Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Douglas appointed Government Resident on Thursday Island in 1885

The settlement of Thursday Island in the Torres Strait was established in 1877 as a port to cater for the increasing number of steamships on the expanding Queensland overseas mail routes.[1]  The new settlement grew slowly but steadily in size and importance.  The police magistrate at Thursday Island was the autocratic Henry Chester.  Appointed in 1877, he had regularised the administration of the fisheries in the region was therefore roundly disliked by many pearl-shellers in Torres Strait for ruling over the island “like a king,” failing to keep the peace between the white pearl-shellers and their coloured employees, and allegedly slandering the residents at every opportunity.[2]  It was feared that there would be riots on the island if the situation was not remedied, and a petition to this effect was sent by the pearl-shellers to the government, requesting Chester’s removal from the island.[3]
Replacing Chester with Douglas was a neat solution to two problems.  Douglas could be trusted to restore peace to the region, and Thursday Island was so remote that he would pose no threat to Griffith at subsequent elections.  However, Douglas, as a former premier of Queensland, could not possibly be appointed to the lowly position of police magistrate with its meagre salary of £450 per annum.[4]  The solution was to create the position of government resident of Thursday Island with a salary of £700 per annum, as well as a special allowance of £200 per annum and furnished quarters valued at £150 per annum.[5]  It was only the third time a government resident post had been created in Queensland; the previous two were abolished when Queensland became a separate colony over 25 years earlier.[6]  Then the term had signified, in the words of the New South Wales premier, Sir Henry Parkes, “a kind of deputy governor,” with the earlier posts created because the locations were geographically remote from the colony’s capital city,[7] conditions similar to those in Torres Strait.
On 13 April 1885 Douglas was appointed government resident and police magistrate of Thursday Island.[8]  The appointment was welcomed by much of the press, which congratulated the government for replacing Chester and recognising the increased importance of Torres Strait, considered now to be “a great deal more than an outlying bit of Queensland,” as well as being the gateway to New Guinea.[9]  However, the Brisbane newspaper The Figaro saw Douglas’s appointment for what it really was, an “honorable exile.”[10]  To the paper, Douglas’s departure from Brisbane was a tragedy, for none “can surpass the honorable gentleman who is now so quietly put aside.  In the estimation of the Queensland public he is still a very leading man.”[11]
Douglas himself was ambivalent, despite admitting that he “should like the post very well.”[12]  After all, a reasonable and regular income was what he needed; the region was a place of “increasing importance;” and when visiting the island in 1877 he had thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful scenery.[13]  Nevertheless, Douglas knew that it was not a suitable location for his young family and would have preferred a post in Brisbane so that it could remain together.  However, this was the only position ‘on offer’, and therefore, as he remarked to his brother, Edward, “I do not grumble, though I think I am fit for something better.”[14]
Once appointed, events moved quickly for Douglas.  10 days later, on 23 April, he was on board the Alexandra en route to Thursday Island.  His family remained in Brisbane,[15] while Douglas arrived at his new home on 1 May 1885.[16]  His departure was so sudden that there was not even time to organise formal farewells, his friends having to do with saying goodbye at an “ordinary luncheon” at the Johnsonian Club.[17]  The reason why Douglas departed Brisbane so hurriedly is difficult to establish.  Perhaps it had to do with Chester, who after nearly eight years in the position was transferring to Cairns, and with the need to resolve the festering problems and complaints emanating from the district.[18]  However grave the situation on the island actually was, Douglas appeared to defuse it, because the threatened riots never eventuated.

[1] John Foley.  Timeless Isle:  An Illustrated History of Thursday Island.  Thursday Island, Torres Strait Historical Society, 1982, p. 12
[2] “Growl from Thursday Island.”  Figaro, 28 February 1885, p. 285; Margaret Lawrie.  Thursday Island:  One Hundred Years, unpublished manuscript, no date, p. 297.  Margaret Lawrie Collection, MLC 1791-355.  John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.  As the historian, Geoffrey Bolton remarked: Chester “had a good conceit of his office which at times verged on the pompous and autocratic.”  (Geoffrey Bolton.  Chester, Henry Marjoribanks.”  Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 3.  Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1969, pp. 386-87)
[3] Petition from Thomas McNulty, 13 October 1883.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A370/5183; “Growl from Thursday Island.”  Figaro, 28 February 1885, p. 285; “Anticipated Riots at Thursday Island.”  Figaro, 25 April 1885, p. 515; Henry Chester to R. Gray, 29 September 1884.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A450.  For other problems besetting Chester’s administration, see William Robert Mogg.  “Strange Doings at Thursday Island.”  Queenslander, 11 April 1885, p. 567 & Kookamon.  “The Recent Government Land Sale at Thursday Island.”  Queenslander, 11 April 1885, p. 567.
[4] Queensland Blue Book for the Year 1884.  Brisbane, Government Printer, 1885, p. 32
[5] Queensland Blue Book for the Year 1885.  Brisbane, Government Printer, 1886, p. 123
[6] The two previous government resident positions were Captain John Clements Wickham, appointed as government resident for Moreton Bay on 7 April 1853 and Maurice Charles O’Connell, appointed government resident for Port Curtis, 1 January 1854.  (New South Wales Government Gazette.  Vol 35 no 1, 3 January 1854, p. 1.)  John Jardine is frequently described in the literature as a government resident for Somerset from 1863 to December 1865.  However, this title was never officially bestowed.  (Prideaux, p. 188)
[7] Parkes, p. 91
[8] Queensland Government Gazette, vol 36 no 6, 14 April 1885, p. 1250.  See also “Extract of Minutes of the Executive Council, 2 October 1894.”  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/B/5 (G.)  Douglas was entrusted with the following powers: “General control and supervision of the government departments and officers – thereat, and in Torres Straits.”
[9] Brisbane Courier, 14 April 1885, p. 4; “Summary for Europe.”  Brisbane Courier, 22 April 1885, p. 6
[10] Figaro, 14 April 1885, p. 486
[11] Ibid.
[12] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 11 April 1885.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/4/4/1
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Shipping.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 April 1885, p. 4; “The Hon. John Douglas, C.M.G.”  The Week, 2 May 1885, p. 415
[16]Queensland News.”  Brisbane Courier, 6 May 1885, p. 5; Wanderer.  Thursday Island and its Surroundings.”  Queenslander, 4 July 1885, p. 14
[17] “Departure of the Hon. John Douglas.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 April 1885, p. 5.  Douglas’s departure to Thursday Island was so sudden that he actually arrived in the region before Sir Peter Scratchley, the new special administrator of New Guinea, despite the latter being appointed to the post on 22 November 1884.  Scratchley only arrived in Port Moresby on 28 August 1885 after being held up in Melbourne procuring a suitable vessel.  (Great Britain.  Parliament.  Accounts and Papers, vol 10.  Council Papers, vol 56, 1889, pp. 303 & 309-10; “Summary for Europe.”  Brisbane Courier, 20 May 1885, p. 3)
[18] In the same Government Gazette announcing Douglas’s appointment, it was announced that Chester would be the police magistrate at Geraldton (now Innisfail.)  However, on 23 April, he was appointed police magistrate in Cairns, and that was where he went.