By Denver Kanowski
Nine of us Chinchilla Field Naturalists congregated recently at Cherbourg for a tour of The Ration Shed Museum. Our guide was Eric Law, a member of the Wakka Wakka tribe who was born at Cherbourg. He is a retired school teacher who has put a lot of energy into his people & country. In his life he has been, amongst many other things, the only Aboriginal Superintendent of Cherbourg, Mayor, Vietnam veteran & mentor for his people. Eric has the ability to make you laugh or cry. He speaks from the heart.
Through short films and displays we encountered the history of Cherbourg. Here is some of what we learned…
The Aboriginal Protection & Prevention of the Sale of Opium Act (1897) saw the original people of Australia (under the false assumption of Terra Nullius) banished to reserves. Aboriginal Protection was a tack-on to the Restriction of Opium – there were a lot of Chinese in Australia at this time and opium addiction was a problem. Two problems were put together to facilitate control.
Aboriginal ‘protection’ included not having the right to vote (a right finally achieved after December 1965), possess alcohol or access the lands of their birth. Indigenous people had limited access to justice, experienced forced removal from their country and their children could be taken from them without reason. They could be forced to work for low wages, with these meagre wages often withheld (read: stolen). They could be prevented from marrying, their property could be seized, and their mail could be censored.
A Brief Chronology
- 1770 – Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia
- 1788 – The invasion begins. Slavery is introduced to the new land. The Aboriginals aren’t recognised as people. Within 50 years the settlers are in Queensland – a brutal page in the history of Australia that is inadequately recorded – and poisoning and shooting of Aboriginals slips under the radar. Thus begins “The Conspiracy of Silence”.
- 1901 – “By removing the Aboriginal against his will they were virtually denying his right to live. The Bill made them absolute slaves. They could do nothing without protectors, and the protectors could do just as they liked. To take them away from the bush and put them on distant reserves is everything that is stupid and bad.” (Quote by John Webber, Queensland Legislative Council)
- 1901 – Barambah Settlement is started by Salvation Army missionary William J. Thompson on Barambah Creek.
- 1904 – The Queensland government takes control in March. ‘Inmates’ are put to work building, clearing, raising pigs and goats and planting vegetable gardens.
- 1909 – 258 people are interned in the ‘camp’ in humpies with dirt floors that they built for themselves. By this time Aboriginals from Cooktown, Thargomindah and Birdsville are recorded to have been forcibly displaced to Barambah and must co-habitate on stolen ground. By 1919 over 50 clans had been displaced to Barambah. Rita Higgins in 1984 recalls when her grandmother was separated from her family and sent to Woorabinda while the rest were relocated to Barambah: “We went to Woorabinda to leave her there. She only lived 3 weeks after that. She went into the bush to die. She didn’t have the will. ‘Don’t take my gundaberries (children). Don’t take them. I bring them into the world’, she said to the policeman, but he just pushed her aside.”
- 1910s – Barambah becomes a source of labour for the squatters in the area. Males over 14 are labourers and stockmen; the women are domestics on stations and often return impregnated. The offspring are raised back at Barambah as half castes.
- 1919 – The Spanish Flu mysteriously appears in Barambah in June. The first week 83 people die. There are many to follow in what amounts to a prison containing poorly nourished and demoralised people.
- 1920 – Frontier conflicts are largely over. Relocation continues. Construction of what is now Cherbourg commences.
- 1930s – In a segregated society, old languages are banned and traditions squashed. Two out of three children live in the dormitories, isolated from the nearby ‘camp’ where some have relatives.
- 1932 – Barambah becomes Cherbourg. By now there are 36 tribal groups co-habiting.
- 1940s – The policy of segregation is questioned and moves are made towards assimilation. Children are educated to grade 4 level: sufficient to be servants. Wages are held by the Superintendent who has total control – very little actually gets to the workers.
- 1950s – Boy Scouts, marching girls, Anzac parades, debutante balls mark a superficially normal life. Inmates, however, must still get permission to marry and to come and go from Cherbourg. The dormitory system with children mostly isolated from family persists and mail continued to be vetted by the authorities.
- 1960s – Civil Rights & Land Rights movements begin.
- 1967 – The referendum recognising Aboriginals passes with a huge majority. The people have been heard. A cash economy is introduced at Cherbourg and rationing ceases.
- 1970s – Aboriginal people are recognised as the original people of this land. The Aboriginal flag is flown for the first time, though not yet in Cherbourg. Laws in Queensland are still the most draconian in Australia.
- 1972 – First Nations people can apply for permission to have their own bank account.
- 1985 – Deed of Grant in Trust. Cherbourg can now handle its own affairs.
- 1990s – Reconciliation movements begin, bringing some blacks & whites together.
- 3rd June 1992 – The Mabo case recognises Aboriginal land rights.
- 2004 – Cherbourg Community Council is granted the status of recognised local governance.
- 13th February 2008 – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologises for past transgressions.
Our group was welcomed at The Ration Shed and the ongoing discussion was warm & respectful. While I feel a great shame concerning this disgusting example of imperial arrogance, I believe the power of goodwill can prevail into the future. I recommend the experience of a visit to Cherbourg.
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.
(Photo: Chinchilla Field Naturalists)