Queensland has so far alienated about 10,000,000 acres of freehold land, and leased about 300,000,000 acres for pastoral occupation.
For the first we have received about six and a quarter millions in cash, and for the leased land we receive £332,800 annual rental. Since the year of separation, 1859 … we have not expended £50,000 for the benefit of the aboriginals, and have never since then, or before, paid them a single shilling in cash … for even one acre of land.
—Archibald Meston, “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation” (Brisbane: Edmund Gregory, Government Printer, 1895), 4.
The Work of Atonement
How do descendants of Queensland’s government officials and larger squattocracy—those who perpetrated unlawful acts of violence, race murder and theft—atone for their forefathers’ deeds? History has affected us all in the state of Queensland. Many laws were broken and went unpenalised.
In 1897, one piece of legislation was introduced with thirty-three clauses that governed every Aboriginal man, woman and child in Queensland. This legislation underwent various name changes over the decades; the last form it took was as the Aborigines Act 1971. The state still has not made any redress to Aboriginal nations for the transgressions and vice committed in the name of these laws.
After Maryborough was founded in 1847, racial tensions and guerrilla-style warfare permeated the fledgling town and outlying farms. The daily psychological fear this caused was unsettling for the white townsfolk, as Badtjala people had the upper hand—but for many years, indeed decades, the town sought to actively suppress the Badtjala people through use of the Native Police Force. The 1861 Native Police Force Report records the Hon. R. R. Mackenzie posing a question to the force’s commandant: “have you had a report of the circumstances connected with the charge against the Native Police, of killing the blacks unnecessarily at Maryborough?”[i] Such indiscriminate killings of Badtjala people in and around Maryborough and Fraser Island over a prolonged period took a further toll on their dwindling numbers. These killings were achieved through the use of horses and weaponry—as historian Henry Reynolds writes, “the horse … tipped the balance in the invaders’ favour.”[ii] Other forces were also at play: the invaders were not only decimating the traditional owners of K’gari, but were also colonising the land’s resources for their own gain.
Businessmen would scout the terrain of the Wide Bay region, surveying it for future profitability. Keen eyes were on the hunt for stands of timber. Softwood and hardwood were extracted from K’gari, including kauri pine, hoop pine, blackbutt and satinay. A commercial sawmill was established on the banks of the Mary River at Dundathu by business partners William Pettigrew and William Sim in 1863. In Maryborough, Wilson Hart and Company Limited established a sawmill in 1867 and Hyne & Son opened the National Sawmill in 1882.
As the colony grew, so did the colonial obsession with ascribing criminality to entire Aboriginal populations. As early as 1874, official reports were identifying islands on the east coast of Queensland as places to relocate Aboriginals as prisoners. An 1874 commissioners’ report stated, “it would scarcely be practicable to have a prison on the mainland … but there are several islands off the coast which meet the requirements of isolation.”[iii] The Queensland government saw this plan as the way forward: after years of Native Police policies centred on killing Aboriginals, this new approach sought to subjugate what remained of Aboriginal populations by sending them to missions controlled by the church or the state.
The earliest mission on K’gari was at White Cliffs (Balarrgan) and was run by Reverend Edward Fuller from 1870 to 1872. In a letter to a friend in 1872, Reverend Fuller wrote, “we have had as many as thirty-four blacks—men, women and children—packed in our tent at a Sunday service.”[iv] Although a simple Christian site with vegetable crops was semi-established at Balarrgan, it was not only intended to attract the interest of Badtjala people but the gaze of marauding white males. Reverend Fuller gave an account of this in his 1872 letter: “a white man has chased a young girl right to the very door of my tent; he said he had bought the girl from her father at Maryborough for a blanket and some tobacco.”[v] In the districts, neither Western law nor religion were sources of protection for Aboriginal women.
Archibald Meston came to Australia as a child, emigrating from Scotland with his parents in 1859. A complex man, he worked in many fields, from sugarcane farming to journalism and politics. He served on the Legislative Assembly of Queensland from 1878 to 1882 and wrote various reports for the state government on a number of subjects. He was a strong believer in eugenics theory and was instrumental in inserting his beliefs into the racialised legislation that would pass in 1897: the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. This Act and its subsequent iterations would control all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives and deny their human rights.
After decades of frontier wars, Queensland society was strongly divided along racial lines and Aboriginal populations were in rapid decline. It was in this environment that Meston, who purportedly held an interest in Aboriginal customs and languages, was commissioned in 1894 to write a report for Home Secretary Horace Tozer: “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation.” This report compared Aboriginal missions across Australia, examining their expenditure with a view to organising a system that could preserve the remaining Aboriginals in Queensland. Meston also used it to introduce the idea for the “creation of large reserves on or near the sea coast. (For these there are suitable localities available).”[vi]
In an 1897 report to Tozer, Meston cited opium use in Maryborough as a driver for his paternalistic and racially motivated future policy: “opium has a strong hold on these Maryborough blacks and they require removing far from town with the least possible delay.”[vii] There were far-reaching labour shortages in Queensland, and Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour and paid in opium as a means of enslavement. The state government was in control of issuing licences for the sale of opium to laypeople in the regions through this chain of supply, which “meant the addiction of a race; in return an economy flourished.”[viii] A large revenue of £30,000 went to the state government annually.
In 1897—some twenty-five years after Reverend Fuller established the first mission on Fraser Island—Meston created a second mission in the same location, removing fifty-one Badtjala people from Maryborough to the new mission site at White Cliffs. Meston’s first report on the condition of these early detainees stated, “the only exceptions to the bill of complete health are three women who came with venereal legacies from white men in Maryborough.”[ix] Another twenty-two Aboriginals voluntarily joined shortly after, bringing the total number of residents to seventy-three. Bogimbah was a place for them to dry out from the effects of alcohol and opium.
Opium was legal in Queensland until 1897, when the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was implemented by white colonial powers in the Parliament of Queensland to stamp out use of the drug. The Act did nothing to prevent the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women and girls. Violence, kidnapping and possession were common: “The sexual use of black women by white men has enormous bearing on the Act of 1897, and it was more than simply a case of moral discomposure, it was seen as physically threatening.”[x] However, the government viewed the “half-caste” children born as a result of this sexual exploitation as a problem, giving itself the power to remove these children from their families.
When the Act was passed in late 1897, three Protectors of Aborigines—William Edward Parry-Okeden (Commissioner of Police and Protector of Aborigines), Archibald Meston (Southern Protector) and Walter Edmund Roth (Northern Protector)[xi]—were appointed to carry out the state’s controls when the legislation “took effect from the 1st January, 1898.”[xii]
These men were assisted by another layer of inspectors and sub-inspectors appointed from the police:
Charles Beauchamp Marrett
Roland Walter Garraway
Alexander Douglas Douglas
Patrick Joseph Brannelly
Francis John O’Connor[xiii]
The Act implemented a separation of the races. This was what Meston had officially requested: “complete isolation of the settlements from contact with the white races.”[xiv] The tentacles of this law were wide-reaching but treated each race differently, with various consequences for whites, Chinese and Aboriginals. The only prosecutions for trading opium were made against Chinese citizens, who were used as scapegoats for white men. The illegal opium trade continued well after 1897, as evidenced in annual reports from the Chief Protector of Aborigines to the Queensland government—according to the 1911 report, “For supplying and being in possession of opium, there were eighty-eight cases, with fines, amounting to £1,119 15s 4d. The opium convictions were nearly all obtained against Chinese.”[xv]
The Chinese would sell what was called “charcoal opium” to Aboriginals. This was opium that “has been smoked … leaving an abominable residue far more demoralising physically and mentally than the pure article.”[xvi] Charcoal opium was mixed with water and drunk, sometimes communally, by Aboriginal labourers.
The above table shows where the Queensland government issued licences to laypeople for opium distribution across the state in 1904—the same year Bogimbah Creek mission was closed—and signals the government’s failure to curtail opium supply and use. Based on these 212 licences, opium continued to bring revenue into the state’s coffers. This table makes clear that Archibald Meston failed in his first experiment as Protector of Aborigines. Under the guise of “protection,” the Parliament of Queensland had committed a double-cross in their attempts to subjugate a race of people across the state; but at the time, such fraudulence and deceitfulness among those in authority was rife.
Life at Bogimbah Creek mission, which overlooked “the beautiful sandy beach,”[xvii] was a mixture of beauty and hardship. Meston specified that from 1 May 1897, there were “a total of 73” residents in his charge. They were free to make artefacts, roam and catch fish, dugong or turtle. Meston noted, “They have made a splendid dugong net, which now only needs a couple of anchors and some floats to be ready for use. Turtle are also being captured. Large numbers of whiting are caught daily with hand lines by the women, and children and old men.”[xviii]
In these early months at the mission, life seemed carefree and idyllic, with enough food for all. However, this pattern of living would not be sustained for long, as Meston brought in more and more Aboriginals from across the state; some had committed misdemeanours, and these varied in severity. In August 1898, Meston sent “sentence-expired Aboriginal prisoners”[xix] to the mission. This changed life for the original seventy-three residents because of the “intensification of authoritarian procedures.”[xx] Growing numbers of Aboriginal people were removed to the island from Brisbane, Rockhampton, Roma and Townsville. The list of people and places would continue to grow. Bogimbah Creek, with its poor, sandy soils, could not support this number of people with vegetable crops. It also seems that hunting for seafood was no longer a part of mission residents’ daily routines—looking after ever-increasing numbers of Aboriginal people meant stricter restrictions through controlling daily activities.
Archibald Meston and his son Harold used Aboriginal ex-prisoners (some of whom had previously served in the Native Police Force) to enforce autocratic rule—anyone who attempted to resist would spend time in the reserve lock-up or endure other forms of physical and psychological punishment. Harold Meston “carried a heavy ‘walking stick’ at all times.”[xxi]
Meston had control of the expanding Bogimbah Creek mission until 1900, when Home Secretary Justin Fox Greenlaw Foxton handed it over to the Anglican Church and recommended that the Reverend Ernest Gribble replace Meston.[xxii] Early in 1900, Reverend Gribble arrived at the site and began implementing many changes: “he removed the children from the camp to the mission house, started a school, arranged daily services, and commenced a system of rationing similar to that used at Yarrabah.”[xxiii] A focus on the Christian religion was put into effect from sunup to sundown. Government support came in the form of additional buildings being erected, such as the “school-house, matron’s quarters, and women’s dormitory.”[xxiv] Under the church regime, the day was structured as follows:
6.00 Rising Bell
7.30 Staff breakfast
8.00 Dormitories breakfast
8.30 Tobacco serving
9.0 Work and School
12.0 Cease work
1.00 Staff dinner
4.00 Men’s school and classes
7.00 Evening classes
8.00 Evening classes and drill[xxv]
But malnutrition and a diet lacking in protein left the Bogimbah residents in a state of starvation, and this was exacerbated as more Aboriginals were sent to the mission. The underfunded settlement relied on rations from state and church, which expediated a rapid decline in the health of many residents and sent large numbers into mass graves: “A combination of malnutrition, insanitation and general debilitation helped nourish disease and foster an abnormally high death rate at the mission itself.”[xxvi] A 1905 letter from Reverend Gribble to The Courier-Mail gives an indication of how the Fraser Island settlement was faring by 1900 in terms of the health of its residents:
The Reve. E. Gribble, manager of Yarrabah Aboriginal Mission, replies as follows in the Courier to Mr. Meston re the Fraser Island mission.
I am perfectly aware that the blacks were inspected by Dr. Davidson before transfer took place. I am also aware, however, that at the time of my arrival on the island, a week after Mr Meston had handed over the settlement to the new management, there were a large number sick from earth-eating, and consumption, and another disease.[xxvii]
The earth-eating was due to Ancylostomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by walking barefoot over soil contaminated with Ancylostoma hookworm larvae. Leading a sedentary life at the overpopulated mission and treading its contaminated ground meant that many residents contracted this disease. Those in charge of Bogimbah Creek were aware of the effects it had on Aboriginal men, women and children. In October 1903, Matron Mary Gribble explained the residents’ consumption of white clay (dulong) and other substances:
Sometimes they dry it in the fire … sometimes they put some in water which gives it a milky appearance then they drink it or they bite pieces off the lump and just eat it … The older ones still eat it on the quiet but we have stopped the supply to children. The children eat sand, charcoal, brick, chalk, shell and slate pencil …[xxviii]
The mission was closed in 1904, with the majority of its Aboriginal residents relocated to Yarrabah Mission. Reverend Gribble noted the expenditure of this move: “the cost of removal from Fraser Island to Yarrabah was £325.”[xxix] Those in charge of the mission left behind the grave sites of seventy Aboriginals and took all the timber dwellings north on the Rio Logue vessel along with 117 mission inmates for resettlement.
This entrapment and enforced Christianity, sanctioned by government legislation, was a dismal miscarriage of state and church ideologies. The laws that led to it may no longer be in force, but their repercussions continue to be felt. The question needs to be asked: how does the Queensland government atone for smashing Aboriginal people and their sovereign nations? What remuneration goes to the original peoples for the loss of their lands and resources? As Archibald Meston pointed out in his 1985 report, not one acre of those lands has been paid for. The Badtjala people have never been financially compensated for the extraction of natural resources on their lands, from 128 years of saw-logging in old-growth forests to the sand-mining that took place from 1949 to 1976. Alongside this, rainforest trees have been logged, fish stocks and shellfish catches in the Great Sandy Straits have been taken by fishermen and, more recently, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service vehicle permits have allowed access to K’gari for the millions of tourists who visit annually.
Not one dollar has found its way back to the traditional land owners of K’gari, this pristine country. When the state talks Tracks to Treaty, we must address this issue of compensation for the unceded lands that comprise Queensland and the redress that must take place.
‘The Work of Atonement’ is the first essay from Bogimbah Creek Mission: the First Aboriginal Experiment by Dr Fiona Foley, which retells a significant yet forgotten aspect of Queensland’s history. It recounts the period from 1897 to 1904 when Archibald Meston, first Protector of Aboriginals in Southern Queensland, removed 51 Badtjala people from Maryborough to Fraser Island to set up the Bogimbah Creek Mission as an experiment in segregation. Buy the book here.
Feature image: Fiona Foley, from The Magna Carta Tree Series #11, 2021. Photo credit Mick Richards.
Watch the launch of Bogimbah Creek Mission at Queensland State Library
Dr Fiona Foley is a Maryborough-born Badtjala (Butchulla) artist, academic and writer whose work is held in many Australian state, national and university collections.
Foley completed her PhD with Griffith University in 2017. The thesis topic examined Queensland’s legislation, The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897. Her publication titled, Biting the Clouds: The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, was published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP) in 2020. Biting the Clouds was recently awarded the Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance in September 2021.
Her new photographic series on this subject titled The Magna Carta Tree was received with significant interest and featured in a major retrospective exhibition at QUT Art Museum, 2021. Dr Foley was awarded, The Inaugural Monica Clare Research Fellowship 2020 from the State Library of Queensland towards a publication entitled, Bogimbah Creek Mission: The First Aboriginal Experiment due for release 4 November 2021.
Fiona Foley is a founding member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artist Co-operative. She exhibits regularly in Australia and internationally. Her recent solo exhibitions were held at Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane 2017, Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2019, and the National Art School, Sydney, 2020. https://experts.griffith.edu.au/8162-fiona-foley
[i] The Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly, “Native Police Force Report” (Brisbane: T. P. Pugh’s Printing Office, 1861), 144.
[ii] Henry Reynolds, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2021), 201.
[iii] W. L. G Drew, A. C. Gregory, Charles Coxen, and John G. Hausmann, “Aborigines of Queensland: Report of the Commissioners” (Brisbane: James C. Beal, Government Printer, 1874).
[iv] “The Fraser Island Aboriginal Mission,” https://d35wuyehavsdko.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Edward-Fuller-Letter.pdf.
[v] “The Fraser Island Aboriginal Mission.”
[vi] Archibald Meston, “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation” (Brisbane: Edmund Gregory, Government Printer, 1895), 30.
[vii] Archibald Meston, “Report on South Queensland Aboriginals,” January 5, 1897, QSA ID ITM6826, Letter 147, Queensland State Archives, Brisbane.
[viii] Fiona Foley, Biting the Clouds (Brisbane: UQP, 2020), 73.
[ix] Archibald Meston, “The Fraser Island Aboriginals (Progress Report),” May 1, 1897, QSA ID ITM18308, Letter 5738, Queensland State Archives, Brisbane.
[x] Geoff Genever, “Black and Blue, Aboriginal–Police Relations in Far North Queensland During the Currency of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897–1939” (honours thesis, James Cook University, 1992), 22.
[xi] John Burless, “Protectors of Aborigines in Queensland, 1897: List of Names” (Brisbane: Department of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement, Archaeology Branch, 1984).
[xii] Burless, “Protectors of Aborigines in Queensland, 1897: List of Names.”
[xiii] Burless, “Protectors of Aborigines in Queensland, 1897: List of Names.
[xiv] Meston, “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation,” 30.
[xv] Chief Protector of Aborigines, “Annual Report of the Year 1911” (Brisbane: Anthony James Cumming, Government Printer, 1912), 13.
[xvi] Meston, “Report on South Queensland Aboriginals.”
[xvii] Rev. J. S. Needham, White and Black in Australia (published for the National Missionary Council of Australia by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935), 95.
[xviii] “Mr. A. Meston’s Progress Report,” The Week, May 21, 1897, 23.
[xix] Raymond Evans and Jan Walker, “‘These Strangers, Where Are They Going?’ Aboriginal–European Relations in the Fraser Island and Wide Bay Region 1770–1905,” University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, Occasional Papers in Anthropology, no. 8 (1977): 83.
[xx] Evans and Walker, “‘These Strangers, Where Are They Going?’”, 83.
[xxi] Evans and Walker, “‘These Strangers, Where Are They Going?’”, 83.
[xxii] Foley, Biting the Clouds, 97.
[xxiii] Needham, White and Black in Australia, 95.
[xxiv] Needham, White and Black in Australia, 95.
[xxv] Fred William, Princess K’Gari’s Fraser Island (self-published, 2002), 74.
[xxvi] Evans and Walker, “‘These Strangers, Where Are They Going?’”, 87.
[xxvii] Rev. E. Gribble, “Fraser Island Blacks,” Maryborough Chronicle, November 18, 1905, 4.
[xxviii] Evans and Walker, “‘These Strangers, Where Are They Going?’”, 88.
[xxix] Gribble, “Fraser Island Blacks,” 4.