The Pumpkin Line

By Heather Burke

Fear is one of humanity’s most basic emotions. Defined as the response to an immediate, objective threat, fear is different to anxiety, which is a reaction to an anticipated, subjective threat that can be either real or imagined (Bourke 2003:126). Research into how fear and anxiety come together to influence behaviour suggests that threats to personal safety heighten people’s level of anxiety and create a strong motivation for defense, high levels of anger and a greater likelihood of attacking those seen as the perpetrators (Rogers 1983).

One strand in our ongoing project to document the lives and legacies of the Queensland Native Mounted Police is to understand the psychological effects of the frontier. The ‘foundational violence’ (Veracini 2008) of the settlement process—Indigenous displacement, violent interactions over land, stock and resources and ‘the weight of fear and the imaginary’ (Ryan 2008:483) that attaches to such traumatic experiences—must have created many situations in which settlers and Indigenous people experienced high levels of fear and anxiety.

In understanding the actions and reactions of settlers in this light we are interested in examining the many tales of fortified structures built across Queensland during the frontier period. The Rainworth ‘fort’ near Springsure and Cambridge Downs, near Richmond, are well known examples, as are the telegraph stations on the Cape York line.

The replica of the Cambridge Downs homestead in Richmond, Queensland. Both the thick, stone walls and the small windows are claimed to be defensive.

There is some debate about the architectural merit of such claims, since some of the elements claimed to be defensive are also normal features of ordinary architectural design. The best example is the vertical ventilation slits built into stone outbuildings that are often described as loopholes for accommodating guns. Such openings are common ventilation devices in the English ‘bank barn’ design and have been in domestic use since the late 1600s. This doesn’t automatically exclude them from being used defensively, of course; it just illustrates that sometimes features that look defensive may have other, far more prosaic explanations.

Previous archaeological and architectural studies of supposedly fortified buildings have been equivocal: work in South Australia by Nic Grguric and in Tasmania by Karen Burns both found that features such as embrasures or thick stone walls could have functioned effectively as defensive features, particularly when they were built as part of homesteads, but may also have been non-defensive, particularly if they were integrated into outbuildings.

The historical literature can also be ambiguous, mainly because many of the fortification stories attached to buildings come from twentieth century local histories or descendant’s memoirs rather than as direct evidence from the people who built and lived in these structures themselves. One exception is Tasmania, where a recent study by Nicholas Clements and Andrew Gregg has looked at a wide range of direct, primary historical documents from the 1820s and 1830s to understand the scale and nature of settler fear. It concluded that many colonists were afraid for their financial livelihoods, and their own and other’s personal safety, and therefore used a range of physical, defensive tactics to protect themselves on the frontier. These included laying turf on the roofs of buildings to prevent fires, erecting high, protective walls around their houses and important outbuildings and incorporating apertures into walls to accommodate gunfire.

Similar accounts exist for Queensland, such as the deposition made by John Carpenter, the hutkeeper for Patrick McEnroe on his run in the Maranoa. When attacked by about 500 Aboriginal men in 1851 Carpenter barricaded himself inside and ‘opened the port-holes (which are usually made in huts on the frontiers for the purpose of resisting …. assaults)’ (Moreton Bay Courier 1851:2).

Understanding the patterning of such defence—who built such buildings, where and when—is what drives this strand of our project. It connects to the wider patterns of violence on both sides of the frontier, activated by the anticipation of threat, the rage of response and the inflammatory cycles of attack and reprisal.

And the pumpkins? These are the most original defensive tactic we have yet come across. In discussing the trials and tribulations of the staff at the Gilbert River Telegraph station in 1875, the Etheridge correspondent for the Queenslander noted how frequently the station master and his small garrison had been ‘placed in bodily fear for a day or two at a time.’ Apart from the casual aside that Aboriginal people were shot, he also noted how wearying it was ‘to be on the watch night after night, and the work of barricading and unbarricading, effecting repairs, and digging out pumpkins wherewith to create the most horrible countenances for lanterns to hang out at night for a ‘scare,’ is no joke when long continued’ (The Queenslander 4 September 1875, p14). It is not surprising that people would have combatted their frontier fears and anxieties using only the resources available to them, but nothing suggests it more forcefully than the reality of the Pumpkin Line.

(Not an actual defensive pumpkin)


Bourke, Joanna 2003 Fear and anxiety: writing about emotion in modern history. History Workshop Journal 55:111–133.

Burns, Karen 2010 Frontier conflict, contact, exchange: re-imagining colonial architecture. In M. Chapman and M. Ostwald (eds), Imagining … Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference, pp.70–80. Newcastle, NSW: Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand.

Clements, Nicholas and Andrew Gregg 2015 ‘I am frightened out of my life’: Black War, white fear. Settler Colonial Studies.

Grguric, Nic 2010 Staking a claim: fortified homesteads and their place in Australian settler identity construction. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 25:47–63.

Moreton Bay Courier 1851 Maranoa district. Saturday 23 August, p2.

Rogers, R.W. 1983 Cognitive and physiological processes in fear appeals and attitude change: a revised theory of protection motivation. In J.T. Cacioppo and R.E. Petty (eds), Social Psychophysiology: A Sourcebook, pp.153–176. New York: Guilford Press.

Ryan, Lyndall 2008 Massacre in the Black War in Tasmania 1823-24: a case study of the Meander River region, June 1827. Journal of Genocide Research 10(4):479–499.

The Queenslander 1875 Outside life. Saturday 4 September, p14.

Veracini, Lorenzo 2008 Settler collective, founding violence and disavowal: the settler colonial situation. Journal of Intercultural Studies 29(4):363–379.

7 thoughts on “The Pumpkin Line

    The start is now excellent

    Iain Davidson, Emeritus Professor, University of New England
    Mailing address: 10 Cluny Rd, Armidale, NSW 2350, AUSTRALIA
    Mobile/cell phone AUS +61 402 106 853
    Facebook: Davidson Davidson

  2. Great to see this! Long overdue. I did some research and talks on this topic two years ago, but my work had some errors. Agreed, reliance on memoirs or later supposition is flawed, but there are actually many more firsthand accounts of creating defensive structures or defensive features than is usually assumed. It seems the sources simply haven’t been “mined” as yet. “On the ground,” there is the problem of original defensive structures/features being replaced or modified long ago or put to other use, once the “fear” subsided. An additional element seems to be our own skepticism over the level of threat posed by Indigenous resistance. For instance, Nic Grguric told me he didn’t feel the fears of NT/ SA settlers were in any way justified. I notice many studies underestimate the effectiveness of Aboriginal resistance tactics, or the role of other factors such as isolation and changed demographics (i.e. the Indigenous population being at the time much larger, and the non-Indigenous population much smaller than today).

    Ray Kerkhove, PhD
    Visiting Fellow, Griffith Univeristy

    1. Thanks Ray – we’ve been thinking of your comments ever since you wrote them and are very happy that you got in contact with us. We’ve just updated our Pumpkin Line post, so will keep considering various aspects of defensive architecture and behaviour as the project unfolds. Please do keep in touch!

      1. Thanks! I am enjoying your news and items.

        I’ve had some interesting exchanges with John Huth, who heads Monument Australia (check their website: – it includes monuments to both sides of the frontier). He has pointed to local stories of towers that had been used as defensive lookouts being re-made into water towers. I have found mention of bell towers used for warnings in early accounts and also myself have seen eye-level surveillance ‘peep holes’ in some early homesteads. The 1840s-1870s accounts I specialize in are full of descriptions of squatters building specifically with defensive considerations. I have been investigating a couple of ‘forts’ in the Helidon/ Rosewood area – one for soldiers, the other by squatters. Rod Pratt if you know him is very useful on this given his expertise on early militia and logistics re/ early weaponry. Cathy Keyes at UQ is also subsequent to her work on Fort Essington (NT) researching the defensive features of stilted homes.

        Today all this may seem unbelievable or far-fetched, but the toll of white deaths and loss of livestock was extensive in the very early phases of settlement in each region. I calculated that in the 1840s, as Moreton Bay had so few people, the loss of some 200 men in that decade due to Aboriginal killings meant approximately 1 in every 10 settlers was dying on the frontier due to Aboriginal resistance. Probably everyone knew someone who had been killed.

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