Queensland’s Western Afterthought

1859 border
Queensland’s borders as set in 1859 excluding the western meridians.

A remote part of Queensland made the news in the last 24 hours. Bedourie, 2500 kms from Brisbane, was hit by an incredible dust storm. The storms are unusual, but not unheard of, in a region skirting the Simpson Desert. I can testify to Beduorie’s remoteness and difference from the rest of Queensland. The reasons are geographical – the area is closer to Adelaide than Brisbane – and also, historical.

When Queensland split from NSW in 1859, its western border was the 141st meridian of east longitude – lining up with SA’s eastern boundary with NSW and Victoria. The border was Haddon Corner not Poeppel Corner. The strip of land containing Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Boulia, Bedourie and Birdsville were not part of the new colony for the first three years of Queensland’s existence. The story of why this happened is told in Peter Saenger’s book Queensland’s Western Afterthought: 150 Years of Ups and Downs.

When Queensland’s first boundary was set there were immediate calls to stretch the boundary further west. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General AC Gregory noted the 141st meridian split a natural feature of the landscape, a tract of country he called “the Plains of Promise”. The eastern shore of those Plains held no natural harbours. Gregory proposed the boundary should move west to more barren country on the 138th meridian to include all of the Plains of Promise and a harbour on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Matthew Flinders found that harbour in his 1802 voyage around Australia. He anchored his ship the Investigator between Sweers and Bentinck Islands in a sheltered area he called “Investigator Road”. There were no further investigations for 40 years until John Lort Stokes of the HMS Beagle surveyed the Gulf and hinterland country, naming the Albert River. Stokes gave the name Plains of Promise to the land he found 80km inland from Investigator Road. Stokes believed it would one day be rich and fertile grazing lands.

Others found the land less promising. In 1844 Charles Sturt explored the bottom end of the Afterthought crossing the Strzelecki and Cooper Creeks before finding a ‘gloomy stone-clad plain’ he called the Stony Desert (now Sturt’s Stony Desert). This territory was so forbidding Sturt gave up his dreams of crossing the centre of the continent. While Sturt retreated, German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt crossed the northern end of the strip in his first journey across Australia. He stayed near the coast and Aborigines attacked the camp killing Leichhardt’s naturalist John Gilbert, wounding two others. Leichhardt’s group licked their wounds for two weeks before continuing and sighting the Gulf of Carpentaria “with feelings of indescribable pleasure”.

Leichhardt named rivers, creeks and streams before struggling on to Port Essington. He returned to Sydney to describe the wonders of the lands he had found. Leichhardt disappeared in 1848 on his even more forbidding east-west crossing to WA and Gregory joined the search for him in 1857. That trip did not take Gregory into the strip but two years earlier he led a British Government scientific expedition across northern Australia following similar territory to Leichhardt’s first trip 11 years earlier. Gregory saw the arid land to the south-west of the strip. “There is little to expect beside a barren sandy desert,” he wrote.

Sturt, Leichhardt and Gregory opened up the outback which Queensland was ready to exploit. The area west of the 141st meridian remained technically in NSW but the mother colony showed no interest. Gregory never saw Stokes’ Plains of Promise but he and others wanted it for Queensland graziers. When Queensland’s first Governor George Bowen wrote to Secretary of State for the Colonies the Duke of Newcastle about the unclaimed land, Newcastle replied SA also wanted to annex the land. “Also a certain group of gentlemen in Victoria,” Newcastle added, “wanted to form a settlement on the north coast of Australia.”

SA was agitating to stretch its northern border to the north coast. It gained the Northern Territory from NSW in 1863 and also had eyes on the Strip, as did Victoria. Victoria’s claims were based on the confidence of its goldfield wealth and the 1860 Burke and Wills expedition to conquer the unknown north. That expedition bisected the Plains of Promise and showed they did not live up to their name. The expedition was financed by merchant Thomas Embling and lawyer William Stawell who drafted Victoria’s constitution in 1850. They knew NSW technically owned the land but Sydney showed no inclination to develop it. Embling and Stawell’s influence ensured Burke and Wills stayed on a straight course north to the Gulf rather than veering west to the Victoria River as was the original plan.

Burke’s advance party crossed into the strip on Christmas Day 1860 near Birdsville and found the Diamantina River. They advanced north into the Tropics during a dry wet season. They went past the Cloncurry River watched carefully by the Kalkadoon people and toiled on to marshy wastelands 20km short of the Gulf near Magowra Station. The return journey passed into history with a series of avoidable calamities. The expedition claimed seven European lives and an unknown number of Aborigines. Its lasting impact on the unclaimed strip came from the search parties sent out to find Burke and Wills.

Alfred Howitt’s Melbourne expedition found King alive and Burke and Wills dead and brought them all back. From South Australia John McKinlay surveyed Cooper Creek, found many channels of the Diamantina, discovered good pastoral country in the Scott Ranges and reached the Gulf via the Leichhardt River. Queensland sent two search parties, one led by William Landsborough which went by ship to the Albert River, the other led by bushman and native police commander Frederick Walker. Walker came overland from Rockhampton through the Blackall and Aramac districts into Hughenden. He found Landsborough’s depot on the Albert River and picked up tracks from Burke and Wills before being thwarted by heavy rains.

The map of Queensland redrawn in 1862 to include the “Western Afterthought”

By end 1862 the broad physical outline of the coastline, its rivers and the interior had been mapped. Bowen told the Duke of Newcastle Queensland would protect settlers in the area as long as the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf of Carpentaria. Newcastle agreed and the boundary was redrawn to the 138th meridian. White explorers believed this remote country could be settled comfortably.

There was just one problem: the land was already settled. Every white explorer to the strip encountered Aboriginal people. The north coast was the home of the Gangalidda, Nunyunga and Garawa people while the Lardil and Kaiadilt lived on the islands. The area around Cloncurry was the home of the Mitakoodi and the fearsome Kalkadoons who numbered between 1500 to 2000 people. Around Boulia lived the Yalarrnga, Waluwarra and Pitta Pitta. In the southern desert lived the Arrenta, the Wangkanggurru and the Yarluyandi.

These people had lived there for thousands of years. From 1860 their homelands were invaded by strangers with no understanding of the fluctuating environmental conditions. They wanted to ‘conquer the wilderness’ and came well armed to enforce their way. Aboriginal use of waterholes and the killing of stock for food angered the newcomers. Pastoralists supported by its government in Brisbane (often the same people) encouraged the Native Police to remove Aboriginal people. Removal meant in most cases killing them.

By 1880 most Indigenous people of the south-west had been killed or forced to flee to South Australia. In the north the Kalkadoons resisted until they were defeated at Battle Mountain in 1884. By the 20th century remaining Indigenes were locked up by the force of the Queensland Act. Queensland’s Western Afterthought was finally in white hands.


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