Long overdue compensation for Palm Islanders in Mulrunji case

Photo of Palm Island courtesy of Palm Island Shire Council

A dark and shameful episode in Queensland history has come to end with the news the Queensland government has agreed to pay a $30m settlement and deliver a formal apology to the people of Palm Island. It comes as the federal court found police officers breached the Racial Discrimination Act and acted unlawfully in responding to riots over the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee (known as Mulrunji) in 2004. The settlement, subject to approval by the federal court, resolves a class action involving hundreds of claimants, lead by Lex, Cecilia and Agnes Wotton.

Palm Island was a Queensland gulag, a concentration camp for Aboriginal people or an “island Siberia” as historian Henry Reynolds called it. Wotton would not have been old enough to remember the last time locals rioted against injustice in 1957. But he would have known the story and heard about the heavy-handed police response on that occasion. The police attitude has not changed with police union boss Ian Leavers claiming they did nothing wrong in 2004 and the settlement was made to “criminals”.  Leavers is paid to defend his members but would have been advised to have kept his mouth shut this time rather than add to a flagrant injustice.

His officer Chris Hurley has been the centre of attention since the coroner found him guilty of killing Mulrunji with three fatal punches, a death compounded by the casual treatment of the body and the lies police told the family after his death. Fourteen years later no one has been convicted of his death despite numerous court actions. Mulrunji stupidly taunted police as they made an arrest but his subsequent arrest was needless as was Hurley’s punches which left him dying in the cells.

When his family came calling, worried for his health, Hurley lied to them that he was sleeping and then colluded with other officers to cover up the death. When the truth did come out about the death of a popular local man, anger quickly seethed in a community used to being discriminated against, but had never accepted it.  When they surrounded the police station, the police response was to send in the riot squad. At 5am they broke into the home of community leader Lex Wotton – who was never implicated in the riots – and arrested him at gunpoint in front of terrified relatives. In 2016 Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer ruled police had breached the racial discrimination act as they responded to the riots. It’s hard not to agree with the Palm Island mayor it is the police who need to apologise not the islanders.

Ultimately police are state government employees and it was the state government that overstepped the mark in 2004 as they did in 1957.  Back in 1957, Palm Islanders had almost no rights at all. Their movements and almost all aspects of their life were controlled by Queensland’s infamous Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Palm Island reserve was created as a penal settlement for Aboriginal people across northern Queensland, and many were jailed for trivial offences. Saxby Downs stockman Albert Hippi was sent there because he “frightens women and tries to get liquor” while in 1924 Paddy Brooks of Millaa Millaa was exiled for causing “discontent”.

On the island they were ruled by a succession of harsh administrators such as Robert Curry. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron for 12 years. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. In 1929 Home Department recommended a police magistrate inquiry into Curry ‘s alleged assault of a woman with a whip until “she fell senseless to the ground”.

After his medical officer reported him for flogging, Curry lost the plot. In the early hours of February 3, 1930 he ran amok with a gun shooting and injuring the medical officer before smashing the officer’s wife skull with the butt of his rifle. He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter inside. After he fled to another island and then returned, the medical officer ordered Aboriginal man Peter Prior to shoot him dead. Prior was charged with murder but the Supreme Court judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.

In the war years the US Army posted black American soldiers to the island to protect white Australian sensibilities from seeing black men on the streets of the city (the paranoid fear was they would have sex with white women). These soldiers gave the islanders a powerful new sense of their own identity and the Second World War was a time of political awakening for Aboriginal people. But islander hopes were brutally quashed with the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.

Bartlam was an ex-policeman obsessed with control. He believed Murris could not think for themselves and used intimidation and police brutality to cement his reign. Locals were punished if they did not salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People faced seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.

Bartlam’s ridiculous rules led an all-out strike in 1957 with eerie foreshadowing of the 2004 riots. A Murri man was charged with threatening Bartlam, but broke away and was joined by demonstrators who attacked police and abused settlement officers. As Bartlam hid in his office, Aboriginal people went on strike and controlled every corner. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”

Just as in 2004, authorities over-reacted. RAAF planes rushed 20 police to the island, greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but the strike had some success. There was immediate improvements in diet and conditions.

Yet as late as 1969 blacks were still banned from the main street, Mango Avenue, and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism. When local leader Fred Clay and union organiser Bill Rosser started a newsletter called Smoke Signal to document life under the Act, they were legally thrown off the island.

Though some land rights and an Aboriginal council were established in the 1980s, the island was still home to inadequate housing, poor sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. While regulations were introduced in 1972 which declared all Aboriginal workers must be paid an award wage, these regulations did not apply to workers on government reserves such as Palm Island, where payment was labelled a “training allowance”, despite many employees having worked for decades. In the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah” but this Fallujah never made the national news until the 2004 riots.

In Mulrunji’s inquest report the Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Premier Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot, though he was released on parole in 2010. In 2013 his family filed the class action and the Federal Court found in their favour in 2016.

As Justice Mortimer said about police in his scathing judgement: “If content is to be given to the obligation, contained in the QPS Operational Procedures Manual to consider ‘cultural needs’, then in the case of Palm Island those cultural needs could not possibly be understood or met in any genuine way without a good working appreciation of the racism and oppression that characterised the island’s history.” Something that Leavers would do well to understand.



The contested legacy of Captain James Cook

cookKnowing his announcement on Saturday was contentious, federal treasurer Scott Morrison said the planned $3m memorial to Captain James Cook in Botany Bay is part of a “very inclusive project” to commemorate the site of European first arrival in New South Wales. By inclusive presumably he means will include “Indigenous elements” though it won’t hurt his Treasury there is also a $50m redevelopment to include a museum, cafe, ferry wharves and visitors centre. It won’t hurt Morrison either as the project happens to be in his electorate.

But Morrison knows the proposal is contentious. Cook is now a highly divisive figure in Australia, seen by many indigenous people as the start of all their problems and still seen by many older white Australians as the founding father of settler Australia and the start of Britain’s rule over the country.  He is revered in the names of roads, towns, shires and places across Australia. Yet black lore in Victoria River country in the Northern Territory talks about how Cook came and stole their lands. The history on Cook has always been fuzzy. What his Sydney landing site certainly wasn’t, as the Guardian claimed, was “European colonisers’ first arrival on Australian soil”.

Colonisation of Australia was inevitable given trade globalisation and Europeans had been exploring the coastline of Australia for 160 years when Cook first came calling. The Dutch mapped most of the north, west and south coast and found Tasmania (though did not realise it was an island). They arrived in Cape York in 1605 and a year later Spaniard Luis Torres found the nearby strait that bears his name though Spanish authorities kept his find secret for 150 years.

Cook wasn’t even the first Englishman in Australia. The ship The Tryall sighted WA in 1622 and William Dampier’s visits in 1688 and 1699 did much to excite the British imagination about the strange southern continent whose natives had “great bottle-noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths.”

Travelling 70 years later, Cook was a meticulous planner and had read Dampier. If Morrison’s monument just celebrated his sailing skills it would not be contentious. Cook was a superb mapmaker and decades ahead of his time in avoiding scurvy on long trips. The Briton lays good claim to be the best mariner of all time, certainly of the Pacific Ocean and his three trips of exploration greatly expanded European knowledge of that part of the world. His first voyage found the Cook Islands, New Zealand and eastern Australia, his second found Norfolk Island and conclusively proved there was no Terra Incognita in the southern oceans and his third explored Alaska and Hawaii, where his growing hubris led to his death in an unnecessary beach clash with natives in 1779.

Always destined to go to sea from his young days on the Yorkshire coast, Cook had made his reputation in the 1760s as a naval surveyor in Canada, mapping the tricky coastline of Newfoundland and competently and quickly rising through the ranks of the Royal Navy as the Seven Years War raged around him.

When Britain wanted someone to lead a mission to observe the Transit of Venus in newly discovered and cloud-free Tahiti in 1769, Cook was the obvious candidate. His discretion and loyalty meant he was also ideal to carry out the secret orders for the second part of his mission. These orders, not discovered until 1928, were to head south to find the southern continent Europeans thought existed in low latitudes and take “possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”

Possession was always in British minds in the late 18th century, though the supposed continent did not exist. Cook sailed south for as long as it was safe then changed tack and headed west. He found and mapped both islands of New Zealand and then headed towards New Holland which he knew the Dutch and Abel Tasman had laid tentative claim over a century earlier.

But Cook knew too the Dutch had not mapped the east coast so perhaps there was room for multiple claims in the real great south land. Cook picked up the coast at Point Hicks named for the lieutenant aboard his ship Endeavour that first spotted land. Cook knew Tasmania lay to the south but powered by a gale headed north before landing in Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Cook had observed smoke along the way and here he saw locals and huts on both sides of the bay. Cook was not welcomed on arrival and when he approached to land two of the local men “seem’d resolved to oppose me” and threw nails and beads at the visitors.

After Cook’s men opened fire with muskets, the locals ran away and Cook went ashore to investigate. His men searched for fresh water, food and timber but apart from an awkward chance meeting while dredging for oysters, the natives kept their distance though always stayed close where they could observe their uninvited visitors.  To their relief the strangers left on May 7 but not before wealthy botanist aboard Joseph Banks decided the great quantity of plants they found deserved the name Botany Bay.

After completing their sail up the coast of Queensland, and only barely surviving the Great Barrier Reef, Cook then made the extraordinary move that outstripped his orders. Realising he was at the top of Australia he came to an island (which he called Possession Island) on 22 July and formally took possession of “the whole eastern coast…by the name New (South) Wales” from Point Hicks to where they stood.

This remarkable declaration remains one of the foundation stones of Australian law and has never been challenged. Cook did not follow his instructions of seeking the consent of the natives. He knew they were there in numbers thanks to “a great number of smokes” he had seen along the coast and his meetings in Botany Bay and Cape Tribulation.

Without any say so, a population of half a million people suddenly had their 50,000-year-old land rights stripped from them – though they were completely unaware of their loss and their lives went on as before. For now Cook’s act was one of imagination but it was importantly politically. It was an act of claim especially against the growing naval power of the French who would land in Botany Bay themselves 18 years later. Compte Laperouse was beaten a few days by Cook’s successor Arthur Phillip and his infant penal colony. By then Cook was dead and it was Banks’ evidence that gave Britain – desperate after the loss of independent America – the excuse to found a colony of prisoners on the other side of the world.

Laperouse was shipwrecked and died (showing Cook’s own skill in avoid that fate). Phillip moved to nearby Sydney Harbour which Cook surprisingly missed though Cook’s legacy remained – the colony remained known as “Botany Bay”. British Australia slowly fanned out and the rest was “history”. Morrison will need to tread carefully to sell that history.

He would do well to read the editorial in the Australian on the 200th anniversary of Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay, 29 April 1970.  “We came bearing Christianity,” it began. But, “we also brought rum and smallpox, revolvers and Martini-Henry Carbines to slaughter men, women and children who speared the cattle we released on their land. And when we couldn’t kill them we smothered them – withholding education, banning and banishing them.. They were easy victories, and we are still winning them – every time we shut our eyes, turn our backs, comfort ourselves with the myth that we are the world’s most egalitarian people… The Aboriginal concept of land is much deeper, more meaningful than ours… Should we celebrate our nationhood while ignoring the schism dividing us?”

That schism remains yawningly wide almost 50 years later.



No native title in Brisbane


In 2017 a long running Brisbane legal battle was ended with “good news for developers”. Two separate cases for native title over the city of Brisbane were finally defeated at appeal in the Supreme Court. As someone with property in the Brisbane area, it should be good news for me personally, though it’s a decision I greet with sadness.

In 2004 I bought an apartment in Wooloowin – more properly Lutwyche, though the difference between the two is one of property values. I was aware of the difference between Lutwyche and Wooloowin, and chose to call my address the latter, but I was unaware and unconcerned about the history of the land on which it stands or any native title aspect of my strata title.

Yet Aboriginal people used to live in this area in large numbers. A 1930 Brisbane Courier article on Lutwyche noted that “blacks” used to frequent the area in large numbers camping on the Kedron Brook and holding corroborees in the area. Though the Courier couldn’t avoid judgement: “no little trouble was caused the earlier white residents by these even earlier residents. For sheer devilment a party of blacks would sometimes gather around the doorstep of a house, singing and making the night a tragedy by their music; while if they knew that the master of the house was away they would sometimes force an entrance and demand food and tobacco.”

No mention was made about the trouble the early white residents caused to those “even earlier residents”, a tragedy even greater that the music. It is a tragedy ongoing with the Turrbul and the neighbouring Yugara now having their native title appeal claim to Brisbane denied by the Full Court of the Federal Court. The Turrbul or Brisbane tribe owned the country as far north as the North Pine River, south to the Logan River, and inland to Moggill Creek. The Yuraga or Jagera populated a wide area from Brisbane to the ranges at Toowoomba.

The Turrbal people lodged their original claim in 1998 and the Yugara people in 2011. The combined claim area covered the bulk of the Brisbane metropolitan area. It didn’t help there were two separate claims but they both failed this year.

In a judgement handed down July 25, Justices John Reeves, Michael Barker and Richard White dismissed separate appeals filed by Desmond Sandy, Ruth James and Pearl Sandy on behalf of the Yugara-Yugarapul People and by Maroochy Barambah for the Turrbal People. The State of Queensland, Commonwealth of Australia and the Moreton Bay Regional Council were respondents in the Yugara action, lodged in April 2015, and the State of Queensland, Commonwealth of Australia and the Yugara group were defendants in the Turrbal appeal, filed in August 2016..

The Turrbal People claimed they were direct descendants of an Indigenous man called the Duke of York in the early settlement days while the Yugara said the Turrbal People were a sub-group of the Yugara. In 2015 Justice Christopher Jessup found the Yugara had not demonstrated that any of their ancestors were present in the claim area at sovereignty and the Turrbal People had failed to prove they were descended from the Duke of York.

The findings ended any hope of any native title over Brisbane, as the Appeals Court agreed with Jessup neither the Turrbul nor the Yugara People could demonstrate they were biological descendants of those who lived here “at sovereignty’ or a society who had continued to observe traditional laws and customs. While the Court acknowledged settler actions likely contributed to this interruption of connection, there was “longstanding authority” in finding that the “explanation of forced removal … is not directly relevant to the continuity finding”.

As Clayton Utz lawyers said the decision brought “certainty for infrastructure proponents and other developers” in Brisbane however it doesn’t mean those proponents and developers can ignore Aboriginal interests.

All land users have a duty of care to take reasonable and practicable measures to avoid harm to Aboriginal cultural heritage, regardless of native title. Compliance with the “cultural heritage duty of care” typically requires consultation with the applicable “Aboriginal party”.  Where there are no current registered native title holders or claimants for an area, the Aboriginal party will be the claimant for the last of the registered claims over the area to have failed. Ordinarily, a former registered claimant will be replaced by a new registered claimant over the same area but the negative determination over Brisbane means the current Aboriginal parties (Turrbul and Yugara) cannot be replaced.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 (Qld) provides for Aboriginal parties who aged and die to be succeeded by the members of their old native title claim groups.  How this succession will work in practice if the old claim group becomes become dysfunctional ‒ is an emerging issue. As Clayton Utz says “legislative, judicial or policy guidance will be required.”

That aside, the determination shows, as the lawyers involved in the Mabo case have said the bar is set too high on native title. As the Westender noted after the original 2015 trial, the Brisbane determination indicates the high level of difficulty involved in proving an ongoing connection between the native title claimants and the land since sovereignty, especially where there has been widespread urbanisation or agricultural development.

Remembering the impact of the Queensland Native Police

Qld Native Police 1863

When I think of the many reasons why Australia needs to negotiate with its Indigenous inhabitants, they are all buried in Australian history. Many would like those memories permanently buried, but on Remembrance Day we cannot allow this.

The first Australians came here before there was even a thing called Australia. Where they landed was Sahul, a continent that linked New Guinea with mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania. Their earliest landing sites are long gone buried under the rising shore of warmer times but evidence now suggests a human presence of 68,000 years. They spread across Sahul rapidly – the earliest identifiable human outside of Africa was found in far western New South Wales.

New Guinea and Tasmania eventually split away from Australia but all three had cultures that survived millennia and shaped their environment through adroit use of fire – even Tasmania with a population of just 5000 souls succeeded.

But it was to Queensland where the largest number of people came, attracted by its mostly favourable climate and its rich food sources. White people didn’t land here in numbers until the 1830s. “They are doing nothing with the land and we want it” was their belief but with numbers favouring Aboriginal people, it wasn’t immediately obvious they would get what they want. It wasn’t until advanced weaponry of the 1840s and 1850s that the Europeans began to win the war.

Authorities in Sydney turned a blind eye to the violence on the frontier, speading homilies about British law while enabling Squatters to take “vacant” country. Matters worsened with the separation of Queensland in 1859. Newly penniless authorities in Brisbane had a good reason to sell Aboriginal country as the only thing they could make money from. They had a vested interest in crushing resistance.

Attitudes were hardened by two events just before and after separation.  One was the killing of 11 settlers at Hornet Bank in the Upper Dawson in 1857 and the other was the killing of 19 of the Wills party at Cullin-la-Ringo near Springsure in 1861. The Frazers at Hornet Bank were well known for their interference with Aboriginal women while at Cullin-la-Ringo there was evidence of abduction of two local boys. But these causes were overlooked amid cries of trusting the Aborigines too much and righteous fury about “black savages”.

Both massacres prompted massive revenge sprees, in number well beyond 11 or 18. Few lived to tell the tale. Gordon Reid’s history on Hornet Banks suggest native police and armed settlers killed between 150 to 300 Jiman people. At Cullin-la-Ringo a reprisal gang killed every adult black they found in a 100 mile radius. Settlers killed with impunity. No justice was brought to bear,  and the frontier pushed further west and north.

Yet it was not enough to make settlers feel safe.  That was the job of Native Police. Native Police forces (usually a group of three to eight Indigenous people led by a European officer) were used at Hornet Bank and across the Australian colonies in the 19th century.  Their need came with the expansion of British control of Australia in the 1840s developing from rough convict patrols.  Indigenous Troopers were often recruited at the point of a gun. It was the Empire’s divide and rule tactic to use Native groups with no loyalties to other groups. They enjoyed many important advantages including familiarity with the terrain, and had less medical problems in tropical areas. They were also were paid less and were expected to camp in the open during operations and feed themselves.

They dispossessed Aboriginal people everywhere but nowhere was their impact as great or as long-lasting as Queensland. Yet on this day commemorating military history, no one has heard of them. It is no surprise Jonathan Richards’ defining history of Queensland’s Native Police is called The Secret War. Even in 2017 it remains mostly a secret. Yet the Queensland Native Police were, as Richards says “the symbol of Native policy, invasion and dispossession throughout the second half of the 19th century.”

They were always known as murderous force but the Queensland Native Police survived into the 20th century despite the fury because it suited their employers. They were a successful military enterprise. By quelling resistance on the frontier, they increased the government’s land values.

The Native Police were police in name only,  more properly a “special forces” unit with a specific purpose to suppress Indigenous resistance to colonisation.  The Native Police had the advantage of horses and better firearms while efficient postal and telegraph systems allowed the smooth transmission of orders.

Many officers were former army men from other parts of the Empire and its old boy network ensured many were never punished for misdeeds, up to and including murder. Because the force operated on the frontier it was constantly on the move, westward and northward. Over four decades, the Native Police barracks mapped the moving front.

The official view was that the Native Police operated in response to Aboriginal attacks in “unsettled” areas. In 1872 Colonial Secretary Arthur Palmer claimed the Queensland government “had never followed a policy of extermination” but this was a blatant lie, exposed by newspapers of the era. In 1868 the Burketown correspondent reported casually that “everyone in the district is delighted with the wholesale slaughter dealt out by the native police and thank Mr Uhr (sub inspector of native police) for his energy in ridding the district of fiftynine (59) myalls.”

Energy was one way to describe it, another way was “terror”. Retribution was more practical than prevention. Commanders deliberately terrified and intimidated Aboriginal people with violence and threats, backed by gunfire. Robert Orsted-Jensen’s book Frontier History Revisited (2011) estimated around 11 people died in each “dispersal”.

Long term police commissioner David Seymour claimed their tactics were justified against ferocious fighters though his call to his officers to report full details of every “collision” was mostly ignored. Words like “collisions” and “dispersals” were euphemisms designed to forget that lives were involved.

Many people despised the Native Police, but the main supporters were settlers in remote areas who believed, as Charles Bradley in Bowen did in 1871, that “the Blacks were more dangerous and daring” without police presence. By then the frontier had moved to the northern goldfields and miners were just as determined as settlers to ensure Aboriginal people did not get in their way. With open warfare at the Palmer River goldfield near Cooktown, the Native Police were powerless, other than assisting with revenge parties whenever a white person was killed.

Elsewhere it was collision after collision, safe in the knowledge that as a regional paper said, “You will never get a jury to bring in a verdict of murder for the killing of a black”.  Police admitted little details about their operations, though one officer told an Inquest some people “asked for trouble”.  Top brass turned a blind eye they were breaking British law on the frontier every day.  Settlers, miners and police all knew indiscriminate killing was wrong, so it had to be hidden.

As late as 1897 Native Police commissioner WE Parry-Okeden argued the force was still needed. In a report to parliament called “North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police” Parry-Okeden wrote it was “a well known fact,  that the only control possible to be obtained at the outset and maintained over wild or uncivilised blacks is by the exercise and exhibition of superior force.” That force, he said, could only be applied by people “they recognise as capable of competing with them in their own tactics, tracking, bush cunning, lore or living”. Of course, white discipline was always required. “I reiterate that a strong well-officed Native Police detachments constantly patrolling among them are absolutely necessary,” he concluded.

It was the end of resistance a few years later that made those patrols unnecessary. The black trackers were rolled into the regular Queensland police while the native force was quietly forgotten. The Native Police was an inconvenient reminder of Queensland’s previous poverty.  But it had done the work of its masters and the Aboriginal people had been defeated. Many were killed, while survivors would be mopped up into reserves at Barambah (Cherbourg), Mappoon, Yarrabah, Woorabindah, Palm Island and other places. Queensland now mostly did belong to the whitefellas.

Noel Loos estimates 10,000 Aboriginal people died in the frontier conflict in Queensland, about half the total number of Aboriginal dead in frontier Australia. The monuments to them are few and far between.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we should remember them.




Why it is the right time to close the Uluru climb

Uluru from the air. Photo: Wikipedia

The news this week that the traditional owners of Uluru are closing the climb up the ancient monolith has unsurprisingly been greeted with a lot of criticism and disappointment, but is the right decision.

David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council, described the decision as “righting a historic wrong”.

“This decision has been a very long time coming and our thoughts are with the elders who have longed for this day but are no longer with us to celebrate it,” Mr Ross said.

The decision to close was a long time coming. Senior traditional owner and leader Sammy Wilson said the sacred rock was “not a theme park like Disneyland” and his Anangu people felt as if they had a “gun to their heads” to keep the rock open.

The arguments were that tourism would suffer if they did, and in the past that might have been true.

I visited Uluru once, back in 2002, and I have to admit I climbed the rock.

I saw the signs around put up by traditional owners asking people to respect their culture and not to climb, but for better or worse I ignored it.

The view was certainly astonishing from the top but on the way down I realised there was another reason they wanted the climb closed – it was bloody dangerous.

You are working against gravity and the ropes disappear while you are still an unsafe distance above the ground, leaving you carefully picking your steps and hoping a sudden gust of wind doesn’t upset your balance. I was never so glad to be on the ground. Thirty people have died in recent decades, a fact which deeply distresses the site’s traditional owners.

The number of climbers has halved in recent years from 40 to 20% as more people (myself included) understand the deep spiritual significance of the rock.

It is equivalent to abseiling inside a cathedral without permission and it is right it will be closed.

It certainly won’t stop people enjoying this truly awe-inspiring godly place.

The decision to close the climb is good news from Uluru, unlike the rejection of the Uluru Statement by the Malcolm Turnbull government without any consultation or discussion. They should hang their heads in shame.

My North West Star editorial, Saturday November 4, 2017.

Roslyn Choikee’s Stolen Generation story

md22459445391For almost ten years, right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt has claimed the Stolen Generation is a myth. “Show me three of them?” was his common taunt, but it was a taunt that showed more about his ignorance and his lazy journalism than the truth. The data shows thousands of people caught up in the system over many decades, mostly so-called “half-castes” which the ill-guided theories of the time believed were best kept away from the influence of their parents. They left hundreds of testaments scattered in the record.

One of those was from Aboriginal woman Roslyn Choikee. I learned her story today in Mount Isa city library. I had been there a few times before but never noticed they had a tray of books about Indigenous issues. I picked Jonathan Richards’ The Secret War, an important book about the Queensland Native Police I’d read before and one I hadn’t read before Stuart Rintoul’s 1993 book “The Wailing – A National Black Oral History”.

It is as the title suggests, a collection of Indigenous testimony of people that lived through the 20th century. Nearly all faced hardship of some kind but some stories were less clear cut than others, such as Roslyn Choikee.  I was interested in her story because she was born in Cloncurry,  near Mount Isa, and I typed out her testimony for an article for the paper.

Yarrabah on Mission Bay in 2017. Photo: Derek Barry

Her story was simple but not straight forward. It was both terrifying – she was stolen from her parents aged six – and satisfying – because she had a happy childhood and a good life by the shores of Mission Bay, regardless. She became a happily married Christian on the coast, and never missed her home. It helped she landed in Yarrabah on Mission Bay near Cairns. Yarrabah was established as a Christian mission for Aboriginal people in 1892. Many people like Roslyn were forced to go there. But it remains a beautiful spot nestled between the sea and the mountains. Seven decades later Roslyn was still there, aged 77, when in the sunshine of a July afternoon she told her story to Rintoul on a stone veranda at the Yarrabah home for the aged. Her happiness didn’t justify an appalling system but it showed the resilience of people to adapt to whatever life throws at them.



Choikee: “I come from Cloncurry. I was taken away from my parents in 1920. I was six years old. I didn’t know what was happening when I came to Yarrabah. It was good schooling here. We used to go down to the beach and get shells. That’s how we learned to count, with shells or with seeds at that time. We had a good teacher. She was a dark girl, a big girl, a senior girl. We had senior room, intermediate room and junior room. When you came to Yarrabah, if you came big they would put you in the intermediate room and if you came small, like my age, you would go into the junior room.”

Rintoul: Do you remember what happened the day you were taken away?

“The policeman took us to the police station, me and some other girls. But the two girls who were with me there went to Cherbourg, and they’ve passed away now, those girls. They sent me here to Yarrabah. I liked Yarrabah: Yarrabah is a pretty place. I never got homesick here, because I found a lot of nice little girls the same age as my age.”

You didn’t miss your parents?

“Oh yes. Now and again I missed them, but here at Yarrabah we had too many mates. Go to school, come back, play.

“We were living on a reserve at Cloncurry – a little dark people’s reserve. That’s all right too. We used to go to Boulia to see the rodeo when I was a little girl. That’s where I saw buck-jumping. A bullock-wagon used to take us from Cloncurry to Boulia. That was a bridle track then. They say it’s a big bitumen road now.

“I won’t go back because there is nobody there now. My cousin’s son went back there two years ago to look around and there’s not one of our friends there, not one Aboriginal in the area that was there. They don’t know where they shifted them. We never heard nothing and they never heard about us.

“All the half-caste children were taken away at the time and sent to different missions. Some of them went to Barrambah (Cherbourg), Palm island, here. I was sent here to Yarrabah. My father was a white man and my mother was a dark woman, you see. They weren’t married. I didn’t know about marriage till I came to Yarrabah. They were good though. They helped them and they helped us children too. They took us to Boulia now and again. The white men used to just come around. I was too young to know what was happening when they would come around to visit us. We didn’t go to the town part at Cloncurry. We would just stay down where the Aboriginal reserve was. We had tents and humpies, no houses.

“I never heard nothing about my mother from the day I was taken away, no more. But when I came to Yarrabah I was happy here and I never thought of it anymore. I did think of my mother, but I wouldn’t go back to see if she was there or anything like that. When I came to Yarrabah we started going to school and at school we made mates, here and there, our own age. It was really good. We didn’t know how to talk much till we came here to Yarrabah. Till I came here, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know anything about the Lord. I’m a Christian now. I didn’t know nothing about it till I came to Yarrabah. That’s where we learned Christianity, at Yarrabah.

“My name was Daisy Sheridan. It was changed when I came here and was baptised. My godmother, Ciccy Thompson, gave me the name Roslyn Bell. Everyone who came here was baptised at St Alban’s Church. I knew that my name was Daisy, but that was all right. I had to change my name when I got married, to Choikee. Choikee is a traditional name of Aboriginal people around the Yarrabah area.

“The dormitory was really good. We had two matrons, Miss Ardley and Miss Newbury, when I first came. During the day we played. We never used to work much. Only we used to rake up, with our hands. We used to clean the yard, and when you grew up, coming on to full age, you did harder work. We went to school only up to grade five at that time. When we got to grade five we left school.

“Mr Dobar came up to Yarrabah one time. He was a white man who looked after the missions. He came to school and we had to stand up and spell ornithorhynchus (she spells it out) because he had left that with us to learn, and some didn’t know and some knew, and he say to them, ‘That’s a good girl’. Ornithorhynchus is a platypus. My granddaughter who goes to school in Brisbane reckons they learned that ‘ornithorhynchus’ in grade eight, but we learned that ‘ornithorhychus’ in grade five. That was the last year that we were in school.

“After grade five we worked and did fancy work. We used to sew fancy work, crochet around. Miss Hogan used to send us a big box of clothes for us to sew and do fancy work on. They got us ready to be wives. We had to learn to cook, we had to learn to wash, we had to learn to iron. Miss Hahn, the matron,  would send us back anything that had grease on it. Boys went to school in the morning, the boys would go out one road down to church and we would go another road down to church. We didn’t go together all: we didn’t see each other. If we fell in love they’d come and talk to us in the yard, with matron. We’d get engaged then. That’s how I got engaged.”

How could you fall in love if you couldn’t talk to each other?

(She laughs.) “I don’t know. We’d look at each other in church and sometimes matron would see us. Oh she’d growl, ‘You mustn’t look over there where the boys are,’ she’d say. I didn’t care for boys while we were young, until we were going into the intermediate room, going onto thirteen and fourteen.

“My husband was Robert Choikee. He was one of the boys who came up and talked to us. They used to come up from the dormitory and sit on a big seat around the mango tree. There were about nine of us all sitting around, just yarning and having a joke of our own. That was all right. We’d sit there and matron would be on the veranda sitting down and when it was time for them to go she’d blow a whistle and they’d go then. They weren’t there long. But we never met alone at any time until we got married. We weren’t allowed. We were told not to do it.

“There was a song that we would sing in the dormitory at night, ‘Oh where is my wandering boy tonight?’ That’s a Christian song. That was the Virgin Mary singing that time when Jesus was in the temple and she couldn’t find him. They wanted to go to Jerusalem but she couldn’t find him, so she sang that song and we learned it. But Miss Hahn, our matron, though we were encouraging the boys around all the time. She would sing out, ‘Are you encouraging the boys again? Do you want the boys to sneak around?’ We’d stop that and start some other song, but if we went back to something to bring the boys back again, she’d start again. ‘Stop it now, stop it now, no encouraging the boys,’ she’d say. That was a good song.”

Uluru Statement from the Heart

Indigenous people march for justice and equality in Mount Isa, Saturday May 27.

I have long been supportive of the need for a Treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and those that know me know I am writing in what little spare time I have, a book about why I think so. The book is aimed at convincing non-Indigenous people as I know most Indigenous people want one.

Yet I’m pleased that the need for a Treaty is at the centre of the recommendations of the 2017 National Constitution Convention outlined in the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”.

The statement acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of Australia who have lived here in legal terms from “time immemorial”. This was sovereignty in a sacred sense and speaks to an ancestral tie with the land which was never ceded and which co-exists “with the sovereignty of the Crown”.

How could it be otherwise, the statement asks, for people who lived here for 60 millennia which could not disappear from world history “in merely the last two hundred years”?

Changing mere words in the constitution won’t fix that, but substantive change and structural reform might.

Despite not being innately criminal, Indigenous people are the most incarcerated in Australia, showing the “torment of our powerlessness”, they said.

In order for Indigenous people to “take their rightful place” in this country, the Convention has asked for a “First Nations Voice” in the Constitution.

That would take the form of a Treaty, or “makarrata”,  a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations” or in the convention’s words “the coming together after a struggle”.

The convention has called for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement making and “truth telling about our history”.

Harking back to the Referendum, in 1967 Indigenous people were counted, “in 2017 we seek to be heard”.

“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future,” the final sentence reads.

Agreement and truth sound like a better future to me. I’m walking.

Cross posted from my North West Star editorial, Tuesday May 30, 2017.