Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yarrabah, pt. 6

In 1904 he was appointed Royal Commissioner to look into the conditions of Aboriginal People in Western Australia and in the same year was made Chief Protector of Aboriginals for all Queensland. During his absence in Western Australia a public meeting was held in Cooktown to try and prevent his return to the state. Accusations against him included having acted immorally, taking indecent photographs, and of having sold ethnological specimens to the Australian Museum in Sydney.[1] But the real reason for the protest meeting and subsequent petitions was because of Roth’s determination to protect Aborigines from unscrupulous employers. This determination saw him blamed for the collapse of the beche-de-mer industry.[2] A parliamentary investigation was held into the allegations and Roth was found innocent of all charges.

Despite his innocence being proven, political attacks continued unabated and Roth in May 1906 resigned (as from 10 August) on the grounds of ill health and left Australia four months later. [3] The Cairns Morning Post had been one of his most trenchant and longstanding critics and his resignation was “hailed through the north, with the utmost satisfaction”,[4] Curiously his departure was a major factor in improving attitudes to Aborigines in general and the mission in particular as residents no longer had Roth to denounce their attitudes or stymie their attempted exploitation of Aboriginal workers. With the appointment of Richard Howard as his successor the tenor of the public debate over “native policy” cooled considerably.[5]

Notwithstanding the improvement in reporting by the Cairns Morning Post, Gribble accused the paper of being antagonistic to the Yarrabah Mission.[6] The paper refuted this, praising the work of the Missionaries but noted that:
What we have opposed is the forced detention of Aboriginals and half-castes where suitable food is not provided by the Government. The mission is doing all that lies in its power. It has done wonders, but how far will a paltry grant of £400 - 500 go towards properly feeding, educating, housing and clothing over 300 people? Our contention has always been and is that if the Government does so detain these Aboriginals, then it has a right to at least give them the same considerations as it extends to its criminal prisoners.[7]

This comment encapsulates the paper’s (and presumably its readers) ideas towards the mission and its treatment of Aborigines. The distinction between the missionaries trying to ”civilise” Aborigines and the failure of the government to provide adequate funding for this is critical, as will soon be seen when the events of 1910 are discussed. In a few short years the mood towards Aborigines and the mission had completely changed. From being fearful of Aborigines and terrified of their being protected by naive missionaries, the community now felt pity for their indigenous compatriots and anger that their government was not providing sufficient funding for the mission to care for them in a manner the community felt was appropriate. In some ways the attitudes of the citizenry of Cairns in the early twentieth century were more sympathetic than would be the case in 1997. No doubt close proximity to the massacres and deprivations and conquest was still clearly remembered. It would take almost another century before one could hide behind the black Armband View of History and wash one’s hands of these matters. Important, too, in shaping our forbear's concerns was the widely held view that the Aborigines were a doomed race, who would die out before the White Man’s superior civilization. Those who posed no threat to us and would shortly die out could be pitied without fear of the consequences

That attitudes towards the mission had changed dramatically by many of the settlers are best illustrated by a letter to the Cairns Morning Post by “An Old Queenslander” in 1907. This letter is so instructive of these changing attitudes that it is worth quoting in full:
 Cairns is full to overflowing with visitors all on pleasure bent. There are some 300 Aboriginals and half-castes at Yarrabah mission and in reading their report I notice they want clothing and many necessaries for the successful carrying out of their noble scheme. We took their country from them, their planting and fishing grounds, and in return gave them what? All our vices and little else. Surely some of our visitors could afford a little to help to clothe and feed this remnant of the original holders of the North until they are self supporting, as the Rev. Gribble and his staff are trying to make this Yarrabah. He has done what no man in Australia has ever done before - proved there is more in the Aboriginal than we old timers dreamt of. Any charitably disposed Christian of any denomination might help this noble work by sending to Rev. Gribble their mite.[8]

The lack of support from the government to allow the mission to undertake its work came to a head in 1910. A report had been written by the Cairns Police Magistrate, P. G. Grant, on his investigation into unsatisfactory conditions at Yarrabah, namely that there was a shortage of meat and food and some of the Aboriginal girls living there appeared almost white. He reported that the people appeared healthy, suggested that the mission should be devoted to children and the aged and that there were a number of girls and young women:
Who were for the most part of white blood and who should not be allowed to remain at the mission but would be better placed in domestic service.[9]
The Bishop of North Queensland retaliated by pointing out that the apparent white people were the result of sending half-caste girls into domestic service in Cairns![10]

This report was taken up by the Home Secretary, Mr J. G. Appel, who proposed an inquiry into the mission. Carried out by Chief Protector Howard, the inquiry found that the mission residents complained bitterly of the lack of food and found there appeared a general desire to get away from the mission. He further found that there was no efficient supervision, woeful management, no real effort to provide medicine or produce food, great carelessness was shown in allowing so many boats to be lost and the financial picture was not encouraging. He suggested that if Yarrabah was managed on practical lines it could be a viable venture.[11] The Archbishop of Brisbane responded by pointing out that the mission had been built out of nothing and that its purpose was only to raise the moral and spiritual level of the Aborigines.[12]

In May 1911 the Home Secretary inspected Yarrabah to find it cleaned up somewhat since Grant’s report, but no cultivation done, for which he blamed the ignorance of the Superintendent and not the bad seasons, which included a cyclone in February 1909 that demolished most of Yarrabah’s coconut, banana, lemon and orange trees in.[13] Appel’s report was seized as a starting point for an open airing concerning everything controversial in relation to the mission. The dispute was eventually resolved at a conference attended by the Home Secretary and a committee appointed by the Anglican Synod that included the Bishop of North Queensland and the Mayor of Cairns. It was agreed at this meeting that the present superintendent of the mission be transferred as the first move to more practical management.[14]

The Cairns Post followed this matter in great detail, reproducing all the various reports and subsequent replies (including those of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, R. B. Howard, Bishop Frodham of the North Queensland Diocese, the Superintendent of the Yarrabah Mission and the Archbishop of Brisbane), that flowed over the next 12 months as the various parties traded allegations and counter allegations. As the issue hotted up the Police Magistrate was forced to state that he was not “prejudiced against the mission”.[15]

The Cairns Post reported the whole issue in a neutral and impartial manner, but as the parties continued trading accusations and counter accusations even it became fed up, stating on 21 June 1911 that:
This paper is just about full up of Yarrabah and the lengthy telegraphic reports of the tin-pot controversy in connection therewith.[16]
It is interesting that the Cairns Post did not take sides, as it was usually very quick to state its position on every other matter. Jones perceptively suggests that this was because Cairns people had cast aside their crusading role and were quite happy to have Yarrabah cope alone with the Aboriginal for them.[17] It is notable how uninvolved the press and its readers were on this issue. While reporting the events in full, the Cairns Post offered little comment and very few letters to the editor on this matter were published. The town appeared almost apathetic in the row between the government and the church. Their Aboriginal problem had by now become an issue for someone else.

This dissertation has explored the relationship between Cairns and Yarrabah between 1892-1910. It graphically portrays the conflict between settler and Aboriginal on the frontier that was Cairns in the late ninteenth century; how this was won by settlers, leading to the establishment of a mission to tend to the vanquished who were confidently expected to soon die out. This arrangement was vehemently opposed by Cairns folk, fearing it to be an unsavoury and lasting reflection on their actions that had caused this state of affairs in the first place, as well as locking up the economic potential of the land upon which the mission was situated. As the mission became established and Aboriginal violence against settlers less common, negative feelings towards the mission were ameliorated as it was realised that the mission was taking care of their Aboriginal problem for them. Feelings of guilt and remorse contributed to their support of the mission in an inverse proportion as the Aboriginal threat receded. As time went by support for the mission became more acceptable and less necessary to display openly as Yarrabah became a normal fixture of the landscape.

One can illustrate this attitude with a contemporary account. Richard Dyott, an Englishman visiting Australia and writing under the pen name Wandandian, made extended visits to Yarrabah in March 1908 and August 1910. On his return to Cairns and Kuranda from Yarrabah in 1910 he was moved to write on the different living conditions experienced by the Aboriginal residents.
The next day we bade farewell to this happy spot (Yarrabah) and went back to Kuranda, passing on our way some of the wild blacks in their dirty camps. The contrast was, to say the least of it, impressive, and made us feel sure that anyone who is not a hardened bigot and opposed to all missionary efforts, could not help admitting that this mission was highly beneficial to its inhabitants. One could not do otherwise than at once compare the dirt, squalor and filth of the camps with the cleanliness and brightness of mission life, and contrast the sullen faces of the former with the cheerful countenances of those living in the latter. One has only to put all feelings of bias aside for one moment and all the cant which defends the so-called liberty of the poor black, to see with clearness and certainty that he is far better cared for, far happier, cleaner and more intelligent under the light rule of a mission reserve than he is in his native state[18]

This state of affairs paralleled what was going on elsewhere in Australia. As the black problem was conveniently put out of sight and out of mind, settlers could concentrate on taming the land, exploiting its resources and pursuing commerce to improve their living standards. But the memory of what occurred never completely died. It remained in the psyche and collective consciousness; hidden, but vaguely sensed.

[1] K. Khan, Catalogue of the Roth Collection of Aboriginal Artefacts from North Queensland. Volume 1, p. 14-15
[2] Jones, p. 346
[3] Reynolds, p. 464
[4] Jones, p. 345-347
[5] It is interesting to get a contemorary account from the other side. Mjoberg, writing in 1912, noted that Roth “found in the end that the atmosphere became unbearable and those in high positions, too narrow-minded and prejudiced for him to be able to continue his work. he turned his back on the ungrateful country and, instead, gave his services in a similar field to other continents where he was met with sympathy and appreciated for his very worthwhile work” (Eric Moberg. Amongst Stone Age People in the Queensland Wilderness. Stockholm, Albert Bonner, 1918, p. 136). Howard later went the same way, resigning over plans to set up a mission on Morningtpn Island. (Ibid.).
[6] Cairns Morning Post 18 September 1905, p. 2
[7] Ibid.
[8] Cairns Morning Post 10 September 1907, p. 5
[9] Cairns Post 4 May 1910, p. 5. Jones, p. 350
[10] Jones, p. 350
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 351
[13] Ibid. Cairns Morning Post 16 February 1909, p. 3
[14] Jones, p. 352
[15] Cairns Post 29 June 1910, p. 3
[16] Cairns Post 21 June 1911, p. 4.
[17] Jones, p. 353
[18] Wandandian, Travels in Australasia, p. 150-151