The history of coastal communities in northern Queensland throws important light on racial attitudes and relations in Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The indigenous peoples witnessed the coming of a number of ethnic groups, including Chinese and Europeans. The effects were damaging in a range of ways. Local people were displaced and their lifestyles disrupted, and there were conflicts between different groups who arrived on the scene.
In 1891 the Brisbane Courier published a description by their Travelling Reporter of a journey by boat ‘Along the Northern Coast.’ In an article on ‘Townsville to Geraldton’, the reporter describes a voyage on the steamship Palmer, which left Townsville every Tuesday evening carrying passengers and mail for Dungeness, Cardwell, Geraldton, Cairns and Port Douglas. The reporter was enchanted by the scenery, observant of the conditions of life in various places, and hopeful that the region would be better developed in the future.
The rivers encountered were the Herbert, Tully, Hull, Moresby and Johnstone.
There was a ‘terrific downpour’ at the Herbert River, but the view from the wharf at Dungeness (on that river) was ‘one of glorious splendour.’ Upriver were the ‘the fertile sugar districts of Ingham, Halifax, and the Herbert.’ Hinchinbrook Island, with its ferns, palm trees and flame trees, is near the mouth of the river. While the surroundings are charming, Dungeness is ‘one of the most miserable and dreary places which can be conceived.’ A place of perhaps a dozen buildings, it serves as a landing stage for produce from sugar plantations in the vicinity. Some passengers transferred from the Palmer to a small boat to go upriver to Halifax, and their prospects were not good, as a ‘pelting tropical rain descended’; among them was a lady in the stern of the boat, dressed in a ‘nicely starched white dress.’ Ingham is difficult to get to from Dungeness; the reporter was not impressed that there was no direct road, railway or tramway, although a scheme had been considered, probably (in the reporter’s view) thwarted by ‘want of unanimity among the residents of the district.’
The scenery from Dungeness to Cardwell, inside the Hinchinbrook Channel, is ‘exquisitely lovely.’ Picturesquely placed, ‘Cardwell nestles on the sandy beach washed by the waters of Rockingham Bay.’ There is a ‘splendid sweep of shore’, and tropical islands in sight. But ‘Cardwell is not going ahead.’ The population is said to be dwindling. ‘The people are easy-going and apparently contented. Occasionally a cyclone comes along and wakes them up.’ The danger from cyclones is considerable, but there are excellent natural resources: fruits in profusion, valuable timbers, plenty of fish in the bay. ‘Cardwell is badly in want of some pushing, energetic men.’
Further up the coast are the Tully and Hull Rivers, and Mount Mackay in the background. There are a few settlers at the mouth of the Tully, who have to transport their produce (including oranges, bananas and pineapples) to market by a long journey on their own boats. Most of the land on the Tully has been taken up in large tracts and is not open to settlement. The Tully has fine timber, mainly maple, and the river is alive with fish, and alligators too. Chinamen living along the coast are willing to pay a good price for dried fish. Up the Hull River is an abundance of maplewood, a timber which has a fine grain and polishes well, and is much used by northern saw-millers.
Next come Tam O’Shanter Point and Clump Point, the latter ‘one of the prettiest spots on all the Queensland coast’ and indeed ‘one of the most charming seascapes which can be found on the shores of the Australian continent.’ Here selectors grow bananas, pines and tobacco. ‘I fancy that tobacco grown in this elysian spot should have a delicious, fragrant flavour.’
The entrance to Mourilyan Harbour and the Moresby River is narrow and ‘rock-girt’, but once inside ‘the whole Australian fleet could easily find safe anchorage.’ The sugar company’s plantation is a few miles away by train.
There were some gunyahs at the entrance to the Johnstone River, as well as two or three residences of pilots and fishermen. ‘The Johnstone River is a revelation. In its every turn a beautiful page of Nature is opened out.’ There are banana plantations, sugar-cane and dense jungle. The steamer runs close to the bank and one can almost touch the banana leaves, ‘for the Chinaman cultivates right down to the water’s edge.’
Everything is green and fertile, luxuriant to an amazing degree. The very air is languid, the land is bursting with fatness, the Chinaman and the kanaka for the first time appear to be in their proper and natural places…
Geraldton is about four miles from the river mouth, ‘and when the Palmer berths alongside the wharf, and we slowly make our way up the hill to Bourke’s hotel, it is with the feeling that we are in a new territory, in a land flowing with milk and honey, wherein are to be seen things new and old.’
Along the way an alligator was noticed making its way upstream, but ‘we only gaze on him dreamily, and find him not at all a discordant element in the setting of the picture.’
It is curious to think that this enchanting coast became the scene of immense discord as the decades went by. Relations with the Chinese deteriorated, and at the Hull River Aborigines were forcibly separated on to a government reserve, the Hull River Mission, from which the modern name Mission Beach derives. The Chinese (and others?) had given the Aborigines opium; the Europeans paid them for services partly in tobacco.
The Mission was established by Superintendent John Martin Kenny in September 1914, and he died there with his daughter Kathleen in his arms when a cyclone hit in March 1918. Perhaps a dozen Aborigines died; most of the survivors (three or four hundred in number?) were moved to Great Palm Island. Building materials from the destroyed mission were brought across for use in constructing a new settlement.
A selection of references: ‘Reserve for Aboriginals’, Brisbane Courier 5/9/1913, p. 6. ‘Hull River Aboriginal Settlement’, Brisbane Courier 25/11/1914, p. 6. ‘Hull River Mission: Impressions of a visitor’, Cairns Post 16/8/1915, p. 8 (ponderously worded). ‘Northern Aboriginals: New settlement at Hull River’, Brisbane Courier 24/8/1915, p. 8. ‘Along the northern coast: Townsville to Geraldton’, Brisbane Courier 30/3/1891, p. 7. ‘Hull River settlement. How the fatalities occurred. Three blacks crushed. Acting Superintendent appointed’, Brisbane Courier 15/3/1918, p. 6 (the cyclone came through on 10 March; the Superintendent is here referred to as Rev. Mr. Kenny, but was this title inferred on the assumption that it was a church mission?). ‘Moving day: Hull River Settlement’, Cairns Post 7/6/1918, p. 8. Queensland Government, Mainland communities H-K, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Missions and Reserves in Queensland’ [pdf].