Historical information – Kowanyama
In March 1606 Willem Janzoon sailed along the Australian coastline aboard the small Dutch ship Duyfken as far as Cape Keerween, just north of the Mitchell River delta. However, the first encounter between Europeans and Aboriginal people in the Mitchell River area was recorded in 1623 when Jan Carstenz sailed the Dutch yacht Pera along the western coast of Cape York Peninsula. On 18th April, in the area of the Mitchell River mouth, Carstenz reported an encounter with a large group of Aboriginal men who showed no fear of the Dutch or their muskets. This encounter was characterised by gifts of iron and beads as well as by the abduction of an Aboriginal man by the Dutch. The following day around 200 Aboriginal men tried their best to retaliate and overcome a Dutch shore party but were defeated, as the Europeans used their muskets. It seems that the Aboriginal people of the area avoided the Dutch completely after this conflict. (Mundle, 2015)
Carstenz had three pits dug to extract water during an inland expedition south of the Mitchell River delta and it seems that these wells were still in use by Mitchell River Aboriginal people until recent times (Crim 1973). Other European travellers such as Tasman in 1644, Gonzal and Van Asschens in 1756, possibly Flinders in 1802 and Stokes in 1841 might have been sighted from or encountered on the shores. Iron artefacts obtained from the visitors were also incorporated into local use.
A cannon of European design from late 18th to early 19th century was found “on the Gulf coast between the Mitchell River and Topsy’s Creek” in 1919. Lauriston Sharp reported that the cannon had been incorporated in a ceremony involving dancing by the Yir Yoront. (Freier 1999 : 67)
Macassan fleets visited the northern coasts of Australia seasonally throughout the 18th century but claims of contact with people of the western coast of Cape York Peninsula remain unsubstantiated (Rowland 2018).
Occupation of northern Queensland started in 1861 when the Kennedy District was open for settlement. The proclamation of the goldfields in 1873 rapidly led to the development of roads, settlements and north Queensland’s cattle industry.
European settlement progressed further into Cape York with the help of Native Police protection after Native Police camps were established at Highbury in 1885 and Coen in 1888.
Under the “Protection Acts”, which operated from 1897 to 1965, the Queensland Government established reserves (through Religious Institutions, Missions) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and could control the movement, employment, wages and personal lives of the residents of these reserves. Once placed on a reserve, residents were not allowed to leave the reserve without the permission of the Government, and quite often, this was only given when people were either placed under work agreements or transferred to another reserve. In establishing these reserves, many Aboriginal people were moved away, or dispossessed from, their traditional lands and relocated on reserves.
In spite of sustained Aboriginal resistance against European presence along the gulf coast and the Mitchell River area, closer settlement around today’s Kowanyama site began with the establishment of Rutland Plains Station in 1900. Some Aboriginal people began to be employed on pastoral stations. Others continued to live as they always had. Moving through and living on traditional lands however became increasingly difficult for Aboriginal people, as the pastoralists considered the land as their private property (Freier 1999).
In 1900, the Church of England also created the Diocese of Carpentaria, which included Cape York Peninsula. Gilbert White was appointed as the first bishop of the diocese. He was keen to establish a mission on Cape York Peninsula and gained support from the Northern Protector of Aboriginals, Walter Roth. In 1903 the Queensland Government declared the Mitchell River an Aboriginal Reserve for the benefit of the Aboriginal peoples of the State and in 1905 an Anglican Mission was established at Trubanumen. (Freier, 1999)
The relationship between the Mitchell River Mission residents and the owners of the surrounding pastoral stations was very tense, as the mission in some ways afforded its residents a form of protection against pastoralists’ violence, who poisoned, murdered and kidnapped Aboriginal people perceived to pose a threat to their cattle or land ownership.
This relationship hit an all-time low when in 1910 Frank Bowman of neighbouring Rutland Plains was fatally speared while trying to run several Aboriginal men off his property who were suspected of spearing cattle. Bowman’s widow blamed the mission for her husband’s death because she thought that the mission harboured ‘undesirables’ such as those who had killed her husband. She mounted a vigorous campaign to have the mission removed further north (Freier 1999).
The mission remained, but staff became more complicit with the pastoralists. The mission became a place where pastoralists came to recruit labour rather than a place to hide. After Bowman’s death, pastoralists conducted a concerted campaign to remove from the district any Aboriginal people who they considered ‘troublesome’ (Freier 1999).
The majority of Kowanyama people are the direct descendents of Aboriginal groups who inhabited the Lower Mitchell and Alice Rivers and neighbouring areas. Sommer (2006) describes Olgol (Kunjen) people as originally from the Alice River region. Sommer (1997) also reports that there is a persistent tradition in Kowanyama according to which the Highbury area was occupied by Olgol and Oykangand (Kunjen) clans. Again, according to Sommer (2006) the Oykangand traditional country or aggregation of clan estates encompassed “the lower reaches of the Mitchell River and its surrounds down to a little below the limit of salt water at the junction of the Alice River. Eastwards, they occupied the River up to about Dunbar Station.”
However, between 1905 and 1972 there were 59 removals to the mission from places such as Normanton, the Staaten River, Inkerman and the Gilbert River. Also, there were 60 people removed from Mitchell River Mission. Mostwere sent to Palm Island and several others were removed to Fraser Island, Barambah and Lockhart River.
In 1917, the mission was relocated because of saltwater seeping into local water holes and creeks. The superintendent of the mission, Joseph Chapman, and two Aboriginal men, Peter Bendigo and Pindi, chose a new site for the mission 15 miles from the old mission on Magnificent Creek. The name Kowanyama – meaning ‘many waters’ in Yir Yoront, was given to the new site (Freier 1999).
By 1919, there were 160 people living on the mission and about 600 living in bush camps on the reserve. The population comprised members of the Kokoberra, Kunjen and Yir Yoront peoples. Three outstations were also developed based on tribal affiliations and the mission segregation policy. The married Kokoberra people lived at Daphne outstation, married Kunjen people lived at Angeram outstation and married Yir Yoront people lived at Koongalara. In the early 1920s, the children were transferred from the main village to a small settlement of their own 2 miles away, where they received practical training in gardening (Freier 1999).
The introduction of a cattle herd was probably one of the most important innovations in the mission. The cattle industry at the Mitchell River Mission began in 1908. The mission became a valuable source of skilled stockmen and domestic servants, who went to work on the surrounding pastoral stations. The cattle industry at the Mitchell River Mission became so successful that it financed the whole of the Diocese of Carpentaria, but at the expense of the Mitchell River Mission and its people, who gained very little from its success (Freier 1999).
By 1931, a school had been built and, in 1939, a new dormitory for girls was added. In the 1950s, a boys’ dormitory was established. As of 31 March 1958, the mission had 40 boys and 59 girls attending the school. The dormitories were officially closed on 1 May 1967 (Freier 1999).
Cyclone ‘Dora’ hit the mission on 3 February 1964 and caused extensive damage. The Queensland Government put considerable funds into rebuilding the mission. The rebuilding program transformed the character of the mission. Previously there had been 3 villages of palm-leaf houses segregated by tribal affiliation. These were replaced by 1 village of metal-clad prefabricated houses. In 1966, the Anglican Church approached the government to take control of the mission.
Responsibility for the mission was handed over to the Queensland Government on 1st May 1967. The mission became a government-administered reserve known as Kowanyama (Freier 1999).
In 1987 the State transferred control to the Kowanyama people via a Deed of Grant in Trust with the Kowanyama Aboriginal Council becoming a fully community elected council at that time. The total area of the Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) plus both the pastoral leases of Oriners and Sefton stations now equals approximately 4,120 square kilometres. The acquisition of the two pastoral leases in 1992 almost doubled the original size of the DOGIT. The country consists mainly of wetlands and delta mangroves in the north, extending to “forest country” of the central peninsular.
Kowanyama Aboriginal Council was incorporated under Queensland Government Legislation and since 1987 has always considered itself an Aboriginal Local Government authority. (Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council)
Alpher, Barry. 2009. “New Tribes” Comes into Being, and Dialectal Differences Fail to Differentiate.
Cole, N. 2004. Battle Camp to Boralga: 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
Crim, D. E. 1973. Changes is kin-term usages in the Aboriginal community at Mitchell River Mission. Northern Queensland unpublished PhD thesis, Cornell University.
Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories removals database (access restricted).
Freier, P. 1999. Living With the Munpitch: The History of the Mitchell River Mission, 1905-1967 (Unpublished PhD thesis, James Cook University, Townsville). https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/33191/1/33191-freier-1999-chapters1-5.pdf
Hamilton, Philip. 1998. Uw Oykangand and Uw Olkola multimedia dictionary. Online: https://www.oocities.org/athens/delphi/2970/olkola.htm
Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council, Corporate plan 2011-2016. Reviewed and adopted by Council [Resolution: 3.15072015]. Online: https://www.kowanyama.qld.gov.au/files/media/original/003/2011—2016-Corporate-Plan—reviewed-15072015-Pubclications.pdf
Mundle, Rob. 2015. Great South Land. Harper Collins : Sydney.
Queensland, A. Meston, Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland (1896)
Richards, J.. 2008. The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia).
Rowland, M.J. 2018. 65,000 years of isolation in Aboriginal Australia or continuity and external contacts? An assessment of the evidence on the Queensland coast. In Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, vol.42
Sommer, Bruce. 1969. Kunjen Phonology: Synchronic and Diachronic. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboribinal Studies.
Sommer, Bruce. 2006. Speaking Kunjen: an ethnography of Oykangand kinship and communication. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University.
Sutton, Peter. 1998. Native Title and the Descent of Rights. Perth: National Native Title Tribunal.