That Unhappy Race Part 4: Gideon Lang

Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.
Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.

In 1865 a new figure enters the story of Queensland’s Aboriginal affairs. On July 12 a Victorian squatter Gideon Lang stood up in St George’s Hall in Melbourne and delivered a lecture on a pamphlet he called The Aborigines of Australia. Lang’s account was the most detailed yet by a settler on Aboriginal people in eastern Australia.

Gideon Scott Lang was a Scot who moved to Melbourne as a young man to follow two older brothers. At Buninyong he joined them in a farming venture where they faced the usual problem of how to pacify a large group of Aboriginal people on their run. The Langs found a peaceful solution with an agreement to feed some of them if no attacks were made on their stock. The Langs were successful and Gideon branched northwards to the Riverina before he visited the Darling Downs looking for selections. He was elected MP for Liverpool Plains and Gwydir in 1856 and served on the 1856 NSW Inquiry into Aboriginal conditions. By 1865 he was a director of a Melbourne bank and influential in Victorian circles.

In his pamphlet Lang admitted he wasn’t a “blind partisan” for Aboriginal people having taken part in an attack against them during his squatting days. But Lang had come to the conclusion that had anyone died in that attack he would have considered himself a murderer. The first half of his pamphlet deals with his own experiences in the south and the solutions they came up with to co-exist with Aboriginal people.

However the second half was looked on with alarm in Brisbane: it was a direct attack on the Queensland squatters, their government and their native police.  It was especially timely following massacres in revenge for the deaths of white settlers at Cullin-la-Ringo four years earlier. Lang said the issues on the frontier were caused by a lack of recognition of Aboriginal society, deprivation of hunting grounds and the lack of government oversight. Lang said it led to atrocious cruelties on both sides, particularly in Queensland where it was the “rule and custom to arrange the black question by killing them off.”

Lang said he held these beliefs for 10 years but had delayed publication of his pamphlet until he found proof of massacres. That proof, he said, had now emerged. In May that year Aboriginal people had killed Native Police lieutenant Cecil Hill on the lower Dawson. His death hardened of attitudes against the blacks, expressed by a letter writer to the Brisbane Courier: “These incorrigible rogues are becoming unbearable, and required a regular dressing down. Ordinary morality can only be driven into their obtuse skulls by leaden lessons.”

Officials were more circumspect and described revenge attacks for the death of Hill as “collisions” in the official record. These collisions, as Lang found out, were group punishment on a large number of blacks. Lang suggested the need for a “chief curator” of Aborigines, with the power of a police commissioner, to punish frontier outrages by white and black alike. The curators would have power to negotiate the use of waterholes with local groups before issuing new pastoral land licences, and stations could hire local blacks who would receive food, blankets, tomahawks and tobacco.

Lang optimistically believed that within two years black and white would live amicably together. The blacks’ view of plan was unknown, but the white Queensland squatters were apoplectic at being told how to run their business by an uppity southerner. Queensland MP and squatter Gordon Sandeman spoke on behalf of his caste. Sandeman rejected claims of atrocities as “sensational” and said Lang had no experience of Queensland. He described the native police as a “defensive force” and asked why didn’t Lang make his opposition known in the 1856 NSW inquiry when still in parliament. Sandeman said the most humane solution was to not permit Aboriginal people on squatters’ runs, though he did not offer any solution as to where they might otherwise go.

Archibald Meston would later take some of Lang’s ideas for his Proposed System in 1895 including the idea of chief curator, which Meston called “protector”.  One major difference was that Lang offered Aboriginal people a choice to take part whereas Meston’s plan was coercive. In the short term Lang’s plan came to nothing. There was some relief from colonisation due to an economic crisis in 1866 and the frontier temporarily stalled.

In the late 1860s, the new threat was from mining not land grabs. Payable gold on the Mary River near Gympie, the Cape River near Bowen, and Ravenswood near Townsville brought thousands of miners to Queensland. There were more finds at Etheridge River near Georgetown and Charters Towers and the rush continued to the Cape at Palmer River, invading rugged lands too forbidding for pastoralists.

The blacks, as one settler said, no longer knew where to go out of the way of white people. “No localities they might keep to themselves had been pointed out to them and no system of treatment of them had been laid down,” wrote another. The government looked on helplessly as blacks drifted to makeshift camps outside new white towns where they were not welcome.

In 1872 the London-based Aboriginal Protection Society asked Queensland’s third governor the Marquis of Normanby to appoint an unpaid board to look into the Aboriginal problem. New premier Arthur Palmer was unenthusiastic thinking the inquiry’s expenses would cripple the treasury. However Normanby got his Inquiry up, anxious to avoid embarrassing inquiries from London about “blackbirding” which had started in Queensland’s sugar industry. The government’s lack of support meant that inquiry was also doomed to fail but it had lasting implications we will look at next.

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