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. The people of Maryborough 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 were many massacres of indigenous people in the area. Yet there remained 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 these “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 to the Maryborough problem was a mission on Fraser Island. Fraser had been proposed as a mission site as early as 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 on to their land, and supplying the blacks with alcohol. Fuller was literal a man on a mission and his failure 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 established at Mackay in 1871. Bridgman was a grazier from down south who brought sheep north 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 then colonial secretary Arthur Palmer – himself a squatter of the Mackay hinterland – asking for more protection “against the numbers and increasing audacity of the Blacks”. Yet by 1870 Bridgman was starting to think of other ways to solve the problem. It occurred to him that 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 for the Aborigines 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 led a group in Mackay which established the Association for the Employment and Protection of Aborigines. The Association hopes was that low paid indigenous workers could replace the indentured South Sea labour which was then under attack in parliament. Indeed, Bridgman hoped he could use them on his own sugar plantation.
By March 1873 over 200 Aborigines moved onto Bridgman’s reserve at Gooneenberry. Palmer had been promoted to 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 the Aboriginal people were reliable employees.
In their report of May 1874 the Drew Commission admitted a system of reserves and protectors would be expensive for the government. But it argued that Queensland was only profitable because of Aboriginal land. Drew admitted Queensland made most of its money from the lease and sale of crown lands “which the Aborigines originally occupied”. Sadly by then Palmer was out of power and new premier Arthur Macalister simply ignored the report.
What forced Macalister’s hand to form a second commission was the report of an attempted murder which filtered its way to all powerful London. The reports 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 was prepared neither for war nor treaties so it opted for another report instead to buy more time. In 1876 the 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 understanding.
Father Duncan McNab had roving commission of his own from the Catholic Church. His mission was to convert the aborigines as long as the job did not cost the church any money. McNab had to fend for himself and applied to take over the Bribie mission when Petrie left. But unlike Petrie, 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 it was the place that 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?