Ten year anniversary of Mulrunji’s death on Palm Island: a history of an Australian gulag

Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936
Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936

It’s 10 years since one of the most shameful episodes in modern Queensland history in a site that has long seen the worst excesses of institutional racism in Australia. The place is Palm Island in beautiful Halifax Bay. The event is the aftermath of the senseless death of Indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee, known as Mulrunji. Mulrunji’s death is an inevitable consequence of the failure to learn the terrible history of Palm Island, which became an Australian gulag in 1918.

In 2004, Mulrunji was a 36-year-old Murri man, a loving husband, a father and a carer for a disabled nephew. He worked part-time for the local council and was a popular man on the island. On Friday, November 19,  Mulrunji was walking on Bay St around 10am when he observed an incident. Palm Island’s most senior policeman, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and Indigenous Police Liaison Office Lloyd Bengaroo were arresting Aboriginal man Roy Bramwell. Bramwell was intoxicated and swearing. As Mulrunji passed, he chided Bengaroo for locking up his own people. Bengaroo told Mulrunji to keep walking. But Mulrunji instead taunted Bengaroo, and started singing “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

What happened in the following 20 minutes is disputed. Hurley claims Mulrunji swore at him and the sergeant made an arrest, pushing him into the police van with force. Hurley was 33, a tall man weighing 115kgs. Posted to Palms in 2002, he was the ultimate figure of power and authority on the island. He had a reputation from a posting in Burketown as a womaniser, a heavy drinker and being good with his fists. After arresting Mulrunji and Bramwell, Hurley drove the van back to the station, arriving around 10.20am. As he unloaded the van, Mulrunji punched Hurley in the jaw and Hurley responded with a dig to the ribs. Hurley claimed Mulrunji fell over the step. According to Bramwell’s evidence, Hurley shouted “Do you want more, Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more? Have you had enough?” Bengaroo stayed quiet fearing retribution if he spoke out.

Mulrunji was out cold on the pavement but Hurley would not believe it. He and another white officer thought he was ‘foxing’ and dragged him by his hands to the cells. He lay there barely conscious with four fractured ribs, and a ruptured portal vein and liver. A doctor would later say his liver was ‘cleaved in two’. He was bleeding to death and feebly calling for help which never arrived. Instead, at 10.26am, Hurley updated the books to formally charge Mulrunji with public nuisance.

Around 11am Hurley returned to the cell and kicked Mulrunji on the shoulder. There was no response. After a couple of minutes they called for a paramedic who arrived 15 minutes later. The paramedic pronounced Mulrunji dead. Bengaroo said they should notify the family but Hurley told him to shut up. Mulrunji’s wife and sister came to the station with food but were told to go away. Other relatives arrived and were alarmed by the departing paramedic. Hurley told them Mulrunji was sleeping before ordering them to leave.

It wasn’t until 3pm – four hours later – a Townsville policeman told the family their father was dead. The Palms coppers gave Bramwell $50 and told him to beat it and stay quiet. Normal investigative routines following a death in custody were not followed and the State Homicide Investigation Group did not get involved. Instead, two friends of Hurley from Townsville CIB “investigated”. The pair chatted comfortably with Hurley, the death site was not secured and their report to the coroner three days later made no reference to Hurley’s assault on Mulrunji. The word got out around town Hurley had killed Mulrunji but had not been charged. Community anger was at boiling point and Mulrunji’s death was the last straw. Some 200 people marched to the station demanding answers.

The autopsy report was released after a week. It said there was no evidence of force and Mulrunji died of an “intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein” from an accidental fall on a hard surface. Again 200 people marched in protest knowing full well it was no accident. They said it was murder and they set fire to the courthouse and police station.

But instead of offering support to the bereaved family, the state brought in 18 additional police. Labor Premier Peter Beattie invoked the Joh-era 1986 Public Safety Preservation Act as white teachers, nurses, public servants and contractors fled the island. Police negotiated with former councillor Lex Wotton but eventually used helicopters and planes to re-secure the island. Wotton’s home was raided at 4.30am and he was Tasered and arrested along with many others. Police broke down doors in 50 homes in dawn raids. Older people remembered 1957, the last time Palm Island erupted in race riots.

The 2004 riots brought Palms to national attention in a way Mulrunji’s death had not. The Beattie government ran for cover, exaggerating the threat (police confiscated just one gun) and talked tough about ending support to islanders. They also banned Aboriginal Legal Aid from the island, refused to open schools, run ferries or let bread or milk in for three days. Police made 43 arrests while “vehemently opposing” bail. Most of the 43 spent that Christmas in jail awaiting charges. Palms council wrote to Brisbane saying their people were “under siege” and their children were “terrorised”. They requested police to stay away from Mulrunji’s funeral. It was attended by 3000 people – all of them black.

In February 2005 a coronial inquiry finally brought some context to the death. It exposed Palms as an Australian Alcatraz with a chronic housing shortage and rampant unemployment. On average people died aged 50. The original custodians were the Bwgcolman people but in 1918 white Australians established Palms as an off-shore prison for recalcitrant survivors of the Kalkadoon wars of north-west Queensland. Over time, it became the ultimate punishment centre for Queensland’s Indigenous people in a policy of containment and control. Authorities rounded up all blacks considered troublemakers along the northern coast and packed them off to Palms. But by being “a penitentiary for troublesome cases” it brought together a group of outstanding leaders who forged a new Indigenous identity from various tribes.

Their lives were managed by the 1897 Queensland Act which restricted movement, kept them segregatedand treated them like children. Police held control over black wages (an amount worth over half a billion dollars in today’s money was never paid) and the island’s first overseer Robert Curry was prosecutor, clerk of court and judge. Two smaller islands Curacao and Eclipse were used as further punishment places where bread and water were the only rations. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. His medical officer Pattison argued against some of his decisions and Curry’s mind, addled by novocaine and depression following the death of his wife, snapped on February 3, 1930. In the early hours of the morning, Curry ran amok with a gun in his hand, first shooting and injuring Pattison and smashing Pattison’s wife with the butt of his rifle. Both later recovered.

He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter who were inside. He destroyed one of two boats before sailing in the other to Fantome Island, where he sat on the beach, drinking. His assistant gave guns to some of the Murri residents and ordered them to shoot Curry if he returned. When Curry did come back, one of the Aboriginal men shot him dead. The man who pulled the trigger, Peter Prior was charged with murder as was Curry’s deputy for supplying the weapon. The judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.

Conditions improved on Palms in the 1930s under Anglican chaplain Ernest Gribble. Gribble and his father John had long experience with Aboriginal people. Ernest urged assimilation with the white population. During the Second World War the island housed black American GIs as part of Prime Minister Curtin’s request to keep black soldiers away from white Australian women. The black Americans gave the Palms people a brief new sense of their own identity. But they were brutally quashed again by the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.

Ex-army man Bartlam insisted on rigid apartheid and Murris were punished if they did not salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People faced seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.

Bartlam’s ridiculous rules led an all-out strike in 1957 with eerie foreshadowing of the 2004 riots. The trouble began when a native man charged with threatening Bartlam, broke away and was joined by demonstrators. They attacked police and abused settlement officers. Bartlam underestimated how much he had alienated the community and there was sudden unspoken urgency for change. Bartlam hid in his office but later attempted to arrest eight men planning the strike. A fight erupted and men refused go to jail and returned home. Murris controlled every corner and the native police joined the strike. They were promptly sacked. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”

They threw bad meat at Bartlam’s house and marched up the whites-only Mango Avenue. RAAF planes rushed 20 police to the island, greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but the strike had some success. There was immediate improvements in diet and conditions. Yet as late as 1969 blacks were still banned from Mango Avenue and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism.

But the tide was turning. Bjelke-Petersen overturned the hated Queensland Act under threat from Whitlam’s anti-racism legislation. The community was promised a system for granting Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGIT), Joh’s way of avoiding native title. The DOGIT was finally issued in 1985 but the island still faced inadequate housing, sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. Into the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah” but this Fallujah never made the national news until the riots.

All this was noted in Mulrunji’s inquest report. The Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot. Mulrunji’s death shows the ghosts of mad Curry and bad Bartlam still walk large on Palms.

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