That Unhappy Race Part 9 – Queensland adopts Meston’s system

Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston's Proposed System.
Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston’s Proposed System.

Although the Queensland newspapers of 1895 agreed with Archibald Meston’s Proposed System to manage Aboriginal people, Colonial Secretary Horace Tozer initially did nothing. Tozer was worried it would become a large social welfare system at the government’s expense. An impatient Meston chastised him for lack of action, threatening to run again for parliament at the next election. Stalling for time, Tozer called for another report. He ordered Meston to survey Aboriginal missions and inquire into the troubles on the Cape York frontier.

Meston was pleased to be finally on the government payroll and set off north in 1896 in a long, slow trawl of Cape York indigenous communities, visiting missions at Yarrabah and Mappoon. He was particularly impressed by Cape Bedford where Lutheran missionaries spoke the local language and gained Indigenous respect. Meston concluded the tribes should stay together in reserves where they could be transformed into Christians. That meant three reserves in Queensland (not the two he originally asked for) in the north, centre and south. He followed Gideon Lang, calling for the abolition of the native police and recommended the end of Aboriginal slave labour in the pearling and trepanning industries.

This earned the ire of northern newspapers but Meston was confident when he presented his report to Tozer in October 1896. However under-secretary and police commissioner William Parry-Okeden took exception to the criticism of the native police. Tozer asked Parry-Okeden to improve police strategy in his own tour of north Queensland. At Normanton Parry-Okeden met the government’s medical officer in the north, Dr Walter Roth. Roth impressed him and he urged Tozer to support Roth’s research.

Parry-Okeden’s February 1897 report called for the continuation of a strong, well-officered native police. He said friendly relations between the races could only be established by “affording equal protection and dealing out even-handed justice.” Tozer took Parry-Okeden’s suggestions to restructure the force to Premier Hugh Nelson though it was only a temporary reprieve. This notorious “machine for murder” as 19th century historian William Rusden called the native police, finally petered out by 1900 replaced by white constables assisted by trackers.

Meanwhile Meston’s system of reserves took shape in 1897. He earmarked Lukin’s Fraser Island site as the southern reserve and 50 blacks were “rounded up” from Maryborough and removed to the island. Meston went west and reported on Aborigines at Charleville, Mitchell and Roma, where many were addicted to opium and destroyed by syphilis. Tozer authorised their removal to a new reserve at Durundur, near Woodford. Meston’s report also proposed a draft bill for parliament based on American precedents for reserves under the authority of the Home Secretary, administered by protectors.

The bill gave control of every area of Aboriginal lives to protectors who could withhold wages and keep them on reserves. There were strict penalties against alcohol and opium and employers had to give police details of Aboriginal employees. Tozer took Meston’s suggestion to divide the state but also took Parry-Okeden’s advice to give the northern section to the commissioner of police.

The bill easily passed through parliament, the only debate being a definition of “half-caste”. Tozer told parliament it was “the offspring of an aboriginal mother and other than an aboriginal father” (No one could contemplate a white woman having sex with an aboriginal male). When it was pointed out many half-caste males had important roles of responsibility managing white men and cattle, Tozer made the half-caste rule apply only to females. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Bill received Royal Assent on December 10, 1897. It was Tozer’s last major piece of legislation before retiring in 1898.

Tozer appointed Parry-Okeden as Chief Protector for Queensland, with Meston named southern division protector and Roth northern division protector. In 1899 Parry-Okeden was removed from his role with Meston and Roth reporting directly to the Home Secretary. Roth had the extra ethnological task of collecting information about Aborigines in the north. He reported he was being “rushed” by applicants for permits to employ local blacks. Roth’s hope to end slavery in the pearling trade ran into squatter opposition and the commissioner of police told him not to take “too drastic action”.

In the south Meston claimed to have wiped out the opium trade by 1900. He estimated the total number of Aboriginal people below the 22nd parallel (between Sarina and Rockhampton) as 3500 of which 2300 were employed, 800 were dependent, and 400 were “finding for themselves”. Meston removed 300 Aboriginal people to reserves at Fraser Island, Durundur and Deebing Creek (near Ipswich). Another 50 “half-caste” girls were placed in institutions like Wooloowin’s Magdalen Asylum and St Vincent’s Catholic orphanage at Nudgee. Reserve blacks came from every part of Queensland and Meston proudly boasted he had practiced “severe economy”.

Meston and son Harold managed Fraser Island like a penal colony with discipline sternly applied and inmates “encouraged” to hunt food for themselves. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions and debilitation brought disease and a high death rate. The government, hearing about violence at the camp, removed the Mestons and gave it to the Anglican Church. Queensland’s indigenous population was so large, a third protector, Alexander Gordon, was appointed to manage the west from Boulia. However proposals to establish a western reserve were ruled out as too expensive. The furthest settlement west was Taroom in the Upper Dawson, created in 1911 but closed down within 10 years. Barambah (later Cherbourg) established in 1904 became the main reserve in the south after the closure of Durundur and Fraser Island.

Gordon was not particularly active and Meston complained that he never left Boulia. Meston roamed southern and western Queensland arranging to remove local blacks over the protests of station managers. He supported an amendment to the 1897 Act introduced in 1901 to prevent Aboriginal marriages without the protector’s permit saying he had a “strong aversion to the admixture of black and white races”. That act remained on Queensland statutes until 1972.

Meston’s self-appointed role as “expert on Aborigines” had mixed success. In 1907, he stood for election in the Cape York seat of Cook but was soundly defeated. Three years later he was appointed director of the Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau in Sydney. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of chief protector of Aborigines in the NT. He eventually died of tetanus infection in Brisbane in 1924, aged 72.

His legacy was compulsory segregation which dominated Queensland’s 20th century Aboriginal policy. Meston wanted to help Aboriginal people. But as Gordon Reid says, his rigid idealisation would not allow him to accept their ability to adapt to new circumstances. Queensland’s inflexible protection system held Aboriginal people in a historical vacuum, “unchanging in a changing world”.

Meston’s Proposal was advanced for its time, though it brought together ingredients brewing in Queensland for half a century. It ended the gruesome reign of the native police and genuinely tried to help Aboriginal people. Its great fault, as Reid said, was it lasted long after its need passed. Queensland would spend more on Aboriginal health and housing than other Australian government. But it also cleared people from their land, provided a cheap labour pool and severely restricted personal freedoms.

These aims of protection, removal and exploitation were too contradictory. Power over concentration camps at Cherbourg, Woorabinda and Palm Island was something premier Bjelke-Petersen was reluctant to concede in the 1970s. “We want them set aside in black man’s country – we want them to live exactly like we do”. Joh’s paternalism was a direct link to Archibald Meston. It took the threat of an African boycott of Brisbane’s beloved Commonwealth games to scrap the last vestige of legal protection in 1982. Queensland’s Indigenous people were finally free.

See the earlier parts:

Part 1: Historical background

Part 2: Queensland’s violent frontier

Part 3: The squatters’ inquiry

Part 4: the influence of Gideon Lang

Part 5: The Drew and Hale Commissions

Part 6: The empty years (1870s-1880s)

Part 7: Archibald Meston

Part 8: Horace Tozer

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