Archibald Meston was born in Aberdeenshire in 1851. Aged eight, his family moved to NSW to follow Meston’s older brother who grew crops at Ulmarra on the Clarence River. They switched to sugar cane in 1863 and Archibald helped out on the farm while learning the language and culture of Aboriginal groups. As a young man, Meston was a constant traveller working in canefields and learning more Aboriginal vocabularies. He married Frances Prowse Shaw in 1871 and son Harold was born three years later. By then Archibald was manager at Pearlwell sugar plantation at St Lucia in Brisbane and a correspondent to the Queenslander newspaper under the pen-name Ramrod.
A year later his literary talents were recognised by Ipswich Observer who appointed him editor. He campaigned for small farmers and against Pacific Island workers in the sugar industry. By 1878 aged 27, he was well known enough to easily win the seat of Rosewood in the Queensland election, on the vote of small German farmers. Meston’s supporters celebrated the victory with a parade from One Mile Bridge to the centre of Ipswich where the streets were lined with flags.
In parliament Meston was considered ambitious, dashing and irrepressible. He was immediately made Liberal party whip and considered Premier material. Political opponent Boyd Dunlop Morehead gave Meston the nickname that stuck. Morehead believed Australia should be an exclusive British colony and attacked German immigrants as communists and socialists. Meston strongly defended his constituents in parliament. He noted the Teutonic influence on the British race in a speech littered with classical allusions including the ibis and crocodile sacred to ancient Egyptians. Morehead was grudgingly impressed with Meston’s defence and later told him he was the reincarnation of the Sacred Ibis whose plumage symbolised the light of the sun. Meston liked it so much, the Sacred Ibis replaced Ramrod as his pen-name.
Meston’s political ambitions were undone after a defamation action against German-Australian newspaper the Nord Australische Zeitung. Meston was a supporter of Premier Thomas McIlwraith. McIlwraith was investigated for corruption after had handed a lucrative railway contract to Steel Rails which he held shares in, but a Royal Commission cleared him of personal blame. Meston voted to accept the Royal Commission verdict, a decision the Zeitung asserted had been “bought”. A furious Meston took the German paper to court but lost, and worse still he lost favour with his German constituents in Rosewood. At the next election the Zeitung’s editor Jean Baptiste Isambert defeated him.
Out of parliament and made insolvent by the court case, Meston continued to edit the Observer until forced out by a syndicate of new owners including McIlwraith and Morehead. In 1882 he moved north to become editor of the Townsville Herald, and then on to Cairns where he managed a sugar cane plantation and became a councillor. Meston pushed hard to make Cairns the northern terminus of the railway to the mining fields. Meston also began to establish his reputation as an expert on Queensland Aborigines.
This would have been a surprise to those that knew the Sacred Ibis in Ipswich and Brisbane, despite the linguistic interests of his teen years. The Observer had made little mention of Aborigines except to justify a revenge attack by whites up north. He was also reputed to have shot indigenous people during his canefield days to prevent attacks on local plantations. But by the 1890s, Meston considered himself an accomplished bushman and empathised with Aboriginal bushcraft in prolific writings. In 1889 he had led a scientific expedition to the Bellenden Ker Range and gave an ethnological description of local tribes.
Meston mostly mouthed conventional wisdoms of indigenous culture with wild assertions about cannibalism and depictions of the blacks as “savages”. He admitted to white brutality and unscrupulous behaviour but his Social Darwinism prevented him from prescribing a solution. “The Australian blacks,” he wrote in 1889, “are moving rapidly on into the eternal darkness in which all savages and inferior races are destined to disappear.”
Within a few years, Meston had changed his mind and began a campaign to protect and preserve Queensland’s native people. His desire to help while treating blacks with contempt, mirrored the paradox of wider Queensland society which grappled with its conscience on how to deal with a troublesome yet untouchable people. Meston’s campaign would dominate the remaining 30 years of his life. He was a regular contributor to Brisbane and Sydney newspapers. He became an implacable opponent of the native police calling them “slaughterers” capable of “systematic outrage.”
In 1891 his reputation as an Aboriginal sympathiser took a hit with an extraordinarily ill-advised business venture. Meston assembled a troupe of indigenous people for a world tour called Wild Australia. Business partner Brabazon Purcell gathered Aboriginal people from far western Queensland, the Torres Strait and NT and took them on tour of the capital cities with “a large number of curios and weapons”. In Melbourne the tour ran into trouble as the number of Aborigines and curios did not match the advertised amount leaving Meston with unpaid debts. He “bolted” after a warrant, leaving the troupe with Purcell. When Purcell arranged a departure for England, the Queensland Government objected saying the blacks had been kidnapped and demanded their return. Purcell disappeared leaving the blacks stranded in Sydney, and the Queensland Government agreed to pay for their return.
The man behind the government’s action was colonial secretary Horace Tozer, and an embarrassed Meston would remain forever grateful to his support. Meston initially backed Purcell but now claimed the blacks were taken from Boulia without consent. Tozer rejected a Meston request to conduct an investigation but it became a public issue. The press found a letter Purcell wrote to Meston which spoke of an opportunity to “investigate the vile and degrading temperament of whites in western Queensland”. Meston’s eventual solution was not to do anything about the whites, but to remove the blacks.