Confinement and control : a history of Woorabinda Aboriginal Community 1927-1990

Forde, Therese. (1990). Confinement and control : a history of Woorabinda Aboriginal Community 1927-1990 Honours Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Forde, Therese.
Thesis Title Confinement and control : a history of Woorabinda Aboriginal Community 1927-1990
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1990
Thesis type Honours Thesis
Open Access Status Other
Supervisor Dr Raymond Evans
Total pages 147
Language eng
Subjects 379902 Aboriginal Studies
210301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History
Formatted abstract

The history of race relations in colonial Queensland has been well-documented through the work of Raymond Evans, Henry Reynolds, Noel Loos and CD. Rowley1, but in terms of major works, markedly less has been written about the experience of Queensland's Aborigines since 1897. Significant contributions do exist, however. In The Remote Aborigines,2 Rowley looks at the Aboriginal labourer in the Queensland pastoral industry, and in Outcasts in White Australia3 he investigates aspects of Queensland policy and legislation since 1897. Frank Stevens' chapter in his Racism: the Australian Experience (Volume II)4 examines parliamentary attitudes to Aboriginal Affairs which includes an insight into the 1965 Act in Queensland. Also in this book, a chapter by A. and R. Doobov outlines the oppressive nature of Queensland's 1965 Act and its regulations. Articles which have looked specifically at government legislation since 1897 include Raymond Evans' examination of Aborigines under the Labor government in Queensland5 and the study by Evans and Walker of Eraser Island, which follows the history of the Eraser Island Aborigines through the frontier period to the effects of government legislation.6 William Thorpe's study of Archibald Meston gives an insight into the man who shaped Queensland's legislation on Aborigines;7 Suzanne Welborn compares politicians and Aborigines in Queensland and Western Australia from 1897 to 1907;8 and Colin Tatz discusses the injustices of the Queensland Acts and their application on government settlements in Queensland.9 Paul Hasluck's Shades of Darkness10 examines the motives behind legislation on Aborigines in Australia, and Andrew Markus' new book, Governing Savages, looks at Federal government control of Aborigines in the Northern Territory in the twentieth century.11 Another book published this year, Mr Neville, by Pat Jacobs, is a study of A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, and the longest serving administrator of Aboriginal policy in Australia. Mister Neville provides a critical insight into the administration of Aborigines in that State.12       

Undoubtedly, the most valuable source on race relations in Australian history has been the Aborigines themselves. In recent times, oral histories of the experience of Queensland Aborigines have revealed far more of an intimate nature than many previous studies. Jackie Huggins' article on Aboriginal women Domestic servants in the inter-War years analyses the experiences of six such women through their own words;13 whilst Bill Rosser's Dreamtime Nightmares examines the experiences of some of Queensland's Aborigines under the Aboriginal Protection Acts in a similar manner.14 Oral history has also played a significant role in the writing of the history of reserves and missions in Queensland. One such book is Reaching Back, which includes the recollections of twenty former residents of the Yarrabah Mission in North Queensland.15 Similarly, Book I of the Mapoon series was written by ‘The Mapoon People’. Books II and III of this series look at the role of the Church, the government and mining companies in Mapoon's history.16 Reverend Howard Pohlner's Gangurru17 is a history of the missionaries and Aborigines on Cape Bedford, which became Hope Vale after World War II. This valuable history includes recollections written by Aboriginal residents.         

A significant omission to the historiography has been a conclusive history of a government settlement in Queensland. To date, Gerard Guthrie has done some work on Cherbourg, notably a study of authority on that reserve, and an overview of the effect of government legislation on Cherbourg's Aborigines.18 Klaus-Peter Koepping has viewed Cherbourg as an "asylum' in his study entitled "How to Remain Human in an Asylum".19 Bill Rosser's This is Palm Island20 described the author's experiences and observations during a visit to Palm Island in 1974 and is a shocking indictment of administration and living conditions on government settlements in Queensland in the 1970s, and a statement about the racism in Queensland society as a whole.      


Although there has been work done in the area of Queensland government settlements, then, no histories of the whole period of such settlements have yet appeared, except Evans and Walker's study of Fraser Island, which overviews ‘Fraser Island as a closed institution' from 1897 to 1905.21 It seems that this imbalance is to be redressed in the near future as two such works are presently in progress. Joanne Watson is working on a history of Palm Island, and Thom Blake on a history of Cherbourg.   


There have, however, been histories of reserves in other states written. Peter Read's A Hundred Years War is a history of the Wiradjuri people of the eastern-central area of New South Wales, and their relationship with the state throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.22 Anna Haebich's For Their Own Good looks at Aborigines and the Government in the Southwest of Western Australia from 1900 to 1940.23 Another important work on areas interstate is All that Dirt, edited by Bill Gammage and Andrew Markus, which examines the condition of and legislation relating to Aborigines in Australia in 1938, concentrating on New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.24 Contributors include Peter Read, Anna Haebich, Coral Edwards, Andrew Markus and Ann McGrath. Bain Attwood's The Making of the Aborigines, which concentrates on Victoria, analyses the destruction of Aboriginal society and culture from the frontier period, through to the coming of the missionaries, and then the ‘legislative’ period.25 Attwood's work is in a similar category to that of Ann McGrath and Marie Eels.26 AS Attwood states:         


Both these historians have pointed to a considerable degree of compatibility between the two cultural systems and uncovered the dual consciousness which developed among stockworkers and the native police. Both conceive acculturation as an innovative and active process for Aborigines rather than as a retrogressive and passive one, while earlier historians have regarded such Aborigines as collaborators...27 


Attwood concurs with this view, and concludes that Aborigines ‘were not merely acted upon by these productive forces and relations but were themselves historical agents.’28 Despite Attwood's assertion, the fact remains that Aborigines on reserves were generally powerless against the administration, as this thesis will show. Although there were forms of sub-cultural protest, such as gambling, on Woorabinda, the fact remains that Aborigines were gaoled for trifling offences such as swearing and gambling without a trial, they could be forcibly removed from their family for any reason nominated by the Supervisor, - the list of oppressive treatment and conditions goes on. Attwood's reticence to use oral sources may explain his theory of Aborigines as ‘historical agents’. Like the Australian soldiers who survived Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and the Jewish people who survived the concentration camps, some Australian Aborigines who survived the Government Settlement suffer symptoms such as guilt, because they survived where many others did not, and worst of all, many of the more elderly Aborigines have rationalised to themselves that their treatment at the hand of Supervisors and Overseers was ‘not so bad’ or ‘they were strict, but we had a clean settlement’. Fortunately, unlike many ex-P.O.W.'s or Jewish people, some Aborigines are able to speak about their experiences on Government settlements. Perhaps studies which suggest that Aborigines were not victims but ‘agents’ would benefit from talking to some of them.       


This thesis provides an overview of life on Woorabinda Government Settlement from 1927 to 1990. As such, it constitutes the first completed history of a Queensland Government Aboriginal Settlement. Original sources which have been used include oral sources and archival research in the Department of Family Services (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Division). The difficulty which I encountered in gaining access to the material, and the attempted censorship of photocopies which I obtained would indicate both the significant nature of the material, and the fact that it has not been used in any other historical accounts. Currently, this material is in the Queensland State Archives under a 120 year ‘no-access’ rule. Other primary research included Parliamentary debates. Acts of Parliament, Annual Reports of the Chief Protector (who later became the Director of Native Affairs, and then Director of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement and so on), and newspaper sources.       


A factor worth noting as far as oral sources are concerned is the reticence of ex-residents to talk about their past experiences at Woorabinda. The degree of ‘openness’ was almost directly related to the informant's current geographical distance from Woorabinda. (For example, a resident in Rockhampton was not as open as one in Brisbane, but was more open than one still residing at Woorabinda). This would indicate that these Aborigines are still (perhaps subconsciously) afraid of the repercussions of complaining or speaking out about their condition, clearly a carry-over from the days of their institutionalised way of life on Woorabinda. Another problem with primary sources was encountered in the Annual Reports. As will be demonstrated in Chapters 1 and 2, the statistics in these reports were somewhat unreliable, because of an apparent discrepancy in the population figures from one year to another (taking removals, births and deaths into account). For example, in 1937, the figures left as many as seventy Aborigines on Woorabinda unaccounted for.       


Although Gerry Langevad of the Department of Family Services opposed inclusion of the names of white officers and ex-officers of that Department, no such omissions have been made, because these people were not victims, but agents of the process of dispossession. Some Aboriginal names have been withheld at the request of the informant (in the case of oral sources), or in text which examines the incidence of venereal diseases (in the case of written documentation). 


The main thrust of the material is the time at which certain conditions prevailed, or certain attitudes were held. Previous studies have sometimes failed to emphasise how recently ethnocidal, or even genocidal attitudes towards the Aborigines were held in Queensland, and have also failed to emphasise some of the racist provisions inherent in the legislation into the 1980s. The last two chapters demonstrate that the process of dispossession and institutional racism in Australia was openly supported by prominent members of the community until recent times in Queensland, and that the Aborigines of Woorabinda still suffer the effects of this on-going process today. In presenting this material, two aims have been kept in mind. The first is ­­­an attempt to counter-balance the view presented in the Annual Reports of the Department in charge of Aborigines regarding life on an Aboriginal Reserve in Queensland. The practice of painting a picture of good health and economic ‘development’ on the communities continues in the glossy magazine-style Annual Reports even today. Secondly, it is hoped that Queensland historians who haven't already recognised the importance of discovering and attempting to write the whole truth about the history of race relations in Queensland's history will see the importance of doing so.

Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Queensland -- Woorabinda

Document type: Thesis
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