000 people, spread across the Tanami Desert. There are several towns, Yuendemu is the largest, which is home to the bulk of the population, while some families continue to live a more traditional lifestyle.
They have their own distinct language, divided into four dialects, which has been widely studied. Australian Indigenous languages are thought to be some of the earliest still spoken, and so provide linguists with important clues as they attempt to determine how human communication developed.
In 1895, Gwoya Tjungurrayi was born in a small Warlpiri camp, about 200km north-west of Alice Springs.
In his early years, Tjungurrayi was raised in a traditional manner by the local Indigenous community.
But by the time he was a teenager, European settlers were coming to the grasslands at the edge of the Tanami, building homesteads and running cattle. Like a lot of young Indigenous men, Tjungurrayi found work as a stockman, helping manage the livestock, and doing general labouring.
On the side, he made boomerangs, which he sold to European visitors. He was known to charge one pound for each item, which lead to him gaining a nickname, ‘One Pound Jimmy.’
One of the farms that Tjungurrayi worked at, was Coniston Station.
Coniston Station is a vast cattle property, 250km west of Alice Springs.
It was started by Randall Stafford, a pastoralist from South Australia, in 1923. By 1928 it was thriving, and Stafford had thousands of animals on the property.
But that year also saw a severe drought.
As Europeans began farming the Australian interior, tensions between white people and the local Indigenous population increased.
The primary conflict was over water, a scarce resource in the outback. Indigenous tribes found their traditional watering holes appropriated for farming purposes, with the settlers prepared to defend their claims aggressively.
This happened at Coniston, with escalating tensions exacerbated by the drought.
One of Coniston’s white ranch hands was 61 year old Fred Brooks, a jack of all trades who hustled up extra money by hunting dingoes. Dingoes, seen as a feral pest by the government, had a small bounty on them, paid per skin.
On August 2, 1928, Brooks set out dingo hunting, intending to trap for a few days.
He set up camp at a small watering hole about 15km from Coniston, known as Yurrkuru, and was seen by two mining prospectors on August 4.
On August 7 he was found dead, his body butchered and partly buried. While there were no eye witnesses to the killing (and no legitimate ones were ever identified), it was assumed that local Warlpiri people had murdered him.
The settlers vengeance would be brutal.
A week after Brooks’ death, a posse of police troopers and Coniston employees set out into Warlpiri territory. Their stated objective was to apprehend Brooks’ murderer, but instead they embarked on a revenge fuelled killing spree.
Several Indigenous camps were attacked, and their occupants slaughtered. Party member Jack Saxby would later recall:
'I always carry a revolver on my tours and consider it necessary. I have had to shoot at blacks even before this trouble, and I have had to shoot to kill.’
Randall Stafford, also a member of the party, would testify at an enquiry that he personally counted 31 Indigenous people killed, although he explained this away by saying that the party were defending themselves.
Later investigations would estimate a much higher figure, numbering perhaps as many as 60 victims.
It is one of the worst, and most graphic, incidents in Australia’s history.
Tjungurrayi lost several family members during what came to be known as ‘The Coniston Massacre’.
The official enquiry into the incident later exonerated all of the white participants, accepting that they had acted in self-defence. The policeman involved were removed from the area and reassigned, but none were charged or reprimanded.
In the aftermath, Tjungurrayi quietly moved back to the Tanami, where he would live the rest of his life.
In 1935, a small party of officials visited the Northern Territory, exploring ways to open up the region as a tourist destination. One of these was Charles Holmes, who was struck by an Indigenous tribal elder he met at a mining camp near Alice Springs:
'Tall and lithe, with a particularly well-developed torso, broad forehead, strong features and superb carriage, he was as fine a specimen of manhood as you would ever want to see. He went by the name of "One Pound Jimmy".'
The party photographer, Ray Dunstan, took what became an iconic image of Tjungurrayi, staring off towards the horizon.
Dunstan’s photograph would feature on the cover of ‘Walkabout’ magazine, a popular travelogue with stories about far-flung locations.
The power of the photo, and accompanying article describing the Warlpiri way of life, would make Tjungurrayi world-famous.
The story and photo ran in several international magazines, and has been re-printed numerous times.
An excerpt of the photo, showing Tjungurrayi’s face, was later used on the 8 ½ pence stamp.
Tjungurrayi himself did not enjoy the attention this brought. Intrepid tourists that made it to the Tanami sought him out, and he often denied that he was the man in the famous photo.
Gwoya Tjungurrayi died peacefully of natural causes, a respected member of his community, in 1965.
In 1988, the federal government decided to replace the two dollar note with a coin. The two dollar coin itself had been in the offing since the 1970s, but had been delayed several times due to the cost of implementation.
As a tribute to Australia’s Indigenous history, it was decided to make an Aboriginal face a feature of the new coin’s design.
The designer, Horst Hahne, did not intend for the image to depict any particular person. But he used a line drawing of Dunstan’s photo of Tjungurrayi, drawn by artist Ainslie Roberts, as his model.
The two dollar coin was put into circulation on June 2, 1988, and the imagery used was widely acclaimed; a metal pressing, based on a drawing, based on a photo, based on a man.
Tjungurrayi still graces the coin to this day, a symbolic reminder of Australia’s forgotten Indigenous history.