Becoming Bwgcolman : exile and survival on Palm Island Reserve, 1918 to the present

Watson, Joanne (1994). Becoming Bwgcolman : exile and survival on Palm Island Reserve, 1918 to the present PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Watson, Joanne
Thesis Title Becoming Bwgcolman : exile and survival on Palm Island Reserve, 1918 to the present
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1994
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Total pages 440
Language eng
Subjects 210301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History
Formatted abstract This thesis is a study of the history of Palm Island, the largest and historically most punitive of Queensland's Aboriginal reserves. It focuses upon the bureaucratic, dictatorial and brutal nature of its white administration, and the various ways in which Murri residents, from a broad range of different clans, managed to survive their exile on the island and interacted with this system of control, to eventually forge an identity as the Bwgcolman people.

In seeking to provide an overview of the island's history and to contrast indigenous and non-indigenous lifestyles and perspectives, a continuous narrative is provided of Palm Island's history from Wulgurugaba occupation in the pre-contact period to the present time. An examination of the early colonial invasion of North Queensland also serves to contextualise the formation of reserves in the region.

Located within the context of a continuing frontier mentality, the development of the reserve system is defined as an extension of colonial violence in institutionalised form. Chapter Two outlines the theoretical framework of this analysis, with attention to the nature of the Queensland Act, and the contrast between Murri perspectives and the dominant white historiography concerning this issue. A critical perspective is adopted towards analyses which separate the reserve system from colonial patterns of violence and conquest, and which suggest that reserve institutions represented a shift towards a form of humanitarian benevolence.

To demonstrate the failings of this perspective, the nature and process of the removal system as a key feature of conquest is considered, as are the long-term destructive consequences of the theft and exile of indigenous children. Murri experiences of daily life on Palm reserve, the physical conditions, nature of labour relations and punishment systems on the island are also examined in detail in this context. These considerations underline the explicit intent of representatives of the Queensland Government to use Palm Island as a prison for the confinement of Murris from across the mainland.

Details of a rampage by the white superintendent in 1930 are provided as a case study. Chapter Four focuses on the incident as a graphic illustration of the dynamics of colonial domination and Murri interactions with European power-brokers in an institutionalised setting. Attention to neighbouring Fantome Island, with its Lock Hospital, health screening centre and leprosarium, is necessitated by its intimate connection to Palm Island history and its explicit demonstration of the genocidal nature of government policy and practice in the 'post-frontier' period.

The three concluding chapters examine the continuing marginalisation, suppression, abuse and neglect of Palm Island residents in the late twentieth century, and their growing aspirations for self-determination. Theories of social change and global indigenous perspectives are presented and applied to Bwgcolman efforts to achieve freedom from the Act, with a focus upon the 1957 strike and the 1974 dispute to illustrate the courage and resilience of their struggle. The conclusion of this thesis addresses the present and future of the Palm reserve, and the ways in which this history has shaped life experiences on the island today and influenced the formation of the Bwgcolman identity.
Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Queensland -- Great Palm Island -- History
Torres Strait Islanders -- Queensland -- Great Palm Island -- History
Palm Island Aboriginal Reserve (Qld.) -- History
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