Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yarrabah, pt. 5

In the formative years of the mission these attacks took on a more self-righteous tone as Gribble struggled to attract converts and make the mission financially viable. It was only after his death in 1893, when the mission was taken over by his son Ernest, that the tenor of the newspaper reports began to slowly improve. Another strong reason for the opposition to the mission can be gleaned from a report in the Cairns Argus, before the mission had commenced, where it was said that selectors “naturally do not want to see their cheap labour busily engaged in singing hymns and learning collects”.[1]

There was consternation when it was announced that 80 square miles of land in the Cairns district were to be reserved for a mission. The Cairns Divisional Board wired a protest to the minister for lands and the Cairns Post fulminated against it, asserting that:
There is confidence at present between the selectors, bushworkers and others and the blacks in the district
and that a reserve was “not wanted in any shape or form”. The editorial believed that one of the strongest arguments against the establishment of a reserve was that:
In this district there are several different tribes, who, if brought together, would fight like Kilkenny cats, only more so.[2]

The government did appoint the Crown Land Ranger of Herberton to report into the matter but the Cairns Post was dismissive of a government official reporting into a matter sanctioned by his department. There were veiled threats that separation for North Queensland would become inevitable if the concerns of the Cairns Divisional Board were not heeded, but nothing came of this.[3]

The Cairns Argus was far more conciliatory, even allowing Gribble space to explain how the mission would not in any way be inimical to the interests of the settlers. He stressed that he would not endeavour to influence any Aborigines working for settlers to come to the mission. The paper pointed out that it was not Gribble’s mission at all, but that he was merely an agent for the Australian Board of Missions.[4]

Further vicious attacks followed in the Cairns Post of November 1892 and January 1893.[5] The paper ceased publication shortly after, recommencing as the Cairns Morning Post in June 1895. The tone of the reporting on Yarrabah was now markedly different. There were several reasons for this, including the change of owner, the death of Gribble and his replacement as mission manager by his son Ernest. The mission was no longer seen as a threat to the settlers. It was not depriving them of Aboriginal labour and was seen to be fulfilling a need in providing shelter, clothing and food for those who would otherwise congregate in fringe camps around Cairns. From this time onwards the only criticism of the mission occurred when the residents of Cairns felt that it was failing in its duty to Aborigines or was not doing the right thing by them when it came to feeding and clothing them. This was best illustrated when mission residents absconded to Cairns, mainly because of inadequate rations and incessant agricultural toil. On such occasions the press was very supportive of the Aborigines concerned and criticised the authorities for not adequately supporting the good work of the mission.[6]

It is instructive to look more closely at the initial opposition from the Cairns Post to the setting up of the mission by Gribble. The paper was owned by Frederick Thomas Wimble, a wealthy, well-connected individual with substantial business interests. He arrived in Cairns at the end of 1882 to exploit foreseen commercial opportunities in the nascent sugar industry.[7] For this dream to be realised it was essential that Kanaka labour be employed in the canefields. Wimble was actively involved in campaigning for its continued use. He was a large scale land speculator, buying up many properties in the Cairns district. He successfully campaigned for the building of a railway line from Cairns to Myola. In 1883 he founded the Cairns Post newspaper with the first issue appearing on May 10.

His desire for progress and development for the Cairns district led him into politics. He campaigned for the Liberal Party on a platform advocating railway construction, mining, eventual separation and central mills, or as Jones put it; “Something for everyone”.[8] He was elected to parliament for the seat of Mulgrave and held the seat from 5 May 1888 to 29 April 1893, and during this period tirelessly campaigned, through his newspaper, for progress and development.

It was Wimble who in late 1888 first proposed the idea of an Aboriginal reserve in the Cairns district. He called for the proclamation of a reserve of 200-300 acres in the Barron Valley where Aborigines could be collected, preserve their traditional bush life, helped by being taught animal husbandry and cultivation of the land and could, if it were so wished, be available for hire by the settlers.[9] He was appalled by the later suggestion of a reserve in the Yarrabah district comprising not 200-300 acres, but 51 200, whose residents would not be available for employment purposes.

The Yarrabah land had extensive timber reserves that would be locked up if the area was given over to a mission. Land that was considered potentially valuable for the running of cattle would not be available, thus inhibiting progress. Wimble, through his paper, led the campaign to prevent this happening. The Cairns Argus, the rival newspaper, supported the opposition National Party and each paper habitually attacked the other. Although begun in 1890, the Cairns Argus was a continuation of an earlier paper, the Cairns Chronicle, which first appeared in January 1885. The great depression of 1893, known as “the bank smash”, forced the Cairns Post to close. Wimble left Cairns for Melbourne and his paper was acquired by the proprietors of the Cairns Argus who absorbed it into their paper. In 1895 the Cairns Morning Post was founded by E. Draper and Co.[10] The Cairns Post’s opposition to the mission thus reflected that of its owner.[11] The Cairns Argus presented a different, more sympathetic view while the Cairns Morning Post was different again, not being connected in any way with the other two papers. This explains why the reporting was so very different after 1894 and was probably a more accurate representation of the views of the Cairns’ citizens than that which appeared in the Cairns Post for the period 1891-1893

In 1897 Gribble was congratulated for his efforts to make the mission self-supporting by supplying paw paws to the Cairns Preserving Works. The press almost appeared proud of the mission, noting that:
The Yarrabah Mission is an institution which has hitherto kept modestly in the background, but it now bids fair to prove an example to all other Aboriginal missions in Australia, and the head of that mission is to be congratulated upon the prospects which are now opened up, and which are entirely due to his own exertions.[12]
Tributes also flowed from the Commissioner of Police, W. Parry-Okeden after a visit to Yarrabah in 1898[13] as well as from the Bishop of Carpentaria, who described the enterprise as “one of the most remarkable instances of successful mission work in modern times”.[14]

The press was not above using Gribble for its own ends. In an attack on the Aborigines Protection Bill of 1897 the paper complained about how Gribble was forced to separate children from their parents and remove them to Yarrabah, as was required under the Act. However its high moral tone and passionate entreaty on humanitarian grounds were undermined by its noting that the Act:
Is not only a serious menace to human liberty, but an unwarrantable interference with commerce.[15]

By 1904 reporting was becoming increasingly favourable. Commenting on a performance by the Yarrabah Brass Band in Cairns, the Cairns Morning Post was moved to comment that:
To those who have been accustomed to regard the Australian Aboriginal as a wretched specimen of humanity so far as intellect and fixity of purpose is concerned, no greater surprise could have been experienced than to have encountered the Yarrabah Brass band ... playing in perfect time and tune.[16]
In the same year the public were asked to donate goods for the Yarrabah residents for Christmas as:
The piccaninnies especially are looking forward to the festive season with great glee, and it would be a pity to disappoint the little chaps.[17]
 The public was also informed that the printers at the Yarrabah printing press produced work that reflected “the utmost credit upon the young printers”.[18] It could be argued that the tone of reporting adopted by the Cairns Morning Post was patronising in the extreme. The Press seemed to be continually surprised when Aborigines performed tasks that equated with the White man’s view of civilisation, such as playing music in tune and in time or doing an honest days work at the printing press. That these activities posed no threat to the residents of Cairns was probably further encouragement for extolling these virtues. If the Yarrabah residents had called for “land rights” in 1904 they most certainly would have received a very different reception from the Cairns Morning Post.

A further factor in the improved race relations and reporting on the mission was the resignation of Roth as the Chief Protector. He was appointed as the first Northern Protector of Aboriginals in 1898. Based at Cooktown, his main brief was to the prevent the exploitation of Aborigines, particularly in employment and marriage, including the regulation of indigenous employment in the beche-de-mer industry.[19] He was possessed of a strong personality and administrative drive, which made him an effective protector, but this was to lead to his undoing as his initiatives brought him into conflict with politicians, settlers and the press, while his humane treatment and respect for Aborigines was viewed in a hostile light by local business interests.[20]

[1] Cairns Argus 19 February 1892
[2] Cairns Post 16 March 1892, p. 2. The paper again cast doubts on the ability of the proposed Mission to convert Aborigines, stating “True, the Revd. Gribble has one convert to his credit, the Minister for Lands, but he would find it easier to convert the whole Cabinet, the members of both the legislative Chambers, and all the editors in Queensland, than one Cairns blackfellow”
[3]Cairns Post 4 June 1892, p. 2 and June 11, 1892, p. 2
[4] Cairns Argus, 10 June 1892, p. 3
[5] Cairns Post 16 November 1892 and 14 January 1893, p. 2
[6] See the Cairns Morning Post 14 July 1903, p. 2, for an example of this.
[7] A. Martin, “Ink in Veins of Cairns Pioneer”, Passages of Time, p. 59
[8] Jones, p. 231-232
[9] Ibid., p. 313
[10] J. Collinson, “More About Cairns - the Second Decade, 1886-1896. Press and Pulpit”, Cummins and Campbell’s Magazine, July 1940, p. 59-60
[11] Wimble’s opposition to the Church of England run mission is ironic in that he himself was a member of this church!
[12] Cairns Morning Post 8 July 1897, p. 5
[13] Cairns Morning Post 20 December 1898, p. 5
[14] Cairns Morning Post 26 October 1900, p. 3
[15] Cairns Morning Post 31 October 1902, p. 2
[16] Cairns Morning Post 5 January 1904, p. 3
[17] Cairns Morning Post 20 December 1904, p. 2
[18] Cairns Morning Post 18 February 1905, p. 2
[19] B. Reynolds, “Roth, Walter Edmund (1861-1933)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol II: 1891-1939, p. 463
[20] Ibid.