Following his involvement in resolving the “Wild Australia tour”, Horace Tozer was another unlikely key figure in the fate of Queensland Aborigines. Born at Port Macquarie and educated in Newcastle and Sydney, the young Tozer went north to become an articled clerk in Brisbane, before being admitted to the bar. At Gympie he became a member of the mining court and began to invest in mines. Though elected as member for Wide Bay in 1871 he immediately stood aside by prior arrangement to allow H.E. King to take the seat in a by-election. Tozer became an authority on mining law and a Gympie alderman. He stood again for Wide Bay in 1888, this time holding the seat for 10 years.
Tozer joined the “Griffilwaith” government as Colonial Secretary in 1890 where Aboriginal affairs came under his remit. Busy putting down the shearers’ strike at Barcaldine, Tozer was slow to react when the manager of Glenormiston west of Boulia complained Purcell had kidnapped blacks from the station. Archibald Meston told Tozer they had let that mob free and instead obtained another group of blacks from NT. With the blacks still stranded in Sydney, Meston vigorously defended his role saying he was left penniless calling it a “sad and disastrous termination of the tour”.
Tozer stepped in, agreeing for the Queensland Government to meet the cost of their return plus their food and accommodation debts in Sydney. When they returned, Meston had changed his story about Purcell not kidnapping blacks. After interviewing them, Meston said the NT mob had been “chained half the way from Boulia to Cloncurry and taken forcibly against their wishes”. Though Tozer turned down Meston’s request for an inquiry, he was becoming embroiled in indigenous issues with the people of Taroom threatening to shoot Aboriginal people over their consumption of opium in the town. Tozer urged the townsfolk to deal with the matter kindly.
Reports of opium addiction were starting to reach Brisbane from all quarters of the colony. Police and magistrates queried whether they could use the Poisons Act or confiscate pipes but Tozer said only fines could be imposed. In the far north, there were reports Aborigines were still being “hunted like dingoes” while in the Wide Bay region the press reported the “abject and miserable condition of the blacks”. Like Meston, Tozer was slowly coming to the conclusion of bringing the blacks together in one spot to house the very old and very young and also those struggling for employment. However he believed local communities should pay for it and the Aborigines should be encouraged to work. “The duty is not upon the government but upon the people,” he wrote.
In 1895 Meston outlined his scheme to Tozer in an address he called “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation”. Meston’s opening sentence outlined the problem while toadying to Tozer. “To you, Sir, a friend of the aboriginals, I submit this carefully considered plan for the improvement and preservation from extinction of that unhappy race.” The address gathered all the ideas of the previous 60 years from GA Robinson in the 1830s to George Lukin in 1893 (who revived the idea of a Fraser Island mission). Meston’s one addition was to add the concept of “preservation”. Tozer was impressed enough to print the document and distribute it to parliament.
Meston’s Proposed System said there were 200,000 Aboriginal people in Queensland at white occupation now there was less than 30,000 and they were heading towards “ultimate annihilation”. He noted the treaties of Pennsylvania and New Zealand and the lack of compensation for land in Australia. All religious missions had failed but now Queensland, Meston told Tozer, could preserve the Aboriginal people “in a manner to the eternal honour of herself and our common humanity”.
Meston’s system proposed complete isolation from the whites. The reserves must be at remote places, one in northern Queensland and another in the south, and would eventually provide a pool of ready labour. They would be fed and young blacks would be taught agriculture, horsemanship, blacksmithing and other trades. No whites would be allowed on the reserve without permission. Up to 5,000 blacks would be brought to each reserve, which would be run by a “protector”, an honorary role to be filled by a “white gentleman”.
If this document seems ludicrous and racist in the extreme today, Gordon Reid said it was a realistic and humanitarian statement when judged against the standards of the 1890s. Tozer and his fellow parliamentarians saw it as a way of solving the “Aboriginal problem” and a way of avoiding the extinction most whites believed was the Aboriginal fate. Meston’s system accepted Aboriginal people as human beings whose customs and beliefs were worth saving, within the framework of the European economic system. The system’s deepest flaw was that it was a solution imposed from above. Its authoritarianism would blight Queensland’s indigenous people for much of the 20th century. The reserves they created became Australian concentration camps.