The enduring popularity of the Knights Templar

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon have an extraordinarily profile for a military order that lasted only two centuries and has been defunct for last 700 years. Better known as the Knights Templar they were created to help enforce the Crusades to Palestine in the early 12th century and were dissolved by papal decree in the early 14th century, they have a durable cultural appeal appearing in the last week alone in such unlikely places as the Assassin’s Creed video game, the Holy Grail mythology and a new book of historical fiction. In their 200 years of existence they grew extremely powerful the speed of which was only matched by the downfall. Geordie Torr explores the mysteries around them in his book The Templars.

Like the Knights Hospitallers, the Templars were founded out of policing need during the Crusades. The Crusades began out of the the need to protect pilgrims heading from Europe to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Pilgrimage was always a dangerous business subject to shipwrecks, robbery and murder. From the 7th century on, Muslim forces controlled the land route but initially left Christians travellers and natives in peace. By the 11th century they began to be seen as infidels with forced conversions and anti-Christian laws. In 1009 the Egyptian ruler of Jerusalem ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the supposed site of Calvary. Throughout the 11th century the Middle East grew increasingly lawless. Constantinople was the sole bulwark and although the Byzantine Empire clawed back losses to the Muslims late in the century they asked for more help from the west.

Pope Urban II convened the Council of Clermont in 1095 calling Christians to take up arms to liberate the Holy Land. What became known as the first Crusade a year later was a mostly French affair as England was preoccupied with the Norman Conquest while Spain was dealing with its own Muslim invasion. After two years of travel and fighting the French force reached Jerusalem in 1099 and breached the walls after an eight-day siege, massacring the local Muslim and Jewish population. Only 300 of the 1500 knights stayed on in the new Kingdom of Jerusalem and new Frankish king Baldwin I’s most pressing problem was to ensure the safety of returning pilgrims.

Jerusalem was the main Christian kingdom but there were three others: County of Edessa (Turkey/Syria), principality of Antioch (southern Turkey) and the County of Tripoli (Lebanon) which looked after the land routes. Together the four were known as Outremer (French for overseas). Soldiers and rulers in Outremer were French while commercial operations were run by Italians. Plans to create a force of knights to protect pilgrims began in 1114. Hugh de Troyes count of Champagne met Baldwin in his own pilgrimage and instructed his vassal Hugh de Payns to form an order of military monks. De Payns recruited from pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre which they helped rebuild. In 1119 nine knights including de Payns formed the confraternity Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ pledging to protect Jerusalem by force.

They were based at the Temple Mount, which gave them the familiar name of Templars. The site is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Templars moved into the Al Aqsa mosque, the former Temple of Solomon. In the early days they survived on alms accepting leftovers from the Knights Hospitallers, another quasi-military order which was set up to aid sick pilgrims. In 1126 King Baldwin II wrote to influential Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux describing the Templar order seeking his support to send some members back to Europe to lobby the pope for funding. De Payns and others travelled to France and England attracting new recruits and donations. Bernard became a major ally calling them “fearless knights” who kept Jerusalem open for pilgrims and in 1129 he urged the Council of Troyes to issue the Templars a white uniform signifying purity (the red cross was later added to the tunic) and a set of rules including the right to own land, which would make the order very wealthy. Ten years later a papal bull approved the rules saying they answered only to the pope.

The Templars had a mostly defensive role in the Kingdom of Jerusalem but a new Muslim leader Nur ad-Din was about to make life more difficult in the Outremer. He failed to take Damascus but Edessa did fall to him after a siege in 1144. Bernard of Clairview led a call for a second Crusade and large French and German armies set off in 1147. When they arrived in the Middle East they decided Damascus was a more inviting target than Edessa but a 50,000 strong army was routed there by Nur ad-Din’s forces. There was bitter recriminations at the Crusade’s failure with the German blaming the Templars while the French stuck by them.

Defeat led to a hunkering down in Jerusalem. The Templars were responsible for Outremer’s castles but were also dragged into battle defending Gaza from the Egyptians with the siege of Ascalon and further north setting up a military base in Tortosa. Ad-Din was a constant thorn in the side of the Franks invading Antioch’s territory leaving only a rump state around the city. There was also a new enemy to contend with Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin. While Templar cavalry had a victory over him at Montgisard, Saladin recovered to command a huge army at Hattin in Galilee where he took advantage of intemperate defenders to surround the Templar army depleting the remaining Crusader castles in the process. Jerusalem had to surrender to him in 1187. The Templar headquarters were reconsecrated as the Al Aqsa mosque and the large golden cross over the Dome of the Rock was pulled down. The Franks had a handful of castles left to keep a toehold in the Holy Land.

The fall of Jerusalem led to a third crusade led by the kings of England, France and Germany. Crusaders put the garrison at Acre under siege in 1188 though they themselves were surrounded on land by Saladin’s forces. The siege was broken by the sea arrival of English King Richard’s forces including a large contingent of Templars. Richard accepted the surrender of the garrison and marched south. He captured Jaffa but decided against an attack on Jerusalem thinking he could not hold on to it. In 1192 he and Saladin signed the treaty of Jaffa, a three year truce to guarantee the safety of pilgrims and continued Christian ownership of the coast between Tyre and Jaffa. Richard went home and Saladin died a year later.

Despite the truce, Pope Innocent III called for a Fourth Crusade, this time against Egypt but there was little enthusiasm. Ironically a powerful earthquake in 1202 led to a period of peace with both sides preoccupied with reconstruction. Undeterred the pope called for a Fifth Crusade against Egypt in 1213. A large European army assembled but had no central control. They captured the Egyptian port of Damietta and marched on Cairo but were trapped in rising Nile floodwaters with defenders opening the sluice gates. While the invaders argued among themselves, many drowned or were slaughtered.

The war was ended with a truce that saw the Crusaders leave Egypt and led to another treaty where they regained Jerusalem without a fight. The holy city would remain unfortified and Muslims retained control of the Temple Mount. Both sides broke the terms of the wider truce and the pope called for yet another Crusade. The Franks regained control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and much of Galilee. Infighting between Hospitallers and Templars didn’t help their cause and in a battle at La Forbie near Gaza Muslims killed 5000 Christian soldiers effectively ending their power in Outremer. Jerusalem changed hands again. The second half of the 13th century was a long slow loss of the remainder of the Holy Land. A seventh Crusade got bogged down in Egypt. The eighth and ninth Crusades were a rabble. Antioch, the Franks’ first state, fell after a siege in 1267.

The dominoes fell. First Tripoli in 1288, then Acre in 1291. The last outpost was the off-shore island of Ruad guarded by 120 Templar knights. A fleet of galleys laid siege and it fell in 1302 bringing 202 years of European occupation of the Middle East to an end. The Templars moved to Cyprus but their time was almost up too. A new French pope Clement V wasn’t a bishop but elected through the manipulation of King of France Philip IV. Philip was jealously eyeing off Templar properties and inherited a large debt he owed to the Templars. In 1307 he ordered their properties raided and all Templars arrested. As they answered only to the pope, Philip was exceeding his authority but he relied on the forced confessions of heresy to make it a fait accompli the pope could not question. While the pope prevaricated, Philip threatened military action and in 1312 Clement issued a papal bull to suppress the order. He also turned over their assets to their rivals the Hospitallers. The edict was followed with less force outside France though all property was eventually confiscated. In Iberia where the Templars fought the Reconquista against the Moors they were protected from prosecution and formed new orders.

At its peak the Templars had 15,000 to 20,000 members. Although a military order, few members took part in fighting. Most helped manage the order’s administration and business interests. Individuals took a vow of poverty but the order itself had no restrictions and coffers swelled from donations. They also benefited from taxes in the Crusader states. The English Templars became major creditors and wool traders. By 1312 they held property in most English counties and the Temple Church in London still survives.

Their first mention in literature was in Wolfram von Eschenach’s Parzival (c1220)`based on Chretian des Troyes’ Perceval the Story of the Grail. Parzival expands on des Troyes idea of the Grail as a Chalice of Jesus’ blood by suggesting the Templars guarded it at one of their castles. The mystery around the organisation and the speed of their demise fed rumours around their continued survival and what they learned at Temple Mount. Early 18th century Scottish-born senior French Freemason Andrew Ramsay concocted a Freemason history that included connections with Crusading knights stating “every Mason is a Knight Templar”. German masons also claimed the Templars gained secret wisdom in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem saying that before the final grand master was burned at the stake, he ordered that information to taken from the Paris temple and hidden. Some believed that information ended up in Scotland.

Conspiracy theories went into overdrive in 1797 when Jesuit Augustin Barruel linked the Templars with the Illuminati, a group of radical Bohemian intellectuals. He claimed a Templar-Freemason-Illuminati plot was behind the French Revolution to destabilise the Catholic Church and European monarchies. In the 19th century American temperance societies named themselves for Templars because they were crusading against alcohol. In 1867 archaeologists found Templar artifacts including a sword and a cross in a shaft under the Dome of the Rock, leading to more theories of items of even greater religious significance there.

Fiction writers including Walter Scott enjoyed mining Templar legend for their stories. But Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln went overboard with their The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (1982) concocting a fanciful link from the Masons to the Templars and back to Jesus. Writer Anthony Burgess thought the work was “a marvelous theme for a novel”. Dan Brown agreed borrowing many of its theories for his bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003). The Holy Blood authors sued Brown for plagiarism but the judge argued because they presented their book as a historical study, it was open to interpretation and use in fiction without copyright infringement. Umberto Eco took a more playful tone in his absurdist Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) which notes that one surefire way to conjure up a conspiracy theory was to invoke the Templars.

It is no surprise they turn up in video games such as Assassin’s Creed. The Templars’ hold on popular imagination shows no sign of waning 700 years after their disappearance.

Roger Casement: Flawed hero

Roger Casement is escorted to the gallows in 1916.

London’s former Bow Street Magistrates Court is now a luxury hotel owned by an Irish company which is appropriate as the building has played an important and recurring role in Irish history. Over the years, the court has tried the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, Nazi propagandist William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement. If Wilde is probably the most famous dead gay Irishman in history, Casement is surely the second (Leo Varadkar may change that equation some day).

Casement is mostly unknown these days but he was an Irish patriot, poet and revolutionary, and an important human rights advocate who also happened to be a British diplomat. His investigations carried out on behalf of the Foreign Office, into outrages committed against indigenous people enslaved to supply rubber for a new age of western manufacturing, brought him respect and renown. In 1911, he was knighted for his courage and integrity in his duties and his name and reputation were associated with the long struggle against international slavery.

Yet in 1916 Britain hanged Roger Casement for treason. He had been arrested in Kerry after trying to smuggle in 20,000 guns from a German U-Boat for the Irish republican cause. Casement got the death sentence despite being a knight of the realm who had served a long and distinguished 30 year career in the British Foreign Service. He was British Consul for Mozambique (1895-98), Angola (1898-1900), Congo (1901-04) and Brazil (1906-11). He gained international recognition for fighting slave labour in the Belgian Congo in 1903 and in the Amazon in 1910.

None of this counted in his defence despite Casement becoming a cause celebre in the Bow St trial. Many of his famous friends initially leaped to sing his praises. However the prosecution produced a startling document that stopped the campaign to save him, dead in its tracks.

Casement was a fervent diary writer and often stayed up late at night to fill in two and sometimes three different diaries. Firstly there was the official diary for his work as consul; secondly there was his private diary known as the “White Diaries” in which gave a detailed account of his activities against the slave trade in the Congo and the Amazon. However the third diary was the most damaging in the trial and was deliberately leaked by the prosecution. These diaries known as the “Black Diaries” were kept for the years of 1903, 1910 and 1911, during his missions in the Belgian Congo and Brazil. These diaries recounted his sexual conquests and discussed their penis size in great detail. It was the publication of these diaries that hung Roger Casement. The existence of these diaries and whether or not they are forgeries remains controversial to this day.

Roger Casement was born of Ulster Protestant army stock in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) County Dublin, in 1864. His mother Anne Jephson was Catholic who secretly re-baptised her son when he was three. Both his parents died before he was 13 and he was brought up by an uncle in Magherintemple, Co. Cavan. After leaving school he was sent overseas on a family company ship, the SS Bonny, making three round trips to West Africa.

Casement returned to Africa in 1884 as an employee of the International Association a collection of committees dedicated to “civilising” the Congo, under the chairmanship of Belgium’s King Leopold. Casement returned from this assignment disillusioned with Leopold’s intentions for the Congo. The king was taking the profits from the rubber trade and turning the colony into his personal fiefdom. Casement joined the Consular service in 1892 aged 28. His first job was in the Oil Rivers Protectorate (now Nigeria). He was promoted to Consul in Lourenço Marques, capital of Portuguese Mozambique, in 1895.

In 1903, Casement travelled back to the Congo to report on the slavery situation there. His subsequent report was a damning indictment of King Leopold’s personal kingdom. Casement said Leopold used his agents in Africa to establish a brutal exploitative regime for the extraction of rubber, the profits of which he used to beautify Brussels. Casement visited Lukolela where in the 16 years since he was last there a population of 5000 was reduced to 600. This catastrophic decline was due, said Casement, “to sleeping-sickness, general ill-health, insufficiency of food, and the methods employed to obtain labor from them by local officials”.

In a 40 page report, Casemont proved killings and mutilations were commonplace as well as kidnapping and beatings by soldiers of Leopold’s native force. It was presented to parliament and Britain sent it to Belgium which had signed the Berlin Act in 1885. That act governed European intervention in Africa and specifically suppressed slavery. The Congo administration was forced to investigate the atrocities which led to the arrest and punishment of white officials responsible for the killings, scapegoats for Leopold. Casement returned home a hero where he began to look at issues in his own backyard and find the first stirrings of Irish nationalism.

Nonetheless he diligently applied service to the Empire. He transferred to South America in 1906 and became Consul of Sao Paolo’s port city Santos. He moved to Rio two years later where he heard reports of another slave trade. This time the victims were the Putumayo River Indians in the Amazon Basin. The Putumayo is a major river in its own right, 1900km long, rising in the west coast mountains of Colombia, forming the border with Peru and joining the Amazon in Brazil as the Içá. As in the Congo, the locals were enslaved to service the rubber export trade. British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company owned by Peruvian Julio Cesar Arana monopolised trade. PAC enslaved tribal peoples using the local form of debt bondage known as peonage with reports of rape, murder and torture of the Indian tappers.

In May 1910 the Foreign Office asked Casement to draw on his Congo experience and investigate the Amazon claims. Britain was careful not to infringe the Monroe Doctrine and upset American sensibilities. It justified the investigation on the grounds of PAC’s brutality of Barbadian British subjects. Casement made meticulous examinations of the area in 1910 and 1911 and he issued the 1242 page Putumayo Report in 1912. It was another damning indictment of the rubber slave trade. He calculated 30,000 natives had been murdered directly or killed by deliberate starvation brought by crop destruction. A parliamentary inquiry demanded Arana’s imprisonment. Arana fled back to Peru until the First World War put an end to the inquiry.

In 1913 Casement was knighted for his British heroism and eulogised from the pulpit at Westminster Abbey. But Casement was quickly dropping his British side. He resigned from the Service in 1913 and launched himself into Irish politics. In 1914 he made a speech to the Limerick Volunteers on his experiences during the Boer War (1899-1902) where he was an intelligence officer. He said the Boers were a volunteer army and put up the “greatest fight against the greatest army in the world.” Casement said he had gone into the war in support of the empire but by the end he was a supporter of the Boers. The war led led to his rejection of the oppressive forces of empire and to embrace the dreams of an independent and sovereign Ireland, where a new form of international compassion might flourish.

When the Northern Irish Unionists imported weapons in their fight to avoid Home Rule, Casement was inspired to do the same for the Nationalists. En route to Berlin, he was betrayed by his Norwegian manservant and lover Adler Christensen who told the British consul in Christiana (renamed Oslo in 1923) the true nature of both their relationship and the mission they were on.

Casement got little help from the Germans who saw him as trouble and who were glad to return him to Ireland on a U-Boat. They also sent 20,000 guns on a German boat disguised as the Norwegian “Aud Norge”. Britain intercepted telegraphic dispatches that announced Casement’s return. He was put ashore on Banna Strand near Tralee Co. Kerry. The local volunteers were not there to meet him having expected him to land on a different beach. Casement hid in the nearby abandoned McKenna Fort where he was found and arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Casement was taken to the Tower of London and charged with treason. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The Black Diaries of his homosexual encounters in Congo and South America were used to prevent a reprieve. In his famous speech from the dock Casement claimed judicial assassinations were reserved for Irishmen. “The law that I am charged under has no parentage in love, and claims the allegiance of today on the ignorance and blindness of the past,” he told the judge.

It fell on deaf ears. He was convicted and executed August 3, 1916, a month short of his 52nd birthday and was buried in quicklime. From 1924 onwards, Irish governments supported the Casement family’s petition for his body to be returned home for burial in County Antrim. But with Antrim in partitioned Northern Ireland it made more sense to send his body to the Republic. He was finally returned to Ireland by new British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1965. Casement was re-interred under a simple, dignified slab at Glasnevin National cemetery in Dublin in a state funeral as an Irish hero. The funeral stepped delicately around the diaries.

The British allowed Michael Collins to see the Black Diaries during the 1921 Treaty negotiations. Fellow negotiator Eamon Duggan said Collins recognised Casement’s handwriting and said it was “disgusting”. The British placed the diaries under Official Secrets Act and De Valera, anxious to protect Casement’s reputation, refused to ask for them. The diaries were finally published in Paris in 1959. The Congo diaries made reference to “Agostinho, 17 ½ ‘kissed many times”. The 1910 diary had him ‘deep to the hilt’ and ‘in very deep thrusts’ with Brazilian natives. Penis size was a constant fixation. Mario in Rio was 8 ½ + 6”, the biggest since 1904 and “perfectly huge” while Welsh Will in London was a “splendid 6’ 3 1/2” .

Those anxious to protect Casement’s growing reputation denounced the Black Diaries as forgeries and a British conspiracy. They claimed the diary could be disproved by internal analysis as well as handwriting analysis and was in any case someone else’s diary. The view was most widespread in Ireland where horror of homosexuality remained common. In 1997 Angus Mitchell’s analysis of the three Putamayo diaries said Casement had been the victim of “a brilliant, though sinister, scheme hatched by British ntelligence to prevent him attaining martyrdom upon his execution for treason in 1916”.

In 2002 the results of the first ever fully independent forensic examination of the Black Diaries (commissioned by the BBC and RTE) were announced in London. Dr Audrey Giles, an internationally respected figure in the field of document forensics said: “The unequivocal and confident conclusion which the Giles Document Laboratory has reached is that each of the five documents collectively known as the Black Diaries is exclusively the work of Roger Casement’s hand, without any reason to suspect either forgery or interpolation by any other hand. The Diaries are genuine throughout and in each instance”.


It should not matter whether they are true or not. Roger Casement should be judged on his magnificent human rights record, not his personal life.

From Townsville to Cairns

I’ve done the northernmost 400km or so of the Bruce Hwy from Townsville to Cairns numerous times and these photos are impressions gathered from different journeys. Townsville does not have the same tourist cachet as Cairns but has plenty of charms of its own and no little history. Jezzine Fort looks offshore to the magnificent Magnetic Island but this view looks inland to Castle Hill. Jezzine Barracks has been home to Australian military units for over 120 years and the site was a crucial defence outpost in the Second World War and the American connection is celebrated today. Along the path is a diagram of the battle of the Coral Sea which was supplied from Townsville. A lesser known tale occurred when 600 African-American troops came to the city to help build airfields but mutinied against racist officers. After a siege lasting eight hours, sparked by taunts and violence the mutineers machine gunned the officers tents killing one and injuring a dozen others.

About 60km north of Townsville is Paluma National Park. To get there you need to leave the highway and drive up Mount Spec Rd and cross Little Crystal Creek Bridge. Both the road and bridge are heritage listed. Townsville Council lobbied the government to build the road in the 1930s to secure the water supply. They were constructed at the height of the Great Depression, using mostly unskilled labour funded by the Unemployment Relief Scheme. A township at Paluma was established in 1934 and the road officially opened in 1937. For the bridge, engineers decided that rather than make it out of timber, they would build a masonry arch to “harmonise with a rather picturesque spot.”

The first major town north of Townsville is Ingham, 110km away. Situated on the Herbert River it is the administrative centre for the Hinchinbrook Shire in the heart of sugar cane country. There is a strong Italian population with an Australian-Italian Festival on the first weekend in August each year. Just off the highway on the way into town is the Tyto Wetlands, a 90-hectare natural wetland with lookouts and viewing points to see the 250 species of birds, native Australian wildlife and numerous tropical plants. The area is named for the endangered Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto Longimembris). The Hinchinbrook Shire is one of the few places in the world where this owl can be spotted regularly leaving their grassy habitat on dusk.

Off the highway east of Ingham is the port of Lucinda. The port exports raw sugar grown in the Ingham district. It is equipped with on-shore sugar handling and storage facilities, as well as a single trestle jetty and conveyor running out to an off-shore berth and shiploader. The 6km-long sugar jetty is the world’s largest bulk sugar loading facility. The town and adjacent point are named for the Queensland government paddle steamer Lucinda, built 1884. Lucinda is now the gateway to the Aboriginal community on Palm Island.

Back on the Bruce Hwy we climb over the Cardwell range on the way north. At the top there are two lookouts, the Hinchinbrook Lookout and the Panjoo lookout in Girringun National Park. This is Bandjin country and “Panjoo” means nice or beautiful place. The view is terrific out past the Seymour River to Hinchinbrook Island.

There is another view of Hinchinbrook Island from the foreshore at Cardwell, one of the few places where the Bruce Hwy hugs the Pacific Ocean (an honour it shares with Clairview and Bowen). There had been a bushfire on the island the day before I took this photo and the smoke is still visible. Cardwell was originally named Port Hinchinbrook and proclaimed a town in 1864, the first port north of Bowen. George Dalrymple renamed the port for Edward Cardwell, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The port remains the jumping off point for the four day walking through Hinchinbrook Island National Park. The town suffered big damage in Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

Inland from Cardwell is another beautiful spot at Girramay National Park. The clear waters of the Murray River cascade 20-30m over boulders into rock pools in this picturesque spot where rainforest-clad mountains meet tropical lowlands in the scenic foothills of the Kirrama Range. The river and falls are named for British Native Police officer John Murray. The falls might be overdue a new name. Murray was renowned for conducting large and well organised punitive missions against Aboriginals north of Gladstone

In the shadow of Mount Tyson some 50km north of Cardwell is Tully in Djirbal country. Like the nearby river it was named for Surveyor-General William Alcock Tully in the 1870s. Sugar cane and bananas dominate the local economy with a big mill in town. The average annual rainfall exceeds 4000 millimetres making Tully arguably the wettest town in Australia.

From Tully to Innisfail is a short and uneventful trip up the highway but there are two more interesting routes. The inland route passes via the extraordinary Paronella Park, which I’ve written about before. The coastal deviation meanwhile, goes past Mission Beach. Mission Beach got its name from the Hull River Aboriginal Settlement set up around 1914. It was a government settlement rather than a religious mission but had a chequered history and about 200 people died there in 1917 during an epidemic. Then a year later it was destroyed by a cyclone and authorities moved the mission to Palm Island. Today Mission Beach is a string of villages that together service the tourist industry to nearby Dunk Island and the Great Barrier Reef. The photo below is of Perry Harvey jetty on Narragon Beach heading towards the lookout on Bicton Hill.

Another 50km north of Tully is Innisfail where the North Johnstone and South Johnstone Rivers meet. Innisfail is in Mamu country but is named for the Irish Inis Fáil “island of destiny” a metonym for Ireland itself. It is the largest town between Townsville and Cairns, important for the sugar and banana industries like Tully, and subject to heavy rainfall totals in monsoon season, also like Tully. Irishman Thomas Henry Fitzgerald gave the town its name in 1879 but like Ingham it attracted a lot of Italian labourers in the 20th century. In 1959 the local Italian community commissioned a memorial to celebrate the centenary of Queensland. Benato Beretta, an instructor at the Carrara Academy of the Arts, designed the monument of white marble of a life-sized man cutting cane by hand. Innisfail is in cyclone country and was smashed by Cyclone Larry in 2006.

The road north of Innisfail takes us through satellite towns of Cairns such as Babinba, Gordonvale and Edmonton. A stand out feature easily seen from the highway is the 922m high Walsh’s Pyramid, an independent peak with a distinct pyramidal appearance, 20km south of Cairns in Wooroonooran National Park. There is a walking track to the summit. The distinct pyramid appearance is obvious from this view from the north.

Another detour off to the east towards Cape Grafton brings us to the Aboriginal settlement of Yarrabah. Traditionally Yagaljida in the Yidin language spoken by the Yidinji people, Yarrabah became the site of an Anglican Church Mission led by Ernest Gribble in 1893. Gribble had a rare reputation for kindness and the mission quickly attracted wider interest. Later leaders were not as accommodating and in 1957, residents staged a strike to protest poor working conditions, inadequate food, health problems and harsh administration. The church expelled the ringleaders but a few years later, Queensland assumed state control of the mission. In 1986, the community received Deed of Grant in Trust land tenure, making it subject to the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984, which allowed for self-governing Aboriginal Community Councils with a range of powers and controls over the land. In 2005, the Council became an “Aboriginal Shire” and gained the authority of a legal local government.

A detour in the opposite direction takes us to Kuranda on the Barron River where the Barron Falls are spectacular especially in the wet season. But for most of the year like when this photo was taken  little more than a trickle is evident, due to a weir behind the head of the falls that supplies the Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station downstream in the gorge..There is a walking path from Kuranda to the falls and they can also be seen from the Kuranda Scenic Railway which stops briefly at the Falls lookout on its journey from Cairns.

Cairns marks the end of the 1700km Bruce Hwy from Brisbane. Cairns’ access to the reef and the rainforest makes it the international tourist hub of North Queensland (which is why it is suffering particularly during the pandemic with a billion dollar economic hit in 2020 alone). Situated on the mudflats of Trinity Bay (named by Cook after the Christian holy day Trinity Sunday on June 10, 1770), Cairns city does not have a beach (though outlying suburbs do) so the pool at the Esplanade is always popular and can be swum in any season without worrying about marine stingers, crocodiles or sharks.

Situated 50km north of Cairns on the Captain Cook Hwy to Port Douglas, the Rex Lookout is strictly speaking beyond the remit of this “Townsville to Cairns” post. But so what. Named for Douglas shire councillor Raymond Rex who lobbied to build the highway as another Depression-era project, the lookout point over Trinity Bay has become a popular spot for hang gliders to jump from, as well as a must-stop meeting point for travellers and their cameras.

Queensland takeover of Norfolk Island

A curious item of news last week was Queensland looking to take over the administration of Norfolk Island. Currently New South Wales manage health and education services on the island in return for federal government funding. However, the deal is set to expire this year and with NSW apparently reluctant to continue, Queensland is in talks to take over with the state government looking to add to Queensland’s tourism portfolio, an island that lies 1500km due east of Byron Bay.

Kingston on Norfolk Island.

If Queensland do get the nod, perhaps their first task will be sorting out Norfolk Island’s anomalous status as something that is simultaneously Australian and not-Australian. The island is served only by Air New Zealand from Brisbane and Sydney international airports and while officially you don’t need a passport, it helps to have one as you go through the intimidating Border Force checkpoints. And Department of Agriculture biosecurity officers will also be carefully watching what organic matter you want to take onto the island with a strictness you don’t find when crossing from Queensland to NSW.

There are other ways Norfolk Island is not considered part of Australia. It has its own flag, its own international dial code +672 and its own telecoms company Norfolk Telecom (currently rolling out 4G which went live last month). It has its own police force (not part of NSW) though it takes some officers from the Australian Federal Police. And its voters help elect the member for Bean in Canberra, not a NSW seat.

The issue of treating Norfolk Island like a foreign country is that like last week you may not be able to get to it (or off it) at all. Despite the fact that Brisbane, Sydney and Norfolk Island are community COVID-free you could not travel to and from there for a week. The only carrier Air New Zealand suspended its services after Australia stopped quarantine-free flights as New Zealand health authorities sought to trace new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases. There was a week before flights were able to resume. That has left tourists stranded on the island or residents struggling to get home. Qantas operated 10 repatriation flights over four days from Sunday but longer term the island is subject – unnecessarily – to the vagaries of international travel.

Of course there are plenty of people on the island that would be quite happy for the island to be seen as independent of Australia. Norfolk Island was a self-governing territory for 36 years but the federal government abolished its legislative assembly after it went broke in May 2015. It was replaced with a local government administration, similar to a regional council, and became part of NSW. The decision was opposed by most of the island’s 1700 residents at the time.

Islanders claim Norfolk gained a form of independence when Queen Victoria granted permission to Pitcairn Islanders to re-settle on the island in 1856. These views have been repeatedly rejected by the Australian parliament’s joint committee on territories, most recently in 2004, and were also rejected by the High Court of Australia in the income tax case Berwick Ltd v Gray. That case ruled Norfolk Island was a Territory placed by the Crown under the authority of the Commonwealth. In 1856 it was made a separate settlement administered by the Governor of New South Wales who was appointed Governor of Norfolk Island.

Then in 1897 an Order in Council directed that “in prospect of the future annexation of that island to the colony of New South Wales, or to any federal body of which that colony may hereafter form part, in the meantime the affairs of the island should be administered by the Governor of New South Wales”. The Order in Council empowered the Governor of New South Wales to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island and, according to the High Court, “makes it abundantly clear that Norfolk Island forms part of the Commonwealth of Australia.”

But even if Norfolk Islanders are reluctant Australians they may prefer be reluctant Queenslanders. People north of the Tweed often make a big deal of being Queenslanders first and Australians second. It is a view Norfolk Islanders may have some empathy with.