Maralinga: The shame of Australian nuclear testing Part 1

Australia's first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.
Australia’s first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.

With the world remembering the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs in Japan, reading Frank Walker’s book Maralinga proved a timely reminder of Australia’s own nuclear shame. In the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies colluded with the British government to turn Australia into a giant nuclear experiment and its nine million people into guinea pigs.

Britain had been frozen out of the American nuclear testing program for good reason: many of its intelligence officers were double agents working for the Soviets. Britain needed a site for its post-war testing program and Australia’s remoteness, friendliness and utter compliance fitted the bill. The site it chose was the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of WA. On September 16, 1950 British prime minister Clement Attlee cabled Menzies to see if Australia would agree to the testing and for British “experts” to conduct reconnaissance of the islands. They wanted to drop the bomb in October 1952, and expected winds would take the radioactive cloud out to sea. Attlee said the area would be contaminated for “three years”.

Incredibly, without bothering to consult anyone, Menzies responded with an enthusiastic yes. There was no Australian oversight and Britain had total control of safety. After winning an election in 1951, Menzies finally announced the news to the public in February 1952 saying there was no danger to the public, but did not say where it would happen. There was no debate, instead the mood was one of excitement and the press speculated on the likely site (most assumed it would be at Woomera rocket range in SA). Parliament quickly passed a bill to deny Australians entry to huge zones of the country that might be used for testing.

Menzies painted a rosy picture of equal partnership but Australians provided labour and land only. There was a third secret use of Aussies: as lab rats for British nuclear experiments. Australia’s leading nuclear expert physicist Mark Oliphant was barred from the program for having the temerity to be publicly “appalled” at the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan. Instead Australia’s head scientist was the Briton Ernest Titterton who helped developed the US bomb. Titterton was an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons and his biggest fear was they might be stopped.

The ageing British Navy frigate HMS Plym was donated to be the carrier of the first atomic bomb in Australia. It sailed from Britain with the frame of the bomb while the radioactive core was flown to Australia. WA newspapers had wind of something big happening at Monte Bello as British and Australians built buildings and structures for the test. The nearest mainland town, Onslow, became packed with journalists as the big day approached. The day itself depended on the wind conditions when it was blowing north-west towards Indonesia (which wasn’t a concern). At 8am on October 3, 1952 officers sent an electronic signal to spark the explosives around the plutonium core.

The 25 kiloton blast disintegrated the Plym and created a seven meter deep crater in the seabed. Witnesses saw a blinding electric blue light and many reported seeing the bones of their hands.  The 4km high cloud formed a Z shape rather than the more familiar mushroom cloud. While the wind initially took it west, it changed direction and took it back towards the mainland. Under the strictest secrecy, Australian and British soldiers were ordered into the blast area to pick up pieces of the Plym and put them into drums. They wore no protective gear and were not tested for radiation.

The bomb was front page news and it was all positive. The West Australian praised Britain’s skill in providing “a reliable shield for the Commonwealth”. Closer to the scene, sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, many of which were scooped up and cooked. Only a day later did the captain get orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many of their families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned that some degree of risk had to be run to get the full value of the test. Meanwhile fallout spread across northern Australia reaching Cairns and Townsville on the east coast.

Even before Monte Bello, Menzies approved further testing on the mainland. The area chosen was Emu Field, about 650km north-west of Woomera. The date set was 12 months on from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they have to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what goes on inside. They were told it might affect sterility and were offered the chance to turn it down. None did. When the bomb was detonated on the ground, the RAAF men were in the air 20km away and the explosion nearly tore the planes apart. They turned towards the mushroom cloud and proceeded to take photos. When they went inside the cloud, it was like entering a tornado. They were “entering the gates of hell”, as one airman put it. Under British orders they were told to re-enter the cloud a second time.

When they finally landed, they were greeted by scientists in space suits breathing with oxygen bottles who wouldn’t come near the pilots. Instead they wanted the canisters attached to the planes and flew them direct to England. The pilots realised they were lab rats. They were forced to continue the mission to track the radioactive cloud across Australian which drifted east. One pilot said the cloud stayed over one Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed.  As at Monte Bello, soldiers were forced to enter the bomb zone without protection to conduct clean-up operations while Geiger counters “went berserk”.

Northern SA is the home of the Yankunytjatjara people. Around 170km north-west of Emu Field, 11-year-old Yami Lester heard a huge bang in the distance. The following morning a big black cloud rolled in like a dust storm. Lester told the 1985 Royal Commission it frightened his people and he could feel sticky dirt from the black mist. People felt sick and had sore and watery eyes. Many died in the following days. Lester became blind but doctors dismissed a link with the bomb. It was an experience repeated across the north of the state. But Aboriginal people did not have a vote in 1953 and no one cared about their plight, nor the plight of Australian military personnel in harm’s way. Menzies hailed the bomb a great success. Progress was too important, as was Australian toadying to Britain.

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. An impatient Meston wrote to Tozer chastising him for lack of action, threatening to run again for parliament at the next election. Tozer was worried it would become a large social welfare system at the government’s expense. Stalling for time, he 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.

In Parry-Okeden’s February 1897 report, he 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 would be 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 passed through parliament without drama, 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, he retired 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 on those, 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. Removals at the reserves came from every part of Queensland and Meston proudly boasted he had practiced “severe economy”.

Meston and his 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, took management from 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 local 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 again 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 at home in Brisbane in 1924, aged 72.

His legacy was the principle of compulsory segregation which dominated Queensland’s Aboriginal policies in the 20th century. Meston was inspired by a desire 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

Why Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour

I was halfway through writing this post when I saw an article from Paul Daley in the Guardian which expresses my opinion more eloquently than I could hope for. To understand the Adam Goodes booing, you have to understand Australia’s history. The matter did not begin on a football field, but in our attitudes, Daley said and cultural sensitivity was never white Australia’s strong point. Many prefer not to know the problem.

That was brought home to me in a vox pop on ABC’s Brisbane local radio station yesterday. There was a wide mix of opinions but the one that stood out was the lady who said in an exasperated tone she was sick of the subject and wished it would go away. When pressed to say was the booing “racist” she said flatly no, it wasn’t. It is a common view that Australia does not a problem with race and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.

But others do want to talk about it. Some defend the booing forcefully. The “whiny, needy, bullshit” as Guy Rundle called it of the arguments of convicted racist Andrew Bolt and others is “usurper’s complex”: victim blaming. Those who take power unlawfully must justify their acts – to themselves and others. It was Cecil the Lion’s fault for ruining the life of the man who killed him and the helicopter’s fault for thrashing Bronwyn Bishop’s reputation. So it is Adam Goodes who must change not the people doing the booing.

Like every great player in every team sport, Goodes was always the subject of “special attention” from opposition fans, little to do with his indigenous background. But the sustained booing he gets now dates to last year when as Australian of the Year status he urged people to see John Pilger’s Utopia. Pilger enrages many on the right because he puts himself into the argument. In my view, Utopia is flawed and does not give enough credence to the problems of de-colonisation. But Pilger’s subject matter deserves a voice and Goodes was right to recommend the film for its confronting approach to Australian history. This action enraged the right which attacked Goodes for his recommendation more than Pilger for his film. John Howard’s wish of a people “relaxed and comfortable” about their history could only exist on the notion of not telling the truth about that history.

The truth is we would be more comfortable with the real history. While Britain’s intervention came at enormous cost to the indigenous people it is a history that pre-dates racism. The British who arrived in 1788 felt superior to the Australians (likely the same was true of the Eora’s feelings of the British). However the newcomers preferred to explain the difference on cultural and environmental grounds. The marine Watkin Tench believed British education and enlightened thinking was all that separated them from the “savages” they saw in Botany Bay. There was no innate difference. “Untaught, unaccommodated man is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales,” Tench wrote.

The Creationist view of the 7000-year-old world underpinned the idea that Aboriginal people had only recently fallen from grace, and could and should be changed. Governor Lachlan Macquarie took this notion to its logical conclusion and formed Australia’s first mission in 1814 to civilise the native population and “render their Habits more domesticated and industrious”. Macquarie’s Native Institution failed but the idea of missionaries took hold from optimistic clergy who used “Gospel motives” to transform Aboriginal people. They all failed. Indigenous people remained disinterested and suspicious. They stayed only as long as they were fed.

The rise of science and European rage for classifying the world led to a new way of explaining human difference. In his 1775 book The Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Blumenbach came up with a system of five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American and Malay. The existence of Australia Aboriginal people was an awkward fact that did not fit the classifications. But by the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Caucasian superiority had taken root. Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) argued the other “races” were vestiges of past forms. Charles Lyell had proved the world was far older than 7000 years, rocking the biblical certainty of Adam and Eve. The pseudo-science of phrenology claimed Native Americans and Africans had no ability for civilisation while Darwin, following Lyell, assumed the Australian Aboriginal “variety of man” was becoming extinct when faced with “stronger” forms.

While books were slow to reach Australia’s frontier, the idea of racial inferiority began to supplement and eventually replace the original notion of Aboriginal “savagery”.  The publicity around the death of Pallawah woman Trugernanna led to inaccurate reports of the “last Tasmanian” and lent credence to the idea Australia’s native population was doomed. Inferiority and inevitable extinction were convenient crutches to explain what otherwise was the theft of an entire continent and wholesale ethnic cleansing.

Racial superiority was a core philosophy of the new nation of Australia in 1901 and dominated its first half-century. As historian Richard Broome said, it took the abominations of the Nazis for the world to formally reject notions of race as wrong and unscientific. Hair, eye and skin colour and the shape of facial features are a tiny component of our genetics and have no biological explanatory function. The 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice reminded the world humans are a “single species and are descended from common stock”.

By 1978, racism was on the wane in Australia. It remained strong in country areas, especially with large mixed populations, but government policy was empowering Aboriginal people. It got to the point that by the 1990s, reactionists like Pauline Hanson could campaign against Aboriginal “privilege”. The Nationals could also find outrage against native title while in the 2000s large populations could be still be painted as full of paedophiles, drug addicts and rapists. Race does not exist any more, but racism remains rife. It must tread carefully but still finds voice in Bolt critiques, Hansonism, “boong” jokes and other forms. Booing is a handy way of publicly being racist while retaining plausible deniability.

Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour by calling it out. Now, as Paul Daley says, Australia must confront the demons of its past and embrace Aboriginal culture. New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty should be the template. Without a treaty it is hard to imagine the entire cohort of an Australian school doing as a New Zealand school did, and conduct an indigenous war cry to farewell a much-loved indigenous teacher. It will never happen here until we accept the consequences of our history.

That Unhappy Race Part 8 – Horace Tozer accepts Meston’s Proposed System

Horace Tozer, Queensland Colonial Secretary in the 1890s.
Horace Tozer, Queensland Colonial Secretary in the 1890s.

Following his involvement in resolving the “Wild Australia tour”  affair, 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 the new colony 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 to which Tozer said that 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 and its authoritarianism would blight Queensland’s indigenous people for much of the 20th century. The reserves they created became Australian concentration camps.

That Unhappy Race Part 7 – Archibald Meston “the sacred ibis”

The Sacred Ibis: Archibald Meston
The Sacred Ibis: Archibald Meston

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 local 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 their first 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, appointed editor of the Ipswich Observer. There he campaigned for small farmers and against the 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 a 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 which 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 paper’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 that included 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 local councillor. Meston pushed hard to make Cairns the northern terminus of the railway to the mining fields. It was also the time where Meston 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 his prolific writings. In 1889 he had led a scientific expedition to the Bellenden Ker Range and gave an ethnological description of local tribes.

Meston was mostly mouthing 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 too 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.”

Yet within a few years, Meston had changed his mind and began a campaign to protect and preserve Queensland’s native people. His paradox, a 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 quickly 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”. His 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 meet the cost of 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 now the blacks were indeed taken from Boulia without consent. Tozer rejected a Meston request conduct an investigation but it became a public issue. The press picked up a letter Purcell wrote to Meston which spoke of an opportunity to “investigate the vile and degrading temperament of whites in western Queensland”. But Meston’s eventual solution was not to do anything about the whites, but to remove the blacks.

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 to achieve results, 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 that Lukin knew to mean “wholesale massacre”.

Lukin wrote several more editorials in the same vein urging the replacement of the native police with a white force assisted by black trackers. He also rebuked frontier journals for encouraging murder of Aboriginals just for the theft of 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 that 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 who were being 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, first the settlers, and then the government offered them rations. This peace through food plan was successful and Griffiths started taking 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 back 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 quickly got into the habit of paying 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 that 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 that 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. 

That Unhappy race Part 5 – The Drew and Hale Commissions

Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.
Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.

By the 1870s those pushing for further white expansion in Queensland could see only one way it was possible: by corralling all the indigenous people into one manageable place far from white towns. For instance, Maryborough residents were deeply offended by the large group of Aborigines camped near the town cemetery. Though the Maryborough blacks had not been troublesome since 1853, there continued many massacres of indigenous people in the area. There was an existential fear among whites after Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-Ringo which had never gone away. There was also distaste at alcohol-fuelled quarrels and the tendency of the blacks to wander the streets naked. There were calls to move “savages” away from the sensitive eyes of white women and children.

Edward Fuller was a Primitive Methodist who believed Aborigines could be shown the path to a white god. He thought the solution in Maryborough was a mission on Fraser Island. Fraser had been proposed as a mission site in the 1840s but nothing came of it. Even in the 1860s government proposals to gazette a reserve on the island got a chilly reception from squatters wanting to develop the island. Fuller began his Fraser mission in 1870 and attracted over 30 people to his camp. But he suffered the usual problem of white encroachment with timber-getters moving in, and supplying the blacks with alcohol. Fuller was a frustrated man on a mission and his inability to convert at Fraser Island, was mirrored by later failures across Queensland at Lake Weyba, Hinchinbrook Island and Bellenden Plains.

A man named Frank Bridgman had better luck with the first secular reserve at Mackay in 1871. Bridgman was a grazier from down south who brought sheep to the Isaac region. Initially Bridgman was not averse to supporting the native police’s brutal tactics to “disperse” blacks from his property at Grosvenor Downs near Fort Cooper native police barracks. Judith Wright‘s grandfather Albert wrote in his diary in 1868 that “about 60 Blacks were shot at Grosvenor Downs last week”.

Bridgman and other Mackay squatters sent a letter to colonial secretary Arthur Palmer – himself a squatter of the Mackay hinterland – asking for more protection “against the numbers and increasing audacity of the Blacks”. By 1870 Bridgman was starting to think of other ways to solve the problem. It occurred to him a labour reserve of cheap Aboriginal workers might be useful in the sparsely populated north, or as he put it, “labour being valuable, there will be less wish to have them shot down.” He wrote a letter to Palmer in 1870 asking for separate lands in country too poor for white farmers. Bridgman recommended scrubby land near a Homebush lagoon be gazetted for Aboriginal people. The land commissioner approved the request in 1871 and within two years Bridgman established the Association for the Employment and Protection of Aborigines in Mackay. The Association wanted low paid indigenous workers to replace the indentured South Sea labour which was under attack in parliament. Bridgman hoped he could use them on his own sugar plantation.

By March 1873 over 200 Aborigines moved onto Bridgman’s reserve at GooneenberryPalmer had been made premier and his government established a commission under William Drew to see if the Mackay scheme could be applied across the colony. The commissioners visited the north and spoke to squatters (but not to indigenous people). Bridgman told them Aboriginal people were reliable employees.

In their May 1874 report the Drew Commission admitted a system of reserves and protectors would be expensive. But it argued Queensland was only profitable because of Aboriginal land. Drew said Queensland made most of its money from the lease and sale of crown lands “which the Aborigines originally occupied”. Sadly Palmer was out of power and new premier Arthur Macalister ignored the report.

What forced Macalister’s hand was the report of an attempted murder which filtered its way to all-powerful London. The news of Native Police shooting a black at Cooktown made the Sydney papers and ultimately caught the attention of Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Carnarvon requested an explanation from the Marquis of Normanby, the governor of Queensland. Normanby rejected allegations of atrocities and argued Aboriginal lives were being improved by white settlement. Yet this interest from London was embarrassing and unwanted. Normanby and Macalister agreed to re-institute the Drew Commission to implement its suggestions. The Brisbane Courier said this was warranted but defended the practices of the native police on the wild north frontier. “If the aborigines were more civilised than they are, we should either make treaties with them, or we should be at open war with them,” the Courier said.

Queensland’s Government wanted neither war nor treaties so it opted for a report to buy more time. In 1876 new Governor William Cairns instituted another commission under Anglican Bishop of Brisbane Mathew Hale with four other commissioners. Like the Drew Commission it was stacked with squatter sympathisers or explorers like Gregory and Landsborough who also saw the destruction of Aboriginal society as an inevitable consequence of Christian civilisation.

The Hale Commission was authorised to “inquire into and investigate the condition of Aboriginal inhabitants of Queensland and to report on the best means to legislate or otherwise improve their condition”. But rather than report, they immediate set about establishing a reserve under Tom Petrie at Bribie Island. Petrie would use his knowledge of Aboriginal languages to get them to work. Initial reports were favourable. Petrie suggested blacks at Brisbane should be compelled to live at the reserve. But Petrie didn’t stay long and his replacement was a zealot with little empathy for Aboriginals.

That man was Father Duncan McNab who had roving commission from the Catholic Church to convert the aborigines as long as it did not cost the church money. McNab had to fend for himself and applied to take over the Bribie mission when Petrie left. But McNab could not get the Aboriginal people to work. Meanwhile Hale wrote to the police commissioner complaining blacks were still being allowed to enter Brisbane, which was a deterrent to keeping them on Bribie.

McNab suggested the place was the problem, not him. He recommended a new reserve at Durundur on the Stanley River in the upper Brisbane Valley. With the support of new premier John Douglas it was opened in 1877 and a small amount of blacks moved it. Local squatters were pleased thinking it would supply a ready source of cheap labour. The Commission also approved another settlement at Mackay near Cape Hilsborough but this idea lapsed due to lack of government funds. The commission appointed Bridgman to be its agent for northern coastal districts and he suggested new reserves including one at Palm Island. Though just an idea at that stage, Palms would eventually become Queensland’s most infamous gulag in the 20th century.

The early efforts of building concentration camps at Mackay, Fraser and Durundur all failed. McNab proved to be impatient, wanting to immediately cure the Aboriginal people of their pagan ways while the funding dried up from Brisbane. But the Drew and Hale Commissions had asked an important question that would not go away: did the Aboriginal people have rights to the land as prior occupants?