A History of Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council
Yarrabah was established on the traditional lands of the Gunggandji people at Mission Bay on the Cape Grafton Peninsula, just south of Cairns.[i] Aboriginal people living on the eastern coast of Cape York had little contact with non-Indigenous people prior to the 1850s. Only a few brief encounters with British Royal Navy crews were documented.[ii] Captain James Cook briefly anchored the Endeavour in Mission Bay in 1770 but his diaries suggest no direct contact with Gunggandji people. Rock paintings in the shire depicts Cook’s visit from a Gunggandji perspective.[iii] Fifty years later Captain Phillip Parker King sailed the Mermaid between Cape Grafton and Fitzroy Island (located just to the south east of Cape Grafton) in 1851. King described a group of Aboriginal people on the beach opposite who ‘…arose and brandish’d their Wammarahs [Woomeras]’ in acknowledgement of the ship.[iv]
Many beche-de-mer fishermen operated off the north-eastern Cape York coast after the 1850s.[v] One of the earliest to spend time in Gunggandji territory was J.S.V Mein, who claimed to be the first white man to explore the mainland from Cape Grafton to the foot of the Bellenden ranges. He claimed to have traded with Gunggandji people at Cape Grafton during his travels. Mein established a fishing camp at Green Island in 1857, but soon after moved on to Timor.[vi] By the 1870s several beche-de-mer fishing operations were based on Green and Fitzroy Islands.[vii]
Aboriginal and South Sea Islander labourers employed by beche-de-mer fishermen were subject to poor working conditions, and complaints about Aboriginal women being mistreated by the fishermen were common. Four fishermen were murdered at Green Island in 1873, allegedly by two Aboriginal employees angered by their refusal to provide adequate rations.[viii] An investigation into the murders brought the Native Police to Bessie Point where they fired upon the Gunggandji who attempted to resist the incursion onto their land.[ix] The Native Police were a mobile quasi-military force, deployed to patrol frontier districts and ‘pacify’ Aboriginal resistance. Detachments consisted of Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white officer.[x]
Skull pocket, along the Mulgrave River and at Woree. One of the raiders later recalled: ‘They were easy running shots, close up. The Native Police rushed in with their scrub knives and killed off the children’.[xi] For many years the Murray Prior range, which separated Cape Grafton from Cairns, acted as a protective barrier for the Gunggandji people, who remained relatively isolated from the effects of frontier violence.
In 1889 F.T. Wimble, owner of the Cairns Post and local member of the Queensland Legislative Council, acknowledged the need to protect Aboriginal people from the violence of the settlers. He proposed that a reserve be set up in the Barron River Valley.[xii] Among the missionaries who responded was Anglican priest John Gribble. He initially attempted to establish a mission at Bellenden-Ker in 1890 but was unable to gain Government backing, partly due to the presence of other church missionaries in the area. Gribble was determined to succeed and relocated to Cape Grafton in 1892 to establish a mission which he called Bellenden-Ker mission.[xiii] Gribble was forced to self-fund the mission until he attracted meagre financial support from the Anglican Church.[xiv] Gribble died within months of establishing the mission, and was replaced by his son Ernest Gribble.[xv]
Before his death John Gribble established contact with the Gunggandji and Yidindji people by visiting their numerous camps and performing baptisms. It was a senior Gunggandji man named Menmuny who initially encouraged a large group of his people to visit the mission for the first time in 1892. Menmuny had been previously baptised ‘John Barlow’ by Gribble in 1891 ‘on the shores of the Cairns inlet’. Menmuny was later made ‘king’ of the mission, and together with a group of tribal elders, enforced mission rules as the leader of a twelve member ‘General Aboriginal Council’.[xvi]
During the early years Gribble was anxious to bring in the Aboriginal children. He began by ‘recruiting’ children in the camps along the Cairns inlet. By 1899 he had secured a boat to cast a wider net along the Johnstone, Mulgrave and Barron Rivers and at Clump Point.[xvii] In this way many Wanjuru, Madjanydji and Tjapukai children were bought into the mission. By 1893 forty Aboriginal people lived at the mission and its outstations, which had become known as ‘Yarraburra’, ‘Ngiyaaba’ and ‘Eyerreba’. Over time the term ‘Yarrabah’ was adopted, which was believed to be an Anglicised variation of a language name for the area where the mission was located.[xviii]
It was common practice to house many, if not most, children in the dormitories at Yarrabah, usually from around the age of ten.[xix] The mission was declared an Industrial School in 1900, making it an official destination for children charged as being ‘neglected’ under the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act 1865. Other children were placed in the dormitories after being removed to the mission with their parents under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897.[xx] The steady stream of children contributed towards Yarrabah becoming the largest of all missions in Queensland by 1903.[xxi]
The population further swelled when over one hundred residents from the abandoned Anglican mission at Fraser Island, known as Bogimbah, were forcibly relocated to Yarrabah in 1904 at Gribble’s suggestion.[xxii] Many of the Fraser Islanders pined for their country and complained of the poor living conditions and inadequate housing at Yarrabah. A cyclone had almost completely destroyed the mission at Yarrabah in 1906, and not enough housing was available at the time of the Fraser Island arrivals. Many escaped Yarrabah over the next few years, some of whom were returned by the police. Many of the ex-Fraser Islander residents were isolated at Fitzroy Island by the Mission Superintendent as a means to subdue the ‘malcontents’.[xxiii] During a visit by Richard Howard the Chief Protector of Aboriginals in 1910 the Fraser Island residents presented him with a petition asking to be returned to their home and families. Subsequently forty Fraser Island people were removed from Yarrabah.[xxiv] By April 1911 only around ten ex-Fraser Island people remained at Yarrabah.[xxv]
There were 969 recorded removals to Yarrabah from the establishment of the mission until 1972. When Norman Tindale visited Yarrabah in 1938 he found forty three different tribal groups represented there.[xxvi] There were also 243 recorded removals from Yarrabah to places such as Palm Island, Mona Mona, Woorabinda, Cherbourg, Fraser Island and Hull River.[xxvii]
In the early 1900s the Church administration enlisted residents in a variety of employment within the mission, for which they received no financial reward. All residents including children toiled in agricultural work to supply food. Cairns businesses also availed themselves of cheap labour from the mission by employing men and women ‘under agreement’ as domestic and labourers in local industries including coffee and sugar farming.[xxviii]
Between 1950 and 1960 there was persistent public criticism of the management of Yarrabah Mission. The Cairns Post reported constant problems and tensions at Yarrabah, and controversies over management of the mission. In the latter half of the 1950s Yarrabah required a staff of about fifteen people, and cost approximately ₤1,000 a week to maintain. There was also a high turnover of priests and staff’.[xxix]
In 1952 recruiting difficulties led the Anglican Church to adopt a policy of employing former Anglican Army officers as mission superintendents. Their discipline, training, and commitment to evangelism and service led them to set high standards for themselves and to aim at a similar response in the people they ministered to. Many Yarrabah residents objected to the greater demands the Church Army officers made upon the labour force. In 1957 the Yarrabah residents staged a strike to protest against inadequate rations, poor working conditions, and the autocratic rule of the superintendent.[xxx]
During the disturbance several mission staff were assaulted, which led to many of the staff leaving the mission.[xxxi] The Superintendent, Captain Wilcox, with the support of the Queensland Government, expelled three men identified as the leaders of the strike. The incident was the culmination of a decade of internal and external dissatisfaction with the mission. Approximately 200 residents of Yarrabah, many of them supporters of the strike, were quickly given exemption from the ‘Protection Act’ and left the mission over the next two years’.[xxxii]
By 1959 the Anglican Church had had enough and was seeking to pass control to the State. Superintendent Wilcox stated that the ‘Church at Yarrabah is no longer running a mission but a large Social Service project beyond the financial and manpower resources of the Church’. On 1 July 1960 the Queensland State Government officially took over control of the mission from the Anglican Church.[xxxiii]
A deed of grant in trust was issued to the Yarrabah Council on 27 October 1986 for an area of 15,609 hectares. The Gunggandji people are party to two active native title claims related to their traditional land at Fitzroy Island and mainland areas near Yarrabah.[xxxiv] See endnotes attached.
[i] Norman Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia; Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, p.33;
[ii] Captain Phillip. P. King, Narrative of a survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia performed between the years 1818 and 1822; J. Beete Jukes, R.N., Narrative of the surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly in Torres Strait, New Guinea, and other Islands of the Easter Archipelago During the Years 1842-1846, Volume 1, p.94, T & W Boone, 1847, London; John MacGillivray, Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS Rattlesnake – Commanded by the Late Captain Owen Stanley during the years 1846-1850, Volume 1, T & W Boone, London, 1852, p.100; Sir O. W. Brierly, Journal of HMS Rattlesnake, 1848.
[iii] Judy Thompson (1989) Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, p.1; Captain Cook’s Journal During His First Voyage Round the World, Made in H.M. Bark Endeavour 1768-1771.
[iv] Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, p.24.
[v] Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, p.34; Dorothy Jones, Trinity Phoenix – A History of Cairns and District, Cairns Post, 1976, Pp.11-12.
[vi] Dorothy Jones, Trinity Phoenix – A History of Cairns and District, Cairns Post, 1976, p.13-15; Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, p.41.
[vii] Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, pp.35, 41 and 42; Dorothy Jones, Trinity Phoenix – A History of Cairns and District, Cairns Post, 1976, p.16.
[viii] Inquest in to the death of John Finlay, James Mercer, Charles Reeves and Towie (South Sea Islander): JUS/N37/174/1837 & article in the Cleveland Bay Express dated 30/8/73:3 re Green Island Massacres; Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctorial thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, Pp.42-43 & 48.
[ix] Robert Johnstone, Spinifex and Wattle, 1984, p.55.
[x] The Native Mounted Police Force were established in 1848 by the New South Wales Government, and were disbanded around 1900 after becoming notorious for their violence and lack of discipline. Musketry and horse power made compact squads of Native Mounted Police highly effective. They operated without proper scrutiny for many years, resulting in the death of many Aboriginal people as a result of their ‘dispersals’. For detailed information see: Jonathon Richards, The Secret War, 2008, University of Queensland Press; Noel Loos, Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Race Relations on the North Queensland frontier 1861-1897, National University Press, 1982; Ray Evans, Kay Saunders & Kathryn Cronin, Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of exclusion, exploitation and extermination, University of Queensland Press, 1975.
[xi] Timothy Bottoms, A History of Cairns – A City of the South Pacific, Doctoral thesis submitted to Central Queensland University, 2002, p.90-91 & 97.
[xii] Dorothy Jones, Trinity Phoenix – A History of Cairns and District, Cairns Post, 1976.
[xiii] Yarrabah Mission was established on 17th June 1892: Judy Thompson (1989) Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, p.1.
[xiv] The mission was referred to by John Gribble and in newspaper articles as ‘Bellenden-Ker Mission at Yarraburra’. Original mission staff included Mr. Pearson, a South Sea Islander man named Willie Ambrym and Pompo Kathewan: Judy Thompson, Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989, p.9; Noel Loos, ‘From Church to State: The Queensland Government Takeover of Anglican Missions in North Queensland’, Aboriginal History, 1991, vol.15, no.1-2, p.73; The Bellenden-Ker Mission, The Brisbane Courier, 21 May 1892.
[xv] Judy Thompson (1989) Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, p.9; ADB entries for John Brown Gribble and Ernest Richard Bulmer Gribble.
[xvi] Judy Thompson (1989) Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, p.9 & 13; The Brisbane Courier, ‘The Queen of Yarrabah’, Saturday 26 March 1910, p.4; Annual report of Northern Protector of Aboriginals for the year 1902, p.19.
[xvii] COL/142 (No letter number), Microfilm Z1609, frame number 381, Letter from Walter Roth to the Commissioner of Police dated August 6, 1898; COL/142 (no letter number), Microfilm Z1609, frame numbers 473-474, Letter from the Rev. Gribble to Commissioner of Police dated March 27, 1899; A/70007, Yarrabah, Folder re timber getters 1898-1900, 19.02.1898 & Gribble to Roth dated 25.09.1899.
[xviii] see Kathleen Denigan’s publication: The Bellenden-Ker Mission, The Brisbane Courier, 23 June 1894, p.1168; Judy Thompson (1989) Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, p.1; C. Halse, A Terribly Wild Man, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002, p.25; Kathleen Denigan, Reflections in Yarrabah, Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council, 2008, see Preface Pp.2-3; COL/A733, Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, 93/5158 (re population in 1893); COL/A773, Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, 94/6512 (letter from Rev. Gribble re ‘Yarraburra’).
[xix] Judy Thompson, Reaching Back – Queensland Aboriginal people recall early days at Yarrabah Mission, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989; 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the community at Yarrabah. Booklet produced by St Alban’s Church, c 1968, p 10.
[xx] Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals 1900:9.
[xxi] Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for the year 1903, p.22.
[xxii] Kathleen Denigan, Reflections in Yarrabah, Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council, 2008, see Preface pp.12-13.
[xxiii] Report of Yarrabah to Chief Protector by Gribble, dated 2.09.1904 (re many Fraser arrivals absconding from Yarrabah to Cairns); Aboriginal News; 10.04.1905, 10.07.1905, 14.07.1905; Queensland Government Gazette, 29 June 1907, p.1671 (re gazettal for Fitzroy Island).
[xxiv] A/69468, Yarrabah Aboriginals, 1911, Journal of the events of the Ministerial visit to Yarrabah, corr. 8.05.11.
[xxv] Mr P. Grant’s reply to Bishop Frodsam dated 8.06.1910 (re article in Townsville Bulletin of 8 July 1910. The letter refutes by Fraser Islanders of appalling conditions at Yarrabah)
[xxvi] CPH Removals Database, Norman Tindale, Genealogical Data on the Aborigines of Australia, vol.2, South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
[xxvii] CPH Removals Database.
[xxviii] In 1898 the owner of Hambledon made a glowing report of Yarrabah men who picked the entire coffee crop in under a month: A/70007, Folder Protector of Aboriginals 1898-1901, corr.5.08.1898 (re Hambledon)
[xxix] Lynne Hume, ‘Them Days: Life on an Aboriginal Reserve 1892-1960, Aboriginal History, 1991, vol.15, no.1-2, p.20
[xxx] Noel Loos, ‘From Church to State: The Queensland Government Takeover of Anglican Missions in North Queensland’, Aboriginal History, 1991, vol.15, no.1-2, p.78.
[xxxi] 15-017-001, 15A/34, file 2, minutes of a meeting held on 26 January 1958 between Church authorities and Trade Union representatives re the conditions at Yarrabah, p.2; report on the Yarrabah disturbances by the Palm Island superintendent dated 20 January 1958.
[xxxii] Loos, ‘From Church to State: The Queensland Government Takeover of Anglican Missions in North Queensland’, Aboriginal History, 1991, vol.15, no.1-2, p.79.
[xxxiii] Loos, ‘From Church to State: The Queensland Government Takeover of Anglican Missions in North Queensland’, Aboriginal History, 1991, vol.15, no.1-2, p.79.
[xxxiv] A combined native title claim by the Mandingalbay Yidinji – Gunggandji peoples is currently active (Native Title reference QC99/39). This claim combined within it two former applications, namely QC98/40 & QC98/41. The other active claim was lodged by the Combined Gunggandji people in 2001 and was accepted for registration (Native Title Tribunal Reference QC01/19). This claim covers the Yarrabah DOGIT areas and surrounding lots. For more information go the Native Title Tribunal website at www.nntt.gov.au.