Islands Dark History
Of Aboriginal Repression
02 March 2005
November 26, the Aboriginal residents of Palm Island, 65 kilometres
from Townsville in the northern state of Queensland, stormed the islands
police station, barracks and courthouse after the death in police custody
of a local man, Cameron Doomadgee, 36. He was found dead in a police
cell at 11:20 a.m. on November 19just an hour after he had been
locked up for the minor offence of causing a public nuisance.
The riot was triggered
by the Queensland State Coroners partial release of an autopsy
report indicating that Doomadgee may have been beaten by police. It
found that Doomadgee had died of internal bleeding, after suffering
four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver. His death was not
an aberration. Since 1980, nearly 300 indigenous people have died in
custody in prison cells or police lockups.
As soon as the riot
erupted, the police invoked far-reaching emergency powers and flew in
at least 80 officers, including members of the Special Emergency Response
Team (SERT), to take over Palm Island. Backed by the state Labor government,
they took control of the airport, school and hospital, closed roads
and launched police raids on homes.
An official inquiry
into the incident is being conducted by the Queensland Crime and Misconduct
Commission, (CMC), which is relying on the police to gather evidence.
Every other such inquest held since the late 1980s, including the 1994
hearings held by the CMCs predecessor, the Criminal Justice Commission,
into the police killing of 18-year-old Aboriginal dancer Daniel Yock,
has exonerated the police.
In the wake of these
events, Premier Peter Beatties state government and the corporate
media attempted to blame Aboriginal residents themselves. By any measure,
Palm Island is a social and economic catastrophe. Its population of
approximately 2,500 people is crowded into 200 homes. Their average
life expectancy is 50 years30 years less than Australias
average. Unemployment levels are between 80 and 90 percent.
Several days after
the Palm Island riot, Queensland Police Minister Judy Spence declared:
Sadly, I think its a product of the fact that many of the
communities were talking about are very dysfunctional and while
were doing a lot of good work in those communities, theres
still unacceptable levels of violence and the courts are responding
to that violence by sending people to prison.
However, an examination
of Palm Islands past demonstrates that the appalling conditions
on Palm Island, as in other Aboriginal communities, are the product
of two centuries of oppression. For most of the twentieth century it
functioned as a brutal prison for Queensland Aborigines. Established
as a penal colony, its purpose was to enforce the good behaviour
of Aborigines confined on the states reserves. Its history can
only be understood as a product of the capitalist settlement of Queensland,
one of the last regions of Australia to be cleared of its indigenous
to self-government late. It was proclaimed a colony separate from New
South Wales only in 1859, by which time the pastoral land in the southern
states had been swallowed up. At the same time, Queensland still had
a substantial indigenous population. In The Aborigines and Torres Strait
Islanders of Queensland, A.H.Campbell calculates that the population
was at least 70,000 but cites the estimate of 200,000 made by the governments
so-called Southern Aboriginal Protector, Archibald Meston. 
By comparison, Tasmanias
Aborigines had been completely wiped out by 1847. Ten years later, and
a year before Queensland was officially gazetted, a government report
observed that Aboriginal tribes in the southern mainland state of Victoria
had been largely destroyed. A Report of the Select Committee on the
Aborigines noted: The state of Victoria is now entirely occupied
by a superior race, and there is scarcely a spot, excepting in the remote
mountain ranges, or dense scrubs, on which the Aborigine can rest his
As the north of
the Australian continent was opened up, relations between the Aborigines
and settlers spiraled downward, along a familiar and brutal path.
The missionary William
Ridley described the effect of pastoral expansion on Aboriginal tribes
around the Balonne River in Queensland: Before the occupation
of this district by colonists, the Aborigines could never have been
at a loss for the necessaries of life. Except in the lowest part of
the river, there is water in the driest seasons; along the banks game
abounded; waterfowl, emus, parrot tribes, kangaroos, and other animals
might always, or almost always, be found. But when the country was taken
up and herds of cattle introduced, not only did the cattle drive away
the kangaroos, but those who had charge of the cattle found it necessary
to keep the Aborigines away from the river....
fatal conflicts in which some colonists and many Aborigines have been
slain, the blacks have been awed into submission to the order which
forbid their access to the river. And what is the consequence? Black
fellows coming in from the west report that last summer very large numbers,
afraid to visit the river, were crowded round a few scanty waterholes,
within a days walk of which it was impossible to get sufficient
food....that owing to these combined hardships many died. 
of their traditional food sources, turned to hunting the sheep and cattle,
actions which quickly developed into outright warfare and a policy of
exterminating indigenous inhabitants. In Black Pioneers, historian Henry
Reynolds concluded: (T)alk of war was commonplace in Queensland
in the second half of the century, many people agreeing with the local
politician who told his parliamentary colleagues in 1861 that (T)he
people of this colony must be considered to be, they have always been
at open war with the Aborigines. 
In this war, the
government allowed the settlers complete freedom to take whatever action
they considered necessary, usually the use of guns or poison or both.
It also employed black troopers in the Native Mounted Police for punitive
expeditions to track down and kill resisting tribes.
By 1897, according
to Campbell, nine out of every ten Aborigines south of Cape York Peninsula
had been eliminated. By the governments own count, the states
population of Aborigines had plunged to 15,000 by the end of the century,
of which only 5,000 lived below Cape York Peninsula. Numerous contemporary
accounts testified to their wretched state.
Thus, a mine manager
described the Aborigines in the Burke district in northern Queensland
in 1891: They are driven back in the spinifex ranges and when
I was up the Nicholson they were living on ants. They dare not come
on to where there was game for fear of kidnapping parties. They were
the poorest things I ever seenperfect skeletons.... nothing to
eat and sleeping in holes in the ground....
not only the poor physical state of the Aborigines, with malnutrition,
opium addiction, gonorrhoea and leprosy widespread, but also their traumatised
psychological condition. A Police Commissioner reported in 1896: ...driven
from place to place; though not daring to resent insult, outrage or
even murder committed by the whites... they are yet a trouble to the
settlers through their broken-hearted ignorant helplessness.
The first 40 years
of colonial settlement in Queensland consisted of keeping the
blacks out of pastoral stations, a policy which meant the extermination
of the majority of Aborigines. They were kept out due to
the fundamental incompatibility between the developing pastoral capitalist
society of the settlers and the tribal hunter-gatherer society of the
indigenous population. By the end of the 1890s, the remnants of Aboriginal
tribes who had survived were to be let in.
framework for the new policy was the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and
Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (the Act). Hailed as
a benevolent law, ostensibly to save Aborigines from extinction, its
function was not only to serve as a system of control but also to create
a cheap and reliable labour force.
It was difficult
to coerce Aborigines to adopt the capitalist work ethiclabouring
without rest from dawn to dusk on successive dayswhile other means
of subsistence remained. Employers complained that in the course of
clearing land, because it was the Aborigines habit never to pass
by food, the discovery of wild yam, a bees nest or a wallaby would
result in all hands immediately ceasing work for however long it took
to procure the food source. Another barrier to the desire for
steady employment was the Aboriginal habit of shielding
the indolent by sharing the proceeds of the day among their fellows,
meaning that everyone received some return whether they worked or not.
The move to establish
legislative controls over Aboriginal labour was also bound up with the
political imperative of establishing a federated nation in 1901, in
order to strengthen the strategic and economic position of the emerging
Australian capitalist class. The Queensland government had initially
sought to meet employers demands for a ready supply of cheap and
tractable labour by setting up schemes for importing indentured labourers,
particularly from China and the South Pacific islands.
was founded on the White Australia policy. As part of the
political settlement underpinning Federation, the employers agreed with
the trade union and Labor leadership on a platform of excluding coloured
races, in order to divide Australian workers from their Asian-Pacific
brothers and sisters. Federation was accompanied by the passing of whites-only
labour laws, from which Aborigines were conveniently exempted.
It was in this context
that the Queensland government directed Archibald Meston, the Southern
Aboriginal Protector, to devise a scheme to solve the Aboriginal
problem for the colony. His extended tour of the state impressed
upon him the degree to which the colonys economy was already dependent
on Aboriginal labour, the chief virtue of which, Meston wrote, was its
cheapness and servility. 
On the cattle stations,
an industry vital to Queensland, Aboriginal stockmen outnumbered white
stockmen by 5 or 6 to 1. Aboriginal labour was also widely used in the
towns. One official estimated that in Normanton at the turn of the century,
150 Aborigines were employed on a daily basis in a town with a total
population of 500.
Meston drew up plans
to regulate the labour of Queenslands indigenous population and
to train its future generations for a life of exploitation. In
three or four years, he wrote, there would be hundreds of
Queensland aboriginals available to do work for which we now employ
Under the guise
of protection, the Act turned Aborigines into the property
of the state, subject to removal to distant missions or reserves, which
were located on areas not wanted for pastoral or other commercial activities.
Aborigines were only permitted to leave reserves in order to take up
regulated employment. A police officer, or a pastoralist, merely had
to point to an Aborigine for him or her to be under the Act
and they could be ordered into forced labour for up to 12 months.
were given the right to decide which industries Aborigines worked in,
who could employ them and what wages they were to be paid, although
Aborigines, whether working on reserves or contracted out
frequently received no monetary payment at all. Payment was commonly
in cast-off clothes, food scraps, alcohol or opium dregs.
Any wages were invariably
paid into a fund, under the control of the local Protector, with Aborigines
receiving only a fraction as pocket money. Aboriginal workers,
particularly those in the pastoral industry and on the reserves, were
paid well below award rates. For example, in 1966 when the carpenters
award rate of pay was $48 per week, builders on the Cherbourg reserve
were paid only $10. The award rate for apprentices was $21, but apprentices
on the reserve, who received no structured teaching or training, were
paid $3. 
According to recent
estimates, from the 1890s to the 1970s the amounts confiscated from
Aboriginal workers under compulsory contract to the Queensland government
totalled $500 million in wages and savings.
On the reserves,
compulsory labour was mandatory for every able-bodied individual, including
children and women. Under-age child labour was commonplace and Aboriginal
girls were routinely sent from the reserves at the age of 10 to work
as domestic servants in town households or on cattle stations.
The Act also gave
the state the power to regulate the most personal aspects of Aborigines
lives, including whom they married and whether they could keep their
1. Campbell A.H., The Aborigines and Torres Islanders of Queensland,
Brisbane Western Suburbs Branch, United Nations Association, 1958.
2. Reynolds H, The Other Side of the Frontier, Penguin, 1981, p. 67.
3. Reynolds H, Black Pioneers, Penguin, 1990, p. 122.
4. Raymond Evans, Kay Saunders, Kathryn Cronin, Race Relations in Colonial
Queenslanda history of exclusion, exploitation and extermination,
University of Queensland Press, 1975, p. 112.
5. Kidd Ros, The Price of Justice, Hecate, 1996, p. 69.
The conditions on
Aboriginal reserves exacted a terrible human cost. More than half a
century later, in the 1960s, a medical survey of Queenslands Aboriginal
reserves found that malnutrition was a key factor in deaths of 50 percent
of the children under three and 85 percent of children under four. In
addition, half of all neo-natal deaths and 47 percent of deaths of all
children under 16 were from gastroenteritis or pneumonia.
To impose such harsh
conditions required secondary penal settlements such as Palm Island.
It was established in 1918 on the advice of Chief Protector J.W. Bleakley
as a reserve that would be ideal for the confinement of the individuals
we want to punish.
The settlement initially
consisted of about 200 people, made up of 14 different tribal groups
removed from all over Queensland, a population which increased to 1,200
According to one
study, many were exiled for speaking out against the protection
laws and against unjust treatment as labourers. Among them were
stockman Albert Hippi, removed to Palm Island in 1923 from Saxby Downs
after he had organised a petition amongst his fellow workers seeking
greater control over their wages through access to their bank accounts;
Paddy Brooks from Millaa Millaa for causing discontent;
Herbert from Camoweal for leaving employers; Martin Joe
from Cairns for refusing to work; and Frank from Cairns for being an
In addition to troublemakers,
Aborigines were sent to Palm Island for offences such as drunkenness,
being unemployed, being found off an Aboriginal reserve and for being
deemed to be half-castes.
During the 1920s
and 1930s Aborigines in chains were shipped to the island where their
lives were made as harsh as possible. A rigid work regime, police brutality
and constant surveillance were accompanied by poor quality rations and
lives were subject to the dictatorial control of a succession of superintendents.
The first reigned from 1918 until 1930 when he went berserk, killing
his own children, shooting at other staff and burning down the main
But the most repressive
period, described by residents as Gestapo times, came in
the 1950s when ex-policeman Roy Bartlam arrived. Under Bartlam, the
powers of Queenslands Department of Native Affairs were ruthlessly
enforced. Police would arrest workers even a minute behind time
for morning roll call. Those not working hard enough faced imprisonmentmeaning
confinement to a tiny cell for weeks at a time or banishment to neighbouring
Eclipse Island, where they survived on bread and water.
Police were equipped
with batons, three to five feet long and made from hard bloodwood, to
assist them in the intimidation of residents. Police brutality was commonplace.
According to elders, police beat two residents to death during Bartlams
Most of the islands
children were removed from their parents and confined in segregated,
wire-enclosed dormitories, officially designated as Industrial
Schools. The curriculum was extremely limited and did not go beyond
Grade 4. It was designed to prepare children for low-skilled manual
work: as domestics, cooks, stock-workers, etc.
Details of life
on Palm Island came to public notice only in the 1970s when Allessandro
Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan recreated a 1957 strike by hundreds of
the Islands residents in the film Protected.
They recorded that
inmates were forced to salute all whites whom they passed by,
to work without pay, to queue for rations of flour, tea, sugar and the
offcuts of meat ... men would be confined (in jail) for offences
such being untidy or failing to get a haircut,
while women were imprisoned for wearing shorts or dresses above the
knee. On one occasion, a group of people were arrested for laughing,
and a man was imprisoned for waving to his wife. 
The trigger for
the strike was a stepped-up work regime. Bartlett insisted that the
task of building another jail was so urgent that he employed the
men to work over the weekend as well as Easter Monday, a practice not
usual except in an emergency. The strike lasted for five days,
when police reinforcements, rushed from the mainland, conducted dawn
raids on the homes of the strike leaders, who were subsequently banished.
From reserves to communities
In the 1960s, rising
opposition to the oppression of Aboriginal people developed as part
of an international movement of the working class and radicalised youth.
Australian governments also moved to ditch the White Australia policy
in an attempt to improve Australias tainted international reputation
and boost trade with Asia.
It was in this context
that the struggles of the Aboriginal people, along with those of the
working class as a whole, resulted in the granting of a range of partial
and limited concessions. It was only in 1962 that Aborigines were given
the right to vote in federal elections and in 1965 in Queensland elections.
The Queensland reserves
became communities, initially under the control of a government-appointed
manager or missionary with wide-ranging powers. When old age, invalid
and widows pensions were made available to Aborigines in the 1960s,
the government simply reduced grants to the reserves by an equivalent
amount. In 1968, the system of queuing for rations was abruptly replaced
with a system of paying cash for items of the same value.
Then in 1977, when
Aborigines on reserves were granted award wages, two-thirds of the working
population was sacked. Wholesale retrenchments severely affected the
operation of essential services on communities and had a devastating
effect on families. In 1979 there were 22 people dependent on
each wage earner at Bamaga, 43 on each wage earner on Cherbourg; 46
at Yarrabah, 50 at Edward River and Doomadgee, 61 at Weipa and at Palm
Island there were 99 dependents for each wage earner. 
In addition, the
state government hiked rents and increased service charges. Electricity
and store prices on the communities were no longer subsidised, making
a bitter struggle for survival on the meagre weekly pay of only $95
at a time when the States minimum wage was $124 and award wages
stood at $163. 
During the 1970s
and 1980s, as state and federal governments began to cultivate a layer
of Aboriginal bureaucrats, authority was gradually handed over to Aboriginal
councils. But this only meant that the same levels of poverty and exploitation
were imposed on Aboriginal people by an Aboriginal privileged elite.
The Community Development
Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme was introduced in the late 1970s,
essentially as the successor to the system of compulsory labour. Instead
of paying Aborigines unemployment benefits, to which they were in theory
entitled, government grants were paid to community councils, whose officials
forced residents to work for the dole on pain of removal
The last vestiges
of the notorious Act were only finally abolished in 1984. In 1985, the
Queensland government relinquished control of Palm Island, removing
much of its infrastructure, including its timber mill, wharves, houses
and shops. It passed title to the Palm Island Community Council in the
form of the Deed of Grant in Trust, which allowed only temporary use
Conditions on Palm
Island have steadily worsened however. The disaster that has been created
by a succession of governments, state and federal, is now being used
to justify further inroads into the social position of Aborigines. In
the name of solving Palm Islands problems, a layer
of Aboriginal leaders is enthusiastically promoting proposals to turn
native-title land holdings into collateral for business
and housing loans. Land titles on Palm Island, which are in theory communally
owned, would be transformed into private holdings.
The Courier Mail,
Rupert Murdochs Queensland daily, approvingly cited the comment
of former Palm Island mayor, Paul Blackley, that Cameron Doomadgee would
not have been drunk on the day of his death, if he had a mortgage.
Likewise, Labor Party national vice-president Warren Mundine, who is
a member of the Howard governments recently formed National Indigenous
Council, has described Palm Island as an island off the coast
of Queensland which every developer would love to have and yet 90 percent
of our people are unemployed there.
Far from ameliorating
the present social crisis, such plans would only deepen the chasm between
rich and poor. Aboriginal people would be subject to the full forces
of the free market, the very system responsible for the
historic crimes perpetrated against them.
1. Joanne Watson, We Couldnt Tolerate Any More: The Palm
Island Strike of 1957, Labour History, Number 69, November 1995.
2. Ibid, p. 153.
4. Ros Kidd, A century of protection: Kitchener Blighs story,
Ros Kidd web site, http://www.linksdisk.com/roskidd/site/Speech6.htm.