Industries began to emerge in the 1880s that would help to sustain it and ensure its growth. The Chinese who had abandoned the Palmer River goldfields were instrumental in the development of Cairns. They established pioneer agricultural industries such as sugar plantations, rice growing and market gardens, and by the mid 1880s comprised up to 33% of the population of 1 376 people. They were also involved in trade and commerce, establishing several stores in what became known as Chinatown, centred on Sachs Street.
Three large sugar plantations were established in the 1880s, a banana export trade developed, and Cairns became the port for mineral and timber shipments from the Atherton and Hahn Tablelands. Large companies from the southern colonies invested in the sugar industry which boomed for a short period. However this ended with a price slump when markets were flooded with European sugar beet after 1883 and was compounded by disease, natural disasters and labour problems. It was not until after the depression of the 1890s that the sugar industry and its prospects improved. By 1911 the population of Cairns had increased to 5 164 people.
To better understand the relationship between Cairns and Yarrabah it is necessary to detail the pattern of contact in the district as well as the theories that influenced settlers' thoughts and actions. This will provide the basis for an understanding of the reasons for the mission and reactions to it. Wherever possible I have quoted the writers themselves so that we may read what occurred from their perspective, coloured and filtered as they are through the beliefs and attitudes of their times. This provides an atmosphere of authenticity while capturing the flavour of an era, which although only a century ago, was so markedly different to our own.
The philosophical underpinning for Aboriginal and settler relations was different to that found today. Social Darwinism was influential from 1859 until the 1940s. This theory held that:
· Separate races are different species that have evolved through Darwinian processes of natural selection. Aboriginal people were seen as examples of the lowest rung of evolutionary development, the childhood of humanity itself. The European races were seen as the highest form of human evolution.
· Cultural differences have a biological basis which can be explained through the laws of evolution, natural selection and the survival of the fittest.
· The survival or disappearance of cultures is determined by these natural laws. Those cultures that survive are the fittest and the strongest; those which disappear or are clearly inferior, are weeded out by natural selection and doomed to extinction.
This theory legitimised and provided scientific support for;
· Invasion and subsequent colonisation of Aboriginal land, with no recognition of prior ownership or sense of obligation to those dispossessed.
· The apparent complacency at the appalling living conditions, health and death rates amongst Aborigines.
· Willingness to permit punitive expeditions, massacres and killing of Aborigines with no real sense of outrage.
· The concern of the dangers of interbreeding, which threatened the racial purity of the white race with inferior Aboriginal strains.
· A denial that Aborigines were genetically capable of becoming civilised (adopting white values and lifestyles) and looking after their own lives.
· A denial that Aborigines were genetically capable of becoming educated.
At the time of European settlement the area was inhabited by four main Aboriginal groups. On the western side of Cairns, from Redlynch to over the ranges, were the Djabugay People. On the central and northern side of Cairns, from approximately Bessie Point to Port Douglas and westward to Redlynch, were the Yirrganydji People. On the Southern side of Cairns to Babinda, eastward to the Murray Prior Range and westward to Lake Barrine, were the Yidinji; and the area occupied by Yarrabah was the traditional land of the Gunngandji, who inhabited the Cape Grafton Peninsula westward to the Murray Prior Range and southward to the mouth of the Mulgrave River.
The first known European to sail past was Captain James Cook who rounded Cape Grafton on 10 June 1770 and anchored in Trinity Bay. His passage was observed at Brown’s Bay in the Yarrabah district and two paintings of his ship Endeavour were painted onto the rock. In the nineteenth Century explorers, surveyors, and then beche-de-mer fishermen began sailing up the North Queensland coast. J.S.V. Mein established a beche-de-mer station on Green Island, off the Cairns Coast, in 1858. On one trip to the mainland he and his party were tracked by a large group of Aborigines. In Trinity Inlet they came across canoes full of Aborigines but had no commercial dealings with them. However they managed to trade with people at Cape Grafton.
In 1868 Philip Garland set up a beche-de-mer station on Green Island and in 1870 he was attacked at Smith’s Creek when he went up the Inlet looking for food and water. This is the earliest recorded case of inter-racial conflict in the Cairns area. Unfortunately it was to be the first of many.
Aborigines in the district fought the settlers wherever and whenever they could in an attempt to hold on to their land and way of life. While many details are sketchy or not recorded, I have listed some of the attacks on both sides that did occur during the early days of Cairns. These attacks resulted in the inevitable subjugation of the Aboriginal people and their eventual removal to missions and reserves. This conflict set the pattern for future race relations in the district and towards the Yarrabah Mission. It is sobering that the vast majority of documented cases concerned Europeans. Aboriginal deaths were rarely recorded and where the accounts have survived they were rarely mentioned by name. Names were only given if an Aboriginal was caught killing a European.
A series of murders took place on Green Island in 1873. William Rose and William White were killed on 12 April 1873, by three Aboriginal men picked up by these beche-de-mer fishermen off Palm Island. On 10 July 1873, John Finlay, James Mercer, Charles Reeve and a man named Towie were allegedly killed by four other Palm Island Aborigines on Green Island. Sub-Inspector Johnstone was sent to the Cairns district to hunt down the perpetrators of the Green Island massacre and describes being met by a large group of Aborigines. In his own words;
We did not wait for them to attack us, as directly I saw they meant (to) fight we commenced at 200 yards range, and when they saw the result of our first volley they cleared, and we, with a yell, charged, and saw no more of them that day.
In 1873 Dalrymple undertook his North East Coast Expedition from Cardwell to the Endeavour River (where Cooktown is now situated). They arrived at Trinity Inlet on 16 October 1873. On 17 October they saw two parties of Aborigines in outrigger canoes and:
Endeavoured to get them to fraternise: but they jumped ashore and disappeared in the mangroves and mud, abandoning their vessels.
Sub-Inspector Johnstone was also a member of the expedition, being in charge of the accompanying native police. On 20 October 1873 he;
Saw a mob of blacks coming towards us, yelling and brandishing spears poised on the woomera, each carrying a bundle of spears in the left hand. I saw at once they intended attacking us and made preparations accordingly.
 Ibid., p. 15
J. Collinson, Early Days of Cairns, p. 70. Sachs Street was later renamed Grafton Street.
 Ibid., p. 15
 Ibid., The situation became so dire that a Royal Commission was appointed in 1889 (See Collinson, chapter 18, for the rise and fall of the sugar industry in Cairns in the late 19th century)
 K. Kelly, An Introduction to Recent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History in Queensland, p. 35
 The exact boundaries and locations are unclear and indeed may overlap. Evidence of this can be seen in Native Title Claims where the same area is claimed by different groups
There were also sub groups and clans. For example the Yidinji can be divided into seven sub-groups such as the Malanbarra-Yidinji of the Goldsborough Valley. There are also several spelling variations for each group. The Djabugay were also known as Tjapukai, Tja Pukai, Tja Pukanja and Tja Boga. The Yirrganydji were known as Irukandji, Irukandji and Yirkandji. The Yidinji were known as Indinji, Idindji, Yidindji and Yidindyi and Gunngandji were previously known as Konkandji, Kunggandyi, Kunngganji and Kungandji (Jones, p. 291-292)
 Jones, p. 2
 D. Seaton, “Rock Paintings in the Brown Bay Area, North Queensland, Irukandji People”, North Queensland Naturalist, vol 20 no 102, September 1952, p. 35-37. W. Johnston, “Early European Contact with Aborigines of the Present Mulgrave Shire Area Up To the End of the Year 1889”, Mulgrave Historical Society Bulletin no 54, p. 1, notes that Yarrabah folk lore has it that an ambush had been set to prevent Cook’s party from approaching a sacred site. Fortunately the site was not discovered by Cook
 Jones, p. 13
 Ibid., p. 15
 Jones, p. 16 The site became known as Battle camp or Battle Creek and later Smith’s landing. The clash set the tone for race relations in the district and it is thought that what occurred here in 1870 was the reason why Aborigines approached later contacts with settlers with wariness or hostility. According to Collinson a prominent Government official at Cooktown publicly stated that “if the people at Cairns had trouble with the natives it could be traced back to that event” (Collinson, p. 61) The fight was over the attempted theft of a canoe by Garland. This account was mentioned by Johnstone, Queenslander, 5 March 1904 (In J. Johnstone-Need, Spinifex and Wattle: Reminiscences of Pioneering in North Queensland. Being the Experiences of Robert Arthur Johnstone, Explorer and Naturalist, Sub-Inspector of Police and Police Magistrate, p. 2 and 54). The account then briefly resurfaces in 2 articles in Cummins and Campbell (W. Doherty, “Fragments of North Queensland History”, 1928, p. 13 and Viater, “Trinity Bay: Genesis of the Port of Cairns”, March 1929, p. 51) and then Collinson, p. 60 and 61 and all subsequent accounts appear to have emanated from the account in Collinson.
 Martyn, J. The History of Green Island, p. 14-15
 Queenslander 5 March 1904. In, Johnstone-Need, p. 55. Johnstone states this event occurred in 1872. However the Green Island murders took place in 1873
 G. Dalrymple, Narrative and Reports of the Queensland North-east Coast Expedition, p. 17
 Johnstone in his report of the Expedition (Dalrymple, p. 44). It is not mentioned what the preparations were. However Collinson mentions the encounter and that it was “demanding (of) stern measures” (Collinson, p. 61-2). Jones, p. 29, gives a fuller account; shots were fired at 30 yards. Johnstone wrote about this incident in greater detail in the Queenslander 17/12/1904 and reprinted in, Johnstone-Need, p. 154. An unspecified number of Aborigines were shot and killed