Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yarrabah pt. 1

Darkness and Light:  Yarrabah and Cairns, 1891 - 1910
This paper, in six parts and a bibliography, explores race relations between Cairns and the Yarrabah Anglican Mission in far north Queensland between 1891 and 1910. I wrote it in 1997.

This dissertation explores race relations between Cairns and the Yarrabah Anglican Mission between 1891 and 1910. Yarrabah is situated south of Cairns and is about 40 kilometres distant by road. Before the road was built in the 1930s the only access was by boat, which took about two hours from Cairns. It was founded in 1892 by the Anglican Church in spite of trenchant opposition by the citizens of Cairns. As it struggled through its formative years, this criticism became increasingly muted. By 1910 there was a general acceptance by Cairns residents of the mission and its role in looking after Aborigines[1]

This dissertation sets out to document this change and the reasons for it, primarily using material sourced from the local newspapers, the Cairns Post and the Cairns Argus.[2] This is accomplished by briefly discussing the establishment and development of both Cairns and Yarrabah. A general overview of the frontier conflict in the Cairns district is presented. This allows for an understanding of the events leading to the need for a mission and the reaction of the settlers to this turn of events. Attitudes towards Yarrabah for the period 1891 - 1910 are discussed, highlighting how they improved during this period. They are examined in the broader context of race relations in Australia and the prevailing theories and attitudes towards indigenous peoples during this time. Conclusions as to the reasons for why these attitudinal improvements in race relations occurred are then drawn.

The Reverend John Gribble was the driving force behind the establishment of Yarrabah and it is probable that without his enthusiasm it would never have been established.[3] In 1891 he gained approval from the Diocesan Council of North Queensland to establish the mission. [4] He landed at False Bay on 17 June 1892, the site of the present community, and took formal possession of the 51 200 acres.[5] The mission was originally named the Bellenden Ker Mission, but was later changed to Yarrabah.[6] The very early months were very difficult and were marked by poverty and ill-health for Gribble. He died in 1893 and his son, Ernest, who arrived in October 1892, took over the running of the mission and remained until 1909. [7]

From the outset financial difficulties plagued the mission. At the end of 1893 the North Queensland Diocese ceased support and Gribble was forced to turn to the Australian Board of Missions for meagre financial assistance. From 1908 the Diocese again contributed to the upkeep of the mission. After 1896 the government provided a small subsidy.[8]

Initially Aborigines, ignoring the work of John Gribble and his three helpers, were slow to come to the mission.[9] On 12 December 1892, 30 people led by Menmuny, an Aboriginal leader, came to Yarrabah seeking a camp site.[10] Gradually more and more people came into the mission and by 1895 there were 112 people living there.[11]

Yarrabah came to be regarded as a model mission by the Government and Chuch authorities, and rapidly became a home for displaced Aborigines.[12] After the introduction of the Aborigines Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897 the population grew rapidly as Aboriginal people were rounded up and sent to Yarrabah against their will.[13] By 1910 only 60 of the 300 residents were local people, the remainder having been committed by the State.[14]

 Christianity appears to have been embraced by most, for by 1902 the number of Christians had risen to 200, with 134 confirmed in their new faith out of a total of 320 Christians by 1907.[15] The dormitory system was adopted and Christian ceremonies replaced Aboriginal ceremonies and traditions.[16] A court system was instituted and attempts were made to make the mission as self-supporting as possible. By 1908 there were 17 separate agricultural settlements.[17]

After suffering a nervous breakdown from overwork, Gribble retired from Yarrabah in 1909.[18] The Chief Protector of Aboriginals, R. B. Howard, and P. G. Grant, the Cairns Police Magistrate, both wrote reports in 1910 that were critical of conditions at the mission.[19] Residents complained of a lack of food. Cairns townspeople were outraged that girls who appeared to be almost white were living there. There was no efficient supervision and the financial outlook was bleak.[20] These accusations were bitterly resented by the North Queensland Diocese[21] and the Archbishop of Brisbane accused the government of not providing a large enough grant to cover even the cost of feeding the mission residents. He insisted that it was the responsibility of the government, and not the mission, to pay for the clothing and feeding of the residents.[22]

From difficult beginnings in 1892 Yarrabah had firmly established itself by 1910, despite criticisms of its methods of operation and ongoing financial difficulties. The residents of Cairns were becomming more accepting of the mission. This was very different from the intense opposition the mission and its founders had endured in the early 1890s and which will be discussed in detail later.

Cairns was named after Queensland’s first Irish born governor, William Wellington Cairns, who was the governor at the time.[23] It was established in 1876 to serve the mining industry, with Trinity Inlet chosen as the first port for the Hodgkinson Goldfield, a new field west of Cairns, after William Smith blazed a track through the Great Dividing Range to the Cairns port.[24] Cairns was declared a port of entry in November 1876 and the site of the town surveyed.[25]

Cairns struggled to establish itself in the early years. Smithfield, 15 kilometres to the north, overshadowed it until it was abandoned after successive floods from the adjacent Barron River from 1877 to 1879.[26] In June 1877 an easier route to the Hodgkinson Goldfields across the steep coastal range was discovered to Salisbury (later Port Douglas).[27]

What saved Cairns from being eclipsed from Port Douglas was the decision in 1884 to make it the railhead for the mineral rich interior at the expense of the more northern port.[28] It was also felt that Cairns had a superior harbour. Its other rival was Cooktown, but the latter declined due to the dwindling reserves of the Palmer River goldfields in the 1880s and the inability to construct a viable inland railway to support the goldfield. Thus Cairns was able to sustain its position as a growing settlement throughout the 1880s while its rivals weakened.[29] Construction of the railway to the Atherton Tableland commenced in 1886, with the first section to Redlynch opened in 1887 and the second or range section to Myola in 1891.[30]

[1] This despite a report in mid 1910 by the Cairns Police magistrate P. G. Grant over conditions at Yarrabah. Aborigines complained bitterly of not enough food and Cairns residents were unhappy that “almost white” girls were being held there. A subsequent report by Chief Protector R. B. Howard in the same year was sharply critical of the conditions to be found at Yarrabah and the way it was being managed. (D. Jones, Trinity Phoenix: a History of Cairns, p. 350-351). This will be discussed in detail further in the dissertation.
[2] The Cairns Post commenced on 10 May 1883 and continued until 1893, when it was bought out by the Cairns Argus. It was resurrected as the Cairns Morning Post from 6 June 1895 with a new owner and changed its name back to the Cairns Post in about 1909. The Cairns Argus commenced in February 1890 and continued until August 1898. There were several other papers during this period, but most were short lived and few copies have survived
[3] L. Hume, Yarrabah Phoenix: Christianity and Social Change in an Australian Aboriginal Reserve. p. 79
[4] L. Hume, “Them Days: Life on an Aboriginal Reserve 1892-1960”, Aboriginal History vol 15 no 1, 1991. p. 5
[5] L. Hume, Yarrabah Phoenix: Christianity and Social Change in an Australian Aboriginal Reserve. p. 81. Cairns Argus 17 June 1892, p. 2.
[6] The name was changed to Yarrabah when Ernest Gribble took over in 1893
[7] L. Hume, “Them days: Life on an Aboriginal Reserve 1892-1960”, Aboriginal History vol 15 no 1, 1991. p. 5
[8] Ibid., p. 6
[9] They were Pearson, Willie Ambryn (an Australian South Sea Islander) and Pompo Katchewan (An Aboriginal youth). Hume, Yarrabah Phoenix: Christianity and Social Change in an Australian Aboriginal Reserve., p. 81
[10] D. Rapkins, Major Research Topic on North Queensland History , p. 9. See also Jones, p. 316. Menmuny later to be known as King John Barlow
[11] L. Hume, “Them Days: Life on an Aboriginal Reserve 1892-1960”, Aboriginal History vol 15 no 1, 1991 p. 6
[12] Ibid, p. 6-7
[13] L. Hume, Yarrabah Phoenix: Christianity and Social Change in an Australian Aboriginal Reserve., p. 88-90
[14] K. Evans, Missionary Effort Towards the Cape York Aborigines, 1886-1910: a Study of Culture Contact, p. 89
[15] P. Smith, Like a Watered Garden. Yarrabah 1892-1909: the Foundation Era. p. 142
[16] Rapkins, p. 13. The first Christian burial was performed in 1895 against the wishes of the family concerned. See also Craig, D. The Social Impact of the State on an Aboriginal Reserve in Queensland, Australia, p.53
[17] Evans, p. 89
[18] Ibid., p. 91. Cairns Post 10 July 1909, p. 3
[19] Ibid., p. 91-93. For a detailed account see Jones, p. 350-352 as well as the Cairns Post 4 May 1910, p. 5; 6 May 1910, p. 2; 19 May 1910, p. 5; 23 May 1910, p. 5; 29 June 1910, p. 3 and 4; 30 June 1910, p. 5; 4 August 1910, p. 4; 24 October 1910, p. 5; 29 November 1910, p. 3
[20] Jones, p. 350
[21] See Jones, p. 351-2 and the Cairns Post 6 May 1910, p. 2; 27 May 1910, p. 7; 8, and 9 June 1910, p. 4; 27 October 1910, p. 5; 5 November 1910, p. 4
[22] Hume, Yarrabah Phoenix: Christianity and Social Change in an Australian Aboriginal Reserve., p. 102
[23] Jones, p. 84. Jones makes the comment that “his short term in office was in no way distinguished”
[24] R. Kerr, “Packers, Speculators and Customs Collectors: the Opening of Cairns in 1876”, Establishment Trinity Bay: a Collection of Historical Episodes., p. 10. For an exhaustive account on the events leading to the founding of Cairns and its establishment in 1876 see Prideaux, P. The Genesis of Cairns
[25] Cairns City Heritage Study: a Report for the Cairns City Council and the Department of Environment and Heritage, p. 12
[26] P. Broughton, “The Rise and Fall of Smithfield” Establishment Trinity Bay: a Collection of Historical Episodes, p. 18
[27] Ibid., p. 18
[28] Cairns City Heritage Study, p. 14
[29] Ibid., p. 14
[30] P. Broughton, “A Magnificent Achievement”, Establishment Trinity Bay: a Collection of Historical Episodes., p. 24