European occupation of northern Queensland started in 1861 when the Kennedy District was open for settlement. In just a few years pastoral sheepgrazing reached the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the base of Cape York Peninsula. By 1871 a viable cattle industry had emerged.

In 1873 a government party disembarked at the Endeavour River to journey to the Palmer River to proclaim the goldfields. The Palmer Goldfield quickly earned an ugly reputation for racial violence. The methods used in this crucial period which marked the beginning of “permanent relations between the two races” were questioned from the start, as during the expedition the battle of Normanby took place, an unequal combat which lead to the massacre of many Aboriginal people.

By the time of the second Palmer expedition in 1874, “the confrontations between the intruders and the natives had become merciless war” (Cole 2004:174).

Proclamation of the goldfields rapidly lead to the development of roads, settlements and north Queensland’s cattle industry. During the time of the gold rush, as many as 80 new prospectors were arriving in the goldfields every day and many complained of inadequate police protection from Aboriginal attacks.

The Palmer gold rush didn’t last and by 1879 most miners had left the region (Kirkman 1978). Smaller mining enterprises such as the ones in Coen, Normanby, Batavia and Alice Rivers operated sporadically from 1878, the last company eventually shutting down in 1941 (Illingsworth 1990:xiii). However, “pastoralism continued to be a major focus of European settlement in Cape York Peninsula” (Cole 2004:176).

During the colonial period,  Indigenous affairs were administered by the Colonial Secretary for Queensland and the frontier policy was managed by the Commissioner of Police and enacted by the Native Mounted Police force (Loos 1982:23-7). A detachment of Native Mounted Police started to operate in Boralga in 1875 to offer protection against Aboriginal attacks along the routes to the Palmer in a manner that resembled a military campaign (Cole 2004). The location of police camps in the Cook Police district were strategic and varied according to the frontier situation. Some of them were located in Lower Laura, Normanby, Puckley Creek, Upper Laura (Butcher’s Hill), McIvor River, Eight Mile, Coen and Palmerville (Cole 2004).

Kirkman (1978:122-24) has shown that from the gold rush days police used confrontational methods and Binnie (1944:11-12) described how police forces terrorised Aborigines in the Palmer days. 

Police camps were required to protect cattle stations as well as escort or protect travellers. However, the Native Mounted Police’s core duty was to conduct “bush patrols” to “contain” Aborigines in response to settlers’ complaints of “depredations”. This translated in Aborigines being pursued, sometimes over long distances and “dispersed”, i.e. shot (Corfield 1923:62-64). Several accounts of violence and massacres have been reported by Hughes (1978:11), Pike (1998), Strang (1997), Mackeith (1987:88) such as the massacre of Cape Bedford, the Strau murders retaliation and the second battle of Battle Camp.

Tresize (969:102) reports the story of Willie Long of Laura, whose parents survived an attack on the Olkola people led by the Musgrave police station. Aborigines fled to a swamp where they were massacred. The victims might have belonged to to one of five clans in the Coen area reported to have been massacred in 1889 by a formidable force of forty, comprising three police detachments and volunteers led by Sub-Inspector Urquhart.

Such brutal, disproportionate and indiscriminate retaliation continued until the late 1890s. In 1897 Okeden lamented that “the Native Mounted Police has apparently confined its operations to retaliatory action (…) and seems to have dropped all idea of employing deterrent or conciliatory methods” (QVP 1879 vol II:16).

The pastoralists’ attitude certainly didn’t help, for example in 1884 Commissioner Seymour reported that the pastoralists expected police to “pursue and shoot down” Aborigines that speared or disturbed cattle (QSA 1884 note 128). The following year Seymour lamented that “the condition of the blacks on the coast and in the interior of the Cook district has been a matter of concern. Settlement has advanced on the tribes so rapidly that they have lost their hunting grounds and have been deprived of the only means of existence. The consequence has been the committal of depredations (…)” (QVP 1885 vol I:543)

Another practice of the police patrols was the abduction of Aboriginal women and children. Some of the abducted children, such as Harry Mole, would become police trackers at Laura: “(he) was brought in as a child by members of a punitive expedition who had slaughtered virtually all of his people, the Gugu Warra tribe” (Tresize 1969:51). The attack took place at Jack Lakes, north of Boralga (Haviland and Hart 1989:36). McKenzie, Cooper (2001:158) and Corfield(1923:59) describe how other children were captured in a similar manner.

From the gold rush days Aboriginal children and adults were kidnapped to be exploited by settlers for labour and/or sexual purposes. Roth in 1902 (quoted by Haviland and Haviland 1980:134) noted that the abduction of children had been “going on for years” with devastating consequences for the victims and their families.

In 1894 the typical work force on cattle stations in the Laura district included two or three “black boys”, i.e. Aboriginal workers (Culpin 29/12/1893 in Mckeith 1987:47). “Their fate was similar to that of other Aboriginal children and adults of the Cook district who were forced into situations of unpaid domestic and bush labour” (Haviland and Hart 1998:4). Several Aboriginal workers escaped and/or took revenge on the people who abused them (May 1983:71). See the story of Hero, a Gugu Warra man, as recorded by Caesar Lee Cheu (Tresize 1969:145) among many others.

As British subjects, Aboriginal people were entitled to the protection of the law but as (later) admitted by the police, they “probably were hunted whenever seen” (Garroway to Roth 14/7/1900 QSA A/41596, 30/1900).

Evan (1999) also noted that Aborigines were unable to act as witnesses in Queensland court until 1887.

Settlers committed crimes and took the law into their own hands, “apparently secure in the knowledge they were immune from prosecution” (Evans 1999:189) . Public complaints about alleged settlers and police brutality apparently had little impact on the Cook Police District. It is likely that the great distance from Brisbane enabled the government to ignore criticism of frontier policy and criminal practices for years (Cole 2004:178).

“The white pioneers were harder on the blacks in the way of reprisals when they were forced to deal with them for spearing their men or their cattle or horses even than the Native Police” (Palmer 183:213). Pastoralists used poisons as well as rifles to kill Aboriginal people. This has been reported by Loos (1982:57,61), Jack Harrington (Aboriginal Land Claim to Lakefield National Park 1996, transcript p.111). Culpin (15/5/1896 in Mackeith 1987:88) reported how too often private justice was enforced while the police and judiciary system turned a blind eye.

In the 1890s, in places such as Laura when there wasn’t a cell, Aboriginal prisoners were chained to a tree, sometimes for as long as two days (Aboriginal History, vol.28:174). The practice of chaining Aboriginal prisoners was retained well into the 20th century, as George Musgrave recalls seeing Aborigines forced to walk “in chains” across the Peninsula (Cole 1999).

The establishment of colonial settlements near important waterways was at the root of the conflicts with the Aboriginal land owners. Pastoralists established their homesteads in the best areas and excluded Aborigines from them in spite of this being illegal according to licence conditions. The exclusion from water resources was particularly grievous in a region characterised by erratic, monsoonal rainfall. “Water holes were polluted by stock and customary subsistence activities around rivers and lagoons were disrupted, as were hunting and land management practices such as grass firing on the alluvial plains” (Cole 2004:178. See Mulligan quoted in Pike 1998; Jack 1922; Corfield 1923)

“The tragic outcomes of the battle of the Mitchell River and Battle Camp demonstrated the futility of open combat against mounted opponents with high powered guns. Instead, Aborigines waged guerrilla warfare to target the Palmerville Track and Douglas Hell’s Gate track, a pack track to the gold fields used from 1874” (Cole 2004:177). Their tactics and bush fighting skills were immeasurably superior than their opponents’ in these remote locations. A notorious spot for Aboriginal attacks and ambushes was the Lower Laura crossing, where the dense vegetation of the river banks provided cover.

Aboriginal elders have explained that sorcery played a role in the war against the police (Tresize 1968, 1985. Loos 1982. Cole 1995). Aboriginal elders of the Laura district recorded stories of the “wild time”, which relate how other secret strategies were used by Aborigines to outwit the police (Cole 1999).

“In the 1880s it is likely that Aboriginal clans depleted by “dispersals” and abductions were reduced to smaller, fewer and less viable groups” (Cole 2004:178). To survive, Aboriginal people started making greater use of the semi-arid plateau country situated between the Normanby and Laura Rivers, which they occupied periodically for thousands of years before the arrival of the settlers (Cole 1998). These rocky and remote areas were inaccessible to the police, as they lacked feed for the horses during the dry season and were boggy during the wet season.

However skillfully many Aboriginal groups were able to adapt their traditional lifestyles to the dramatically altered conditions created by the presence of the settlers, occupying incredibly remote areas, raiding huts and hunting stock were unsustainable strategies in the long term.

The 1890s were a transitional phase for Aboriginal society. In pictures of the time many Aboriginal men are still holding spears while others are dressed in European clothing. Even though people continued to move around in groups joining river camps from time to time, during this period large, semi-permanent camps appeared on the Laura, Deighton and Kennedy Rivers.

Also, by the 1890s imported diseases, such as venereal diseases, were endangering Queensland’s Aboriginal population. It is also likely that health problems increased in association with the increasingly sedentary and impoverished conditions of the fringe camps. During this period, the distribution of rations to Aboriginal people on a regular basis, the appointment of local trackers and the awarding on king plates all contributed to eradicate the “wild” Aboriginal way of life (Roth 1898:I; Haviland and Hart 1998:4).

The Aboriginal clans of the Normanby-Laura area were first affected by mission activities in the 1890s, when, under the provision of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897, the government authorised large scale “removals” to missions and reserves (Cole 2004:179).

However, “there were still groups of Aboriginal people who were able to maintain under immense duress relatively free ranging lifestyle and possibly adequate standards of health and wellbeing into the 1890s” (Cole 2004:178).

In 1900 there were still reports of cattle being disturbed, grass firing and Aboriginal people camping on water holes on Butcher’s Hill (on the upper Laura River). They were reported as the “Coco Minnies” and the “Coca Warras” tribes (Cole 2004:178 quoting Earl to Police Commissioner 3/3/1900 QSA A/41364.05169/00).

The systematic destruction of Aboriginal society’s economic base and assets however, meant that more and more “dispirited” groups of Aboriginal people decided to join European settlements (Rowley 1972:178). This process put an end to frontier warfare.

Ultimately, Aborigines working in the cattle industry were often able to maintain contact with their tribal land (Cole 2004:179) and hold upon some aspects of their traditional lifestyle in ways not possible in the only available alternatives: the bleak institutional life of the Reserves and the degradation of fringe camps.

Thelma Martel (Illingsworth 1990:27) recounts that in 1948 “a small tribe, one of the last clans to cling to the bush and carry on a partly traditional lifestyle” used to settle for part of the year by the Strathleven cattle station her husband Eric was managing at the time. “The tribe spent about 6 months of each year on Strathleven and the other 6 on walkabout, following the seasonal fluctuations of plant and animal life as their people had always done” (Illingsworth 1990:29). This was “Johnson’s tribe”, an Olkola man. Johnson told Eric Martel that as a child and later as a young man he and his people had ranged the Palmer’s length from the mining town of Palmerville  downstream to Strathleven and beyond to Drumduff at the Palmer’s junction to the Mitchell. Thelma imagines how he must have seen “his people decimated by the Spanish influenza epidemics which had swept through the Peninsula in the 1920s and 1930s and that those who survived must have been left with only the remnants of their by-then shattered culture, and abandoned the bush for the missions or to work on cattle stations as stock men and house girls” (Illingsworth 1990:28).

Johnson’s daughter, Jessie Shepherd, remembers how “Dad used to talk to us in Aboriginal, in Walkoola language. There were two tribes on the Palmer, the Mikki and the Rok. The Mikki was the owl. Dad never used to tell us about our people. Only tell us Quinkan and Moolong. We never had special place then, all gone.” (Illingsworth 1990:133). “Dad used to sing songs, then make corroboree, dancing. We never used to sing, never dance. We just watch.” Jessie also explains how Johnson didn’t teach his children how to use the spear for hunting either (Illingsworth 1990:35).

Thelma Martel explains that “their fellows had abandoned the old ways for the security of the Edward River Mission away to the northwest. Minnie and husband Posy (…) spent most of their lives wondering their piece of country along the Palmer River, often in company of Johnson and his family. Johnson was the chief and had four wives. The eldest wife Kitty was retired and had settled at Gamboola station on the Mitchell. His next wife Minnie had died some years before and was buried at a nearby swamp but her children were with Johnson. They were Judy and Jacky and they had an elder brother William who was not with them. Their surname was Johnson. The wives then living with Johnson were May and Nancy. May was the youngest and she had just one child, Donny, then a toddler. He also had Johnson as his surname. Nancy’s children were Mavis, Jessie, Jerry, Daphne, Evelyn and Tommy. They took their mother’s surname, Shepherd.” (Illingsworth 1990:27)

Tresize (1971:25) reports that the area between the Laura and Deighton Rivers was the “last stronghold” for wild Aborigines and still in 1965 Aboriginal elders avoided entering this country in case some of the “wild people” still remained.

Thelma Martel recalls how in the 1950s, the police were still the “designated Protectors of the Aborigines” (Illingsworth 1990:80) and all of the Aborigines stockmen working for her husband Eric at the Strathleven station were under “the Act” state legislation which governed their rights, including rates of pay. The rates for comparable work were considerably less of Aborigines than for whites. At Strathleven, a head stockman would receive 12 pounds a week, an inexperienced white stockman 4 pounds and an Aboriginal stockman 1 pound 1/4 (or twenty five shillings), that being the rate set by the Act. (…) However this wage was not paid directly to the Aborigines who earned it. Rather it was paid to the Protector of the Aborigines, or the police in this case. (…) The accumulated sum could be drawn on by the worker but to do so he had to apply to the Protector. He also had to justify that application, indicating the purpose for which it was required. The Protector then judged whether or not the application was worthy.” (Illingsworth 1990:101). Thelma and Eric Martel both recollect having the hardest time in helping their Aboriginal employees to obtain money to buy boots or any other necessity. Thelma recalls that “some people had accounts with the Protectors of hundreds and hundreds of pounds but they wouldn’t let them have it”. (Illingsworth 1990:101).

She adds that “there was (…) ample opportunity for the government and its agents to claim unspent savings for consolidated revenue. There is no doubt that many, if most Aborigines under the Act never received anything like the amounts that were deposited with the Protector of their names” (Illingsworth 1990:102).

In spite of it all, Aboriginal resistance indicates the capacity of clans to regroup and adapt while maintaining collective identity, cosmological structures related to local environment and detailed local knowledge (Strang 1997:284-9).

Today, the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, first established in 1995 as the Edmulpa Aboriginal Corporation, “holds and manages 869,822 hectares of Olkola Traditional Lands, and stands as a Corporation that represents the Olkola People of Cape York.” (https://www.olkola.com.au/corporation/)

Cole, N. 2004. Battle Camp to Borlaga: a local study of colonial war on Cape York Peninsula, 1873-1894. In Aboriginal History, vol. 28, pp. 156-189. ANU Press. http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p171001/pdf/article07.pdf

Haviland, J. and Haviland L. 1980. How much food will there be in heaven? Lutherans and Aborigines around Cooktown in 1900. Aboriginal History 4 (1-2):119-49

Illingsworth, J. 1990. A Christmas Card in April: Station Life in the 1940s and 1950s. James Cook University

Olkola Aboriginal Corporation: https://www.olkola.com.au/corporation/

Rigsby, B. 2003. The Languages of the Quinkans and neighbouring region. Unpublished report prepared for the Quinkan Cultural Centre

Roth, W. 1910. Social and individual nomenclature. North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin 18, Government Printer. Brisbane