A mission to Cherbourg

The Ration Shed, Cherbourg
The Ration Shed, Cherbourg

All Brisbane roads seemed to lead to Southbank yesterday. Most people were headed towards Grey Street where a royal frenzy was taking place over some British tourists. My destination was nearby but more sedate, the reading room of the State Library where I looked out over the Brisbane River, dazzling in the April sunshine. I was there to take notes from a book, Thom Blake’s A Dumping Ground: A History of the Cherbourg settlement. The book covers the first 40 or so years of the settlement and the small town in the South Burnett has interested me greatly in 2014. I’ve been there twice this year and will be back a third time next Sunday for a “reconciliation fun run” which in my case may be practical reconciliation or impractical given my recent poor exercise regime.

Reconciliation is an odd theme for a fun run, but Cherbourg is not a run of the mill town. It is Queensland’s oldest surviving Aboriginal reserve, and is still home to over 1000 mostly Indigenous Australians. It has its own Aboriginal shire, alcohol restrictions and is not without the problems that plague many Indigenous towns like high unemployment, crime and bored kids (all inter-related). There is only one road in and out of Cherbourg, a relic of a time not long gone when Aboriginal lives were managed completely by white officialdom. Cherbourg has a dark past but has survived as a strong outpost of Indigenous culture. It has a strong sense of dignity, most notable when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004. There are great people there like Aunty Sandra Morgan who turned the dilapidated old ration shed into Australia’s finest Indigenous museum. I was engrossed by the ration shed when I went there in February and I promised them I would be back for the fun run. It speaks to a community with a future as well as a past.

It is a long and often difficult past, stretching back into the 19th century. It starts in 1895 with Archibald Meston, a former politician, a journalist, a businessman and a self-proclaimed expert in indigenous affairs. The frontier wars were mostly over in Queensland by then but the question was what to do with landless Aboriginals that survived the slaughter. Meston claimed he wanted “save that unhappy race” and his solution was to create two new reserves, one in the south of Queensland, the other in the north. The watchwords would be control and discipline, and it would involve complete isolation from the white population. Queensland had tried reserves but failed and authorities were not keen to try again. They asked Meston to examine the work of the missions and report back.

In 1897 Queensland enacted a law with profound consequences for Indigenous people. The Aboriginal Protection and Restrictions on the Sale of Opium Act, became so emblematic of the state, it was simply known as the Queensland Act. “Protection” sounded like a good thing but section 9 of the Act gave it menace with the Home Affairs minister authorised to “remove” Aborigines to reserves in the district. Once these reserves were established, the Minister would do the removing with Meston looking over his shoulder, believing stern measures were necessary for the “effective protection” of Aborigines. The first reserve was at Fraser Island, with 51 Indigenes removed from Maryborough. The island proved an administrative nightmare, and after three years it was handed over to the Anglican Board of Mission.

Cherbourg (originally Barambah) was first mooted in 1899 by Salvation Army missionary William Thompson. Thompson lived in Nanango, in the growing South Burnett region. The first two reserves he proposed were blocked by settlers who didn’t want Aboriginal neighbours and the railway board who needed the land for the South Burnett line. Thompson found a 2800ha block at Barambah Station, and the reserve was gazetted in 1901. He persuaded local Wakka Wakkas to settle there and the government gave 60 more when they closed down Durundur camp, after complaints from Woodford residents. Thompson was more interested in saving souls than improving primitive conditions and there were no provisions and just tents for houses. In September 1904 Thompson was incapacitated after a horse-riding accident and he handed control to the government. The 100th anniversary celebrated this date not Thompson’s start in 1901.

The government hired former Durundur superintendent, Albert Tronson, to be new superintendent at Barambah. Tronson did not have Thompson’s religious scruples and was determined to make the new reserve work. Drawing on lessons from Durundur, Tronson made Barambah economically self-sufficient. Despite over 800 hectares of arable land, Tronson felt agriculture wouldn’t work but saw an opportunity in the explosion of new white settlers to the region.

Tronson put his workforce at their service and the South Burnett grew wealthy with cheap black labour. Demand for Barambah workers exceeded supply. Many whites did not like the large concentration of native Australians and the Kingaroy paper denounced the government for sending “notorious and scoundrelly aboriginals” to the region. But the government was delighted by its success and by 1910, Barambah was mostly self-supporting with a population which surged from 300 to 1000. As long as they were working, Tronson’s laissez faire approach meant there was little unrest and a lot of freedom of movement.

That changed with the appointment of a new Chief Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley. Bleakley believed in isolating blacks from whites and promoted removal to the reserves. People from all parts of Queensland, and some from Cummeragunja in southern NSW ended up in a pot-pourri of nations at Barambah. Some were removed for ridiculous reasons like the two Coen women ‘dangerously affected by the moon’, while Taroom residents asked for the removal of half-caste Carbo who went frequently through the town “mixing with members of our little community.” Refusal to work for whites was a common reason for removal. Laziness was not tolerated and Cherbourg, and later Palm Island and Woorabinda were where Aboriginal criminals finished their sentences. Bleakley made sure the primary purpose was to reform, subjugate and dominate inmates.

Bleakley’s mission was not entrepreneurial so he did not care about Tronson’s system of outside work assignments. Bleakley preferred to keep Aborigines on the settlement but because they were indispensable to the South Burnett economy, many continued as semi-slave labourers. Bleakley’s purpose was to shake all remnants of Aboriginal culture out of them, so he set up children’s dorms away from parents and their native ways. The lack of learning had the opposite effect. Children filled the gaps with lessons in their own culture, handed down in secret. School was meant to instill the virtues of cleanliness, discipline and order. There were weekly inspections where any trace of dirt was punished. It wasn’t clean enough to keep away Spanish flu in 1919 and there were 143 deaths in 1000 people – seven times the Australian average.

The death rate remained high in the 1920s due to non-existent sewerage and poor diet. In 1918, authorities paid for a reticulation system by withholding Aboriginal salaries, but for 20 years it only covered the hospital. The food was atrocious and the superintendent admitted buying lumpy meat unfit for whites but hinted blacks should not turn their noses up at it. Doctors visiting the settlement condemned the appalling diet but their protests fell on deaf ears. From 1901 to 1940, people in Barambah were four times more likely to die than the average Australian.

Renamed Cherbourg in 1931, it suffered badly in the Depression, with demand for labour falling away. Workers had most of their wages confiscated. One-fifth went to administration and in 1930 there was an additional 5% levy for improvements to the reserve. The stolen wages were paid into trust accounts managed by whites who used the funds to do further maintenance or line their own pockets.

The blacks were left with pocket money and were encouraged to barter for services. They wouldn’t dare ask about wages, which was ‘cheeky’ behaviour leading to jail, or worse still, removal to another settlement. Cherbourg blacks lived in constant fear of being sent to Palm Island or Woorabinda, and similar threats existed at the other two settlements.

All mundane tasks on the settlements were done by inmates minimising the cost to the government. The aim was to strip inmates of respect and dignity, and create a cheap and compliant labour force. Freedom of movement was restricted, unless they had the ‘dog tag’ which allowed some rights but required papers, which could be inspected and removed at any time. No-one could own property. World War II brought renewed optimism but it was crushed again in the assimilation of the 1950s. Queensland had the strongest reserve system in Australia but it was also the slowest state to react to decolonisation. The Queensland Act was abandoned in 1965 but restrictions on freedom of movement were not lifted in Cherbourg until 1972.

By then the local MP, a strange, awkward New Zealand-born Danish Lutheran named Joh Bjelke-Petersen had become accidental premier of Queensland. Joh would later claim Queensland’s Aborigines lived “on the clover” and would become as rich as the sheiks of Arabia. His constituents in Cherbourg have yet to see the oil. According to Sandra Morgan, they would see Joh once every three years, looking for the settlement vote. He also used Cherbourg workers on his farm at Bethany who were paid, said Morgan with a wry smile, “peanuts”.

Today Cherbourg is run by its own shire council. Like many Aboriginal councils it has been plagued with problems and has a small talent pool. Sandra Morgan should be on that council as a strong woman and a terrific role model for the region. Morgan was born and raised on Cherbourg and has strong links to the Bwgcolman culture of Palm Island through her husband. Her vision led to workers rescuing the old ration shed and moving it up the hill to renovate it as a museum. “We used to get food here,” Sandra told me, “now it’s food for thought.” The ration shed museum stands as in proud testament to Aboriginal culture, something Europeans tried to kill at Cherbourg and failed. I’m looking forward to the pain of a seven kilometre run there next Sunday.

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