That Unhappy race Part 5 – The Drew and Hale Commissions

Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.
Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.

By the 1870s those pushing for further white expansion in Queensland could see only one way forward: corralling all the indigenous people into one manageable place far from white towns. In Maryborough residents were deeply offended by the large group of Aborigines camped near the town cemetery. Though the Maryborough blacks had not been troublesome since 1853, there continued many massacres of indigenous people in the area. There was an existential fear among whites after Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-Ringo which had never gone away. There was also distaste at alcohol-fuelled quarrels and the tendency of the blacks to wander the streets naked. There were calls to move “savages” away from sensitive eyes of white women and children.

Edward Fuller was a Primitive Methodist who believed Aborigines could be shown the path to a white god. He thought the solution in Maryborough was a mission on Fraser Island. Fraser was proposed as a mission site in the 1840s but nothing came of it. Government proposals in the 1860s to gazette a reserve got a chilly reception from squatters wanting to develop the island. Fuller began his Fraser mission in 1870 attracting over 30 people to his camp. But he suffered the usual problem of white encroachment with timber-getters moving in, supplying the blacks with alcohol. Fuller was a frustrated man on a mission and his inability to convert at Fraser Island, was mirrored by later failures at Lake Weyba, Hinchinbrook Island and Bellenden Plains.

Frank Bridgman had better luck with the first secular reserve at Mackay in 1871. Bridgman was a southern grazier who brought sheep to the Isaac region. Initially Bridgman was not averse to supporting the native police’s brutal tactics to “disperse” blacks from his property at Grosvenor Downs near Fort Cooper native police barracks. Judith Wright‘s grandfather Albert wrote in his diary in 1868 that “about 60 Blacks were shot at Grosvenor Downs last week”.

Bridgman and fellow Mackay squatters sent a letter to colonial secretary Arthur Palmer – himself a squatter of the Mackay hinterland – asking for more protection “against the numbers and increasing audacity of the Blacks”. By 1870 Bridgman was thinking of other ways to solve the problem. He believed a labour reserve of cheap Aboriginal workers might be useful in the sparsely populated north, or as he put it, “labour being valuable, there will be less wish to have them shot down.” He wrote a letter to Palmer in 1870 asking for separate lands in country too poor for white farmers. Bridgman recommended scrubby land near a Homebush lagoon be gazetted for Aboriginal people. The land commissioner approved the request in 1871 and within two years Bridgman established the Association for the Employment and Protection of Aborigines in Mackay. The Association wanted low paid indigenous workers to replace indentured South Sea labour which was under attack in parliament. Bridgman hoped to use them on his own sugar plantation.

By March 1873 over 200 Aborigines moved onto Bridgman’s reserve at GooneenberryPalmer was now premier and his government established a commission under William Drew to see if the Mackay scheme could be applied across the colony. The commissioners visited the north and spoke to squatters (but not to indigenous people). Bridgman told them Aboriginal people were reliable employees.

In their May 1874 report the Drew Commission admitted a system of reserves and protectors would be expensive. But It argued Queensland was only profitable from the lease and sale of crown lands “which the Aborigines originally occupied”. However Palmer was booted out of power and new premier Arthur Macalister ignored the report.

What forced Macalister’s hand was the report of an attempted murder which filtered its way to all-powerful London. The Native Police shooting of a black at Cooktown made the Sydney papers and ultimately caught the attention of Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Carnarvon requested an explanation from the Marquis of Normanby, the governor of Queensland. Normanby rejected allegations of atrocities and argued Aboriginal lives were being improved by white settlement. Yet this London interest was embarrassing and unwanted. Normanby and Macalister agreed to re-institute the Drew Commission to implement its suggestions. The Brisbane Courier said this was warranted but defended native police practices on the wild north frontier. “If the aborigines were more civilised than they are, we should either make treaties with them, or we should be at open war with them,” the Courier said.

Queensland’s government opted for a report to buy more time. In 1876 new Governor William Cairns instituted another commission under Anglican Bishop of Brisbane Mathew Hale with four other commissioners. Like the Drew Commission it was stacked with squatter sympathisers or explorers like Gregory and Landsborough who also saw the destruction of Aboriginal society as an inevitable consequence of Christian civilisation.

The Hale Commission was authorised to “inquire into and investigate the condition of Aboriginal inhabitants of Queensland and to report on the best means to legislate or otherwise improve their condition”. But rather than report, they immediately set about establishing a reserve under Tom Petrie at Bribie Island. Petrie used his knowledge of Aboriginal languages to get them to work. Initial reports were favourable. Petrie suggested Brisbane blacks should be compelled to live at the reserve. But Petrie didn’t stay long and his replacement Father Duncan McNab was a zealot with little empathy for Aboriginals.

McNab had a roving commission from the Catholic Church to convert the aborigines as long as it did not cost the church money. He had to fend for himself and applied to take over the Bribie mission when Petrie left. But McNab could not get the Aboriginal people to work. Hale wrote to the police commissioner complaining blacks were still being allowed into Brisbane, a deterrent to keeping them on Bribie.

McNab suggested the place was the problem, not him. He recommended a new reserve at Durundur on the Stanley River in the upper Brisbane Valley. Supported by new premier John Douglas, Durundur was opened in 1877 and a few blacks moved in. Local squatters were pleased thinking it would supply cheap labour. The Commission also approved another settlement at Mackay near Cape Hillsborough but this idea lapsed due to lack of government funds. The commission appointed Bridgman as its northern coastal districts agent. He suggested new reserves including one at Palm Island. Palms would eventually become Queensland’s most infamous gulag in the 20th century.

The early efforts of building concentration camps at Mackay, Fraser and Durundur all failed. McNab was impatient, wanting to immediately cure the Aboriginal people of pagan ways while funding dried up from Brisbane. The Drew and Hale Commissions had asked an important question that would not go away: did the Aboriginal people have rights to the land as prior occupants?

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