Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Douglas and Aborigines in Torres Strait

This post is an extract from my PhD thesis analysing John Douglas - then the Government Resident of Thursday Island - and his relationship with Aborigines in the Torres Strait at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Douglas was also responsible for overseeing and regulating Aborigines, drawn from the Aboriginal tribes in western and northern Cape York, working in the Torres Strait fisheries.  Many of them had been kidnapped,[1] and in 1884 it was estimated that half of the 500 or so men employed in the bêche-de-mer fishery on Murray, Darnley and Yorke Islands were Aboriginal.[2]

Some went voluntarily, seeking adventure in the new world; some were kidnapped and forced to work as divers; many were sold for a bag of flour by tribal elders, who themselves were exploiting the young men.[3]
Douglas was in no doubt that this “scandalous traffic” had led to Cape York Aborigines being hostile towards the fisheries industry.[4]  This hostility was further fuelled by fishery crews who often stole Aboriginal women and spread venereal disease through the communities, causing immense social disruption and disintegration.[5]  In 1891, Douglas assisted Moravian missionaries to establish the Mapoon mission, the first mission settlement on western Cape York.  He selected a site for them on the Batavia River, and, on the missionaries’ arrival at Thursday Island, prepared two luggers to transport them and their supplies.  He also provided a police guard.[6]
Douglas saw it as his duty to protect Aborigines from the depredations of the fisheries’ owners and consequently refused to issue permits for the employment of Aboriginal children or women.[7]  His religious and social code reinforced a deeply felt sense of fair play, which was genuinely offended when marginalised groups were harshly treated.[8]
This was poignantly illustrated in 1890 when, after a lugger had been stolen, two Aborigines from the Batavia River region were captured by pearl-shellers and brought to Thursday Island to stand trial.  Douglas wrote to the colonial secretary in London:
I felt some sympathy for them – they looked like frightened wild things who were in mortal terror of their lives.  It is difficult to know what to do with them.  We are trying to find an interpreter who understands their language.  They have offended no doubt, but what possible conception can they have of our forms of law.[9]
On another occasion, following the theft of a boat, Douglas dismissed it as being prompted “on the part of some hired blacks, merely by the desire to return home as their period of service had expired.”[10]  Douglas’s role in protecting Aborigines from the worst abuses of the pearl-shellers was resented by employers,[11] as was his support for the Mapoon mission.  Fisheries employers were concerned that many Aborigines living and working on the mission and coming under the influence of missionaries would refuse to work in the fisheries.[12]
Douglas’s support for the mission extended to his penning an anonymous article in the Queenslander newspaper in which he refuted all the complaints made against it by the pearl-shellers.[13]  Despite Douglas being a thorn in their side, the pearl-shellers did - and, indeed, could do little about it.  As a visitor to Thursday Island in 1894 recorded in his diary, Douglas was:
a very worthy man, most conscientious and strict … The inhabitants, we were told, or at least many of them, want to get rid of him, the real objection I believe being that he is too upright for them.[14]
On northern Cape York, Douglas did what he could to improve conditions for Aborigines.  He wanted to set up a system similar to that of the Mamoose in Torres Strait, and arranged for Yarra-Ham-Quon and Tong-Ham-Blow, the chiefs of the Jardine River and Seven Rivers tribes, to visit Thursday Island.  There they experienced “something of the customs and laws of the Whites,” agreed to govern their community in a similar manner, were given farm and household implements, and installed as ‘Kings.’  However, Douglas believed that no “lasting beneficial results” would occur until a “sufficiently disinterested” European was prepared to live among the tribes on a permanent basis.[15]  Moreover, despite his support for the Mapoon Mission, by 1903 Douglas despaired of countering the pernicious effects of European contact on the Aboriginal population of the Cape York Peninsula: “The poor things …It is very difficult to save them.”[16]
Douglas clashed with the pearl-shellers over other matters as well.  In 1898, when nearly 300 Aborigines were employed in the industry,[17] he recommended to the government that it prohibit pearl-shellers from recruiting additional Aboriginal labour from the Albatross Bay and Embley River areas of western Cape York.[18]  In the following year Douglas also established a regulatory system to ensure that employers complied with the provisions of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897, designed to protect Aborigines in employment.[19]

[1] John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 22 October 1885.  Queensland State Archives, COL A/443 letter 8225:  Lockley, p. 34
[2] Ganter (1999), pp. 43-44
[3] Harris (1990), p. 483
[4] John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 22 October 1885.  Queensland State Archives, COL A/443 letter 8225.  Despite Douglas’s anger, he recognised that in many of these cases: “it cannot, however, be contended, that any legal offence has been committed, either under the kidnapping Acts of 1872 and 1875 or under the Native Labourers Protection Act of 1884.”
[5] Ibid.; Gaynor Evans.  Thursday Island 1878-1914:  A Plural Society.  BA Hons thesis. University of Queensland, p. 73; Lockley, p. 34
[6] Harris (1990), p. 484; Ward, pp. 46-47 & 65-68
[7] Shirleene Robinson and Kay Saunders.  ‘One Long Record of Brutal Cruelty, Bestiality and Debauchery:’ Aboriginal Workers in Queensland’s Pearling and Bêche-de-Mer Industries in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth centuries.  Unpublished article, Brisbane, 2003, p. 9.  Despite this, Douglas had to frequently return Aboriginal “boys and girls of tender years” to the Batavia River area.  (Douglas (1894), p. 914
[8] Roebuck. p. 35
[9] John Douglas to the Colonial Secretary, 27 August 1890.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A629/9587.  Quoted in Gaynor (1978), p. 74.  There were also several murders of pearl-shellers by Aborigines.  For more information on these, see Ward, pp. 139-48; Gaynor (1978), p. 75; “Murder by Gulf Natives.”  Queenslander, 18 November 1893, p. 1000; “Suspected Murder by Blacks.”  Queenslander, 2 December 1893, p. 1096; Noel Loos.  Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal - European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier 1861 - 1897.  Canberra, ANU Press, 1982, pp. 138-41
[10] Brisbane Courier, 6 April 1891, p. 4
[11] For a further example of attempts by Douglas to ensure that Aborigines were paid fair wages and protected from abuses, see Walter Roth to Colonial Secretary, no date but around May 1898.  (Queensland State Archives, COL/142 no 6944/1898 (QSA Z1608)
[12] Ward, p. 136.  As Douglas informed his sons, employers opposed the missionaries “because they did a good deal to put an end to the nefarious trade in natives which had been going on.”  (John Douglas to his children, 22 January 1895.  McCourt Papers)
[13] Ward, p. 144
[14] Rev. Fred Chatterton.  Rough Notes of a Trip from Nelson New Zealand to England, 21 April 1894, p. 42.  Copy held in the National Library of Australia, Mfm M1953
[15] Brisbane Courier, 6 April 1891, p. 4
[16] “The Hon. John Douglas.  Visit to Brisbane.  An Interesting Interview.”  Brisbane Courier, 11 December 1903, p. 5
[17] C. B. Marrett, Inspector of Police, Cooktown, to Commissioner of Police, Brisbane, 19 March 1898.  Queensland State Archives COL/142/5931/1898 (QSA Z1609)
[18] John Douglas to the Under Secretary, Home Office, 13 April 1898.  Queensland State Archives, HOM/A18.  This area was south of the Mapoon Mission and the where the Aurukun Mission would be established in 1904.
[19] John Douglas to the Under Secretary, Home Office, 20 January & 20 October 1899.  Queensland State Archives, HOM/A22