Category Archives: Queensland

From the Caribbean to Queensland: re-examining Australia’s ‘blackbirding’ past and its roots in the global slave trade

South Sea Islander children in Queensland, around 1902-05.
Queensland State Library

Emma Christopher, UNSWThere are moves afoot to scrub colonial businessman Benjamin Boyd’s name from the map. The owners of historic Boydtown on the NSW south coast are planning to change its name, while Ben Boyd National Park may also be renamed. Residents in North Sydney will take part in a survey to rename Ben Boyd Road, too.

The reason: Boyd’s links to “blackbirding” in the 19th century.

Blackbirding was a term given to the trade of kidnapping or tricking Pacific Islanders on board ships so they could be carried away to work in Australia.

Boyd instigated this practice in the late 1840s, bringing the first group of Pacific Islanders to work on land in the Australian colonies. Although his scheme ultimately failed, other labour traders would deliver approximately 62,000 islanders to Queensland and NSW between the 1860s and 1900s.

The moves to rename the NSW sites are largely due to Australian South Sea Islanders’ struggles for recognition of what their ancestors endured. They often prefer the term slavery to indentured labour and demand full acknowledgement of what happened.

One way this might be achieved is by tracing Pacific Islander blackbirding back to its roots and placing it within the global context of slavery.

This history — painful and provocative as it might be — offers a way to bridge the divisions between those who are proud of Australia’s sugar pioneers and Australian South Sea Islanders who are still dealing with the losses from this ugly past.

Read more:
Monumental errors: how Australia can fix its racist colonial statues

Boyd’s history with slavery

To take this broader perspective, we need to reexamine Boyd’s early life. Boyd was the son of a wealthy London slave trader, Edward Boyd, whose business shipped several thousand enslaved people to sugar plantations in the Caribbean and fought against the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

This matters. Benjamin Boyd claimed to be a self-made man, but his education, home life, connections and worldview were fostered by his father’s profession and the wealth it had created.

Benjamin Boyd portrait by unknown artist, 1830s.
State Library of New South Wales

As Marion Diamond wrote in her 1988 biography of Boyd, he had grown up in Britain with an African servant named Dick. As a child aboard one of Edward Boyd’s slave ships, Dick had become too sick to make a profit at market. Instead of being thrown overboard as “refuse”, as was usual, Dick was taken to Britain to be a servant.

Benjamin’s preconceived ideas of “Black” labour and his own place in the world were based on these early experiences of being served tea by Dick.

Read more:
Think slavery in Australia was all in the past? Think again

He was hardly alone among blackbirders in having such a background. It would be extraordinary if he had been.

The reason the importation of Pacific labourers took off in the 1860s, following Boyd’s earlier example, was the fledgling Australian sugar industry.

Sugar had profoundly changed the Americas by this time, creating unparalleled wealth for Britain, France, the Netherlands and other colonisers. It also played a central role in industrialisation.

Sugar’s voracious labour demands — and massive profit margins — accounted for a vast percentage of the 12 million or so African captives delivered for sale in the Americas.

Sugar and slavery created many of Britain’s richest men. And when slavery was abolished in much of the British empire in 1833-34, sugar planters gained by far the biggest compensation payouts for the loss of their human property.

Sugarcane field on the Clarence River in northern NSW, 1921–23.
State Library of New South Wales

Australian-Caribbean connections

It is no wonder many of Australia’s sugar pioneers and blackbirders had family backgrounds, fortunes and/or experiences from the slave-sugar complex of the Caribbean (as well as Mauritius in the Indian Ocean). I have so far found more than 200 such people who came to Australia to start again.

Among them was Louis Hope, celebrated as Queensland’s sugar pioneer, who came from a West Indies slave trading and owning family. Ormiston House, Hope’s former home, contains a fawning plaque to him, which mentions neither his pioneering use of South Sea Islander workers, nor his family’s past connections to slavery.

John Ewen Davidson, the “doyen” of the Mackay sugar industry, was also from one of the wealthiest slave-owning dynasties in the West Indies going back four generations.

Read more:
Was there slavery in Australia? Yes. It shouldn’t even be up for debate

Caribbean planters and their children did not only bring money to Australia, but also ideas of how sugar could best be grown. They were experts in what labourers should look like: dark-skinned, cheap and easy to control by restricting options for escape.

They sought managers from the West Indies to run their plantations, such as John Buhot of the Barbados, for whom there is a plaque in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens. Buhot’s parents were minor slave owners and he had trained there as a sugar boiler and manager.

John Buhot is celebrated as a pioneer in Queensland’s sugar industry.
Queensland State Archives

Other managers were recruited from the US, Cuba and Brazil, where slavery was either just ending or not yet abolished.

In other words, the men who had experience managing enslaved African people in the Americas were sought to oversee Pacific Islanders, despite them being not legally enslaved in Australia. It was thought to be expedient.

The naming of Australian places

These connections to the Atlantic slavery trade dot Australia. The central NSW coastal suburb of Tascott, for instance, is named for Thomas Alison Scott, who had previously worked at his uncle’s slave-trading company and then as a manager at his father’s plantation in Antigua.

Australian South Sea Islander worker standing among sugar cane on a plantation in Mackay, Queensland, 1895.
State Library of Queensland

When Scott arrived in Australia, he appropriated the sugar-growing successes of a black Antiguan slave as his own.

For others, the use of Caribbean names for Australian locations was both commemorative and hopeful of the wealth they hoped to reproduce. The Brown brothers, whose mother was from the West Indies, settled on the Fraser Coast and named their sugar plantation Antigua. This name remains in use today.

Far more notable were the Longs, who had been among the wealthiest and most influential slaveholders in Jamaica since 1655. They also relocated to Queensland in the 19th century and named their plantation north of Mackay for Cuba’s capital, Habana.

Connections to the Caribbean were celebrated in this way even after Britain became fervently anti-slavery.

If Pacific labour is seen not as an Australian peculiarity but instead as part of the global slave trade, it becomes far easier to grasp the scope of the grief and disadvantage that Australian South Sea Islanders are still dealing with.

As Pacific Islanders have been demanding for some time, we need to examine and confront this history before we can move forward.The Conversation

Emma Christopher, Scientia Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hidden women of history: Melanesian indentured labourer Annie Etinside, hailed as a Queensland ‘pioneer’ on her death

Annie, pictured on left with her children in the town of Halifax, circa 1910, forged a rich life in difficult circumstances.
Author provided

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui, James Cook University and Claire Brennan, James Cook UniversityIn this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

The women of the tropical north Queensland frontier were a varied lot
and included Melanesian indentured labourers brought to work on sugar cane plantations. Annie Etinside was one of them.

She was brought to Halifax, a small, sleepy town bordering the banks of the Herbert River that was once a thriving port and tramway terminus for the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s Victoria sugar plantation and mill.

Evidence today of the indentured labourers who once toiled on the plantation is found in small signposts such as one at “The Gardens”, formerly a small Melanesian village on the outskirts of Halifax. Here lived a few families who were not later repatriated to their islands.

Far fewer women than men were recruited as indentured labourers. In 1906, when forced repatriation of these labourers began, only 14 Melanesian women and 500 men remained on the Herbert. Annie, one of those 14, did not live in The Gardens community. Her life took a very different course.

Available records reveal a woman of colour who defied all odds to participate in a predominantly white community. Yet Annie remains an enigma.

Read more:
Hidden women of history: Wauba Debar, an Indigenous swimmer from Tasmania who saved her captors


The “frontier” is generally thought of as a masculine space. In part this is because most frontier history has been written by European men, who tended not to notice women beyond their domestic arrangements, if at all. Fleshing out the lives of pioneering frontier women is difficult enough if they are white, let alone for women of colour.

The first Melanesian men were brought to the Herbert River district around 1872; women came about ten years later. Annie appears to have been among them. While some islanders volunteered, others were secured against their own will by deceit and even kidnapping.

They were paid, and at the end of the three-year indenture period could either return to their islands, re-indenture, or work freely in the sugar industry on a set wage. Following the existing record trail leaves many questions unanswered about when Annie arrived and where from.

Annie’s headstone.
Author provided

In the Halifax cemetery, her simple headstone tells us she came from Ureparapara (the third largest island in the Banks group of northern Vanuatu). Yet her death certificate records her as born on “Lambue South Sea Island”. Her marriage certificate records her birth as “Burra Burra South Sea Island”. Neither of these locations can be identified, but the latter may be a corruption of Buka Buka.

A register was kept listing the names of recruited labourers and other details. The only Etinside on this register is a man brought over on November 5, 1888 from Ureparapara. We don’t know if this was Annie, mistakenly recorded as a male.

Details of Annie’s arrival are further muddied by the information provided on her gravestone, marriage and death certificates. According to these, she was born around 1870, so would have arrived in Australia in 1881 as an 11-year-old.

Read more:
Hidden women of history: Isabel Flick, the tenacious campaigner who fought segregation in Australia


Indentured women were employed both in fields and houses by small farmers, and on plantations. Annie’s obituary, published in the Herbert River Express, says she was first engaged as housemaid to Norwegian sugar cane farmer Johan (John) Ingebright Alm and his wife Antonia, then to an English farmer, Francis Herron and his wife Lucinda.

By 1884, she was housemaid to George Gosling who had migrated from Britain in 1881. George was an overseer of indentured labour gangs, then farmed on leased land and in his own right, turning a piece of land called “Poverty Flat” by locals into a successful farm, Rosedale.

George and Annie Gosling, circa 1885.
Albert and Rachel Garlando

Annie married Gosling in 1898 in a civil ceremony. By this time, she had borne him two children. The children’s birth records are the first bearing the name Etenside (misspelt). At this point, Annie may have begun to feel unsafe. The Aboriginal Protection and Restrictions of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 had just been passed.

Without an official record to prove she had arrived as an indentured labourer, officials could have identified Annie as Aboriginal. This would have meant restriction of her movements and associations; her children, as mixed race and born out of wedlock, could have been taken from her.

The indentured labour scheme was never meant to permit Melanesian people to settle permanently in Australia. In 1901 the White Australia policy legislated to stop the scheme. From the end of 1906, all Melanesian indentured labourers were to be forcibly deported back to their islands, except for those with exemption tickets.

Marriage offered Annie protection. Rather than social disapproval, it seems to have met with tolerance, even if expressed in a patronising way. One Cairns newspaper described her with tongue in cheek as Gosling’s “little black duck”.

George Gosling’s headstone.
Author provided

Annie and Gosling had three more children although tragedy struck on January 17, 1905, when Gosling died of malaria at the age of 45. Annie was left with five young children, the youngest only eight days old. On Gosling’s death, Annie was recognised as his lawful widow, inheriting all his estate. The success of his farm can be partly attributed to her. On the Herbert, small farmers depended on wives and children for all field labour, apart from cane harvesting.

Annie had another child in 1907, who she named Robert Gosling. She went on to marry William John Davey on February 17, 1909. But one month after their marriage, she registered the death of little Robert. Davey died on August 30, in the same year. After his death she reverted to using the name Gosling.

Remarkable feats

Despite her “alien” status, Annie integrated herself successfully into the largely white social fabric of Halifax, becoming a respected member of the community at a time of institutionalised racism. She participated in civic life, was registered on the electoral roll and ran a farm.

Her children attended the Halifax State School, her sons farmed and held jobs at the sugar mills (unusual for children of indentured labourers) and her children married Anglo-Australians, Europeans and Asians.

Annie’s were remarkable feats, given the prevailing racial attitudes and prohibitions regarding land ownership, education and constitutional rights. They indicate her determination to be recognised as an accountable, independent and hard-working member of society, regardless of her skin colour.

When Annie died on November 23, 1948 at the recorded age of 78, she was described in the Herbert River Express as a “grand old pioneer”.The Conversation

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui, Adjunct Lecturer, James Cook University and Claire Brennan, Lecturer in History, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Issues that swung elections: the dramatic and inglorious fall of Joh Bjelke-Petersen

Joh Bjelke-Petersen with his wife, Flo, on their wedding day in 1952. Bjelke-Petersen made an ill-fated bid for PM in 1987 that ripped the Coalition apart.
Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd/Wikimedia Commons

Shirleene Robinson, Macquarie University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.

Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as Queensland’s premier began in 1968 and came to a dramatic and inglorious end 19 years later with the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption. He is still Queensland’s longest-serving premier, but he leaves a complicated legacy. For many, he is remembered most for his rigid control of over all areas of government and his anti-democratic stance on public protests.

Bjelke-Petersen governed the state as leader of the Country Party (which later became the National Party) until his downfall in 1987.

In May that year, the ABC television programme Four Corners aired the first public allegations of organised crime and police corruption in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen would hang on to office for only a few more months before being forced to step down.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry, launched in the aftermath of the Four Corners programme, continued for another two years, uncovering a deep and systematic web of corruption that implicated many at the highest levels of Queensland government and the Queensland Police Force.

Read more:
The man who would be commissioner: Bjelke-Petersen’s crooked pick

For Bjelke-Petersen, not only was his career as a state premier over, but so, too, were his national ambitions. In early 1987, Bjelke-Petersen had launched an ill-fated “Joh for PM” campaign in a brazen attempt to challenge then-Liberal Party leader John Howard as head of the Coalition, then run against Prime Minister Bob Hawke in that year’s federal election.

His bid for power split the federal Coalition. Capitalising on the internal dissent of the Opposition, Hawke easily won the 1987 election, holding onto the prime-ministership for another four years.

Bjelke-Petersen ends interview prematurely after questions about Fitzgerald Inquiry.

An ill-fated run for federal office

Hawke’s win in the 1987 election had been far from inevitable. The Coalition had actually been ahead in the polls for much of Hawke’s 1984-1987 term. However, internal divisions, typified by the rivalry between Howard and Andrew Peacock over the Liberal leadership, put pressure on the party. Tensions were further stoked when Bjelke-Petersen announced his intention to enter the federal arena.

In January 1987, when Bjelke-Petersen announced that he intended to run for parliament, he assumed that his success in Queensland could be duplicated at the federal level. Fresh from a win in the state election the previous year, he and his backers did not acknowledge the distinctive set of circumstances in Queensland that had given rise to his long time in office.

His bid for PM did make a brief splash in the national media, drawing further attention to the deep ideological rifts within the federal Coalition. Howard, leader of the Liberals, and Ian Sinclair, leader of the Nationals, struggled to contain the division caused by Bjelke-Petersen’s ambitions. The discord reached a breaking point at the end of February 1987, when the Queensland National Party decided to withdraw its 12 federal MPs from the Coalition in support of Bjelke-Petersen’s efforts. The Coalition formally split soon after.

Hawke seized on the Coalition’s infighting and quickly called an election on May 27. Bjelke-Petersen was not even in the country at the time, having gone to the United States. Outplayed and dealing with increased coverage of corruption and dissent in Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen swiftly abandoned his plan to run for prime minister.

Read more:
The larrikin as leader: how Bob Hawke came to be one of the best (and luckiest) prime ministers

By the end of the year, Howard’s Coalition was fatally divided. Labor was returned to government and increased its majority in the House with 86 seats to 43 for the Liberals and 19 for the National Party.

The win allowed Hawke to take his place in history as the party’s longest-serving prime minister.

Bjelke-Petersen meets with fellow Queensland politician Russell Hinze. Both figures left office amid allegations of corruption.
Wikimedia Commons/John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland/ Queensland Newspapers Pty. Ltd.

A tarnished legacy in Queensland

The failings of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland extended far beyond the arrogance that saw him attempt an ill-conceived move into federal politics.

Under his leadership, Queensland was not democratic. His government exploited the state’s electoral gerrymander, which over-represented rural electorates at the expense of urban ones. The state’s unicameral parliament meant the checks and balances a second house would have provided were absent.

Bjelke-Petersen also relied on a police force rife with corruption to prop up his government. Dissenters faced brutalisation at the hands of police when they took to the streets. A repressive set of laws that banned protests meant taking to the streets could result in time in prison. For too long, the media were silent about the corruption taking place in the state.

Read more:
Jacks and Jokers: Bjelke-Petersen and Queensland’s ‘police state’

Journalist Evan Whitton called Bjelke-Petersen “the hillbilly dictator” in reference to his carefully cultivated parochial style of leadership. Yet, Bjelke-Petersen was guided by a shrewd political awareness. He styled himself as a defender of a unique Queensland sensibility and scorned the more progressive southern states. He was not opposed to using fear and prejudice for electoral gain.

His treatment of LGBTIQ issues provides one strong example. During the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen government made efforts to prevent gay and lesbian teachers from being employed and gay students from forming support groups. When the AIDS epidemic reached Australia, his government demonised LGBTIQ individuals. As most other Australian states decriminalised sex acts between men, Bjelke-Petersen’s government attempted to introduce anti-gay licensing laws and criminalise lesbianism. In 1986, the Sturgess Inquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters was used by the government to further ostracise gays and lesbians and turn the public against them.

The Bjelke-Petersen era provides a cautionary tale. It is difficult to imagine any other premier maintaining his or her position for this long again. His ill-fated bid for federal politics also reveals the impact that egomaniacal and divisive figures can have on political parties.

Bjelke-Petersen may not have been the only factor behind Hawke’s 1987 win, but his intervention certainly did Howard no favours – and deepened a rift in the Coalition that took years to mend.The Conversation

Shirleene Robinson, Associate Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hidden women of history: Kathleen McArthur, the wildflower woman who took on Joh Bjelke-Petersen

File 20190129 108334 1b82gwn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Kathleen McArthur (left) and Judith Wright (right) wildflowering at Currimundi in 1961.
Photo by Alex Jelinek. Courtesy Alexandra Moreno

Susan Davis, CQUniversity Australia

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

This year marks 50 years since the launch of one of Australia’s first major conservation battles, waged against Queensland’s ultra-conservative, pro-development premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It was for a location few had ever heard of – Cooloola, an area that stretches from Noosa to Rainbow Beach, around 70 km north.

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur by Lina Bryans (1960).
Courtesy Alexandra Moreno

The unlikely leader of this campaign was a wildflower painter named Kathleen McArthur, who led the Caloundra branch of an environmental group the Australian newspaper called “the most militant of conservation cells”.

Kathleen, together with colleagues such as poet Judith Wright, pioneered and honed activist strategies that are still instructive today. She understood art’s ability to prompt human emotion and marshal the public support required to bring about change.

From her homebase at Caloundra in Queensland, Kathleen created nation-wide awareness of the existence of the Cooloola region, which incorporates internationally significant high dunes, coloured sands, rainforest and wallum heathland habitats. It is now part of Great Sandy National Park, but at the time was under threat from sand mining and development.

A highlight of the Cooloola campaign was the distribution of 100,000 protest cards across Australia, with at least 15,000 of them sent to Queensland’s then Premier. Conservationist Arthur Harrold described Kathleen as the “cunning mind” behind the cards.

The Cooloola campaign postcard, 1969.
Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland

Abandoning convention

Kathleen McArthur was born in 1915 into one of Brisbane’s leading families. Her parents were Daniel Evans of Queensland engineering company Evans Deakin, and Kathleen (Kit) Durack, of the Irish pastoralist family made famous via the books of cousin Mary Durack.

Christmas Bells by Kathleen McArthur.
Courtesy Hugh McArthur and the Fryer Library, University of Queensland

Kathleen had an early life of considerable privilege. However, she turned away from the conventional life of the society matron. After a well-publicised marriage to military man Malcolm McArthur, and three children, Kathleen eschewed life on military bases or the city. The family bought a modest home at Caloundra that she later named Midyim.

Discovering her husband’s unfaithful ways, Kathleen initiated divorce proceedings in 1947. By the 1950s, she was a single mother of three. She lost her parents to illness in 1951.

From then on, Kathleen forged a new life for herself, writing about and illustrating Queensland wildflowers. She began painting in part to help identify the wildflowers in her local environment, there being a limited range of books to assist with their identification.

The Bush in Bloom by Kathleen McArthur (1982).

In 1953, Kathleen set herself the task of recording all the native plants in bloom across key locations of the Sunshine Coast region. This project fed into numerous publications including weekly newspaper columns and books. This year was also notable for a wildflowering expedition Kathleen took with her friend Judith Wright to the peak of Mt Tinbeerwah, which provided the spark of the idea for a national park at Cooloola.

Judith and Kathleen were among the founders of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, established in 1962, along with naturalist David Fleay and Jacaranda Press founder Brian Clouston. Brian offered to help their cause by publishing an educational wildlife magazine, which still exists today.

The ‘Mistress of Midyim’

A crisis point was reached for Cooloola in 1969, with mining applications pending for much of the region. Kathleen’s idea to use wildflower postcards activated the public campaign. She had been inspired by a US campaign utlising such cards and though others were sceptical, set about creating a postcard, a letter and a brochure that could be distributed far and wide. She also created wildflower cards and prints featuring her artwork, sold to help raise funds.

Just a few of the flood of letters Kathleen received during the Cooloola campaign, from the WPSQ collection held at the State Library of Queensland.
Courtesy Susan Davis

After the postcard distribution, hundreds of letters of support flowed back to the “Mistress of Midyim”. The campaign was further promoted through feature articles and letters to editors, talks, a documentary and capitalising on a web of allegiances. From early on, the Wildlife society formed relationships with scientists such as Dr Len Webb, from the CSIRO, who played a central role.

Vanilla Lillies by Kathleen McArthur.
Courtesy Hugh McArthur

Kathleen and the society communicated regularly with politicians from all sides of the house. Her local MP Mike Ahern was a Country Party member but sympathetic to the conservation agenda.

On 1 December 1969, Bjelke-Peterson issued a press release stating that “substantial areas” of the Cooloola sand mass would be set aside as a National Park. But this was by no means the end of the campaign. Six weeks later, it was revealed that applications had been lodged for sand mining leases within some areas of Cooloola. This delayed formal action on the declaration of a national park and required the campaigners to change tactics.

In the meantime, the newly formed South Queensland Conservation Council, the Cooloola Committee and Dr Arthur Harrold took on the next phase of the battle. While Kathleen gave up leadership of the campaign, she did not leave the fray entirely. As key hurdles were encountered she would return to letter writing and other forms of maintaining the rage.

Eventually, 22 years after Kathleen and Judith first stood on the peak of Mt Tinbeerwah, the Queensland parliament gazetted the Cooloola National Park in December, 1975. However Kathleen’s role is rarely mentioned in most accounts of the Cooloola campaign.

After Cooloola

Kathleen McArthur in the early 1960s.
Author supplied

Kathleen refocussed on her art, wrote a suite of books and established a series of monthly presentations called “lunch-hour theatre”. She remained involved with her local branch of the wildlife preservation society, prepared the submission to have Pumicestone Passage added to the register of the National Estate, and campaigned to protect beach dunes.
She also identified areas that should be protected as reserves, including one posthumously named Kathleen McArthur Conservation Reserve just north of Lake Currimundi. After a period of illness she died in 2000, the same year as her friend Judith Wright.

Because of the likes of Kathleen McArthur, today there are national parks, beaches protected by dunes rather than rock walls, and birds calling from humble heathlands where gentle wildflowers bloom. She is but one of a number of women from the period who could be “wild”, radical and difficult, but who was passionate about wildflowers and protecting our natural environments.

A ‘Wild/flower Women’ exhibition will be on display at the Fryer Library, University of Queensland throughout 2019, with an online exhibition to be available via their website. A public lecture and performance will be staged in late March as a part of the Fryer Fellowship program.The Conversation

Susan Davis, Deputy Dean Research, Education and the Arts, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum

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Aboriginal protectors Walter Roth and Archibald Meston between them collected over 700 objects for the Queensland Museum.
State Library of Queensland

Gemmia Burden, The University of Queensland

Europeans collected a huge number of Aboriginal artefacts during the colonisation of Australia. These include weapons, bags, toys, clothing, canoes, tools, ceremonial items, and ancestral human remains. Many institutions that hold these items are repatriating them to Aboriginal people. While repatriation is important, what often goes unrecognised is the crucial part that collectors played in the violent dispossession of First Nations people.

My research is on the Queensland Museum’s collecting networks. Formed in 1862, the museum amassed a significant collection of Aboriginal artefacts over the following 60 years. Despite countless, undocumented interactions between makers, owners, collectors and curators, many of which were no doubt benevolent, frontier violence was a crucial aspect of the museum’s collecting.

Instances of grave robbing and body snatching as methods of collecting are not specific to Queensland. Many institutions in Australia and abroad have problematic acquisition histories, particularly in relation to the study of remains.

Activists have been agitating for the return of cultural materials for decades, and museums across Australia, including the Queensland Museum, have developed repatriation programs and policies. It works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to prioritise the return of ancestral remains and sacred objects. But much material collected through violent means is still held in its collection.

While there is no evidence of the museum being directly involved in frontier killings, the use of the police, protectors, missionaries and frontier doctors as the dominant network of collectors implicates the museum as a passive beneficiary of dispossession.

In a response to The Conversation, the Queensland Museum said: “We believe these are important stories to be told and understood, and we recognise past hurts and are actively working to address these issues.

“Queensland Museum Network acknowledges that between the 1870s and 1970s, a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ancestral Remains, Burial Goods and Secret and/or Sacred Objects were acquired without consent or due regard to traditional lore and custom.”

Illustration of the new Exhibition Building at Bowen Park, 1891.
State Library of Queensland

Dispossessing and collecting

In the 1870s, police Sub-Inspector Alexander Douglas, noted for his role in violent dispersals of Aboriginal people, sent the Queensland Museum ancestral remains and burial goods. These had been stolen during punitive raids on Aboriginal people in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The following decade, Francis Lyons, a “pioneer resident of Cairns”, offered the museum mummified remains he had stolen during a retributive attack on Aboriginal people. In his accompanying correspondence he wrote:

They abandoned everything except the [remains] … and it was not until after a long and desperate chase, and when their lives were in imminent danger that the[y] … dropped it.

In many instances cultural items – mostly weapons and bags – were purchased from Aboriginal people. The museum issued its collectors with tobacco for payment, itself pointing to the power imbalance of frontier currency. Yet as both Lyons and Douglas’s cases show, items were also removed after Aboriginal people were forcibly dispossessed from their country, taken from the surface, and at times stolen following raids.

Inside Queensland’s first natural history museum, 1872, showing Aboriginal artefacts and images on the back wall.
State Library of Queensland

Some ancestral remains held by the museum were plundered from grave sites. Remains were dug up, stolen from caves, burial trees, and bags, depending on regional customs.

While these practices may have sat outside the bounds of European expectations of death and burial, the plunderers were acutely aware of the damage they were inflicting. One correspondent informed the museum in 1880 that exhuming the remains of a recently deceased man was “too much like desecrating unless it was in the interest of science”. The idea of contributing to scientific knowledge was used to justify these actions.

Remains were also plundered from massacre sites, often decades after the event, as well as former mission sites, and sent to the museum with the sanctioning of the police and protectors.

Remains were also taken from regional hospitals, at times with the approval of the Chief Protector, the government agent responsible for Aboriginal people. Rogue doctors stole others from post-mortem rooms. In 1885, for example, the remains of South Sea Island labourers were sent from the Polynesian hospital in Mackay with specific instructions to “make them look a little ancient”.

Empire and science

The emergence of racial science in the mid-19th century, combined with the British Empire’s expansion, drove the desire for Aboriginal artefacts. Objects were collected as anything from curiosities to scientific specimens, tendentiously used to “prove” European superiority.

With an interest in the “science of man”, the Queensland Museum’s curatorial staff maintained a network of collectors across the colony through relationships forged with (predominantly) men in remote locations. They included missionaries, journalists, station managers, doctors and public servants. A 1911 request targeted these networks, stating that “every effort” must be made in “acquiring those symbols of the life of the original Australian inhabitants whose rites, ceremonies, customs and traditions are becoming obsolete and being entirely lost to us”.

Plate from The Evolution of Culture, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, 1906, Plate XII.

However, the most profitable collectors were the government agents regulating Aboriginal people’s lives. For example, from the 1870s, the police channelled material and information to the museum. The Native Police officers became particularly important contributors.

The museum exploited their violent methods of colonial policing and practices of “dispersal” – a euphemism for massacre – and the police themselves noted this role. Following his dismissal from the force, and five years after leading an attack on Aborignal people at Creen Creek, former Native Police officer William Armit wrote of ethnographic collecting that “no one can be more fortunately situated for such work than the Native Police officers”.

The passing of the 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act also led to increases in the museum’s acquisitions. Protectors, such as Northern and later Chief Protector Walter Roth and Southern Protector Archibald Meston, were active collectors. They became two of the museum’s largest donors with upwards of 700 items between them, both acquiring material through their official duties.

Collecting as violence

Apart from benefiting from the spoils of colonial violence, the act of collecting itself can be seen as violent. Structural violence – the social, cultural, legal, economic and political structures that marginalise groups – does not only cause physical harm, it also inflicts damage on the mind and spirit.

Collectors knew that taking ancestral remains from burial places would cause harm. Indeed one collector noted: “I feel repugnance to hurt their feelings willingly.” While procurement may have been void of direct violence, waiting for an old man to die in order to send his body to the museum, as in one case in 1915, was a malevolent act of indirect violence.

Taking materials from country also served Europeans in claiming possession, both emotional and physical, of the land. By removing Aboriginal people and culture, the invaders were writing their own narratives of ownership over the land. As settler colonies were built on the dispossession of Indigenous people, the removal of cultural materials became part of the appropriation of land.

The ConversationWhile repatriating Aboriginal cultural materials is undeniably important, we must also acknowledge the histories behind their collection. This is an important part of the repatriation process itself.

Gemmia Burden, Faculty Post-Thesis Fellow, Honorary Research Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Queensland – Cyclone Mahina (1899)

The link below is to an article that takes a look at Australia’s worst cyclone – Cyclone Mahina.

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Australia: Brisbane – Windmill Tower

Article: S.S. Maheno

The link below is to another article concerning a shipwreck, this one at Fraser Island in Queensland, Australia.

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Article: Fossil Site Massive According to Scientists

A massive megafauna fossil site has been found in southwest Queensland, including fossils of Diprotodons, giant kangaroos and wallabies, a large lizard and more.

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Today in History: 14 May 1943

Australia: Queensland – The AHS Centaur is Sunk by a Japanese Submarine

On this day in 1943 off the Queensland coast (Australia), the AHS Centaur is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk. The Centaur was a hospital ship, with 268 of the 332 people on board killed as a result of the attack. The submarine responsible for the attack was the I-177.

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