Fool’s Gold: the story of Lasseter’s Reef

Harold Lasseter’s grave in Adelaide. Photo: Monument Australia

Gold has been an enduring feature of Australia’s story since the finds near Bathurst, NSW in 1851. Despite the fabulous riches uncovered at Ballarat and Bendigo, the gold story has been mostly one of failure. That less inspiring but more human story is told in Barry McGowan’s book Fool’s Gold. It tells tales from many unsuccessful rushes across the land. Each is a tale of hope and then desperation as the gold is not there in payable quantities or indeed in some cases an Australian El Dorado where the gold is not there at all. McGowan’s centrepiece story involves the mythical Lasseter’s Reef in the heart of the Northern Territory.

The reef is named for Lewis Lasseter, for whom the highway that links the Stuart Hwy with Uluru is also named. Lasseter was inspired by the 1923 book The Man with the Iron Door written by American Harold Bell Wright. The book was about prospectors in the Canyon of Gold, Arizona, and Lasseter was so impressed he added Harold Bell to his name that same year. He worked at many occupations, marrying twice and fathering five children. He lived in England and the US 1901-1909 and then was a market gardener and road maintenance man in NSW. He worked on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Canberra’s parliament house.

Lasseter first came to the attention of authorities in October 1929 with a letter to the minister of defence about a gold reef in central Australia. The letter said that for 18 years Lasseter had known about a “vast gold bearing reef” in central Australia with assays taken over 22km of reef showing values of three ounces to the ton. Lasseter said when he was there he was without water for four days and suggested an aerial survey of the headwaters of the Gasgoyne River (WA) for a gravitational pipeline to the reef. As a “competent surveyor” Lasseter offered to do the job for £2000 and suggested five million pounds would be needed to develop the reef.

The minister forwarded the letter to HW Gepp, chairman of the Development and Migration Commission. Gepp was already talking about an aerial and truck survey of the western MacDonnells with Dr Keith Ward, the government’s consultant geologist on the Northern Territory, 1925-1931. Gepp and Ward met Lasseter who told them the reef was 400km south-west of Alice Springs in the western end of the MacDonnell Ranges. Lasseter said the gold was found in floaters (rocks or ground that appear solid but not attached to the bedrock) and he had carried a considerable amount until his horse died near Lake Amadeus, 50km north of Uluru. After that he took a smaller quantity out on foot. Lasseter would not disclose the exact location unless the government provided a water supply. The government men replied they could not guarantee that without establishing the field’s feasibility.

Gepp told the Minister the dispatch of a party to the reef was “a gamble” and recommended it only be done as part of an organised prospecting campaign in Central Australia. He proposed to discuss it at the 1930 Geological Conference. In the meantime Lasseter wrote again saying he would only seek payment if the assay lived up to claims. He also said he would prefer to lead an expedition by truck even though he claimed he was in the Air Corps in the First World War – though there is no record of him there.

Labor won the federal election in February 1930 and Lasseter wrote to new Home Affairs minister Arthur Blakely to suggest equipping an expedition. Blakely turned it down but the letter gave momentum to the proposed discussion at the June Geological Conference. With the Depression taking hold, a desperate government was keen to explore money making schemes and a new gold discovery could be “of particular national advantage.”

This momentum was too slow for the impatient Lasseter. In March he wrote a letter to John Bailey, head of the Australian Workers Union, which Bailey forwarded to Blakely. Bailey suggested Arthur’s brother Fred Blakely would be ideal for the job, Fred Blakely was a highly regarded bushman and prospector who cycled Australia north to south in 1908. Arthur asked Fred if he fancied “a jaunt into Central Australia” saying they would get government support. It would also test out Lasseter.

In April 1930 Gepp agreed to provide a truck and a team including Fred Blakely. Lasseter would be paid the same as the others but given an advance to work his claim. Blakely met Lasseter and while he believed there was some truth to Lasseter’s claims he also felt there were gaps in the story. They agreed to a £50 share each and got four others to do the same. The six men met in Bailey’s office to discuss mining and a team of camels. Word had gotten around with others clamouring to join the syndicate. By the next meeting 20 people showed up.

Lasseter told Blakely he was first in the MacDonnell Ranges aged 17 at the back end of a ruby boom. One of the errors he told was he got there via train to Cloncurry. This was around 1897 though the train did not come to Cloncurry until 10 years later. Lasseter said he found no rubies and intended to travel overland to Carnarvon in WA. He struck out due west when he hit the reef. “Everywhere I examined I found gold,” he told Blakely. He continued west through harsh country and was found almost dead nine days later. He and the surveyor who rescued him went prospecting three years later and found the reef a second time. They took samples but with supplies running out they went back to Carnarvon.

Lasseter told similar stories to the other miners and speculators who grew excited about untold riches. An exception to the mood was Australian aviator Charles Ulm who said Lasseter’s bearings put him in the Indian Ocean and the project was “too hazy” for investment. Nonetheless a new company called Central Australian Gold Exploration (CAGE) was set up with £5000 capital. Thornycroft Motors donated a truck for six months, Atlantic Oil Company donated oil and petrol and governments and the railway provided free transport by train. CAGE bought an airplane named Golden Quest to be piloted by pilot and journalist Errol Coote. Also in the group were engineer and driver Philip Taylor, prospector George Sutherland and truck driver Fred Colson. Blakely was the leader and Lasseter the guide. Aboriginal stockman Mickey joined the expedition from Hamilton Downs station, west of Alice. Aboriginal Affairs was in Fred’s brother Arthur’s remit and he fielded letters from many worried by comments from Bailey the expedition was “armed to the teeth”. It was a legitimate concern barely two years after the nearby Coniston Massacre. Blakely said he had full confidence in his brother and “none of the party would interfere with Aborigines”.

The party set out from Alice Springs on July 21, 1930 travelling 400km west through tough country to an airstrip at Ilbilla. Along the way the truck was damaged and Coote and Colson returned to Alice by car for a spare part leaving the plane at a makeshift runway at Taylors Creek. After four days at Ilbilla Coote and Colson left again to pick up the plane. Coote had not arrived after the agreed number of days so Blakely and Taylor returned by truck to Taylors Creek. They found the plane crashed and a note to say Colson had driven Coote back to Alice. Colson arrived back at the Creek the following morning and they rejoined the others at Ilbilla.

The full party headed 200km west to Mount Marjorie where Lasseter told Blakely they needed to go 240km south. This was not consistent with earlier statements. Lasseter admitted he misled on some points as he was suspicious of one of the party. Blakely felt for the first time Lasseter had never been here before. It heightened suspicions already received in Alice where a local thought Lasseter’s description of the area in the 1890s was nonsense. Lasseter was now moody, secretive and distrustful leading to many rows with Blakeley.

Lasseter gave new directions which meant returning to Ilbilla where they waited for Colson to arrive by truck. There was also a newcomer, dingo hunter Paul Johns, who arrived with five camels and two Aboriginal helpers, Blakely asked him to stay there for a few weeks in case they needed him. Eventually Coote arrived by replacement plane but told Blakely it did not have the range to continue further and needed to be refitted in Adelaide. Before he left again he took Lasseter in the air to find landmarks. On return Lasseter initially said nothing but under questioning from Coote admitted he had seen the reef from the air. He would not divulge where it was as he had no confidence in Blakely or Colson. Coote did not share this information with the others.

When they got to the location Lasseter suggested, they were stuck in an eroded escarpment of hills and mesas which the truck could not handle. Lasseter changed his story again and said the reef was further south near the Petermann Ranges. Blakely said they would have to backtrack 500km, the area had been well prospected and was even further away from Carnarvon. With summer approaching Blakely decided to end the expedition. They went back to Ilbilla where they located Johns and his camels. They agreed Lasseter would continue the expedition with Johns. After the pair left, the others were shocked to find Lasseter had earlier telegrammed head office with the news he had found the reef.

Blakely went back to Sydney to inform directors of the mission’s failure. Some shareholders aware of Lasseter’s telegram thought it was a Blakely doublecross. Coote flew to Adelaide where he told people Lasseter was excited during the aerial survey though it was 250km from where he said the reef was. Coote was then asked to fly back to Uluru to find Lasseter. Taylor would go there by truck. Coote arrived at Uluru with a damaged plane and had to fly back to Adelaide for repairs. When he got back the directors’ instructions had changed; he was to collect Taylor and fly home. Lasseter was left to his own devices.

A few days later Coote was in Alice Springs when Johns arrived without Lasseter. Johns told Coote they headed west past the Petermann Ranges towards the Warburton Ranges but had a falling out and Lasseter stormed out. While Johns rested with the camels Lasseter returned after two days saying he had found the reef. Lasseter had samples but refused to show them to Johns. Johns called Lasseter a liar. They fought and then calmed down and the following morning Lasseter asked Johns to return to Alice for supplies. He would stay with the camels. He gave him a letter which Johns later opened. It said Lasseter found the reef and had pegged leases though it was not as rich as he thought.

According to the letter Lasseter intended to return to Ilbilla and if Johns didn’t turn up he would go to Lake Christopher to meet a man called Johanson. Johns said Lasseter got hopelessly lost in waterholes near Kata Tjuta. It is not known who the Johanson is, though a W. Johanson of Boulder, WA later claimed to have received a letter from John Bailey to get ready to join the expedition. It’s not known why no one else in the expedition knew about Johanson or his relationship to Lasseter, one of many mysteries.

A plane rescue mission set out on December 15 but went missing. On New Years Day 1931 another aerial rescue mission set out from Point Cook, Victoria. Using Hermannsburg Mission as a base it ran reconnaissance flights. They found the missing men from the earlier flight rescue mission which crashed near Haasts Bluff but there was no sign of Lasseter who was presumed dead. Evidence of Lasseter’s arrival at Lake Christopher was found with an inscription on a salt pan and a tree marked “Lasseter 2.12.30”. Bailey said Lasseter did not meet Johanson because the latter had been speared by Aborigines. According to the diary Lasseter returned to Ilbilla. The diary said he pegged the reef but did not give a date or location. Not long after, Johns’ camels bolted and he set up camp in a cave at Hull Creek in the Petermanns to await rescue. Local man Bob Buck found his footprints with the help of Aborigines and found Lasseter’s body at Shaws Creek.

Buck also found the diary buried in the ashes of the fire and from the embers he pieced together Lasseter’s last days. Lasseter said the Aborigines were “hostile” though they befriended him and caught the camels after they bolted. They also fed him nardoo (the food which kept John King alive in the Burke & Wills saga) but he could not digest it. He gradually weakened and became blind. The local tribes weeped when he eventually died. Among his last words in the diary were: “What good is a reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread.”

With Lasseter dead, his reef descended into myth. Newspaper articles claimed there was an Aladdin’s Cave of wealth somewhere in the Red Centre. Despite all the doubts and lies expedition members still believed Lasseter’s story. A second CAGE expedition in 1931 was equally fruitless. The same year Ion Idriess’s novel Lasseter’s Last Ride: El Dorado Found was an imaginative if mostly invented reworking of the story. It was a bestseller. A newspaper review lauded it as an exciting true story. Lasseter’s Reef continued to dazzle prospectors throughout the 1930s though none found any workings. Only a few doubters such as Michael Terry were prepared to spoil the fun by noting all 83 parties that went through “Lasseter’s country” without a single authenticated gold discovery. Yet even in 2013, there were those who say they found Lasseter’s El Dorado on Google Earth.

Barry McGowan concludes the reef was a product of Lasseter’s feverish imagination. He noted Lasseter’s 1917 Army discharged said he had “marked hallucinations”. With his mood swings between optimism and distrustfulness and his ever-changing story, he was not unlike Andrew Hume who told similar tales about Ludwig Leichhardt. Lasseter would probably now be diagnosed as bipolar. In his final act of deception, he was the victim though his dying spared him ridicule and harsh judgement. His act of death, McGowan concludes, tranformed Lasseter and his reef into one of Australia’s most enduring legends.

To Maryborough by train

A couple of weeks ago I made the 250km journey to Maryborough for a mate’s 60th birthday while in Brisbane. Having flown down from Mount Isa, I didn’t have my car so I used Queensland Rail services, boarding the 4.55pm from Roma St to Bundaberg. That train was a pleasant experience which got me into Maryborough West around 8.25pm where a friend picked me up and took me the 10km or so into town.

The following morning I walked into town and spotted the first of Maryborough’s many heritage-listed buildings, the city hall. Maryborough was originally situated north of the Mary River with wharves established in 1847 to transport wool from Burnett sheep stations. In 1852 the town was transferred north where ships could better navigate the river. Maryborough was declared a municipality in 1861 and a timber town hall was built in 1874 on Kent Street. Maryborough developed rapidly for the Gympie goldrush in 1867. As Maryborough so did the demand for a new town hall, finally built in 1908 on the opposite side of Kent St. It was heritage listed in 1992 “demonstrating the growth of Maryborough in the early 20th century”. The day I passed it was used as a Covid mass vaccination centre.

The day I was there was a Thursday and the Maryborough City Markets were on at Adelaide St as they were every Thursday. at Lennox St in the city centre. The markets have been going since 1987 and visitors combine browsing with a heritage walk which starts at the next door town hall. As I found out, tomorrow was Maryborough Show Day so there was a particular holiday atmosphere in town that day.

Maryborough Post Office is another heritage-listed building at 227 Bazaar Street. It was designed by Queensland Colonial Architect Charles Tiffin and built in 1865-1866. This was in the middle of a thriving period for the town, after the Maryborough Sugar Company was set up in 1865 and gold was discovered in Gympie in 1867. It is the oldest post office known to survive in Queensland, and is one of three remaining masonry post offices from between 1859 and 1878. In 1869 a single faced clock, facing Wharf Street, was installed in the third level of the tower. The telephone exchange opened here in 1882.

Queens Park was established in 1860 and many of its beautiful huge trees are over a century old as they look down on the majestic Mary River. The river, named Moocooboola ( “river that twists and turns”) by the Kabi people, is responsible for the name of the city and its reason for existence. Early Europeans called it the Wide Bay River but in September 1847 New South Wales governor Charles FitzRoy changed the name for his wife Lady Mary Lennox. It was an ill omen for Lady Mary. Three months later, she was in a carriage when the horses bolted and crashed down a hill. The carriage fell on top of her. killing her instantly. The port opened the same year, fared better. The Mary has suffered many major floods over the years with the river peaking at 8.2m here in the 2011 floods.

Maryborough School of Arts is another heritage-listed building on Kent Street opposite the city hall. It was designed by John Harry Grainger and built from 1887 to 1888 by Jacob & John Rooney. It replaced the first Maryborough School of Arts, a small brick building built in 1861 soon after the establishment of a local School of Arts committee. The school of arts movement, also known as the mechanics’ institute movement, spread through the English-speaking world in the mid-nineteenth century. Public lectures were popular as a way of spreading scientific knowledge. Scottish emigrants brought the concept to Australia and most towns had their own school of arts for “the diffusion of Scientific and other useful knowledge as extensively as possible throughout the Colony.”

Maryborough Courthouse is a heritage-listed courthouse on Richmond Street. It was designed by Francis Drummond Greville Stanley and built in 1877 by John Thomas Annear for the Queensland Government, the first large court building designed for a rural town in Queensland. It was the forerunner for several other buildings in regional areas. The building is rectangular in form with corner towers and connecting verandahs, and was constructed in rendered brick, with timber work forming the verandahs. The building stands as part of the historic Wharf Street precinct. The courthouse has been used by the supreme, district and magistrates courts of Queensland since completed in 1878, making it the longest serving and oldest courthouse in use in Queensland.

From Queens Park a rail line was visible next to the river. I could also hear the toot of a steam train and a few minutes later it came into view down the track. A dedicated team of volunteers crew the Mary Ann which operates each Thursday along the riverside. The original Mary Ann was used to haul timber in the 1870s, named for the daughters of Scottish timber pioneers and the timber offcuts fuelled the engine. It ran on a 3’3 gauge, even narrower than the Queensland 3’6 gauge. The current engine is a replica built in the 1990s.

J E Brown commenced business as a provisions and victuals merchant in 1857 in Richmond Street. In 1879 he had this two-storey brick warehouse built and was designed by local architect James Buchanan. In later years, the premises were used for dances, balls, boxing tournaments, a restaurant, and currently houses the Maryborough Military and Colonial Museum.

Maryborough Heritage Centre is a heritage-listed former bank building at 164 Richmond Street. It was designed by George Allen Mansfield and James Cowlishaw and built in 1877 with goldrush wealth for the Bank of New South Wales. It is also known as National Parks and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Post Master General’s Department, and Telecom Building.

The following day was Friday and it was Fraser Coast show day. It seemed everyone in town was at the Maryborough Showgrounds to the west of the city. It was a typical boisterous show with all the usual ingredients. But after a while I became uneasy at so much close contact in these Covid times and went back to town.

This sculpture commemorates the work of Pamela Lyndon Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough in 1899. P. L.Travers is most famous for the series of Mary Poppins children’s novels. Travers was an actress and journalist whose most abiding creation was the magical English nanny, Mary Poppins, famously played by Julie Andrews in the smash hit 1964 Hollywood film. Walt Disney’s daughters loved the novels when they were children, and Disney spent 20 years trying to purchase the film rights. Travers was an adviser in the production, but disapproved of the watered-down Disney Poppins character. She so hated the animation she ruled out any further adaptations of the series. At the premiere after-party she told Disney “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney replied, “Pamela, the ship has sailed” and walked away. Travers died in England in 1996 aged 96.

On the Saturday I went down to Anzac Park for the weekly local parkrun at 7am. The 5km track takes runners and walkers around the lovely Ululah Lagoon taking the pain off the exertion. The park also houses Maryborough golf club.

I had just enough time for shower and breakfast before getting a lift back to Maryborough West station for the 11.05am train back to Brisbane. This one was the tilt train originating in Rockhampton.

Unlike the trip up, the trip back to Brisbane was in full daylight so I was able to enjoy the scenery. A highlight is Mount Tibrogargan, one of the 13 peaks of the Glass House Mountains. Lieutenant James Cook gave them that name in 1770 because the peaks reminded him of the glass furnaces in his native Yorkshire. The range was formed as molten lava cooled to form hard rock in the cores of volcanoes 26-27 million years ago. Tibrogargan is the third tallest of the peaks. The name comes from the local aboriginal words chibur for flying squirrel and kaiyathin for biting. Tibrogargan was the father of all the other Glass House Mountains except Beerwah, his wife. Tibrogargan saw a rising of the waters from the sea, and called to his son Coonowrin to take his mother Beerwah to a safe place. However Coonowrin failed to do so, and in anger Tibrogargan clubbed himand broke his neck. Tibrogargan is said to have turned his back to face Coonowrin. We turned our backs on Tibrogargan as we tilted effortlessly back to Brisbane.

Ludwig Leichhardt and the rivers of the Gulf of Carpentaria

The Leichhardt River at Mount Isa.

The rivers of Northern Queensland that empty into the Gulf of Carpentaria received their first European names from the Dutch who sailed these waters from the 17th century. The Gulf is named for Pieter de Carpentier,an administrator of the Dutch East India Company and its Governor-General from 1623 to 1627. Although the Dutch were the first Europeans to make contact with Aboriginal people, they found it too forbidding to make a colony here.

No European came to the Gulf via the land route until Ludwig Leichhardt’s successful first expedition of 1844-45. Leichhardt followed the Dutch naming convention of known rivers filling in the gaps where necessary. But Leichhardt was let down by poor maps in the maze of rivers and two he named were overlooked by those who followed. Upstream, one river flowed into what would eventually become Mount Isa and in a quirk of fate that river was named for Leichhardt himself, something he would never have done himself. The best explanation of how things went wrong is provided by Colin Roderick in his monumental life of “Leichhardt the Dauntless Explorer”.

Leichhardt was an excellent navigator, but his journey from west of Brisbane to the Cobourg Peninsula was reliant on the 1838 map of Australia produced by English cartographer John Arrowsmith. Much of the area he and his group travelled through was blank on Arrowsmith’s map though maritime surveys of Flinders (1802) and the Beagle (1841) had determined coastal features visible from the sea. No navigator had seen the mouths of many rivers. The first half of Leichhardt’s journey log has disappeared but the second half in conjunction with his fieldbooks and rough maps enabled deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry draw a map refined by Arrowsmith for the 1847 version of the book of Leichhardt’s travels: Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia from Moreton Bay to Port Essington.

Leichhardt took a circuitous route following the river systems of the Condamine and then north along rivers he himself named, the Dawson, McKenzie, Fitzroy, Burdekin, Lynd, and Mitchell. He finally found a Dutch-named river, the Staaten to break through the Gulf, though it was a fair way up Cape York and his party needed to go south-west before travelling west. As he reached the southern shores of the Gulf, his whereabouts were misunderstood by Perry based on incorrect assumptions from Arrowsmith’s earlier incomplete map.

The problems started in Cape York days after one of the party, naturalist John Gilbert, was killed by Aboriginal people as they camped overnight, On July 9, 1845 Leichhardt camped at what Arrowsmith’s map called the Van Diemen River. But it was the river now named for Gilbert. Leichhardt gave that name of his dead comrade to a stream now called the Smithbourne River. The confusion continue as he travelled south-west into the Gulf.

On July 19, 1845 Leichhardt crossed a creek with a sandstone bed he did not name, now the Carron River. The Carron is a tributary of the Norman which Leichhardt found later that day 15km from the coast. “A fine river,” he called it, “with salt water about 250 or 300 yards broad.” They camped on a lagoon that night feasting on ibis and duck they shot, while carefully watched by the blacks so the whites were watchful too. The following morning natives approached the camp and invited Leichhardt to meet them. He presented nose rings to his hosts and they told him the stream was the Yappar. Leichhardt adopted that name for the river. While Yappar did not survive, a street in Karumba now bears that name. Leichhardt crossed the river at Glenore Crossing and recorded the river as at latitude 17 54 or 55, longitude 140 45. His latitudes were only a minute or two out but his longitudes were 40-50 minutes too far west due to a mechanical defect,

His mapmakers knew about the defect but failed to rectify it for the expedition book. The problem was another river, named the Maatsuyker by the Dutch and renamed the Flinders by John Lort Stokes on the Beagle in 1841 was at 141 40. Stokes had sailed up to Burial Reach and named Bynoe Inlet after his ship’s surgeon. Arrowsmith combined the two rivers for the 1847 book and gave it Stokes’ name in honour of Matthew Flinders. Under the name in brackets, Arrowsmith placed “Yappar” to mark its headwaters, robbing Leichhardt of his first river. It wasn’t until 1870, that the river was renamed the Norman for Commander William Henry Norman who carried supplies to the Albert River in 1861 for the Burke and Wills Expedition.

On July 22, 1845 the party crossed Stockyard Creek and Leichhardt’s black companion Charley who had scouted on ahead told them another large river blocked their path ahead. They crossed the Bynoe effluent near its junction with the Flinders and according to Leichhardt camped at 17 49 35. Here Leichhardt lost his second river. Stokes had not only found the Flinders, he also found the Albert, which he followed for 70km into what he called the Plains of Promise at today’s Burketown. Leichhardt was unaware of this discovery and his task was complicated by the failure of Flinders and others to find the ghostly Dutch named Maatsuyker River. When on July 23 Leichhardt crossed this “fine broad river with a sandy bed, the banks with stunted mangroves , clayey salty water” he wrote next to it in his field book “Maete Suyker River?” and refrained from making the judgement. Roderick is convinced Leichhardt would have placed it as the Flinders had he known of Stokes’ map.

On August 3 Leichhardt headed back towards the coast and that evening at camp Charley told them he had found another river barely 300 metres west away. This was the river later called the Leichhardt. The following day they kept to the right of the river and paused for a day to dry the beef they moistened after slaughtering a bullock. While they searched in vain for fresh water, they found a crossing at the site of the present Leichhardt Falls (about 77km from Burketown). After three parched days they found a waterhole. When they passed the Albert River (which goes through Burketown) on August 6, Leichhardt wrote in his printed journal: “The river, I am inclined to think, is the Albert of Captain Stokes, and the Maet Suyker of the Dutch navigators”. But the doubt remained. In a letter from Sydney in 1846 he added as a rider: “But I crossed another considerable saltwater river between both, which does not appear to have any connection with either.” The confusion is no surprise, the Albert and the Leichhardt both meet the sea within kilometres of each other and the constantly curving streams, brooks, creeks and anabranches were hard to trace with so far still to go.

On August 18 they found a small river with palm trees and importantly, fresh water. This was at the present junction of the Albert and Barclay Rivers. The following day they moved north west and found “a fine brook, whose pure limpid waters flowed rapidly in its deep but rather narrow channel, over a bed of rich green long-leaved water plants. Leichhardt named it Beames’s Brook after Walter Beames, a Sydney grocer who had donated stores to the expedition. Beames’s Brook appears today on the map as a tributary of the Albert though initially the mapmakers thought it belonged to another river, Leichhardt found only 3km north-west of it. That was the Nicholson (which flows through Doomadgee) which Leichhardt named for the English companion of his student years in Europe. Leichhardt crossed the Nicholson below its junction with the Gregory River which he never saw.

By August 29 Leichardt’s party crossed into what is now the Northern Territory. Leichhardt named more rivers as he found them including the Calvert and Roper for members of his party. On December 17 the bedraggled party made their way to Victoria, the British army settlement at Port Essington. They were among the last to visit it. It is possible Leichhardt may have tried to visit it again in 1849 as he and his party mysteriously vanished without trace on their planned trip to the Western Australian Swan River Colony. If they did they would have been bitterly disappointed, the British abandoned the settlement that year.

Many explorers set out looking for Leichhardt and his party, Among them in 1856 was Augustus Charles Gregory (the Gregory River was named for him by later traveller William Landsborough, who in turn got a highway). Gregory crossed one of the lost rivers of the Gulf when looking for the missing Leichhardt and by a happy choice he named it the Leichhardt. Residents of Mount Isa, Roderick concluded, should be gratified to know the river was in fact found in 1845 by the man whose name it bears.

The end of the economists’ hour

New York Times writer Binyamin Appelbaum begins his book The Economists’ Hour with an anecdote from stockbroker and 1950s US Federal Reserve chair William McChesney. McChesney told a visitor they had 50 “econometricians” working at the Fed and all of them were in the basement. They were in the building because they asked good questions, he said, but they were relegated to the bottom floor because “they don’t know their own limitations and they have a far greater sense of their confidence in their own analyses than (is) warranted”. McChesney was expressing a common government view at the time that economics was an esoteric field that did not resolve specific problems.

What economics there was in the post-war period was Keynsian (though John Maynard Keynes was distrusted by politicians) with plenty of government intervention where necessary. But within 20 years economists had moved from the basement to the penthouse and politicians and their advisers were more ready to listen to their advice. Under the critical influence of Milton Friedman’s mantra to trust the markets not the bureaucrats, there began a period called “The Economists’ Hour” a phrase Appelbaum borrows from historian Thomas McCraw that describes the period between the 1970s and the financial crash of 2008. In that time economies across the world opened up to the power of the markets, but as the crash itself showed, its unfettered power went too far.

McChesney died in 1998 and probably watched in resignation as Alan Greenspan became head of the Fed 11 years earlier, as economists stamped their authority on the economy. Greenspan,was even more extreme than Friedman about a free market discipline under the influence of libertarian writer Ayn Rand. His view was that a “laissez-faire economy was the only moral and practical form of economic organisation.” Greenspan made his money in economic consultancy and he went into politics in 1968 analysing data for the Richard Nixon presidential campaign. But he resisted an appointment until 1974 when he chaired the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. Within days Watergate forced Nixon out and new president Gerald Ford made Greenspan his chief economist. He got on well with Ford and encouraged him to oppose a bailout of New York City (leading to the immortal Daily News headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead”.

After Carter won in 1976 he completed his doctorate and then re-emerged in 1980 endorsing Ronald Reagan’s plan to cut taxes and spending. But like with Nixon, he initially resisted a role with the White House. But in 1987 he met two Bakers, Treasury secretary James Baker and presidential chief of staff Howard Baker who convinced him to take on the job at the Fed. He would be replacing Paul Volcker, a man of similar ideas. Volcker had served 10 years under Carter and Reagan and his biggest success was stamping out inflation which dogged both presidents. Volcker succeeded by making interest rates high and sending unemployment soaring above 10pc. He essentially moved power from labour to capital, a process Greenspan accelerated.

Greenspan was determined to end federal regulations, particularly around Wall St and the ring-fenced savings and loans industry. He agreed with the White House that reduced restrictions would help American banks compete with foreign rivals. Over the next 10 years Greenspan became celebrated as his tenure coincided with low unemployment and low inflation. His signature triumph, Appelbaum said, consisted of doing nothing when he resisted pressure to raise interest rates in the mid 90s correctly judging technology was increasing the productivity of American workers even as globalisation was suppressing prices and workers’ bargaining power.

But Greenspan’s greatest failure also consisted of doing nothing. American savings and loans companies, or thrifts as they were known, were long subject to serious financial fraud. The failure of Lincoln Saving and Loan in 1989 cause the taxpayer $2 billion and Greenspan, who had spruiked for them, declared himself to be embarrassed by the failure in language strikingly familiar to 2008 that he was “very distressed” by market indiscipline. But he proposed no action. Similarly in 1994 when credit derivatives were wiped out, Greenspan merely saw it as “educational” and those that survived would be stronger.

More warning bells sounded which Greenspan ignored. In the mid 90s banks enthusiastically turned to a new customer, people who did not qualify for loans at the best rates. The banks created unregulated subsidiaries to offer loans to these “sub prime” customers and these new lending arms charged exorbitant fees concentrated in lower income groups. Many of these customers could have qualified for prime loans but minority borrowers ended up with subprime loans more often than white borrowers with similar profiles.

Consumer advocates wanted these new subsidiaries regulated like the banks but the Fed refused in 1998, despite criticism from the Clinton White House. Buoyed by the decision the banks doubled down on sub-prime loans and by 2004 around 12pc of all loans were from unregulated companies. But when a Chicago economist named Raghuram Rajan suggested financial innovation was making the world a riskier place he was dismissed as a Luddite and some said even suggesting such scenarios was “disruptive”.

But the real disruption was in the wild west marketplace. In 2007 former Fed govenor Edward Gramlich said the mortgage marketplace was “like a city with a murder law but with no cops on the beat”. The cop who could have changed everything had stepped down from the Fed in 2006. Greenspan remained sanguine about the future. In his memoirs written in 2007, Greenspan said he failed to see how adding more government regulation would help. “We have no sensible choice other than to let markets work,” he wrote. When they didn’t work a year later, Greenspan was ‘distressed” once more.

But Appelbaum wrote the idea of a marketplace regulated by its participants is fundamentally flawed. Markets run on information and insiders usually have more information. Lower income borrowers have less income and lead more stressful lives due to their poverty leading to more debilitating decision making, usually egged on by unscrupulous lenders. Greenspan said the job of a central banker was to see the future and get ready for it. But he did not foresee the collapse of the housing market in 2008. He did not understand the Wall St banks had become housing-finance companies. They were conduits carrying foreign investment into mortgages as the reservoirs of American trading partner savings pumped back into US house and financial markets.

After the GFC, new head of the Fed Ben Bernanke pumped more money into the financial system until the banks got back on their feet, By then the Economists’ Hour was over. Just like in the 1930s Great Depression when Keynes’ ideas took hold, only the most foolhardy purists persisted to insist markets should be left to their own devices. Obama pushed through a Keynsian stimulus plan in 2009 though he abandoned this approach in favour of austerity measures a year later, a move adopted by the EU also. Only China persisted spending and its growth dwarfed the rest of the world in the following decade.

While over 350 bankers have been convicted of crimes related to the global financial crisis, almost all were small fry. There was no money for borrowers as there was for bankers. The US justice departments decided would consider “collateral consequences” before filing charges against corporations for fear of making thousands unemployed. Economic considerations trumped justice. Most of the financial gains have ended up in the pockets of an unrepentant plutocratic minority, Perhaps the biggest damage has been to erode trust in governments and other institutions. The victories of Brexit, Trump and Bolsonaro can all be seen as a rejection of the Economists’ Hour.

Appelbaum argues globalisation had inherently good qualities that didn’t have to be so painful. The service economy is where today’s jobs are, especially around nursing the aging population though most of these jobs are physically demanding, emotionally draining, poorly paid and with little security or benefits. Inequality is at levels not seen since the 1920s and social mobility is ossifying as a path to education becomes more difficult for the poor. One of the lessons is the need for a strong social net to exist within a strong economy. Unemployment is a lack of purpose and opportunity as well as money. The markets “must be seasoned with mercy” as mid 20th century economist Frank Knight said. Markets remain an excellent invention and a powerful machine for wealth creation, but there are times when it is right to do without one.

To North Stradbroke Island by bike

We booked a four day stay at Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island and decided to get there by train (to Cleveland), ferry (to Dunwich) and then cycle to Point Lookout, 19km away on the surf side of the island. I had done something similar before, but it was 20 years ago so it was time for some “Straddie” love once more.

Pulling out into the broad expanse of Moreton Bay we passed Peel Island to the north. Its Jandai name is Teerk Roo Ra which means “place of many shells”. Aboriginal groups used Peel Island as a feasting and ceremonial site and midden sites and a bora ring remain. Europeans first used it in 1874 as an immigration quarantine station for ships to keep contagious diseases out of the country. Authorities gazetted the island’s north-west corner in 1906 and a year later they built a lazaret to forcibly hold people from across Queensland with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). It held 500 people in poor conditions over the years until drugs effected a cure in the 1940s. Despite this the lazaret did not close down until 1959.

After a swift 25 minute journey in the water taxi we approach Dunwich. Dunwich, like Peel Island, was established as a quarantine station after the closure of the Brisbane penal colony in 1849. We land at One Mile Jetty where at low tide there is plenty of access in the bay for fishers. The good news for cyclists is the jetty is 2km closer to Point Lookout than where the car ferry comes in, further south. We’re quickly disembarked and heading towards the East Coast road to Point Lookout.

But almost directly outside the ferry terminal I’m distracted by the Dunwich cemetery. Overlooking the bay, it is possibly the second oldest cemetery in Queensland. These unusual stones mark the graves of inmates of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum. The grave markers varied in design depending on the period when the inmates were buried. The Asylum was established just as as the quarantine station closed in 1865 (Peel was opened two years later).

A couple of kilometres into the ride we stop to check out the Myora Springs Conservation Area at Capembah Creek. A freshwater spring feeds the creek and a sign on the boardwalk says it feeds 2.4 million litres of crystal clear water into Moreton Bay every day. This is a Quandamooka people camping spot for millennia and remains a special place. The area is home to a variety of wildlife including freshwater prawns in the creek and koalas in the eucalypts and swamp mahoganies above.

The East Coast road is hilly so we are glad to find our accommodation and settle it for the evening enjoying the sunset over Cylinder Beach. The beach gets its name from the gas cylinders used to power Point Lookout lighthouse which were brought ashore on the beach.

The following morning we walk down to the place which gave Point Lookout its apt name, looking south to the beach that continues down the east of the island. Naming rights belong to Lieutenant James Cook. The Endeavour passed this point on May 17, 1770. Cook wrote in his journal that at sunset “the Northermost land in sight bore North by West, the breakers North-West by West, distant 4 Miles, and the Northermost land set at Noon, which form’d a Point, I named Point Lookout, bore West, distant 5 or 6 Miles (Latitude 27 degrees 6 minutes)” though he got the latitude wrong as it should be 27 degrees 26 minutes. Cook continued: “On the North side of this point the shore forms a wide open bay, which I have named Morton’s Bay”. Cook named it for James, Earl of Morton, President of the Royal Society in 1764, and one of the Commissioners of Longitude. But over the years the name of the bay was corrupted to Moreton.

The surf was particularly strong here and several surfers were enjoying the big waves. The swells are generally very large at Main Beach, and it’s a popular spot for its left hand point breaks. We kept an eye out for whales which start heading north during May but saw none. Humpback whales feed only in summer, in the polar waters of Antarctica, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters of Fiji and Australia to breed and give birth in the winter. This results in thousands of humpback whales swimming past Australia’s east coast between late May and early November each year.

Nearby is the popular North Gorge Walk. Normally you can take the beautiful 1.2km track around the headland but a recent storm has caused damage in the middle so it is currently only open for short segments at either end. The heavy waves crashing into gorge were a spectacular sight.

At the northern entrance to the gorge is this place marker. Designed by sculptor Delvene Cockatoo-Collins in 2019 the installation is called “eugaries”. An interpretative sign says the eugarie shells stand in a way they are often found in the shallow ocean, within the sand and on middens. Remnants of shells have been found at Mulumba (the Quandamooka name for Point Lookout) showing evidence of a traditional gathering place and food camp. Mulumba means place of stone/rock in Jandai language The eugaries symbolise people coming together while the patterns on the outer layer reflect their weathered nature.

I’ve written before about the Quandamooka successful native title claim but there is dissension over a proposed development next to the Gorge Walk called Yalingbila Bibula (Whale on the Hill). The development is an initiative of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation. The interpretive facility will house a 15-metre skeleton of humpback whale that washed ashore at Mulumba in 2011 – one of the few complete humpback whale skeletons on public display in the world. The facility will also share Quandamooka stories, values and history. But not all local Indigenous people are happy with the proposal and they have set up a “Quandamooka Truth Embassy” on the northern side of the walk. They say the whale is not a totem of the Quandamooka and the whale remains should be returned to the sea not “hung in a whale coffin on the hill”.

They also say the construction will impact the kangaroos, koalas, possums and echidnas who live there and it is a culturally significant area with a cave just below the site. It is a difficult problem to resolve as the island economy transitions from sand-mining which ended in 2019. The Minjerribah Futures Program wants to transition the island from an economic reliance on resources to cultural and eco-tourism but the local chamber of commerce has a point when it says there is no funding for basic amenities like bike paths, disability access to the beach and showers.

We could have done with a bike lane on the sometimes narrow and dangerous East Coast road where not all vehicles adhere to the one and a half metre distance rule. But we had a much more relaxing ride on Saturday where we found this vehicle-free dirt track to Amity Point. We had a delightful 7km trip through the foliage with only the occasional mountain biker, birds and a hungry tree-climbing goanna for company.

Amity Point is the sleepiest of Stradbroke’s three settlements. Originally known as Pulan by the Nunukul people, Amity was home to an Aboriginal population of over 100. In 1824 John Oxley named the headland Amity Point after the brig Amity he sailed in when establishing the Moreton Bay penal colony. In 1825 the government established a pilot station there to guide ships travelling to the penal settlement. Hayles Cruises started up their passenger ferry there in 1935 and this was the main entry point to the island for many years.

Despite the fact it is a sand island, the forests surrounding Amity are subtropical rainforests with a significant amount of diversity in flora and fauna. Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are commonly sighted in the wild on Straddie, often in the townships like this one in Amity. The Koala Action Group Queensland has documented dramatic decline of koalas on mainland South East Queensland leading to suggestions North Stradbroke Island should become an “island ark” for koalas. Sadly their study found that due to characteristics including their low genetic diversity, Straddie koalas are unique and the location and population should not be considered an island ark for the rest of SEQ, but be conserved and managed as a separate entity.

After a coffee we found another alternative route back to Point Lookout. Helped by the low tide we cycled along beautiful Flinders Beach. Our only company was white-bellied sea eagles above and boaties in the channel to the north. There was a tricky section at the end of the beach where we had to dismount and carry our bikes in knee-height water across fallen trees but we were able to continue our ride home via, appropriately enough, Home Beach.

Still feeling energetic the following day, I risked the traffic and cycled back the East Coast Road to Dunwich. My destination was the North Stradbroke Island museum on Minjerribah to find out more about the place I was staying. There was lots of displays on the Peel Island lazaret and the Dunwich Quarantine Station and Asylum. The Asylum was set up for destitute Queenslanders in 1865. It remained there until 1946 when it was moved to the vacated RAAF base at Sandgate, renamed Eventide.

Back at Point Lookout I went for a run to the lighthouse, which is not on the sea, but squirreled away on the top of a hill. The lighthouse was established in 1932 using automatic acetylene apparatus. It was painted red and white and when the American supply ship Rufus King ran aground in 1942 on the South Passage Bar, its captain claimed he had mistaken the lighthouse for the one at Cape Moreton which was also painted red and white. To avoid confusion Cape Moreton was repainted in alternate red and white bands. In 1988 Point Lookout light was converted to a battery operated light float charged from electricity mains and the tower that housed the light prism was removed.

That evening we took the short walk to the North Stradbroke Beach Hotel for dinner with its lovely views of the sunset over Cylinder Beach. The hotel was opened in 1962 and was affectionately known by locals and visitors as the Straddie Pub until a total rebuild in 2006 gave it a much more upmarket flavour. Still, its a great place to unwind and do a bit of whale watching while having a beer or a bite to eat.

That left an early start the following morning for the 19km trip back to the ferry stop. There was plenty of time to enjoy the final views of Straddie and Moreton Bay as we motored back to Cleveland.

The colonisation of Victoria and South Australia and the failure of humanitarianism

South Australian Proclamation Ceremony. Photo: State Library SA

The period around 1835 was a watershed time in Australia for British colonists and their relationships with First Nations people as the first settlers began to move into Victoria and South Australia. What happened when they did is explored in Hannah Robert’s Paved With Good Intentions. While the earlier colonies in New South Wales and Tasmania were sparked by colonial entrepreneurs, the newer colonies coincided with the rise of the Evangelical movement in London, fresh from its success in outlawing slavery in the British Empire in 1833. The rule of law became an important tool in colonising lands and “civilising” Indigenous peoples.

The area around Melbourne and Geelong was colonised by a group of Tasmanian settlers who called themselves the Port Phillip Association or PPA. John Batman sailed from Hobart to assess the pastoral potential and to stake a claim by forming a lease-type agreement with Aboriginal people, which was later known as Batman’s Treaty. Meanwhile the South Australian colonists began negotiating with the Colonial Office while still in London. This group wanted to put the “systematic colonisation” theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield into practice. While these were radically different approaches to colonisation they both operated within the legal framework of property rights. They also both used the arguments of humanitarians to convince officials of their claims as well as Aboriginal rights to a degree (until they conflicted with their property rights, which took precedence).

NSW Governor Richard Bourke was hostile to Batman’s Treaty and sought advice from Chief Justice Francis Forbes. Forbes regarded all lands outside the limits of settlement as “crown lands”. This meant Batman and the PPA were intruders, as were presumably the Kulin People who lived there. The PPA argued sovereignty did not constrain land rights and the treaty vested them with title of the land via enfeoffment, a British feudal transfer system used by William Penn in his “purchase” of Pennsylvania. The PPA sought legal opinion in London which found dominion was qualified because Aboriginal People could not be alienated from their own lands. But the Colonial Office agreed with Bourke’s proclamation declaring treaties as “void against the rights of the crown”.

After this failure the PPA empahsised its second argument which was the Treaty was a humanitarian conciliatory gesture and they deserved the “special favour” of land grants for pacifying and civilising the Aborigines, reducing Aboriginal rights to welfare matters. The Colonial Office claimed Aborigines were under the “protection” of the crown but they were also aware selling land was a profitable business for the colonies. When Bourke nullified the treaty he also agreed the crown would take over the payments to Aboriginal people as specified in the treaty document, to maintain peaceful relations. He also allowed the “permissive occupancy” by the Squatters, a state of things he said, “a government cannot wholly interdict”.

In the South Australian case Aboriginal rights did not become an issue until late in the preparations. The colonisers had the South Australia Act passed through parliament in 1834 and it remains the only time colonisation got approval through parliament than through the crown. The Act made no mention of the Indigenous People and had defined the entire would-be colony as “waste and unoccupied lands”. In 1835 the Colonial Office put pressure on the Colonisation Commissioners to consider Aboriginal rights. The Commissioners response was to form a “Society for the Protection of the Aborigines of South Australia” framing Aboriginal rights as a philanthropic rather than legal problem. Still the Colonial Office threatened to delay the scheme unless they could assure against “any Act of Injustice” and not intrude on Aboriginal-owned lands. The plan which relied on selling land to raise funds for emigration was in strife and settlers had to resort to linguistic contortions to redefine Aboriginal occupancy in a way that did not include “property”. Aboriginal rights might be property, but only within the colony, not within their lands. A proviso was added to the 1836 Letters Patent to that effect but it was still at odds with the 1834 Act which barred reserving any lands.

Apart from creating legal uncertainty the proviso carried little weight. Commissioners used the economic philosophy of John Locke to determine if the Aboriginal people held land based on whether it looked like a European system of agriculture. Locke constructed a western view of property in Two Treatises of Government (1690), “I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many consequences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?” By such sophistry Australian colonists could in the same breath proclaim the need to protect Aborigines while taking their land.

It was also the basis of a new discourse distinguishing people based on “race”. The lower on the scale people were judged as, the less attention needed to be paid to their land rights. South Australian colonial administrator Robert Torrens said “Aboriginal people had not arrived at the stage of social improvement in which a proprietary right to the soil exists” while Protector William Thomas claimed their only possessions were “what they carried in the bag”. The theory was used to justify why treaties were unnecessary, As writer and historian Patrick Wolfe noted, the intent was genocidal. Aboriginal bodies and souls could be saved, but their way of life, culture, laws and land use would have to die out.

The South Australian commissioners were supposed to recognise when Aboriginal people held the land “in occupation or enjoyment” but left it up to settlers to determine each case. Torrens was typical in believing Aborigines had no land rights. But replacement of rights with compassion didn’t work out in practice. Rights in animals would be respected but only if they did not kill sheep and subsistence would be replaced by rations which were poor because as PPA’s John Helder Wedge said, “damaged rice or anything of the kind that can be got the cheapest will answer the purpose”.

That purpose was how to get access to valuable land without paying the owners. Wedge’s and Torrens’ answer was a partial and unequal assimilation. If compensation was to be paid at all it was to the whites in thanks for receiving the gifts of Western civilisation. Aboriginal people were no longer a matter for the law but for humanitarian groups. The new colonies could create bodies such as the Commissioner for Crown Lands as a separate arm of bureaucracy charged with selling Aboriginal lands to white people, with profit to the crown. It was only Aboriginal resistance to these measures that reminded the British of their sleight of rule. But that only turned the humanitarians against the blacks, arguing a lack of “moral principle justified a more violent settler response.

Melbourne and Adelaide both quickly became established settler cities with ambitions of self-government. As Hannah Robert writes, a key part of their claim to be taken seriously is their foundation stories. Early histories of Victoria and South Australia presented their colonisers as heroes, instrumental in the eventual creation of a white nation in 1901. Aboriginal people weren’t asked their opinion, they were not in the story at all, and written out of the new constitution. Robert’s conclusion is that colonisers used law and economic theory to exclude Aboriginal rights while using humanitarian language to enclose and contain them. It started a period which lasts to this day – intensive over-governance of Indigenous people.

A journey into the inscrutable Scott Morrison

Baby Prague Dudy gets up close and personal with PM Scott Morrison in Cloncurry. Photo: Derek Barry

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Australian Community Media’s network called “Prime Minister Scott Morrison on a COVID wing and a prayer”. The article was based on my first-hand experience of the PM in his visits to North West Queensland and recent readings of Niki Savva’s Plots and Prayers and Katharine Murphy’s Quarterly Essay: The End of Certainty. It was a brief attempt to chart Morrison’s current problems, looking back on how he won the “miracle election” of 2019 and looking forward at how he might try to repeat the dose next time round. I talked about his visit to Cloncurry three days after the 2019 election when I saw a busload of pentecostalists come down from Mount Isa who mobbed the PM and treated him like a hero. In her book Sava noted how Morrison had put his faith at the heart of the campaign when he invited the cameras into his church in the Easter before the election. Labor mistakenly wrote him off as a “bible basher” but the pictures of him in prayer made conservative believers feel safe and welcome in the Liberal fold. I saw first hand his affability and he used his personal positive opinion poll rating to good effect. I wondered if he would run a similar track to win again next time round but finished with a note of caution he was “hoping the vaccine rollout doesn’t suffer from too many more snafus”. It seemed those snafus arrived within days of my piece.

Nonetheless Morrison cannot be written off and I want to expand on the arguments of Sava and Murphy. Sava’s book is a blow by blow account of the dramatic circumstances of Morrison’s ascension to PM in August 2018. Using voluminous testimony of senior Liberal Party insiders Sava looks at the challenge to then PM Malcolm Turnbull in a spill precipitated by frontbencher Peter Dutton (though it was Turnbill who actually called the spill). Dutton lost the vote 48-35 but the 30+ votes was seen as a deathknell for Turnbull and in a second vote a few days later, Turnbull stood aside and his treasurer Scott Morrison defeated Dutton 45-40. In his final press conference as Prime Minister, Turnbull denounced Dutton and Tony Abbott as “wreckers” a point Sava does not deny but she also casts an eye on Morrison’s behaviour despite his plausible deniability he was not behind the spill.

Abbott had been a thorn in side in Turnbull’s side since Turnbull overthrew him in 2015. Abbott’s long term game was to undermine the government and then resume the leadership (of the opposition) when Labor, as seemed likely, would win the 2019 election. But Abbott was a spent force and backbencher with precious little party room support. The senior front-bencher Dutton was a different matter. He saw first hand how Turnbull was an electoral liability in Queensland and several MPs there feared they would lose their seats. As Turnbull was about to face his 40th straight Newspoll loss to Labour in September 2017 (though still competitive at 51-49), Dutton decided it was time to strike. Turnbull beat him to it bringing on a leadership vote in August forcing Dutton to scramble for numbers. The key to his challenge was his best friend finance minister Matthias Cormann, who initially stayed quiet though he did vote for Dutton in that first vote. Cormann’s hand grenade came later in the week.

The role of Morrison and his supporters, says Sava, was “clever, controversial and deadly”. As treasurer he stayed loyal to Turnbull but his numbers men were paying close attention and as the wind changed in the second half of the week they were ready to strike. On Wednesday in a press conference with Turnbull and Cormann, a reporter asked Morrison if he had leadership ambitions. Morrison put his arm around Turnbull and said “I’m ambitious for him”. Within hours Morrison and Cormann were changing their tune. Morrison’s fellow prayer group members Stuart Robert and Alex Hawke were his numbers men and knew Dutton was on the move. The trick was for enough of their supporters to vote for Dutton in the first ballot to leave Turnbull terminally wounded and then pounce in the second ballot once Turnbull was gone. Morrison claims he did all in his power to save Turnbull including warning him not to bring on the first vote and then urging him to send everyone home to avoid the second one. But his henchmen had done the courting and the counting and Morrison was ready once Cormann had come out publicly against Turnbull. With the writing on the wall Turnbull stepped aside and supported Morrison to ensure Dutton would not become PM.

Despite being the seventh PM in nine years, Morrison kept the reputation of a being a clean-skin. He was not helped by the woes of Coalition partners Nationals with leader Barnaby Joyce imploding as his marriage fell apart in public. As parliament resumed in February Morrison was expecting a torrid time but Labor erred in voting for the cross-bench Medevac bill. The fact the bill was morally correct was of little consequence in the murky swamp of Australia’s immigration debate and it allowed Morrison to play national strongman in parliament. He ran a highly disciplined and blokey campaign to defeat Labor in the election winning key seats in Queensland and Tasmania and holding the line in New South Wales, Victoria and WA. The electorate may not have known who Morrison but it decided it didn’t want to know what a government under Bill Shorten would look like.

Murphy’s Quarterly Essay takes the story forward 12 months as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold. Murphy frames the prime minister as a project manager. She said people close to him said he still maintains the mindset of a party director and problem fixer. He is a populist not an ideologue. As Treasurer he defined the two problems of Australian society as do you get it and are you on my side. “It is no longer about convincing Australians to be on our side, but to convince Australians we are on theirs.” Although Morrrison did not rise to the occasion during the bushfires in his first major crisis but his failure there informed his response to the pandemic. Murphy said Morrison reminded her of Julia Gillard in that they were both watchful politicians, vigilant, and with the ability to read a room.

Turnbull said Morrison showed no interest in policy and his tendencies are shown in a Nick Xenophon story at a time when the then-South Australian senator’s vote was often crucial. Xenophon bumped into Morrison in Canberra and suggested they meet for a coffee to discuss policy. Morrison said “what for?” and Xenophon replied “I just want to catch up and chat about issues.” “No mate,” Morrison replied, “I’m purely transactional.” Murphy said Morrison was not well liked in politics, something that came out in Sava’s book too, “He plays to win and people who play to win tend to accumulate enemies,” Murphy said. What, she asked, are Morrison’s abiding objectives in public life? What hill will he die on? After two and half years of his leadership we seem none the wiser.

Morrison still leads the preferred prime minister stakes but his numbers are falling and his problem with women is especially apparent. Michelle Grattan recently wrote that Morrison is inclined to underestimate tough women. He’s done this in the past, to his detriment, she said. In 2006, when he was managing director of Tourism Australia, Morrison was sacked after falling out with the board and federal Liberal tourism minister, Fran Bailey. His recent handling of issues involving Grace Tame and Christine Holgate have been poor and new Essential polling is finding women are turning off Morrison at a “giddying rate”.

Sava sees the problem as inherent in the party rather than a Morrison issue. The Liberals are desperately short of women in parliament, a problem that will remain as long as they resist quotas. There is plenty of bullying. Many good women including Julia Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer and Julia Banks have been forced out, though all before Morrison became PM. Murphy did not address the issue in her essay, though to be fair it really only exploded in the six months since it was written. Murphy did address the issue in an article this month where she references the Essential polling but also notes that Morrison’s support among men has not dropped off. She says Morrison believes he can plot a way through this crisis.
“The prime minister has very clear objectives every time he talks to voters, objectives that are generally well informed by research, and he doesn’t mind traversing a narrow pathway as long as there’s a victory at the end of it.” Expect plenty more “Scotty from Marketing” ploys like morning hi vis exercises with Twiggy Forrest to Working Class Man. Working class men may provide Morrison his narrow pathway to a second election win.

In search of Doomadgee’s outstations

Doomadgee housing Late 1950s

Author Mark Moran shares his experiences of Doomadgee in his excellent book Serious Whitefella Stuff (2016). Doomadgee is an Aboriginal shire and township in North West Queensland, about 100km from Burketown and 500km from Mount Isa. It began in the 1930s as a mission called Old Doomadgee further north at Bayley Point on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Old Doomadgee brought together the remnant population of Ganggalia, Waanyi, Garrwa and Yanyula people from the western Gulf region. Their lands had been overrun in the 1870s and from the 1910s they lived in camps and shanties outside white properties, where they worked for rations. In 1933 they were herded up by Christian Brethren missionaries into Old Doomadgee.

A shortage of fresh water at Old Doomadgee led the Queensland Government to believe that the site was unsuitable for population expansion. When a cyclone destroyed the mission in 1936, they decided to relocate the mission despite local objections. Around 50 children and 20 adults living at Old Doomadgee were moved 100km south to the current site of Doomadgee on the banks of the mostly dry Nicholson River, named by Ludwig Leichhardt after he passed though in his first expedition.

The site grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Queensland Government removed many Aboriginal families from pastoral stations including Westmoreland, Lawn Hills and Gregory Downs. The Christian Brethren were strict and conservative rulers with no time for Aboriginal culture. Doomadgee gained a reputation as one of the most authoritarian missions in Queensland. Women had to wear ankle-length dresses and younger women were locked up at night and forced to do domestic duties during the day. As in Palm Island, Children were separated from parents into same-sex dorms. They were not allowed to speak their language or practise their customs. The superintendent’s word was law. Punishments included confinement or for women, cutting off their hair.

The various tribes initially had little in common with some from Queensland and some from the Territory, and some from near the sea and some from inland. But they eventually bonded calling Doomadgee home. The men and women were sent out to work on pastoral stations. Moran says than in 1965, 274 people – half of Doomadgee’s population – were working on 74 pastoral properties across the region, with the Mission receiving what little money they made. But in 1968 when the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission decided Aboriginal workers were entitled to fair wages, the stations sacked their black workforce rather than give them equal pay and Doomadgee’s function as a regional labour pool came to an abrupt end.

The Christian Brethren handed control of Doomadgee back to Queensland in 1983 but premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen showed no interest in granting the town autonomy. It wasn’t until 1988, the year after Joh was replaced, that Doomadgee became a local government region given trusteeship over the Doomadgee reserve land held in Deed of Grant in Trust, known in Queensland as DOGITs. By then many townsfolk had established outstations including at Old Doomadgee after the road gang cut a 120km road though “using a combination of local knowledge, compass dead reckoning and radio reports from a ministry pilot overhead.” The outstation movement was a Whitlam-era response to the problem of centralised missions and the assimilation era. In Doomadgee and elsewhere a land claim became a pathway to land rights. Elder Tom O’Keefe established one of the town’s first outstations at Six Mile, on traditional land owned by the Waanyi People of which Tom’s mother was one.

When Mark Moran arrived in Doomadgee in 1991, all white people in town lived in one area separate from the rest of the community, a legacy of mission days. The outstation movement was gathering momentum and Moran as a council supervisor did what he could to support it. At the time around a quarter of the town’s 1000-strong population wanted to move out in search of the bush life as a way of strengthening their culture. The outstations were ad hoc affairs using family labour and whatever materials they could scrounge. When the federal government introduced Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP, or more pejoratively, work for the dole) unemployment benefits were converted into community development projects which spurred on more outstations in Doomadgee.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was formed a year earlier and provided useful funds and functions for Aboriginal communities. ATSIC provided 1000 cattle distributed to four outstations to manage and each station got a $10,000 construction grant. The cattle were never profitable – a helicopter muster was prohibitively expensive – but they enabled young people to learn pastoral skills and helped the dormant Doomadgee Rodeo to resume. Young Jason Ned, now the mayor of Doomadgee, won the bareback bull ride in the 1993 event. Doomadgee had desperately-needed money to spend on new sewerage, street works, the airstrip and water infrastructure. But ATSIC reined in its outstation funding after many splurged on huge car costs, with maintenance providing difficult in rough conditions. There was funding available for housing in town but Moran helped local families who wanted to build more permanent accommodation on their outstations. That was until the Council went broke and an administrator was appointed who sacked all contractors including Moran.

Undeterred Moran returned to Doomadgee a year later working for the Centre for Appropriate Technology to prepare a planning report for the outstation housing grant he had brokered. They built eight homes using steel frames, full perimeter verandahs, external ablution blocks, elevated rainwater tanks and ventilated pit latrines. ATSIC called a moratorium on outstations in 1996 after reports many were being abandoned or trashed. In Doomadgee some had done better than others with Merv Peter incorporating Gumhole Aboriginal Corporation opening an avenue to government funding. With the help of ATSIC Moran helped deliver an outstation plan and an outstation committee but it was never put to practise as funds dried up.

Outstations became a front in the ideological battle. In 2005 Howard demolished ATSIC without developing a proper replacement. Indigenous Affairs minister Amanda Vanstone called remote communities “cultural museums“. Before the 2007 NT Intervention crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers said outstations were “highly dangerous places for women and children because they are unable to escape any of the violence.” The free-market Centre for Independent Studies’ Helen Hughes called them a form of apartheid and a “socialist utopia”. Fellow right winger Gary Johns said Aboriginal people needed to live in towns to escape from humbugging though Moran argues the need to escape that was the impetus for the outstations in the first place. But he admits that while there was evidence of improved health outcomes of living on outstations, there were problems with providing an education in such a remote environment.

Anthropologist Diane Austin-Broos defended the outstations saying they eased the pressure on larger communities. Despite the lack of jobs and schooling, people could paint, care for their country and generally enjoy well-being. She also said they were less worried about their comparative disadvantage than outsiders. “Clothing (often second hand), shelter (often makeshift) and food (a mix of foraged and store bought)…might look second rate to the outsider but…this mattered less to remote Aboriginal people,” she said. Moran said people moved to Doomadgee outstations for many reasons: culture,history, subsistence, autonomy, wellbeing and safety but they also expected similar housing, infrastructure and services they got in town and that proved to be beyond the funding they had or could source from governments.

The Commonwealth government restricted funding in 2007. Outstations could still get money but only if they were running a business on site. CDEP jobs were harder to get and the Doomadgee CDEP corporation remained the only outstation resource agency in the area. With ATSIC gone there was competitive tendering for contracts and in 2009 they lost the contract to an external employment services company, Mount Isa Skills. Moran says the result was Doomadgee lost its last lifeline to the outstations.

Under a new Labor government, Doomadgee was named as one of 29 “remote hub settlements” where services would be concentrated on larger communities. Each hub would have a Local Implementation plan and Doomadgee’s LIP made no mention of the outstations. Most outstation residents were forced back into the quarter-acre social housing blocks in town. When Moran returned again in 2014 Merv Peter’s Gumhole was the only permanently occupied outstation left though Merv had sadly died after a long illness. Rodeo champion turned mayor, Jason Ned, founded another at Spoon Creek as money flowed into the town via nearby Century Mine. Moran met Tom O’Keefe, then in his eighties, who was still at Six Mile which he described as his life achievement. “Built my outstation and now there are four mango trees,” O’Keefe told Moran.

Black ’47 and beyond: the Irish famine in history, economy and memory

The famine of the 1840s is the pivotal moment of Irish history. Before the famine eight million people lived on the island of Ireland, but five years later less than six million remained. It was one of the more devastating and long-lived famines anywhere on the planet. I’ve covered British prime minister Robert Peel’s initial response to the famine which was well-meaning but ran up against British vested interests. Now I turn to the work of Irish economic historian Cormac O’Grada and his Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (1999). It looks at historical and economic data from the famine era but also examines folklore to get a more impressionistic view of events. O’Grada also applies comparative studies looking at other similar major famines such as in Finland (1866-68), Soviet Union (1918-22), Ukraine (1932-33), Bengal (1943-44) and Biafra (1968-70) while he acknowledges that Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-62 in China was “in a macabre league of its own”.

The Irish potato harvest failed in 1845 due to a blight called phytophthora infestans. Poor weather in 1846 worsened the blight and contributed to the failure of public works as a famine response. O’Grada rejects suggestions of a British “genocide”. He says policy failures were a result of a dogmatic political economy of “doctrinaire neglect” not murderous intent. Infectious diseases were the main cause of death not starvation – a reason why the death toll was high in crowded Dublin slums far from blighted potato fields. The famine mostly killed the poor while the relatively better-off had the safety valve of emigration.

Ireland’s economy in the 1840s was overly dependent on the potato with 0.8 million hectares under cultivation before the famine, a figure halved by the 1850s. The potato was highly prized as a garden crop and initially as a supplementary and seasonal food. Ireland’s acidic soil and damp climate was advantageous for cultivation. It was among the first countries to popularise the crop and spread its love to other parts of Europe. The blight also affected Scotland, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But in the Scottish highlands the poor supplemented potatoes with oatmeal and fish and nowhere was the impact as severe as Ireland. Irish consumption was five kilos a day for adults in the bottom third of the population, compared to 800 grams in Holland. This was partially due to British corn laws making them cheaper than in Europe, but it was also a function of Irish poverty.

Almost two-thirds of Irish agricultural labourers had no land and the top quarter of farms held 60pc of the land, mostly better land. Many farmers rented marginal land many in joint tenancies, a continual source of friction. They were badly housed, illiterate, underemployed and too poor to move away. Emigration was an option for the less impoverished and population growth had slowed in the decade before the famine with rising labour demand in industrial Britain and America. Most of the very poor lived in the south and west and there was disproportionate famine impact west of a line from Waterford in the south-east to Ballyshannon in the north-west. Eastern counties were wealthier and had easier access to seafood and relief and employment in port towns.

Weather was a crucial factor. The 1845 harvest was only a quarter down on previous years but poor weather in 1846 caused the blight to inflict more damage than anywhere else in Europe. It delayed planting and stunted growth while heavy rain in the summer months of July and August caused fungi spores to wash into the bulbs and destroy the crop. Crop failures had happened before in 1822, 1831 and 1836 but never two years in a row. Public works was the government government response to prior failures but Ireland’s cold winter weather in 1846-47 and 1847-48 made that a miserable solution to workers with inadequate clothing, “rags hardly covering for decency” as one Wicklow observer noted. Reports of the initial deaths in late 1846 attracted shock and attention but as the bodies piled up in early 1847 they lost newsworthiness. Though yields recovered in 1847 the potato failed again in 1848 and conditions in the west in 1849 matched the worst of two years earlier. Bodies were left unburied and crime was rampant with many preferring transportation to the disease-ridden workhouses. Mortality remained high in some workhouses as late as 1851, five years into the crisis, – far longer than any other famine in world history.

This long drawn-out affair caused famine fatigue and contributed to negative caricatures of Irish irresponsibility and dishonesty in the British press, not helped by hundreds of thousands of unhealthy Irish arriving in Britain from 1847. The British felt Ireland was not taking enough responsibility for its own problems. In 1849 prime minister Lord John Russell refused a grant to Ireland of £100,000 saying the problem was exaggerated. The Times patronisingly admonished Ireland saying it needed moral stimulus to understand the difference “between giving alms in the presence of our children and inducing them to contribute out of their own pocket money”.

Authorities faced massive challenges in determining what relief to apply and where. Local relief committees were tasked to raise funds, submit public works proposals, advise on the most deserving and distribute food to the needy. Unpaid committees, usually clergy, traders, landlords and agents, had local knowledge but were overburdened. The government also pushed cash-for-work schemes which employed up to 140,000 people. But by 1847 these schemes were replaced by soup kitchens and poor law unions using prison-like workhouses. The 130 workhouses spread across the island existed pre-famine for poor relief, but were stigmatised as a last resort due to prison-like uniforms, inadequate food, forced labour and confinement. As famine admissions rose they were overrun by typhus. By March 1947 the workhouses were full housing 700,000 people with 24,000 dying each week. A stingy British exchequer demanded too much of chronically underfunded local committees. Still, the small weekly wage was attractive for penniless families and they kept many people alive through the dark years.

Getting precise figures how many died is difficult due to no civil registration of birth and deaths. Protestant churches recorded burials and in places like Bandon, Co Cork records show a large increase in mortality in the famine years, though it was less prevalent in Dublin. The main estimates of aggregate death come from comparisons of the censuses of 1841 and 1851 and assumption on population growth to 1846. There is also the detailed 1851 mortality data compiled by Dublin surgeon and medical census commissioner William Wilde, though there was considerable under-reporting. His data shows who died of dysentery, diarrhoea, dropsy, fever and starvation from 1846-51 with figures of 407,083 deaths of which 54.9pc were men. Twice as many died in Munster and Connacht than Ulster and Leinster. The toll was highest still in the four poor western counties Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. No county and no constituency was immune. In 1847 Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery reported a large spike in burials while the Waterford Mirror reported “fever and pestilence have been doing their worst here among the upper classes while famine and destitution are quickly thinning the numbers of the poor.”

Over one million people left Ireland for good between 1845 and 1850. Some would have left anyway, but most were responding to the famine. Harsh conditions aboard and the long crossing contribute to the legend of the “coffin ships” but O’Grada says this was a myth and most made it safely across the ocean. Mortality on the unregulated and cheaper Canadian route was higher than the American route, as this was the only option for poorer emigrants. The average mortality for the New York route of 2pc was no worse than pre-famine times. Indeed the record of German ships in 1847 was worse than British ones. Irish emigrants were not the very poorest and usually had modest means such as land, animals, savings or a dowry and there were also assisted passages from landlords anxious to lose unreliable tenants.. Though America was an improvement on Ireland, they remained on the lowest rung of American society long after they got there. In New York they did the city’s “rude and heavy work” and most took the advice to move farther inland. The Irish-born population of Britain also doubled to almost a million, mostly in the four port cities of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. Long distance emigration continued for the next 100 years usually following in the path of already departed relatives.

Of those left behind, export manufacturers in the cities were least affected as they could still sell overseas. Survivors were also better off in a tighter labour market and traders also benefitted from rising demand in the 1850s. Landlords freed of non-viable tenants were buoyed by rising meat and dairy prices and saw rents improve and tax bills decline. Ireland’s economy recovered again before flattening out in the 1920s and beyond – the price paid for political sovereignty and economic illiteracy of 20th century conditions rather than post famine effect.

The famine remained an important element in Irish memory and provide rich data sets of details and anecdotes of vivid lived experience. “If I told you where people were buried, you would not go out at night,” one 85-year-old west Cork farmer told a collector. In Sligo an account said if someone died in the house, they were left there unless someone from the house could carry them to the graveyard and do the burial. Another story tells of someone holding up a potato and saying to it “well, thank God it was not you I buried today.” Tales like these help O’Grada’s argument scale and depth of the Great Famine was unique in European experience. He said its enduring impact was reflected in a continuing desire “to remember things we never knew”. Whether that remains true of wealthy 21st century Ireland is debatable. As Jerry Mulvihill wrote in the Irish Times this week, there has been a lack of visualisation of the Great Hunger. “The commissioning of art, the growing list of literature, the creation of monuments and memorials relating to the Great Hunger are, I feel, Ireland reclaiming and owning its past and very much conducive to healing,” Mulvihill said.

Another visit to Norfolk Island

With my partner working on Norfolk Island, the South Pacific paradise has become my de facto holiday home and I’ve made four visits in the past 18 months despite the pandemic. This time last year the island was one of the first Australian jurisdictions to close its borders, an action that seemed shocking at the time, but one which was quickly copied and made mainstream by the bigger states. The action worked and the island has been COVID-free bar one case which was quickly isolated. The only effect today is that the usual air carrier Air New Zealand cannot deploy its planes from Sydney and Brisbane due to travel restrictions and Qantas are filling the breach at least until financial year end.

The route is providing important revenue for Qantas at a time when international routes are closed and the planes are full of tourists taking one of the few opportunities to get “overseas” at the moment. The bustling streets and buses on the island are good for local business but it is causing stress on food supplies. With no supply ship coming to the island in the last few months supermarket shelves in Burnt Pine township are bare, there was rationing of essentials, and cafes are only serving small cups of coffee amid dwindling milk supplies.

Island administrator Eric Hutchinson said Norfolk had a shortage of flour, cooking oil, sugar and rice. Locally produced food such as fish, beef and vegetables are ensuring there is no starvation despite the inconvenience and a ship was due in the weekend as I write these words. Longer term Hutchinson told media there was a plan to build a temporary landing stage so trucks could drive off ships. “That will change the landscape,” he said.

There was a barge landing point at beautiful Ball Bay (above) on the east side of the island. That jetty was a temporary structure used by contractor Boral to unload equipment to redo the airport runway last year and was also used to ship in other supplies from the mainland while it existed. But part of the contract with Boral was for them to remove the jetty on completion of the work. In any case it was occasionally unsafe with at least one barge escaping from its moorings and crashing ashore in the dangerous surf.

Big surf is a fact of life on Norfolk Island and rough weather is the norm (which could delay the unloading of the current ship). When we tried to hitch a boatride over to Phillip Island (above, rear) on a previous trip it took us nearly two weeks in the height of summer to get seas calm enough to do the treacherous 7km trip, Even the nearer Nepean Island just 2km offshore is out of bounds due to the surf beyond Kingston harbour.

Luckily Emily Bay remains a calm haven whatever the weather. Situated west of Kingston harbour, the bay is protected from the swell by a coral reef and offers safe year-round swimming, though you need to be careful of the currents. As the only safe beach on the island, it is a popular spot but is big enough never to to seem crowded and is always an oasis of calm whatever the conditions on the ocean.

Every morning and afternoon I went out to snorkel in the reef which was usually crystal clear apart from at very high tide in a big swell. I loved the vibrant fishlife with my favourite being the bright blue wrasse, one of the larger fish on the reef. All the time I was there there was a running joke that I had not seen any of the island’s many eels. A friend of my partner rubbed it in as she saw eels on numerous occasions. Finally my partner came to the rescue and pointed out this stout moray eel above poking out from a isolated spot of coral. And she took the photo too.

The rockpools were full of life at low tide including this lovely large crab. It seems the ecosystem in the Norfolk Island coral is in good health. Academic John Turnbull has just returned from a research trip to the island and found healthy corals on many survey sites. While large fish like shark were rare, he recorded blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish. “Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk,” Turnbull said.

Elsewhere there are more reminders of Norfolk’s stunning landscape. East of Duncombe Bay are a group of small islets which include Cathedral Rock. The basalt that makes up Cathedral Rock cooled into columns. A gaping hole through the bottom of Cathedral Rock allows waves pass straight through the resulting archway. Duncombe Bay is where Captain James Cook landed in 1774, the first European to set foot on Norfolk Island which he named “in honor of the noble family of Howards”. Cook found the island uninhabited but with plenty of fresh water, spruce pines, fish and “babbage palms”. Cook’s discovery made Norfolk a useful adjunct to the infant colony of New South Wales in 1788.

Philip Gidley King and his small band landed at Kingston in March 1788 (as did the Pitcairn Islanders 68 years later). The difficulties of getting in and out of Kingston were soon exposed with the sinking of the Sirius off Slaughter Bay in 1790. The first penal colony lasted until 1814 and was completely destroyed when it was vacated so it would be of no use to enemy nations. The second settlement began in the 1820s as the jails of Sydney overflowed and the colonists saw the need for a new harsher punishment centre.

Possibly the oldest surviving building from the second settlement is the Crankmill. It was built in 1827 as a store. Later uses included grain storage, milling, a hospital and a barracks. Later still Pitcairners used it as a boat shed. The British installed powered cranks in 1837. Prisoners operated them to turn a pair of mill stones that ground corn and wheat. Intended as a punishment, it was constantly sabotaged but was mostly replaced by a windmill in 1840. Yet it continued as a punishment until the end of the second settlement in 1855, the only one of its kind in Australia. Fire gutted the building in the late 1800s and the Norfolk Island Whaling Company housed boats there in the 1900s, finally falling into ruin mid 20th century.

Another early building is government house. It has been the official resident of island governors since 1829. Amid the succession of early brutal governors was one exception Alexander Maconochie. Maconochie studied the penal system in Tasmania and wrote a book in 1839 called Thoughts on Convict Management and Other Subjected Connected with the Australian Penal Colonies. Each prisoner would earn marks of commendation through works and conduct and would be freed once they reached a set total. He avoided the use of leg irons, neck chains, “spreadeagling”, and the gag while the lash would be used as a last resort. A new Whig administration was anxious to see how his polices would work on brutalised Norfolk and he became commandant in 1840. Governor George Gipps would not allow his system to be used on repeat offenders, but Maconochie defied him, which led to the system’s downfall when word got back to Sydney. Although Maconochie achieved good results, the Colonial Office decided he was too lenient and the island returned to its state of terror in 1843.

The Pitcairn Islanders were quick to claim the island in 1856 after it was abandoned a second time. They were descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty The passage of time and the arrival of religion had given them the veneer of respectability with the mutiny offenders long dead. By 1856 the islanders were under the sway of George Hunn Nobbs. Nobbs was not related to the mutineers. He arrived on Pitcairn in 1828 and used his education to become its effective leader. Nobbs was instrumental in convincing islanders to move to Norfolk in 1856. The newcomers more or less ignored the previous British settlement, though they are all buried together in the beautiful graveyard at Cemetery Bay.

The sense of grievance Pitcairners still have is abundantly clear across the island. In Burnt Pine there is a prominent display of painted green hands called Hands Up for Democracy to show the “concern and distress” Pitcairners have felt since they lost self-government in 2015. The People for Democracy Movement along with the the Council of Elders and the Chamber of Commerce have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanting the restoration of good governance and democracy. The say the removal of the island’s autonomy in 2015 was ill-considered and poorly planned. Council of Elders President David Buffett said the island no longer has a say in the provision of key government services, such as education, policing and health. “They have been farmed out, for example, to New South Wales and there is now some discussion being held with the Queensland government to farm some out in the Queensland area,” Buffett said. “But there is no participation by Norfolk Island people in that process, and that is obviously a lack of democracy and in the lack of democracy it means a lessening of our cultural impact in terms of those factors.”

As I left for home and looked out over the world heritage site of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, I reflected on another eventful trip. For such a small island, it has an outsized history and has profoundly affected all who travel here. Visiting the island in the 1930s AB “Banjo” Paterson noted island settlers “saw for the first time tropic abundance, so much so that some of them were inclined to stop there and not go on.” He recognised its qualities of paradise. “Why should they kill themselves working? Here was fifty inches of rain a year and every kind of fruit and vegetable,” Paterson wrote. But as author Robert Macklin found 80 years later it is a dark paradise. Food stress is a real problem, when tourists arrive but the supply ship doesn’t. Meanwhile unresolved tensions between Pitcairners and non-Pitcairners still dominate Norfolk Island’s political landscape. Nothing in its future is certain, though I know one thing for sure. I’ll be back again.