When the economic depression of the early 1840s ended, there was a rush to expand into known parts of Australia. New South Wales was settled as far west as the climate would allow and many followed the Darling River tributaries north into Queensland. Explorer Ludwig Leichhardt set off north from the Darling Downs in 1844 and settlers were quick to follow him up the Dawson River and along the coast to Rockhampton. Newly wealthy gold profiteers from the south arrived to acquire land in the north.
The cattle and sheep they brought fouled Aboriginal waterways and there was inevitable conflict. As tit-for-tat killing escalated, whites saw it as a life or death struggle and formed punitive parties aimed at group punishment “to show the blacks a lesson”. The government ignored the growing violence on the frontier while the missionaries were discredited as being unsuccessful. Undaunted, former Moreton Bay missionary William Ridley went on a 450-mile mission of southern Queensland to understand the similarity of Aboriginal languages and he was accepted wherever he went.
Ridley could see how cattle were crowding Aboriginal people off their country, “cut off from four-fifths of their usual supply of food”. Ridley thought the only way the pastoralists’ needs could co-exist with Aboriginal needs was if the government cordoned off land to the native people. He would provide key testimony at the 1861 Select Committee on Aborigines at the Queensland Parliament.
Matters deteriorated after 1857 when eight members of the Fraser family were killed by Aboriginal people at Hornet Bank Station on the Dawson. Frontier newspapers called for an overwhelming response and they got it: At least 300 Aborigines were killed in the following 18 months. One of the first actions of the new Queensland Parliament established in 1860 was to sort out the problem – with disastrous consequences for Indigenous people.
The new Queensland Government started life broke with just seven-and-a-half pennies in the Treasury which were stolen after a few days. The Sydney government, unhappy with Queensland’s new status, billed it for ₤20,000 of work carried out before separation in 1859. New governor George Bowen needed to raise money quickly by borrowing against future earnings in land sales. Bowen rushed through the 1860 Land Act offering attractive terms on one-year leases of 100-square-mile runs. The terms insisted the runs be stocked to one-quarter capacity ahead of a second 14-year lease.
The terms suited the Pure Merinos, the squatters of the Darling Downs. They dominated Queensland’s first parliament (the universal male suffrage offered in NSW was not extended north of the border until the 1880s). By 1861 gold-financed land-hungry speculators rushed north into the Kennedy, Maranoa, Warrego, Comet and Barcoo districts. Aboriginal people resisted but were overwhelmed by the native police.
A rare voice of objection was former officer of native police, Frederick Walker. Walker was a British emigrant who worked on central NSW properties before forming a semi-official troop to protect properties in Port Phillip. His successful work took him into the Riverina, and then north into the Macintyre and Condamine districts. Walker was developing a conscience saying squatters and Aboriginal had reciprocal rights. Yet he continued to crush Aboriginal resistance moving to the Wide Bay in 1852. Squatters didn’t like his plain-talking nor the levy they had to pay to support his troop and used his heavy drinking as an excuse to have him removed in 1854. When the native police force was halved, Aboriginal attacks increased while Walker continue to mount a private force until ordered to disband by the government in 1859.
The Hornet Bank massacre destroyed trust between black and white and the native police had orders to “disperse any large assemblages of Blacks”. Walker wrote to the government complaining of harsh treatment by troopers and in some cases, murder. He hoped to stop this “infernal system” which had “cast a deep stain on the honour of this Colony”. While Walker believed Aboriginal people were less civilised than the British, he thought them deserving of human justice. He encouraged Aboriginal labour at his Bauhinia property and those of his neighbours. Unhappy with the lack of concern shown in Queensland’s parliament, Walker sent letters to The Times in London speaking of “deliberate murder” on the frontier. However Walker unwittingly facilitated the further invasion of Aboriginal lands during his search for the missing explorers Burke and Wills opening up the Plains of Promise in the Carpentaria and the rich Burdekin River valleys.
Any hope he might be taken seriously disappeared after another massacre of whites in 1861 at Cullin-la-Ringo near the modern town of Emerald. This second massacre seemed to prove Aboriginal treachery in white eyes and confirmed the Queensland Government in its policy to continue with the native police. The “live and let live” policy promoted by William Ridley and Frederick Walker was completely discredited.