“That unhappy race”: A history of Queensland’s Indigenous relations (part 1)

raceOf all pre-Federation colonies, Queensland produced the most comprehensive legislation to deal with Aboriginal affairs. The 1897 Queensland Act was deeply flawed and would have disastrous consequences for the state’s indigenous population in the 20th century, despite well-meaning beginnings. The Act was the brainchild of Archibald Meston who wrote to Colonial Secretary Horace Tozer in 1895 about his “carefully submitted plan for the improvement and preservation from extinction of that unhappy race.” As Gordon Reid wrote in his book “That Unhappy Race” it was the first proposal for the preservation (as opposed to protection) of Aboriginal people since white colonisation began. Reid’s book is an important examination of race relations in Queensland. As he says, it is not a study of Aboriginal people, but is concerned with colonial perceptions of a social problem involving Aborigines. Given the usual attitude was to brush “that unhappy race” under the carpet in the hope of speedy extinction, his book is an important addition to understanding 19th century Australian history, in the colony of Queensland where Aboriginal people were most numerous.

The bill passed by Queensland’s Parliament on December 10, 1897 was called the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. Its objectives were to ensure better treatment of Aboriginal people in white employment, to
remove the unemployed to exclusive reserves, and restrict the supply of alcohol and opium. The Act applied to all Queensland Indigenous people and those who lived with them. A white “protector” was the only authorised non-Indigenous
person allowed on the reserve. Authorities issued 12 month permits to white employers who wanted to use Indigenous or “half-caste” labour. Indigenous people could not move, or be moved, from one district to another without the protector’s permission. The protector had full rights over Indigenous people at the reserve, including imprisonment for a wide range of offences. Aboriginal rites and customs were banned.

The law was the most comprehensive response to the problem of white and Indigenous co-existence yet in Australia. The British Government optimistically obliged settlers to avoid bloodshed with native people, which proved impossible – or was at least conveniently ignored – on the ever expanding frontier. Southern colonies attempted to set up protectorates in the mid 19th century but they proved ineffective against encroaching pastoralism. Towards the end of the century, most administrations had given up pretence of an Indigenous policy – the assumption was Aboriginal people were becoming extinct or at least “out of sight and out of mind”. Yet despite large scale killings by pastoralists and native police, Indigenous people remained in large numbers in Queensland and the fear of miscegenation and opium addiction convinced the government to act. It helped that Queensland’s squatter-dominated parliament saw advantages in legislation to establish a cheap labour pool of Aboriginal workers with few rights.

European meddling in Queensland Indigenous affairs began around the time of the Moreton Bay penal colony (1824-1838) when Lutheran missionaries and the colony’s chaplain tried to Christianise natives. In his “Proposed System” of 1895 Meston concluded the early missionaries had no success. “It is hardly likely that Moreton Bay wild blacks of that period would have had any reverence for white men whose physique would bear no comparison with their own,” Meston wrote. By 1828 the colony housed 800 prisoners and 200 soldiers, surrounded by four tribal groups, some hostile. Pioneering churchman John Dunmore Lang hired a group of 10 German evangelical Lutherans to form a mission north of the penal settlement at Zion Hill, Nundah with access to government rations and grew crops. Aboriginal people visited the mission to obtain food in good times but stayed away when the crops failed as they did in 1840. Life remained difficult at Zion Hill and there were no conversions, despite missions to Toorbul and other outposts.

Settlers were banned from Moreton Bay until the 1840s but that changed when Patrick Leslie moved up from New England to establish a sheep run on the Condamine. Others followed, mounting pressure on the government to open up the colony for settlement. The penal settlement was closed down in 1842 and the government ended support for the mission as the economy slumped due to a fall in wool prices. Having failed to introduce God to the Aborigines through their bellies, the first missionaries moved on but others were willing to take their place.

Zion Hill was abandoned by 1850 and a new mission sprung up at Caboolture. The anti-Irish Lang, convinced by his vision of a new Protestant-only colony, sent another missionary north, William Ridley, but the Catholic Church also had designs on Moreton Bay sending four priests to a short-lived mission on Stradbroke Island in 1843. Neither Protestant nor Catholic had much success. Relations between black and white deteriorated with a flour-laced strychnine poisoning of Aboriginal people at a Kilcoy station the most prominent massacre of the early 1840s. The settlers believed Aboriginal people were irredeemable and behaved accordingly. By the end of the 1840s, the problem was increasingly solved by force.

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