Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yarrabah, pt. 4

Thus in 15 short years the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Cairns area had been dispossessed of their land and forced to subsist in fringe camps under appalling conditions. The Cairns Post of 20 January 1892 describes conditions at one such camp. It was located on the Hop Wah road (now Mulgrave road), less than one kilometre from the post office and inhabited by 100 men, women and children. Tobacco and opium usage were rife. There were disease ridden dogs and an influenza epidemic was ravaging the community. This article also mentions that a group of white men had recently set fire to several gunyahs in the camp.[1] Shortly after this incident the camp was deserted and a disabled man left behind; he was subsequently taken into care by the Salvation Army and sent to hospital.[2]

In 1892 there were further complaints about Aborigines being allowed to live in Cairns, specifically the fringe camp in the upper part of Lake Street.[3] There were complaints about the possibility of the spread of contagious diseases and that the camp, which with its:
Gunyahs are really picturesque; still this wide illustration of savage life is far too near to be considered wholesome by the Whites living literally in its midst.[4]

Concern was expressed in 1898 about the employment of Aborigines in Cairns by Malays, in contradiction of the recently passed Aborigines Protection Act. It was alleged that minimum standards in relation to accommodation were not being met and Aborigines were being taken advantage of. The letter writer suggests that these people be moved to Yarrabah for their benefit.[5] During this period instances of concern towards the plight of Aboriginal People become more frequent. It is difficult to determine if this change in attitude was due to altruistic reasons or merely because the imposition of the Aborigines Protection Act in 1897 had provided a lightning rod through which frustration against the “authorities” in Brisbane could be expressed.[6] The case of Jeanie is instructive, indicating dissatisfaction with the perceived onerous employment provisions of the bill and the anger of the people against a bureaucracy unable to differentiate cases deserving of special consideration. Jeanie was a 13 year girl of an Aboriginal mother and European father who for the past three years had been in domestic service for Mr. and Mrs. Forbes in Cairns. Dr. Walter Edmund Roth, the Northern Protector of Aboriginals, through the Home Secretary, instructed that she be arrested as a neglected child. The Cairns citizenry opposed this at all turns until she was returned to the Forbes household through a court order and against the express wishes of the authorities in Brisbane.[7] However examples to suggest something very different are also available. An Aboriginal woman who fled from her employer was commented upon thus:
It is astonishing how the quality of ingratitude is so strongly ingrained in Aboriginals, as in this particular instance the girl is treated with almost lavish indulgence.[8]

The townsfolk were also practical. As Cairns had a shortage of eligible women the paper duly published the following notice;
Brides Ready Made. - Single men need not now despair of marriage. Dr Roth ... is now authorised to give permission in writing for the celebration of the marriage of female Aboriginals with persons other than Aborigines.[9]

It was suggested in a letter to the Cairns Morning Post on 14 December 1900 that Aborigines be included in the city’s Commonwealth procession, stating that “nothing could more accentuate the importance of the day we celebrate. The editor of the paper endorsed these comments, suggesting that:
Let a full-regalia corroboree be planned for the day and if possible let every nigger at the Yarrabah Mission who can be spared, be brought into town and jollificationed until further notice.[10]

The Aborigines Protection Act continued to be denounced as did the Northern Protector, Dr. Roth.[11] It was widely believed in the district that Aborigines were now much worse off. Casual labouring opportunities decreased because of onerous conditions under the act relating to the engagement of labour and the cost of securing the necessary permit. This resulted in people being forced to steal or starve. The problems the Act caused concerning employment cut both ways, for, as the Cairns Post admitted:
Casual Aboriginal labour has been the salvation of the wives of pioneer miners and pastoralists. Without such labour the settlement of the North would have been seriously retarded, if not prevented.[12]

After what had happened in the preceding 15 years and after the strenuous calls for reserves as:
The only chance of safety for the nigger is to place the greatest possible number of miles between himself and civilization.[13]
one would have thought that the establishment of a reserve at Yarrabah would have been greeted with enthusiasm. Such was not the case, however. The following discussion of the town's reactions to the mission and its founder, Rev. John W. Gribble, is based on the Cairns Post and the Cairns Morning Post for this period as well as the opposing view from the Cairns Argus.

The news in 1891 that a mission was to be established in the Cape Grafton region south of Cairns was greeted with alarm by the majority of Cairns residents. Criticism was directed more to the church itself and the mission’s founder, Gribble, than to the setting up reserves for Aborigines per se. Establishing a mission to rescue Aborigines was seen to reflect poorly on the treatment of Aborigines in the district. This accusation the local community rejected with absolute and utter contempt. The attacks on Gribble were vicious and personal in nature, highlighting problems faced by Gribble in his previous missionary work in Western Australia. It was felt that he and his fellow missionaries were naive and idealistic in their knowledge and understanding of the local Aboriginal population.[14] The Cairns Argus presented a different view. It attacked the Cairns Divisional Board for its opposition to the mission, noting;
The Cairns Divisional Board has deliberately ranged itself on the side of the enemy. It has appealed to the Minister of Lands to curtail the area granted in this district as a reserve for Aborigines, and it has formally expressed its aversion to the establishment of a local mission station.[15]
The paper went on to further note that there was more than enough land for everyone and the Board was being churlish and unreasonable. The paper strongly supported the establishment of the mission on the grounds that:
We owe the blacks more than contemptuous annual alms of blankets can repay. In New Zealand, where the natives are more warlike, the government buys its land. Here it steals it. The transaction is defensible, no doubt, by various comfortable theories of the survival of the fittest and the divine right of English ascendancy. But these theories would taste very differently if applied in our case by more powerful aliens[16]

Before establishing the mission Gribble made a visit, at his expense, to the district to investigate possible sites. The comments in the local press set the tone for attitudes towards the proposed mission. The Cairns Post ran a series of six lengthy articles under the title Mission to the Blacks, from 30 June 1891 till 28 October 1891, authored by one ‘G.T.B.’ Some quotes from the first article are instructive as to the stance taken towards Gribble and his missionaries. “Nobody guesses that the preacher as a rule knows about as much of his ebony brother as he does about pre-historic man”; “Comet-like visitors to the North Queensland Blacks”; “Belongs to that dear old sainted and richly subsidised institution, called the Church of England”; “King Billy of the Inlet, having probably the possessor of more brains than his teachers, will likely enquire ‘how many religions white fellow got altogether’” and, most damningly, the first article concludes:
While ministers of religion are sent away to lotus-eating regions to convert the blacks ... just as if centuries of instinct can be wiped away in an instant by the magic of a creed that a savage has no capacity for understanding. As well (try) endeavour to teach the sacred ibis to use a rifle, or an alligator to play the piano.
In later articles this writer supported the concept of reserves, as long as they are government run in a manner that ensured there was no contact between the races. He saw these reserves as “something [that] can be attempted to make their passage to the silent sea as pleasant as possible”, for; “even the best means taken to improve the nigger can only result in ultimately improving him off the face of God’s earth”.[17]

[1] Cairns Post 20 January 1892, p. 2
[2] Cairns Post 20 February 1892, p. 2. The Blacks
[3] Cairns Post 5 October 1892. The Blacks in Cairns
[4] Ibid.
[5] J. DeLittle, Aliens Employing Aboriginals. Cairns Post 2 June 1898, p. 5
[6] For many years there had been a strong push for a separate state in the north and a widespread feeling that the authorities in Brisbane were not able to understand or meet the needs of citizens and communities in North Queensland.
[7] Cairns Morning Post 25 September 1900, p. 3. The anger which was felt by the Cairns Morning Post over this incident is highlighted by an article 3 months later in which they sarcastically invited Dr Roth, the Northern Protector, to interview in Cairns an Aboriginal boy who was considered to be a nuisance by virtue of his rude tongue “ (Dr Roth Invited to Note. Cairns Morning Post 22 January 1901, p. 2)
[8] Cairns Morning Post 28 February 1902, p. 4
[9] Cairns Morning Post 12 September 1902, p. 2
[10] Cairns Morning Post 14 December 1900, p. 2
[11] Cairns Morning Post 31 October 1902, p. 2. An example of this feeling is evidenced in this quote from the Cairns Morning Post 27 November 1905, p. 2; The Aboriginals Protection Act is in itself the greatest farce on the statute book of a civilised country, but its results are tragic, especially when the administration of the Act is left in hands of such a man as Dr. Roth, whose sole idea of protection seems to be to clothe the Aboriginals in miles of red tape and to feed them on sealing wax
[12] Ibid.
[13] Cairns Post 20 January 1892, p. 2
[14] It is interesting to note that the Cairns Post led the vicious criticism while the Cairns Argus (which ceased publication in 1898), was content to merely record the facts. In this connection see The Cairns Argus 10 May 1892, p. 2, where a strongly worded editorial called for the proposed establishment of the Mission to be given a fair go, stating, “At all events, let them have a trial. We plead for fair play for the side of the Angels”
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Cairns Post 17 October 1891, p. 2