In 1861 the new Queensland Government held its first Inquiry into Aboriginal affairs. It would not be its last. Among the white “indiscretions” it examined was the killing of five Aboriginal people at Fassifern by Native Police lieutenant Frederick Wheeler. Wheeler was one of several white young men who saw their role was to eliminate all black people. In Fassifern there had been reports of Indigenous people killing settlers’ stock. Without bothering to establish who was responsible Lt Wheeler shot and killed four men and one woman. He would have got away with murder but for the fact one of the dead worked for local squatter, Ipswich magistrate and MP, Henry Challinor.
The 1861 Queensland Legislative Assembly Select Committee issued a slap on Wheeler’s wrists despite reports of other killings in the Logan district. They said he acted with “indiscretion” but because he was a “most valuable and zealous officer” his punishment should merely be removal to another area. Wheeler moved to Central Queensland and continued his reign of terror on blacks. It was not until 1876 he was charged in Rockhampton with the death of a black youth. Wheeler fled Australia rather than face justice.
The 1861 Inquiry followed a similar trajectory to inquiries in NSW in 1856 and 1858. All looked at the problem with white eyes and none addressed the causes of the violence on the frontier. The squatters’ parliament in Brisbane thought it was an inevitable consequence of colonisation and believed only a military-style native police force could solve the problem.
The 1861 recommendations were a master-class of administrative action that addressed processes rather than causes. It ordered the native police appoint cadets, troopers should be stationed away from towns to avoid temptations of alcohol, they should be recruited from areas far from where they would serve, officers would provide monthly reports, and a new and simpler means of keeping accounts was required.
The Inquiry decided that despite “misguided” officers like Wheeler the native police had to stay. The Queensland “myalls” (wild blacks) could not adjust to civilisation. The Inquiry noted “all attempts to Christianise or educate the Aborigines of Australia have hitherto proved abortive”. They said Aboriginal people were cannibals beyond redemption who had “no idea of a future state”, and were “sunk in the lowest depths of barbarism”. The Inquiry offered no suggestions how to improve their situation.
The policy of Aboriginal expulsion from their lands received a green light to continue. Challinor, the man who exposed Wheeler, told the Inquiry Aborigines should be entitled to hunt game in the own country. He also supported the Christian mission of William Ridley who recommended co-existence. But Aboriginal people roaming wild among the cattle did not suit squatter interests.
Back in 1837 Colonial Secretary Glenelg told the Australian colonies the Aborigines were to be treated as British subjects. But in 1861 Queensland decided this rule did not apply beyond the frontier. Rare voices like Challinor advocated for Aboriginal protectors in each district to arbitrate issues between black and white. But with Aboriginal testimony not allowed in Queensland courts until 1884 their side of the argument was not heard.
They weren’t heard from in the 1861 Inquiry either and white voices were not supportive. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General Augustus Gregory praised the native police as necessary to the safety of the colony and said it was popular on the frontier. Aboriginal sympathiser Tom Petrie, who spoke Indigenous languages, said the native police had a beneficial role and a white-only force would be “inefficient”. Even the two missionaries from Zion’s Hill, Johann Zillman and Augustus Rode, admitted they had made no conversions and agreed the native police kept the black population in a state of fear.
The overwhelming view of Queensland’s parliament was either that there was no problem, or if there was, it would solve itself. With this sanguine view the government withdrew itself from Aboriginal affairs to weightier matters: how to make more money for the squatters.
Those like Challinor that saw the problem, were mostly driven by Christian concerns. The squatters contemptuously called them the Church Party and considered them well-meaning fools with no idea of life on the frontier. Ridley was now a journalist in Sydney using newspapers to get across his ideas. He said the missions in Wellington Valley (NSW) and Poonindie (SA) showed Aboriginal people were capable of “social and spiritual improvement”. He believed for missions to be successful, they must attract Aboriginal people in large numbers. They should not be drilled in European ways and should instead learn bushcraft with time off for hunting and other traditional pursuits. School should be taught in English but hours needed to be short and the missions needed to be far from the temptations of towns and their “vile passions”.
Station manager JC White, wrote a similar letter to the government about the “pressing” need to find new lands for Aboriginal people. White said station owners forbade them from crossing their runs to hunt kangaroos in case they set fire to the grass. Some resorted to killing cattle, increasing the likelihood of conflict. White said that in their natural state Aboriginal people were not bloodthirsty or cruel but “kindly disposed, hospitable and social, intelligent and improvable”. White suggested protectorates and depots where they could receive food rations, and negotiate for employment on stations. He also suggested the native police should be abolished except on “extreme frontiers”. Governor Bowen was impressed by White’s letter and authorised land grants to persons or institutions that might establish Indigenous missions and industrial schools.
When a Catholic priest WJ Larkin offered his services of educating Aborigines in the Roma district, he too got some support from the government keen to keep London’s Exeter Hall liberals onside. But a change of government brought a change of attitude and Queensland poured money into the expansion of the railways rather than improving the lives of Aboriginal people. However the ideas that germinated in the work of Ridley, Challinor, Petrie, White and Larkin would eventually coalesce in Archibald Meston’s 1895 “Proposed System”.