That Unhappy Race Part 6: The Empty Years

Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.
Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.

After the failure of the Drew and Hale Commissions, Queensland Aboriginal policy in 1880s drifted into what Gordon Reid in That Unhappy Race called the empty years. Scottish-born premier Thomas McIlwraith’s plan was to cut government costs and push economic development when conditions improved. Aboriginal affairs would have drifted out of public consciousness but for the efforts of one man: editor-in-chief and part of owner of the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander, Gresley Lukin.

Lukin wrote a stinging editorial in the Queenslander on May 1, 1880 calling for reform in response to a letter from Cooktown about the brutal war raging in the north. Headed “The way we civilise” Lukin’s editorial began by saying Aboriginal people in new territories were treated no better than wild animals. “Their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away, entirely at the caprice of white men,” he said, and all at the butt of a rifle. Lukin said those who committed outrages were protected by the majority under a code of silence, while the government looked the other way. When blacks retaliated, they were “dispersed” by native police, a euphemism Lukin knew to mean “wholesale massacre”.

Lukin wrote more editorials in the same vein urging the replacement of the native police with a white force assisted by black trackers. He rebuked frontier journals for encouraging murder of Aboriginals just to steal clothes. But Lukin’s pleas went unanswered. At Battle Mountain near Cloncurry the Native Police defeated the Kalkadoon people, while in Brisbane McIlwraith was unmoved. Each show of European superiority confirmed the attitude of powerbrokers the Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction.

The election of Samuel Griffith as the Liberal premier in November 1883 offered some hope of change. His government introduced legislation to protect Aboriginals and New Guineans exploited on ships in Queensland waters. However the bill was watered down in parliament and the abuses and kidnapping continued. Griffith’s Minister for Lands Charles Dutton established the first Aboriginal reserve since 1879, a Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford (it endures today as Hopevale, the homeland of Noel Pearson).

Aboriginal people in the region were ravaged by goldmining at Cooktown though the rough terrain meant they offered stern resistance to the native police. They were brought in by the loss of traditional lands and hunger. To placate them, the settlers and the government offered them rations. This peace through food plan was successful and Griffiths took notice. In 1885 he asked his police commissioner to report on the possibility of replacing the native police with a white force and he gradually rolled out a new system across the north. By the early 1890s this was established government policy, keeping the blacks quiet and in places they could be watched. However a new problem added to the need for further control: opium.

One of the earliest to notice the problem was the Surat settler EH Smith who was “most shocked at witnessing the effects of opium on the ‘niggers’.” Smith said opium was everywhere with Chinese people in Roma supplying the drug at immense profit. A Rockhampton settler said an Aboriginal woman visiting Cooktown “learned the use of it” and spread it to her countrypeople, where it had become endemic. “They formerly bought flour, tea, tobacco, red handkerchiefs and now the sale of them is entirely stopped for opium,” he wrote. Stations paid Aboriginal workers in opium and if supply was bad in some areas, the entire population would move on to other areas. A police inspector noted the addiction did not lead to crime but “they lose all their animal spirits and become lethargic in their nature and disposition”.

As Reid wrote, opium addiction had become another thing Indigenous people had suffered at the hands of the white intruder in two decades of Queensland settlement, following malnutrition, disease, dispossession, abuse and violence. In the white community the opium problem fed on paranoid suspicions about the influence of the Chinese increasing public pressure to take action. The stage was set in the 1890s for one man with political will to come up with a workable plan. That man was Archibald Meston.

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