In certain parts of Queensland it was the discovery of gold that was the main driving force behind the expansion of Europeans into the traditional lands of Aboriginal people. This was certainly the case in parts of Cape York Peninsula (CYP), where the discovery of the Palmer River goldfield in 1872 resulted in an estimated 20,000 European and Chinese miners flooding into the area in the subsequent five years (Comber 1995; Hay 1987; Kirkman 1980). Unsurprisingly, this set the scene for what were by far some of the most brutal confrontations between the usurpers and traditional owners in Queensland’s history. Whereas in other parts of the state the oftentimes open nature of the plains country gave the NMP distinct advantages, the rugged nature of the CYP landscape negated the benefits of armed men on horseback. After defending their lands and resources, local Aboriginal people were able to retreat to strongholds in the mountain ranges, thwarting many attempts to ‘clear them out’.
And while the story of the frontier on CYP is often bloody and tragic, there are isolated instances in which the opposing sides actually had positive interactions — one such occurrence happened in late 1892 during a rush to the Batavia River (now Wenlock) goldfield. The initial find of gold at the Batavia River was by prospector William Baird, after which word of the discovery led to many others converging on the area. As reported in the Barrier Miner, 11 November 1892, p2:
Cooktown reports that yesterday (Monday) the Canvas Back, cutter, sailed for the Stewart River with 30 diggers for the new rush. Many people are receiving telegrams from friends at the rush stating that it is good enough to come to. The Ranelagh, on her way down the coast, landed a party for the rush at Cape Direction. A telegram from Coen states that 10 or 12 men were on payable gold last week. One man got 40oz. in one day, another a 20oz. nugget. There are no stores on the field, and men are rushing back for rations. Eighty-two miners’ rights have been issued since the report of the rush. The steamer Victoria sailed yesterday for the Stewart River with diggers, horses, and stores. Baird, the discoverer, has wired as follows : “Batavia gold rush a small patch only, confined to prospecting and a few ordinary claims. Caution people not to come unless equipped.”
Baird’s words of advice were not heeded and men continued to head north, hoping to seek their fortune. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before word filtered back that hopeful diggers were missing, suspected of having been “killed by blacks”, as reported in the Telegraph of 16 November 1892:
Batavia Rush. Party of Five Men Missing. Supposed Murder by Blacks. Sub-inspector Marrett’s Advices. Cooktown, November 15.
The Quiraing landed 58 diggers at Cape Sidmouth on the way down the coast. These men proceed through the Gap prospecting to the new rush. No word has been received of a party of five men who landed from the Ranelagh on her last trip. They had only four days’ rations, and the country is said to be an impassable mangrove swamp for miles at the spot they landed … Marrett has been sent to Hayes Creek to search for a missing party supposed to have been killed by blacks.
Sub-Inspector Charles Marrett, then stationed at the Coen NMP camp, subsequently furnished his superior officer in Cooktown, Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald, with an official account of the search, reporting that:
Fifty eight (58) men were landed in Lloyds Bay from the weekly steamer, en route for the rush. There they divided into parties, each party taking a different route. Some made a good line and reached the telegraph line a few miles N of Mein, in about 10 days. The others after being out about the same time were fortunately met in the bush by some blacks, 10 or 12 miles N of Moreton, others about 20 miles S of that place, and taken in directly to the Telegraph Office. The blacks brought food to others on the Telegraph Line between Moreton and Mein. The diggers were in such an exhausted condition that they had thrown away all they could to lighten themselves, even to rations, and I think, without doubt many of these men would not have reached succour but for the timely assistance of the blacks, they being thoroughly exhausted and wandering about aimlessly.
The men assisted spoke to me in terms of sincere thanks to the blacks for their assistance and would bring this matter favourably under your consideration that the conduct of these blacks may be recognised. (QSA290312 1893 report from Marrett in Batavia River Police Station file)
The contemporary newspaper accounts of the situation minimised the importance of the Moreton Aboriginal people in the rescue:
The party of fifty-six miners and two runaway sailors who landed at Lloyd’s Bay from the Quiraing on the 13th instant had a dispute on the beach as to the proper course to steer, and split into two parties. Thirty-seven of them reached the telegraph line on the 19th instant, twenty-one miles north of Mein station, where they cut the telegraph wire in order to ascertain their exact position. This had the desired effect, as the line repairers started off directly and found them at the above spot. A portion of them arrived at Mein station on the evening of the 20th in a thoroughly knocked-up state, and reported that some of their mates behind could not come along until water was carried to them. Fortunately, Constable Syms, with some black troopers, was at Mein, and he procured all the available water-bags, filled them, and started back on the line to meet the knocked-up men. All the remainder of the party arrived at Mein during the 21st instant. On the route from Lloyd’s Bay their tracks are strewn with tools, clothing and rations, which they abandoned during the trip across. The balance of the party, numbering twenty one, who took a north westerly course, were picked up by some aboriginals and piloted to the Moreton telegraph station. The sub-inspector and troopers arrived on the 24th from Haye’s Creek, on the eastern coast, having started from Coen the week previous to look up two men who were reported to be lost, but meantime they had turned up all right. (Brisbane Courier, 29 November 1892, p5)
The official police response was more positive. Upon receiving Marrett’s report, Fitzgerald sent a telegram to David Seymour, the Commissioner of Police in Brisbane, requesting permission to reward the Aboriginal people who had assisted in the rescue:
Marrett writes me Moreton blacks assisted large number of exhausted miners wandering in the bush for Lloyds Bay to Telegraph Office Moreton otherwise they must have perished conduct merits recognition. (QSA290312 1893 Telegram from Fitzgerald in Batavia River Police Station file)
Seymour, in response, queried how such conduct should be recognised, to which Fitzgerald suggested:
… recommend there are twelve entitled to it suggest twelve brass cresents with chains attached names engraved should be given them also blankets tomahawks clothing rations fishing lines nets etc the case is exceptional reward well deserved. (QSA290312 1893 Telegram from Fitzgerald in Batavia River Police Station file)
Documents held on file indicate that 12 butchers knives, looking glasses, Collins tomahawks, 12 blankets and 7 pounds of small glass beads were ordered. The latter objects were a common trade good used in North America with American Indian groups, but they have received far less research attention in the Australian Aboriginal context (but for some information on the use of glass beads for trade in Aboriginal Australia we can recommend an article by Daryl Wesley and Mirani Litster ; and see also this popular coverage of their findings). We are particularly interested in glass beads, as many of them were recovered during our 2017 excavations at the Boulia NMP camp and are currently undergoing analysis.
Although documents show that the goods were conveyed north by boat for distribution (QSA290312 Claim form for expenses dated 19 May 1893 in Batavia River Police Station file), little else about the handing over of the reward has been uncovered in the archives to date — whether in fact the goods were handed over, how they were received, or whether the reward had any bearing on future interactions. We also question the nature of the reward: given that the service rendered was considered ‘exceptional’, the goods provided seem insufficient, though no doubt the blankets and tomahawks were highly useful to the people who, it is to be hoped, indeed received them. Regardless, this kind of peaceful interaction between traditional owners and new arrivals was certainly the exception rather than the rule in CYP, but demonstrates that on occasions hostilities ceased and all parties seemed prepared to recognise the humanity and suffering of others.
Comber, J. 1995 The Palmer Goldfield. Australasian Historical Archaeology 1995:41–48.
Hay, J.C. 1987 Remnants of a golden era—Palmer River Goldfield 1986. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 13(2):63–72.
Kirkman, N.S. 1980 The Palmer River Goldfield. In K.H. Kennedy (ed.), Readings in North Queensland Mining History, pp.113–144. Townsville: James Cook University.
Wesley, D. and M. Litster 2015 ‘Small, individually nondescript and easily overlooked’: contact beads from northwest Arnhem Land in an Indigenous-Macassan-European hybrid economy. Australian Archaeology 80(1):1–16.