That Unhappy Race Part 6: The Empty Years

Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.
Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.

After the failure of the Drew and Hale Commissions to achieve results, Queensland Aboriginal policy in 1880s drifted into what Gordon Reid in “That Unhappy Race” called the empty years. Scottish-born premier Thomas McIlwraith’s plan was to cut government costs and push economic development when conditions improved. Aboriginal affairs would have drifted out of public consciousness but for the efforts of one man: editor-in-chief and part of owner of the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander, Gresley Lukin.

Lukin wrote a stinging editorial in the Queenslander on May 1, 1880 calling for reform in response to a letter from Cooktown about the brutal war raging in the north. Headed “The way we civilise” Lukin’s editorial began by saying Aboriginal people in new territories were treated no better than wild animals. “Their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away, entirely at the caprice of white men,” he said, and all at the butt of a rifle. Lukin said those who committed outrages were protected by the majority under a code of silence, while the government looked the other way. When blacks retaliated, they were “dispersed” by native police, a euphemism that Lukin knew to mean “wholesale massacre”.

Lukin wrote several more editorials in the same vein urging the replacement of the native police with a white force assisted by black trackers. He also rebuked frontier journals for encouraging murder of Aboriginals just for the theft of clothes. But Lukin’s pleas went unanswered. At Battle Mountain near Cloncurry the Native Police defeated the Kalkadoon people, while in Brisbane McIlwraith was unmoved. Each show of European superiority confirmed the attitude of powerbrokers that the Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction.

The election of Samuel Griffith as the Liberal premier in November 1883 offered some hope of change. His government introduced legislation to protect Aboriginals and New Guineans who were being exploited on ships in Queensland waters. However the bill was watered down in parliament and the abuses and kidnapping continued. Griffith’s Minister for Lands Charles Dutton established the first Aboriginal reserve since 1879, a Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford (it endures today as Hopevale, the homeland of Noel Pearson).

Aboriginal people in the region were ravaged by goldmining at Cooktown though the rough terrain meant they offered stern resistance to the native police. They were brought in by the loss of traditional lands and hunger. To placate them, first the settlers, and then the government offered them rations. This peace through food plan was successful and Griffiths started taking notice. In 1885 he asked his police commissioner to report on the possibility of replacing the native police with a white force and he gradually rolled out a new system across the north. By the early 1890s this was established government policy, keeping the blacks quiet and in places they could be watched. However a new problem added to the need for further control: opium.

One of the earliest to notice the problem was the Surat settler EH Smith who was “most shocked at witnessing the effects of opium on the ‘niggers’.” Smith said opium was everywhere with Chinese people in Roma supplying the drug at immense profit. A Rockhampton settler said an Aboriginal woman visiting Cooktown “learned the use of it” and spread it back to her countrypeople, where it had become endemic. “They formerly bought flour, tea, tobacco, red handkerchiefs and now the sale of them is entirely stopped for opium,” he wrote. Stations quickly got into the habit of paying Aboriginal workers in opium and if supply was bad in some areas, the entire population would move on to other areas. A police inspector noted that the addiction did not lead to crime but “they lose all their animal spirits and become lethargic in their nature and disposition”.

As Reid wrote, opium addiction had become another thing that Indigenous people had suffered at the hands of the white intruder in two decades of Queensland settlement, following malnutrition, disease, dispossession, abuse and violence. In the white community the opium problem fed on paranoid suspicions about the influence of the Chinese increasing public pressure to take action. The stage was set in the 1890s for one man with political will to come up with a workable plan. That man was Archibald Meston. 

Vote Ochi – a Grexit foretold

grexitOn Sunday Greece takes a historic vote on whether to accept an EU bailout. It is important not because of its knock-on impact to the world economy which will easily recover any losses (markets work on sentiment and sentiment is unfaithful and forgetful). No, it is important because Greece is offering a template to take genuine power from the technocrats and hand it back to the people – appropriately in the country where democracy was invented. The referendum execution is leaving much to be desired but the intention is clear and a worry for politicians across the world who believe voters cannot be trusted to make the right decision in complex matters.

Greece’s referendum is certainly complex. As I write on Saturday morning Australian time – less than 48 hours from when polls open – the exact question voters are deciding on remains obscure while a constitutional challenge to the referendum was not defeated until yesterday. That gives only a day to get millions of ballot papers out to every part of the remote countryside and each of its islands. If that sounds like a fiasco in the making it probably is, nevertheless the need for a speedy resolution is real and the Greeks themselves fully understand what is at stake.

The question is hard, but the answer is simple, yes or no. The discussion that has gone for weeks across Greece is based on these binary opposites. The “yes” vote (confusingly to western ears “né”) is a vote to accept the continued medicine of years of austerity and low growth. It is “the devil you know” and an easy choice to ensure many more years of what Greece has endured since 2009, but within the euro. The yes vote is supported by most of Greece’s centrist political parties, the business community and Greece’s EU partners.

The no vote (transliterated as “ochi” or “oxi”) is more of a leap into the unknown. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has hitched his Syriza government to ochi, demanding the forgiveness of a third of Greece’s massive debt and delayed payment on the rest. Syriza came from nowhere in 2014 to win government because they could articulately plot a future that extricated Greece from its problems, foreign debts that even decades of austerity would not clear. One of the early jokes was that Syriza would counterclaim Germany for $250 billion of Second World War reparations to Greece.

But Tsipras’s bargaining chip was simple: give us relief or we stop paying. The ultimate action in this game of bluff is creditors would throw Greece out of the euro zone, which Syriza claims it does not want to happen. Yet this is the path “ochi” takes us on, a fact the people know regardless of how Tsipras frames the question. The prime minister has complicated his gambit by increasing the stakes. Syriza has pledged its future on the people voting no on Sunday. If the ‘né’ vote wins, then Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis will resign and the government will fall.

Nevertheless you can expect weasel room, as three results are possible: a strong yes victory, a weak yes victory and a no victory. Europe is hoping for a strong yes vote, one that keeps Greece just inside its monetary tent but placed on the naughty step for the foreseeable future. Greece would pull back from the brink and a managerialist government would replace Syriza and implement the wishes of Berlin paymasters.

That’s all if there is a strong win but what the polls are predicting is a weak yes win. That could leave Greece in status quo, Syriza or some proxy paying creditors till kingdom come in endless last minute negotiations that only whittle away at the edges while grumbles slowly simmer. The path could be clear for a far right government (such as Golden Dawn, which supports the referendum) to blame the weakest in Greek society for their problems and replace austerity with authoritarianism.

A ‘no’ vote is the clearest of outcomes. It will set the country on the Grexit path, certainly from the monetary union, and probably the political union. The technocrats will never admit it but European Monetary Policy is set for political reasons not financial reasons. It loosens some trade barriers but tightens others. A canny Britain stayed out not because of the nationalistic braying of its press but because they saw how London would lose control of its destiny. Each country in the euro zone gives away its central or reserve bank and hands monetary policy to Brussels. The European Central Bank sets its main lever – interest rates – to the needs of its core constituency, Germany.

Though Germany was badly scarred by the GFC, it remains a massive and diverse economy with a well-educated workforce. The price of the euro reflects these factors. The lack of a drachma means not only that Greeks lose out on the cost of transferring currency (tourists love all countries on the euro), and remains expensive to visit, but a Greek exporter has no benefit over German exporters in currency fluctuation.

Leaving the euro may not save Greece from itself but it might save Greece from Europe. Tsipras should be applauded for trusting the electorate to make that decision and not leave it in the hands of faceless technocrats. I wish the country well, and look forward to a good exchange rate.

President Pierre Nkurunziza confounds world to prolong Burundi’s agony

Counting has started in Burundi’s fraudulent election despite an opposition boycott, continued protests and deaths on the street and the refusal of the UN and AU to endorse it. The country has been in turmoil since April, when President Nkurunziza defied the constitution and sought a third term, triggering rioting which climaxed with a failed military coup last month.
The street movement known as “stop the third mandate” has not abated and Nkurunziza’s opponents say his decision to stand again violates the constitution as well as a peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005.  Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962 and almost immediately ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi groups. As with neighbouring Rwanda the population had been divided into separate ethnic groups by the colonial power. According to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi there is no distinguishing physical, religious, linguistic or colour characteristics yet individuals do identify with one of three ethnic groups, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.

The civil war began in 1993 following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye just four months after winning power. The war dragged on through the 1990s between the majority Hutu faction and the minority Tutsis. It was exacerbated by a blockade by neighbouring countries that crippled the economy. After 200,000 died in the conflict, the warring factions were finally brought to the peace table in 2000 and resulted in the signing of Arusha Agreement. At the time, more than 700,000 people were refugees – almost 10 per cent of its population.

However not all rebel groups signed the agreement. Some groups continued the armed rebellion as a three-year transitional government was established. In 2003 the government and the leader of the main Hutu rebel movement signed a peace accord in Dar es Salaam while a smaller rebel group was given three months to open talks or face consequences. While talks with the rebels dragged on, the people of Burundi exercised their right to a democratic vote in 2005 for the first time in 11 years. Pierre Nkurunziza a former Hutu rebel leader and born-again Christian won a mandate to bring peace and prosperity to the region.

Nkurunziza was reelected in 2010 though the opposition boycotted the election. His second term was characterised by post-electoral repression, rising corruption, the shrinking of political space and authoritarian governance. Last year amid increasing paranoid he banned jogging, fearing it was being used as a cover for subversion.

In late April this year, Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party announced he would would run for a third term in the June 26 election. The announcement sparked immediate protests and claims a third term would be a violation of the country’s constitution.  Police prevented many demonstrators from reaching the city centre, but there were numerous clashes with demonstrators in the suburbs, with police using teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition. The clashes went on for days with the government becoming increasing intolerant.

In May general Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup announcing the dismissal of Nkurunziza and his government while the president was in Tanzania. Crowds packed the streets of the capital Bujumbura while rebel soldiers held the airport forced Nkurunziza to return his flight to Tanzania. Loyalists remains in control of the presidential palace and state broadcaster. That night the head of army went on radio to call on rebels to surrender. There followed fierce fighting but the coup impetus failed and Nkurunziza came home 24 hours later. He went on air the following day to say the coup had been crushed.

Despite the end of the coup, violence persisted through May and June. Nkurunziza claimed the violence was ethnically-based and a throwback to the dark days of the civil war.  On May 23, grenades were thrown into a Bujumbura market killing three and wounding 21.  An opposition leader was murdered the same day causing opposition parties to end negotiations with the government.

Yet the violence did not stop planning for the election. There was a last minute hitch as one of the vice presidents Gervais Rukyikiri fled the country saying Nkurunziza’s candidacy was unconstitutional. The government then alleged Rufyikiri was involved in the coup as students sought protection in the US embassy.  A day later the opposition announced they would boycott the election.
Nkurunziza’s likely victory will be hollow and not just because there is no opposition. Sanctions are likely adding to Burundi’s already formidable economic challenges. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world with 70% of the population below the poverty line. In 2003 the World Bank estimated per capita annual income at $110. The UN ranked Burundi 169 out of 177 countries in the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) human development index. The 2005 report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Burundi (pdf) estimated that 90 percent of the population relied on subsistence farming for a living in a country which suffered three successive drought years. 68 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line. Much of the country is devastated with land mines. Meanwhile the disability and death rate from malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases remains high.
As the Kenyan Daily Nation said Burundi is disintegrating under Nkurunziza. “The international community can sit back and wait for the inevitable tragedy to unfold or step in to stop the slide to the brink, save lives, and restore political sanity before it is too late,” it says.

The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07″. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing victory but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese, predicted destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with different conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as another deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach left no stone unturned as she extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most of the Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their open admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by other players like Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. There were only three notables from the Labor first rank not to have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from appearing and raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake in my view, he should have had his say and explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is much to go by). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but sooner rather than later he should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season he launched into open warfare after the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is hopelessly inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah effectively demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly strident. The ABC is portrayed as duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch has provided an effective bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Malik is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season should be seen for what it was, classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screechings of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

That Unhappy race Part 5 – The Drew and Hale Commissions

Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.
Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.

By the 1870s those pushing for further white expansion in Queensland could see only one way it was possible: by corralling all the indigenous people into one manageable place far from white towns. For instance, Maryborough residents were deeply offended by the large group of Aborigines camped near the town cemetery. Though the Maryborough blacks had not been troublesome since 1853, there continued many massacres of indigenous people in the area. There was an existential fear among whites after Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-Ringo which had never gone away. There was also distaste at alcohol-fuelled quarrels and the tendency of the blacks to wander the streets naked. There were calls to move “savages” away from the sensitive eyes of white women and children.

Edward Fuller was a Primitive Methodist who believed Aborigines could be shown the path to a white god. He thought the solution in Maryborough was a mission on Fraser Island. Fraser had been proposed as a mission site in the 1840s but nothing came of it. Even in the 1860s government proposals to gazette a reserve on the island got a chilly reception from squatters wanting to develop the island. Fuller began his Fraser mission in 1870 and attracted over 30 people to his camp. But he suffered the usual problem of white encroachment with timber-getters moving in, and supplying the blacks with alcohol. Fuller was a frustrated man on a mission and his inability to convert at Fraser Island, was mirrored by later failures across Queensland at Lake Weyba, Hinchinbrook Island and Bellenden Plains.

A man named Frank Bridgman had better luck with the first secular reserve at Mackay in 1871. Bridgman was a grazier from down south who brought sheep to the Isaac region. Initially Bridgman was not averse to supporting the native police’s brutal tactics to “disperse” blacks from his property at Grosvenor Downs near Fort Cooper native police barracks. Judith Wright‘s grandfather Albert wrote in his diary in 1868 that “about 60 Blacks were shot at Grosvenor Downs last week”.

Bridgman and other Mackay squatters sent a letter to colonial secretary Arthur Palmer – himself a squatter of the Mackay hinterland – asking for more protection “against the numbers and increasing audacity of the Blacks”. By 1870 Bridgman was starting to think of other ways to solve the problem. It occurred to him a labour reserve of cheap Aboriginal workers might be useful in the sparsely populated north, or as he put it, “labour being valuable, there will be less wish to have them shot down.” He wrote a letter to Palmer in 1870 asking for separate lands in country too poor for white farmers. Bridgman recommended scrubby land near a Homebush lagoon be gazetted for Aboriginal people. The land commissioner approved the request in 1871 and within two years Bridgman established the Association for the Employment and Protection of Aborigines in Mackay. The Association wanted low paid indigenous workers to replace the indentured South Sea labour which was under attack in parliament. Bridgman hoped he could use them on his own sugar plantation.

By March 1873 over 200 Aborigines moved onto Bridgman’s reserve at GooneenberryPalmer had been made premier and his government established a commission under William Drew to see if the Mackay scheme could be applied across the colony. The commissioners visited the north and spoke to squatters (but not to indigenous people). Bridgman told them Aboriginal people were reliable employees.

In their May 1874 report the Drew Commission admitted a system of reserves and protectors would be expensive. But it argued Queensland was only profitable because of Aboriginal land. Drew said Queensland made most of its money from the lease and sale of crown lands “which the Aborigines originally occupied”. Sadly Palmer was out of power and new premier Arthur Macalister ignored the report.

What forced Macalister’s hand was the report of an attempted murder which filtered its way to all-powerful London. The news of Native Police shooting a black at Cooktown made the Sydney papers and ultimately caught the attention of Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Carnarvon requested an explanation from the Marquis of Normanby, the governor of Queensland. Normanby rejected allegations of atrocities and argued Aboriginal lives were being improved by white settlement. Yet this interest from London was embarrassing and unwanted. Normanby and Macalister agreed to re-institute the Drew Commission to implement its suggestions. The Brisbane Courier said this was warranted but defended the practices of the native police on the wild north frontier. “If the aborigines were more civilised than they are, we should either make treaties with them, or we should be at open war with them,” the Courier said.

Queensland’s Government wanted neither war nor treaties so it opted for a report to buy more time. In 1876 new Governor William Cairns instituted another commission under Anglican Bishop of Brisbane Mathew Hale with four other commissioners. Like the Drew Commission it was stacked with squatter sympathisers or explorers like Gregory and Landsborough who also saw the destruction of Aboriginal society as an inevitable consequence of Christian civilisation.

The Hale Commission was authorised to “inquire into and investigate the condition of Aboriginal inhabitants of Queensland and to report on the best means to legislate or otherwise improve their condition”. But rather than report, they immediate set about establishing a reserve under Tom Petrie at Bribie Island. Petrie would use his knowledge of Aboriginal languages to get them to work. Initial reports were favourable. Petrie suggested blacks at Brisbane should be compelled to live at the reserve. But Petrie didn’t stay long and his replacement was a zealot with little empathy for Aboriginals.

That man was Father Duncan McNab who had roving commission from the Catholic Church to convert the aborigines as long as it did not cost the church money. McNab had to fend for himself and applied to take over the Bribie mission when Petrie left. But McNab could not get the Aboriginal people to work. Meanwhile Hale wrote to the police commissioner complaining blacks were still being allowed to enter Brisbane, which was a deterrent to keeping them on Bribie.

McNab suggested the place was the problem, not him. He recommended a new reserve at Durundur on the Stanley River in the upper Brisbane Valley. With the support of new premier John Douglas it was opened in 1877 and a small amount of blacks moved it. Local squatters were pleased thinking it would supply a ready source of cheap labour. The Commission also approved another settlement at Mackay near Cape Hilsborough but this idea lapsed due to lack of government funds. The commission appointed Bridgman to be its agent for northern coastal districts and he suggested new reserves including one at Palm Island. Though just an idea at that stage, Palms would eventually become Queensland’s most infamous gulag in the 20th century.

The early efforts of building concentration camps at Mackay, Fraser and Durundur all failed. McNab proved to be impatient, wanting to immediately cure the Aboriginal people of their pagan ways while the funding dried up from Brisbane. But the Drew and Hale Commissions had asked an important question that would not go away: did the Aboriginal people have rights to the land as prior occupants?

That Unhappy Race Part 4: Gideon Lang

Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.
Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.

In 1865 a new figure enters the story of Queensland’s unhappy history of Aboriginal affairs. On July 12 that year, a Victorian squatter named Gideon Lang stood up in St George’s Hall in Melbourne and delivered a lecture on a pamphlet he called The Aborigines of Australia. Lang’s account was the most detailed yet by a settler on Aboriginal people in eastern Australia.

Gideon Scott Lang was born in Scotland and moved to Melbourne as a young man to follow his two older brothers. At Buninyong he joined his brothers in a farming venture where they faced the usual problem of how to pacify a large group of Aboriginal people on their run. The Langs succeeded in finding a peaceful solution by making an agreement to feed some of them if no attacks were made on their stock. The Langs were successful and Gideon gradually branched northwards to the Riverina before he visited the Darling Downs looking for selections. He was elected MP for Liverpool Plains and Gwydir in 1856 and served on the 1856 NSW Inquiry into Aboriginal conditions. By 1865 he was a director of a Melbourne bank and extremely influential in Victorian circles.

In his pamphlet Lang admitted he wasn’t a “blind partisan” for Aboriginal people having taken part in at least one attack against them during his squatting days. But Lang had come to the conclusion that had anyone died in that attack he would have considered himself a murderer. The first half of his pamphlet deals with his own experiences in the south and the solutions they came up with to co-exist with Aboriginal people.

However the second half was looked on with alarm in Brisbane: it was a direct attack on the Queensland squatters, their government and their native police.  It was especially timely following massacres in revenge for the deaths of white settlers at Cullin-la-Ringo four years earlier. Lang said the issues on the frontier were caused by a lack of recognition of Aboriginal society, deprivation of hunting grounds and the lack of government oversight. Lang said it led to atrocious cruelties on both sides, particularly in Queensland where it was the “rule and custom to arrange the black question by killing them off.”

Lang said he held these beliefs for 10 years but had delayed publication of his pamphlet until he found proof of massacres. That proof, he said, had now emerged. In May that year Aboriginal people had killed Native Police lieutenant Cecil Hill on the lower Dawson. His death caused a hardening of attitudes against the blacks, expressed by a letter writer to the Brisbane Courier: “These incorrigible rogues are becoming unbearable, and required a regular dressing down. Ordinary morality can only be driven into their obtuse skulls by leaden lessons.”

Officials were more circumspect and described revenge attacks for the death of Hill as “collisions” in the official record. These collisions, as Lang found out, were group punishment on a large number of blacks. Lang suggested the need for a “chief curator” of Aborigines, with the power of a police commissioner, who would punish outrages by white and black alike on the frontier. The curators would have the power to negotiate the use of waterholes with local groups before issuing new pastoral land licences, and stations could hire local blacks who would receive an allowance of food, blankets, tomahawks and tobacco.

Lang optimistically believed that within two years black and white would live amicably together. The blacks’ view of plan was unknown, but the white Queensland squatters were apoplectic at being told how to run their lives by an uppity southerner. The counterattack was led by Queensland MP and squatter Gordon Sandeman who spoke on behalf of his caste. Sandeman rejected claims of atrocities as “sensational” and said Lang had no experience of Queensland. He described the native police as a “defensive force” and asked why didn’t Lang make his opposition to them known in the 1856 NSW inquiry when he was still in parliament. Sandeman said the most humane solution was to not permit Aboriginal people on squatters’ runs at all, though he did not offer any solution as to where they might otherwise go.

Archibald Meston would later take some of his ideas for his Proposed System in 1895.  From Lang’s plan, Meston adapted the idea of chief curator, which Meston called “protector”.  One major difference was that Lang offered Aboriginal people a choice to take part whereas Meston’s plan was coercive. In the short term Lang’s plan came to nothing. There was some relief from colonisation due to an economic crisis in 1866 and the frontier temporarily stalled.

In the late 1860s, the new threat was from mining not land grabs. Payable gold on the Mary River near Gympie, the Cape River near Bowen, and Ravenswood near Townsville brought miners by the thousands to Queensland. There were more finds at Etheridge River near Georgetown and Charters Towers and the rush continued to the Cape at Palmer River, invading rugged lands that were too forbidding for pastoralists.

The blacks, as one settler said, no longer knew where to go out of the way of white people. “No localities they might keep to themselves had been pointed out to them and no system of treatment of them had been laid down,” wrote another. The government looked on helplessly as blacks drifted to makeshift camps outside the new white towns where they were not welcome.

In 1872 the London-based Aboriginal Protection Society asked Queensland’s third governor the Marquis of Normanby to appoint an unpaid board to look into the Aboriginal problem. The new premier Arthur Palmer was unenthusiastic thinking the inquiry’s expenses would cripple the treasury. However Normanby got his Inquiry up, anxious to avoid embarrassing inquiries from London about “blackbirding” which had started in Queensland’s sugar industry. The government’s lack of support meant that inquiry was also doomed to fail but it had lasting implications we will look at next.

That Unhappy Race Part 3: The Squatters’ Inquiry

20140221_120659[1]In 1861 the new Queensland Government held its first Inquiry into Aboriginal affairs. It would not be its last. Among the white “indiscretions” it examined was the killing of five Aboriginal people at Fassifern by Native Police lieutenant Frederick Wheeler. Wheeler was one of several white young men who saw their role was to eliminate all black people. In Fassifern there had been reports of Indigenous people killing settlers’ stock. Without bothering to establish who was responsible Lt Wheeler shot and killed four men and one woman. He would have got away with murder but for the fact one of the dead worked for a local squatter, the Ipswich magistrate and MP, Henry Challinor.

The 1861 Queensland Legislative Assembly Select Committee issued a slap on Wheeler’s wrists despite reports of other killings in the Logan district. They said he acted with “indiscretion” and because he was a “most valuable and zealous officer” his punishment should merely be removal to another area. Wheeler moved to Central Queensland and continued his reign of terror on blacks. It was not until 1876 he was charged in Rockhampton with the death of a black youth. Wheeler fled Australia rather than face justice.

The 1861 Inquiry that whitewashed Wheeler followed a similar trajectory to inquiries in NSW in 1856 and 1858. All of them looked at the problem with white eyes, none addressed the causes of the violence on the frontier. The squatters’ parliament in Brisbane thought it was an inevitable consequence of colonisation and believed only a military-style native police force could solve the problem.

The 1861 recommendations were a master-class of administrative action that addressed processes rather than causes. It ordered the native police appoint cadets, troopers should be stationed away from towns to avoid the temptation of alcohol, they should be recruited from areas far from where they would serve, officers would provide monthly reports, and a new and simpler means of keeping accounts was required. The fact local blacks could not be trusted to kill their own was glossed over.

The Inquiry decided that despite “misguided” officers like Wheeler the native police had to stay. The Queensland “myalls” (wild blacks) could not adjust to civilisation. The Inquiry noted “all attempts to Christianise or educate the Aborigines of Australia have hitherto proved abortive”. They said Aboriginal people were cannibals beyond redemption who had “no idea of a future state”, and were “sunk in the lowest depths of barbarism”. The Inquiry offered no suggestions how to improve their situation.

The policy of Aboriginal expulsion from their lands received a green light to continue. Challinor, the man who exposed Wheeler, told the Inquiry Aborigines should be entitled to hunt game in the own country. He also supported the Christian mission of William Ridley who recommended co-existence. But Aboriginal people roaming wild among the cattle did not suit squatter interests.

Back in 1837 Colonial Secretary Glenelg told the Australian colonies the Aborigines were to be treated as British subjects. But in 1861 Queensland decided this rule did not apply beyond the frontier. Rare voices like Challinor continued to advocate for Aboriginal protectors in each district to arbitrate issues between black and white. But with Aboriginal testimony not allowed in Queensland courts until 1884 their side of the argument was not heard.

They weren’t heard from in the 1861 Inquiry either and white voices were not supportive. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General Augustus Gregory praised the native police as necessary to the safety of the colony and said it was popular on the frontier. Aboriginal sympathiser Tom Petrie, who spoke Indigenous languages, said the native police had a beneficial role and a white-only force would be “inefficient”. Even the two missionaries from Zion’s Hill, Johann Zillman and Augustus Rode, admitted they had made no conversions and agreed the native police kept the black population in a state of fear.

The overwhelming view of Queensland’s parliament was either that there was no problem, or if there was, it would solve itself. With this sanguine view the government withdrew itself from Aboriginal affairs to weightier matters: how to make more money for the squatters.

Those like Challinor that saw the problem, were mostly driven by Christian concerns. The squatters contemptuously called them the Church Party and considered them well-meaning fools with no idea of life on the frontier. Ridley was now a journalist in Sydney using newspapers to get across his ideas. He said the missions in Wellington Valley (NSW) and Poonindie (SA) showed Aboriginal people were capable of “social and spiritual improvement”. He believed for missions to be successful, they must attract Aboriginal people in large numbers. They could not be drilled in European ways and should instead learn bushcraft with time off for hunting and other traditional pursuits. School should be taught in English but hours needed to be short and the missions needed to be far from the temptations of towns and their “vile passions”.

Another man with similar advice, station manager JC White, wrote a letter to the government about the “pressing” need to find new lands for Aboriginal people. White said station owners forbade them from crossing their runs to hunt kangaroos in case they set fire to the grass. Some resorted to killing cattle, increasing the likelihood of conflict. White said that in their natural state Aboriginal people were not bloodthirsty or cruel but “kindly disposed, hospitable and social, intelligent and improvable”. White suggested protectorates were needed as well as depots where they could receive food rations, and negotiate for employment on stations. He also suggested the native police should be abolished except on “extreme frontiers”. Governor Bowen was impressed by White’s letter and authorised land grants to persons or institutions that might establish Indigenous missions and industrial schools.

When a Catholic priest WJ Larkin offered his services of educating Aborigines in the Roma district, he too got some support from the government keen to keep London’s Exeter Hall liberals onside. But a change of government brought a change of attitude and Queensland poured money into the expansion of the railways rather than improving the lives of Aboriginal people. However the ideas that germinated in the work of Ridley, Challinor, Petrie, White and Larkin would eventually coalesce in Archibald Meston’s 1895 “Proposed System”.

See Part 1 and Part 2