Our history and future

Ancient traditions

Yarrabah is the traditional country of the Gunggandji and  Mandingalbay Yidinji people. These people had traditional beliefs and values different to those we have today. They were guided by Buleru, ancestral spirits who gave us our cultural law, belief system and creation stories and followed a defined social structure and kinship system.

Our people were hunters and gatherers, the surrounding rainforest and beachside traditional lands around Cape Grafton provided food in abundance. Dwellings were made from material found within the environment, the structure dependent on wet season or dry season needs.

The lands we occupy is ancient. Our people have connection to country stretching back into the dream time. Our local customs and traditions, continue today and our people continue their responsibilities as custodians of the land.


The initial route of Captain James Cook and the crew of the HM Endeavor anchored off the northern shore of Cape Grafton and crew members made land looking for water. This was the third landing as part of the journey northward and the perils at Cape Tribulation.

While Australia had been colonised by the British in 1788, 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.

By the 1870s several bech-de-mer fishing operations were based on Green and Fitzroy Islands but with the discovery of gold at Palmer River in 1872 and then the Hodgkinson River goldfields Cairns was identified as a popular port in 1876 and the township grew; and with it violent dispersals between new settlers and Aboriginal groups.

For many years the Murray Prior Range, which separated Cape Grafton from Cairns, acted as a protective barrier for the Gunggandji people, who had remained relatively isolated from the effects of frontier violence.

In 1889 when  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 and it was then that the protective barrier of Murray Prior Range would come down. Wimble proposed that a reserve be set up in the nearby Barron River Valley. Among the missionaries who responded was Anglican priest, the Reverend John Brown Gribble. Gribble initially attempted to establish a mission at Bellenden-Ker 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 instead turned his attention to Cape Grafton, where he had already established contact with the Gunggandji and Yidindji people by visiting their numerous camps and performing baptisms; and it was here in 1892 where he would establish the Bellenden-Ker mission, renamed, the Yarrabah Mission founded on 17 June, 1892.

The Mission Days

It was a senior Gunggandji man named Menmuny who initially encouraged a large group of his people to be amonst the first to visit the mission. Menmuny had been baptised ‘John Barlow’ by Gribble in 1891. Menmuny was later made ‘King’ of the mission, and together with a group of tribal elders, enforced mission rules as the leader of a 12-member ‘General Aboriginal Council’. Succumbing to ill health, Gribble died within months of establishing the mission and was replaced by his son, Ernest.

In 1897 the Queensland Government implemented the ‘Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Act to ‘protect and control’ our people.

Members from Aboriginal groups across Queensland were displaced from their traditional lands and relocated into the Yarrabah Mission. People came from Daintree River, Cairns, Fraser Island, Cloncurry, Coen, Maytown, Lockhart River, Aurukun, Kowanyaa and the South Sea Islands.

In 1899 Ernest Gribble was ordained as an Anglican priest and appointed government superintendent of Yarrabah. This appointment gave Gribble complete authority over the lives of the Aboriginal people on the mission which he would do until the church ‘requested’ he leave in 1909. (He would return in 1957, where he died the same year.)

Cultural practices, particularly language ceremony and beliefs were all suppressed during these mission days. Traditional values were transformed swiftly to adopt clothing, and Christianity replaced traditional creation stories. Hunter gathering was discouraged and with the arrival of people from other cultural groups, Gungganji cultural protocols were dismissed.

While the Christian missions did help save many Aboriginal people from perishing at the hands of new settlers under the Act of 1897 they controlled curfews, employment, wages, marriages, alcohol and movement outside the mission.

Taken from their parents and housed in dormitories, the children attended school until Year 6 but plantation work took priority over an education and any wages were paid directly to their ‘Protectors’. Adults became labourers and domestics, with rations for wages.

Between 1900 and 1905 the population at the Yarrabah Mission grew from 122 to 132 as many children were forcibly removed from their families in the camps along the Cairns Inlet. By 1908 the number had increased to almost 500 making in the largest mission in Queensland.

There were 969 recorded removals to Yarrabah from the establishment of the mission until 1972. The people came from 57 districts and spoke 100 different dialects. There were also 243 recorded removals from Yarrabah to places such as Palm Island, Mona Mona, Woorabinda, Cherbourg, Fraser Island and Hull River.

When an Aboriginal person was removed to Yarrabah they were generally considered to be a permanent resident. Under the protection act they could not leave a reserve, mission or a place of employment, without permission. Many did try to abscond.

To state control and local government

Between 1950 and 1960 there was persistent public criticism of the management of Yarrabah Mission. In 1957 the Yarrabah residents staged a strike to protest against inadequate rations, poor working conditions, and the autocratic rule of the superintendent. 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.

On 1 July 1960 the Queensland State Government officially took over control of the mission from the Anglican Church. Yarrabah was now a settlement under which all aspects of Aboriginal lives were controlled and regulated by the state.

  • The first Aboriginal Council in Yarrabah was established in the mid 1960s, principally as an advisory body.
  • On 27 October 1986 Yarrabah received status as a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) community.
  • In 1984, the Yarrabah Council was established under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act
  • In 2005, the Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council came into being under the Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004
  • Today, the Gunggandji people are party to two active native title claims related to their traditional land at Fitzroy Island and mainland areas near Yarrabah.

See Queensland Government Yarrabah

Artist: Eric Orcher in collaboration with Gwyneth Wason and students from the Yarrabah State School Secondary Department – Bus shelter art project – Respect and Unity.

Totems and cultural images from our myths and legends

Artist: Colin Higgins Jnr 1992. Stain glass installation, Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council Chamber reception area. Depicting totems and cultural images from our myths and legends

Yarrabah’s future

Our vision for Yarrabah is to be: Functional, Stable and Synchronised.

As a Council we aspire to provide quality service to our residents and ensure strong leadership in local issues as well as at regional, state and federal levels.

The Mayor and Councillors are committed to continuing the progress agenda for Yarrabah and working with our Trustee Partners to administer the Trust for the benefit our Aboriginal Inhabitants.

Yarrabah Leaders Forum (YLF)

Yarrabah Leaders Forum was formed in 2013 based on strong motivation to make changes: current structure established in 2017

Key objectives was to consolidate strategies across different Yarrabah organisations to define the 6 pillar model: extensive community consultation was undertaken and acceptance of the model achieved via a consultative process between members.

The challenge for members is now putting to show direction and outcomes against each of these pillars while identifying new opportunities to enhance the community.

One mob, one fire, one journey
One mob, one fire, one journey

Acknowledgement of Country

The Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council (YASC) wishes to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land within the shire boundaries – the Gunggandji and Yidinji peoples; and the area agreements developed through previous negotiations that provide clear opportunities and processes for traditional owners to be formally involved in the land planning process.

The Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council also wishes to acknowledge the historical people brought here to Yarrabah from various locations by government policies of the past.

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