A black history of Queensland

I’ve finished Raymond Evans’ thorough account of “A History of Queensland” and one thing comes out from the book. Queensland’s history is one of dispossession and discrimination against its Indigenous inhabitants.
Ever since whites arrived in Queensland in the 1820s, blacks have been massacred, dispossessed, forcibly removed, interned, had families split and had wages confiscated. In the 19th century they were vermin to be hunted down and in the 20th century they suffered hypocritical paternalism, with shades of earlier attitudes still evident. As late as 1970 a north Queensland grazier told ABC that Aborigines were “a sort of link between the upper and lower forms of the animal kingdom” which made them “dangerous to put…into society”.

Whites made every effort to put Aboriginals out of a society they had lived in for 60,000 years. Prior to settler occupation in 1820 there were 262,000 Indigenous people in Queensland. A century later, extermination and disease had reduced that number to 15,700. The “Queenslander” newspaper told its readers in 1884, “if a blackfellow is seen, he is brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”.
Aboriginal lives had little value to colonial society, but much stock was placed on “racial purity”. Officials spoke of sexual “contamination” that might lead to a “half-caste menace”. Aboriginal survivors would later become government property. A massive gulag system of reserves, missions and police bureaucracy controlled every aspect of Aboriginal lives. The system ran cheaply on intercepted wages of black workers quarantined on semi-penitential reserves with poor education and health facilities.
Older Aboriginals recall how Palm Island, Barambah (Cherbourg) and Woorabinda were concentration camps which managed every area of life. Governments of every stripe blatantly stole from Aboriginals. Evans said William Forgan Smith 1930s Labor Government “perfected the art of robbery with a fountain pen” and stole £72,000 ($3.5m in today’s money) from Aboriginal trust accounts as a depression-era emergency measure.
The attitude of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government of 1968-1987 veered between neglect, paternalism and outright hostility. Bjelke-Petersen insisted Queensland Aboriginal people lived “on clover” and were “as wealthy as Arab oil sheiks”. But statistics did not support him. In 1980 Indigenous people were 89 times more likely to die of an infectious disease than other Queenslanders. Half the Aboriginal population were unemployed. Half of all Aboriginal homes had no sewers, a quarter had no electricity and a fifth had no water. In 1987, Aboriginal men died 27 years younger than other men and Aboriginal women died 34 years earlier than other women. Aboriginals were four times more likely to be involved in violence or accidents and seven times more likely to be imprisoned. By 1974 trachoma of the eye was eradicated across the western world. But it was still rampant in four out of every five of Queensland’s Aboriginal children. When Fred Hollows’ team travelled around the communities to address the problem, Bjelke-Petersen expelled them because the team contained two “well-known radicals” who had “contrived an upsurge in voter registrations.”

A federal health team described the high rates of childhood malnutrition, gastro-enteritis and threadworm as resembling conditions in Biafra. Queensland Health officials laid the blame on parental neglect. Bjelke-Petersen dismissed similar criticisms from the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International as a “sinister, subversive arm of Communist propaganda”.

In 1989, the Nationals were turfed out and the Labor Goss Government came to power on a wave of new promises. But their Lands Rights Act 1991 attracted the ire of the Land Councils who said it deprived 95 percent of indigenous Queenslanders from any claims on the land. Black protests were met with a vigorous police reaction and matters did not improve after talented dancer and activist Daniel Yock died in custody in 1993.

Well meaning efforts by the Beattie-Bligh Governments have done little to improve Aboriginal health. The adult black death rate remains 10 times greater than non-Indigenous rates, incarceration rates are 15 times higher and life expectancy is 20 years below the national average. In 2004, the Fred Hollows Foundation compared Queensland Aboriginal health unfavourably with Sudan, Sierra Leone and Nepal.

Police issues remain a thorn. The Government-sanctioned police response to the 2004 Palm Island riot following the Mulrunji death was particularly brutal. Eighty Tactical Response Group commandos conducted dawn raids armed with riot shields, balaclavas, face-masked helmets and automatic weapons. They declared war on local residents while Beattie described Palm Islanders as “lazy, disruptive and dysfunctional.”

As Evans methodically shows, Governments from William Bligh’s day to Anna Bligh’s are those responsible for the real laziness, disruption and dysfunction of Aboriginal lives.


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