The settlement of Queensland was at first slow but by the 1850’s tho expansion of the white man over great areas of the future state was going on apace. The effect of contact with Europeans and European civilisation immediately had harmful effects on the aborigines. This became worse the more closely settled the districts where the aborigines had lived became.
For various reasons consequent upon the unregulated clash of two cultures there was at first continual strife between aborigines and white men. Of course the white men on the frontier found the situation intolerable because their lives were continually endangered. So the Government had to do something to protect them. Despite their lack of sophisticated modern weapons and their primitive tactics the aborigines were not in a completely inferior situation because of their expert bushmanship. According to Tom Petrie who knew them as well as anybody did, they laughed at the white policemen because they could not effectively pursue them!
So the Government of New South Wales countenanced the formation of a Native Mounted Police Force to make reprisals against those aboriginal tribes which committed outrages. This force which consisted of native troopers commanded by white officers, was more than effective in dealing with wild aborigines. It was notorious for its brutality and for the lack of discrimination which it exercised in its punitive expeditions against the aborigines. The Governments, however, in spite of frequent outcries rarely adopted a more positive policy of what to do with the blacks. In most states there were attempts, made mainly by Christian missionaries to set up reserves or protectorates and there help the aborigines to adapt peacefully to European civilization. In Queensland there was a mission at Nundah from 1837-45. This failed and only minor and half-hearted efforts were made after this time to do anything positive for Queensland’s aborigines.
The first important movement to give positive help to the Australian aborigines arose during the 1870’s and later became organized and coordinated. This movement, which I am dealing with in this thesis promised well for the aborigines before the McIlwraith Government, obsessed by a fit of fiendish destructiveness cancelled almost all of the reserves which had been set up and brought the movement to an untimely end.
Whenever two cultures come into contact there are bound to be trouble. The way of life of the Australian aborigine was so strikingly different from that of the European that there were bound to be problems of a specially painful kind. So there were. But it is not completely clear what were the specific causes of clashes between aborigines and Europeans – at least from the side of the aborigines. The explanation generally accepted at present by anthropologists and historians is of the type which Marie Reay expertly gives.2
The way of life of the aborigines was so different from that of the European invaders that nearly everywhere ‘even the most kindly intentioned of settlers could find no common ground or understanding.’ One of the worst problems which was encountered was the possession of the land. As far as the European could see their land did not mean much to them, there were no obvious signs of ownership; the aborigines did not actually use it in the way Europeans did. But the aborigines had a deep spiritual attachment to their land. They believed in a Dream Time long before they lived themselves and peopled their particular tribal country with spirit ancestors. There was a concept of non-change through time immemorial.3
The European invasion of course shattered all this. The aborigines did not know anything about white people and could not conceive where anybody could come from except from themselves. They could not for long accept white men into their totemic system as some of their spirit ancestors. Large numbers of white men were occupying their country and were utterly ignorant as well as generally unsympathetic to their ancient culture. The taking up of most of their land by the white men broke the continuity of the culture with past and future.
As well, land robbery destroyed their earlier means of subsistence. Their precious existence had been very healthy, if pretty strenuous.4 They lived mainly off the fauna which roamed their land. Their diet varied according to conditions but was generally adequate. When the shite man came he killed off the marsupials in colossal numbers and increasingly deprived them of their original means of subsistence. Thei normal source of food was taken away and they also lost the occupation of food tathering which kept them physically fit.5 The aborigines also lost the incentive to hunt elusive game when they could live off white men’s rations. They could get these in return for labour, and so they were drawn into an alien culture which broke down their own. This happened soon or later. If the aborigines resisted the Native Police in the course of their duties killed of large numbers and their original way of life became harder and harder to maintain.
Their health was dreadfully affected for a number of reasons. They had been an exceptionally healthy people before they came into contact with Europeans. Mr. George Bridgman said that ‘You literally could not kill an aborigine with an axe.’ He said he had seen aborigines ‘with pieces chopped out of them. If this had happened to a white man he would have died of mortification.’6 Isolation had kept them free from epidemics of plague, cholera, smallpox etc. Before the European came they suffered from only a few diseases like trachoma and yaws.
The white men brought with them diseases which at times destroyed almost whole tribes. They also brought debilitating diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis. Their new diet did not have nearly as much meat in it as the old, and was generally of low protein content. They soon discovered that nakedness was abhorrent to the European. They were given old clothes which they did not know how to wear, in rain or summer. They were not used to a permanent home or anything like it. Their gunyaks soon became fouled and diseases became even more prevalent. They took to the white man’s vices. They had liking for the grog and got drunk. They lost control of themselves under its influence and did serious injury to one another.
In all the occupation of their country by the European left them in a state of material, moral and spiritual penury.7 It is not surprising then, that wherever the European advanced they began to die out. Hence if the race was to survive they had to be separated from the white man. The solution to this was the setting up of reserves. Here good men could instruct them in the white man’s way and explain to them his ideas of right and wrong, which were so different from their own. There they could be kept from drink and other vices. If they had to be turned loose into European society some time then they would be in a better position to take care of themselves and resist its evil influences.
It was also in many ways beneficial to the white men if they were removed from contact with their race. Many whites looked forward to the day when the whole aboriginal race would be extinct. They often appeared as a nuisance. They took up a practice which Elkin calls ‘intelligent parasitism.’ Because of their tardiness in adjusting to the European way of life their employers credited them with low intelligence. They played down this expectation to flatter the boss.8
We need no believe the prejudiced remarks of people like Harold Finch-Hatton who said they ‘will follow a man for days, just keeping out of his sight until they get an opportunity to kill him.’9 But the aborigines often did kill solitary shepherds or travellers. Usually this was after some action had been committed against them by Europeans though we cannot be sure of the reasons. For example it is a mystery why they should have massacred the Wills family in 1862.
The squatters continually had trouble from their spearing sheep and cattle. There are continual references by white men to these offences. It is certain that they did not kill just a small number for food. They often killed very large numbers indeed. We need not take the extreme view that they had ‘picnics’ and ‘wild chases’ in the sheep and cattle runs.10 Mr. Bridgman thought that they killed for food. But they found sheep and cattle a very easy prey, and like white men shooting ducks they killed off far more then they needed.
But the aborigines certainly did not get on well with sheep and cattle. Even when they had no spears they unintentionally frightened cattle so that the cattle broke fences. Mr. Jocelyn Brooke gives us the peculiar case of a white farmer who would not have blacks work in his neighbour’s place because he said they frightened his milking cows.11 Brooke obviously thought this man was exaggerating but there is a hint of authenticity about the complaint.
Because of the rapid settlement of land in Australia the squatters were short of labour. So they were usually willing to employ aborigines. Because the work was usually alien to their culture or because of ‘intelligent parasitism’, they were never very good workers. They were often employed in cutting firewood, ringbarking trees, stripping bark, hoeing, picking up stray animals etc. They were definitely not good at harder and more agricultural work, like harvesting. I am unfortunately lacking in information on Bridgman’s reserve at Mackay. Here the aborigines seem to have done some of the harder work like cutting and thrashing cane but apparently only to a small extent and usually only when there was a shortage of Kanakas. Most of the time at Mackay they seem to have done much the same work as on Mr. Bridgman’s lonely station at Fort Cooper or as they did under Jocelyn Brooke on the diminished Mackay Reserve when both aborigines and Europeans had been severely disillusioned by the events of 1879. This work was of the usual type which I have just mentioned.
The Drew Commission in 1874 reported, from information gathered from the circulars they had sent out over all Queensland
‘Although there are exceptions and some aborigines are now profitably employed by Europeans in some instances, they on the whole, show an unconquerable aversion to persistent labour.’12
Mr. George Bridgman introduced a system of aboriginal-European relations at Mackay which was generally new. He did not believe that indiscriminate contact between white men and aborigines could have anything but a degrading effect on both races, but especially on the aborigines. On the other hand he did not agree with those missionaries who would keep the aborigines completely away from white men. Being a grazier himself he realized that the white employers were eager to have aboriginal labour and did not take the aborigines as just useless. So he got them to do a great amount of work under regulations which protected them from white employers who would exploit them. At the same time he kept them out of mischief. When the Government appointed him Protector of Aborigines he was able to extend this practice from a few neighboring plantations to the whole of the Mackay Dristrict.
This practive of Mr. Bridgman’s was one of the principal features of the reserves system of the 1870’s which I am dealing with. The aborigines were employed from the reserves at Durundur, Bowen and probably Townsville. On Bribie Island they were taught how to catch and cure fish by a European manager. Bridgman’s ideas were taken up in a distorted form by a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Duncan McNab who became over-confident about the aborigines’ ability to work. This comes into my thesis.
Thus the experiment of the 1870’s in Queensland was very different from the missionary experiments that had been made up to that time or were to be made alter. The missionaries had been inclined to suspect anyone who employed aborigines of slavery. Bridgman did not lay himself open to this charge. He used moral force and employed them only when they were willing. As his assistant, Jocelyn Brooke said, ‘they can be led not driven.’ Bridgman was to gain their complete confidence. In their degraded and disillusioned condition they were always open to kindness. The most faithful follower McNab was ever to have was a youth called Knife. During a massacre of his tribe by the police, Knife had been wounded, and was the only survivor. McNab healed him and gained his complete confidence.13 Similarly Bridgman and Brooke at Mackay gained the confidence of the aborigines, by attending to the sick and wounded. By large measures of self-sacrifice and a genuine love for their neighbour a few individuals were able to do much for the aborigines. This is one of the reasons for the distinctive success of the movement of the 70’s. Another one was the great knowledge of aboriginal culture which Bridgman had gained and which he used to advise those setting up other reserves in the north. The early missionaries had known very little about the aborigines’ culture much of the time and so their missions had been failures.
The movement of the 1870’s to ameliorate and improve the condition of the aborigines came neither too late nor too early to save the race. The Drew Commission reported:
‘The aborigines are fast decreasing in almost all if, not all the districts of the colony’
But much could be done to stay the dying out and the degeneration of the race. Much was done after the 1897 act when their condition was vastly worse than it had been in 1874 except in a few isolated areas in the far west or on Cape York Peninsula. There were not a great many aborigines left then. But it has become clear in recent years that the aborigines are not dying out but fast increasing in numbers.
The Drew Commission did not take notice of the view that the race was necessarily dying out:
‘Little can be attempted towards ameliorating the condition of old and middle aged aborigines, except supplying them with food and shelter, with reasonable hope of success, but by education and training much can be done for the young.’
Again, the movement did not come too early for the Europeans to realize that something should be done to solve the aboriginal problem apart from killing them off and driving them into the bush. The people of Queensland were not in general suffering from guilt complexes but they did see that the former course was resulting in the blacks coming in on stations and loafing around the towns, and generally making nuisances of themselves. The movement was generally well received, though Duncan McNab’s ideas aroused much opposition. It was just unfortunate that the McIlwraith Government came to power during the time of this movement – a government which was about the least sympathetic towards it as any Government could have been.