Dr Ros Kidd
Historian - Consultant - Writer
THE PRINCESS ALEXANDRA HOSPITAL SITE
The Diamantina Health
Care Museum Association Inc formerly the History and Archives Committee
of the Princess Alexandra Hospital received a grant from the Brisbane
City Council Community Cultural Program to research and write a report
on the Aboriginal History of the site of the hospital.
commissioned Dr Ros Kidd respected local historian to undertake the
project. In early 2000, Dr Kidd presented this report, which will
contribute to the ongoing research, interpretations and displays on the
Dr Kidd has prepared
the report after extensive research of available literature and
The report recognizes
the land on which the Princess Alexandra Hospital has evolved as
traditional country and acknowledges the importance of this recognition
to local Aboriginal peoples.
The site is an
important healing place with connections to traditional culture as well
as connections to contemporary healing practised by today's health care
As a community we
have a responsibility for the maintenance of physical, spiritual,
emotional, intellectual, cultural and social health and healing.
This report acts as a
point of reference for the ongoing work of the Diamantina Health Care
Museum Association Inc, the hospital and the community at large.
Together we will maintain the power of healing in our community.
Complied by Jan
Leo, Museum Committee in consultation with Colleen Wall (Arts
Queensland) and Robert Anderson (Indigenous Advisory Committee).
have moved around and through the south Brisbane area for thousands of
years prior to European arrival. Documentation discussed in this brief
study demonstrates that this regular and extensive contact continued
late into last century until prohibited by white expansion. The search
for evidence of Aboriginal presence on and near the Princess Alexandra
Hospital site would have to take account of this fluidity of
occupation. It was therefore decided that the catchment area for this
research project would radiate for a distance of approximately five
kilometers from the site, a very conservative focus given the expanse of
For the purposes of
this brief study, therefore, I have taken references within the wider
area as being relevant to an understanding of presence on and around the
Hospital site. This brings in evidence between Oxley creek in the west
and Norman creek in the east, sweeping in an arc from the Brisbane river
to include Tarragindi, Holland Park, Camp Hill, Woolloongabba, Kangaroo
Point, West End and Coorparoo.
The research is
grounded in relevant evidence located from government reports and
inquiries, contemporary and later newspapers, historical and academic
studies, published and unpublished journal articles, personal accounts
and private memoirs. The State photo collection held in John Oxley
Library was also consulted, as were photo and cuttings files at the
Queensland Historical Society.
Aboriginal presence in the early days of white occupation it is
necessary to understand why Aboriginal people came to be in this area,
their estimated numbers, what language and tribal group they belonged
to, the scope of their territorial obligations, their way of life and
their interaction with the natural attributes of their locality. Very
briefly, this background is sketched in, setting the scene and giving a
greater sense of the impact and outcomes of the arrival of Europeans.
Following sections look at evidence surviving from convict days, from
the first decades of free settlement, and finally the increasing
marginalisation of Aboriginal people towards the end of the century.
This is a brief
record, gleaned only from recorded evidence, of the lives of those
Aboriginal families whose country included the site upon which the
Princess Alexandra Hospital was subsequently established.
In 1825 the lower
reaches of the Brisbane river were described as a ‘veritable garden of
Eden.’1 Dense vine-clad jungles
festooned with blue and purple convolvulus adorned both banks and
perfumed salt-water lilies floated on the tidal edges. Around the site
of the future Brisbane primeval forests of gums, bloodwood and ironbark
clothed the ridges, and the flats nurtured patches of thick pine and
figtree. Fish, reptiles, birdlife and mammals abounded.
The river was born as
the sea levels rose around 18,000 years ago, flooding what had been a
coastal plane linking the mainland with Stradbroke and Moreton islands.
Archaeological evidence suggests, however, that coastal south-east
Queensland supported a vibrant Aboriginal economy for approximately
14,000 years before this cataclysmic event. The creation of Moreton Bay
increased population density and pushed some Aboriginal groups to the
west. For the last 2,000 years there have been two distinct economies,
the coastal/marine and the terrestrial/riverine. The coastal people
fished around the Bay’s shores and specialised in fern root production,
and for over 1,000 years there have been separate island groups.2
Brisbane is within the territory of the coastal people, the new town
situated in a pocket between the major Aboriginal north/south highways
which crossed the river at Bulimba/Breakfast Creek and at West
End/Toowong.3 These highways were
much-frequented neutral territorial paths. Indeed, the first white men
to struggle along the south bank of the river found, and stole, canoes
left on the banks at both these crossing points (see page 5 below).
The Brisbane river
and its creeks and tributaries provided a bountiful and beautiful
environment. Archibald Meston, an expert in Aboriginal matters who
arrived as a youth in Brisbane in 1870, later depicted this ‘sylvan’,
pre-European, life. The city site was covered by thick scrub, and the
botanic gardens area filled with tulip trees or Maginnchin. South
Brisbane was clothed in dense bush fed by several small creeks flowing
from nearby swamps. Men crossed the river, fishing from bark canoes
made from broad sheets of stringy bark or casting their heart-shaped
towrow nets to encircle shoals of mullet. Others used vines to climb
the trees for possum and koala which were despatched with stone
tomahawks. Women and children dived in lagoons for lily roots, dug yams
and collected the edible fern roots. Some sat on the banks weaving
their baskets and bags from the pink and green swamp grasses while
youngsters frolicked in the shallows.
The primeval forests
on both banks of the rivers nurtured staghorns and elkhorns and fragrant
orchids while bush turkeys foraged in the shadowed scrub. Flocks of
parrots raided the blossoms while pelicans fished the sandbanks. Ducks
and swans in their hundreds trawled the waterways.4
Kangaroos abounded on the southern bank later named after them.5
There is some
discussion regarding tribal and language boundaries in the Moreton Bay
region. Tom Petrie, who arrived in Moreton Bay as a child in 1837 and
lived his life among Aborigines in the area, said the country ‘as far
north as North Pine, south to the Logan, and inland to Moggill Creek’
was owned by the Turrbal or Brisbane tribe. This large language group
was divided into different sub-tribes in defined areas with identifiable
dialects.6 According to J G Steele
approximately ten tribes and sub-tribes lived along the Brisbane river
from the source to the mouth, the area etched with walking tracks and
punctuated by common crossings.7
anthropologist Norman Tindale stated that the area south of the Brisbane
river was occupied by the Jagara people, whose territory of about 3,400
square kilometers extended south to the Cleveland district, inland to
the Dividing Range at Gatton and north to Esk.8
In common with the Undambie people north of the river, the Jagara spoke
the Turubul language.9 Meston, named
first Southern Protector of Aboriginals in 1897 because of his expertise
among Aboriginal people, provided a further differentiation. He
referred to the south bank people as the Coorpooroo-jaggin speaking a
dialect called Yuggara.10 Steele
suggests that since jaggin meant ground it is superfluous as a
nomenclature; he also suggests that Coorpooroo was probably a variant of
Kulpurum, the Aboriginal name for Norman Creek.11
His map shows the Coorpooroo homelands extending along the south bank
between Oxley and Bulimba creeks and south to Mt Gravatt.
For the purposes of
this study, therefore, it will be assumed that the people who ranged
over what later became the site of the Princess Alexandra Hospital were
the Coorpooroo group, with territorial links extending south to the
Logan, and with linguistic links as far north as the Pine river. These
links were vitalised and confirmed through regular ceremonies which
brought hundreds of Aboriginal people into and through the south
Brisbane area for many decades after European occupation, and will be
identified seven separate dialects around Moreton Bay, all differing
widely, some with more extensive vocabularies. These were frequently
changing, characterised by ‘amazing flexibility’ and ‘astonishing
modification of verbs’ by suffixes and affixes. The average person, he
said, could speak but a fraction of his own language, and a little of
the two adjoining dialects. A wife from a separate area learned and
spoke the language of her husband, and children were frequently
bi-lingual. He described Aboriginal languages as ‘soft and euphonious’,
and English as ‘discordant by comparison.’12
According to early
white resident Mr B. Mathieson, the river itself was known as ‘Meeangin
or Maginchin’, an old Aboriginal name for the area along the north bank
between the botanic gardens and St Lucia. Coorparoo was an Aboriginal
word for ‘ground dove’ and the Bulimba region was called Tugulawa. West
End was Kureelpa, later spelt Kurilpa, meaning ‘place of [water] rats’
(although William Clark, who lived in south Brisbane from 1849 said
Kureelpa was the name for field mouse, which lived there in their
thousands13). In and around Brisbane a
dozen dialects were spoken and he thought northern groups could not
understand those south of the river.14
Petrie stated that the ‘Meeannjin’ area encompassed the gardens back to
Creek street. And while it was certainly the local name for what became
the town of Brisbane it was not the name of the river, which was called
Waar-rar. ‘Every reach and bend’, he declared, was separately
identified in local dialects. White’s Hill, east of Coorparoo, was
known to Aborigines as Boolimbah.15
Rev J D Lang, following a visit to Brisbane in 1845, confirmed the
extensive territorial associations. ‘Every rock, river, creek,
mountain, hill, or plain, has its native name.’16
The first white men
to infiltrate the Brisbane area were Thomas Pamphlett, John Finnegan and
Richard Parsons who struggled by foot along the south bank of the river
from the mouth to Oxley Creek in June 1823. They found the north bank
impenetrable, and with Pamphlett in a canoe taken from Oxley creek, they
retraced their steps. They were in the Kangaroo Point/Bulimba area,
most likely near the Bulimba/Breakfast Creek crossing, when they found a
second canoe, and spent a few days resting and gathering fern-roots. It
was here that they were confronted by the local people who were generous
with their hospitality but adamant that the whites should return the
stolen canoes and move on. As Pamphlett tells it:
...we fell in with
a party of blacks, who were going to fish with their nets, and on our
asking them, they gave us a good meal of fish; but the next day they
seemed anxious that we should leave them; and upon our not doing so, as
readily as they wished, they made an attempt to seize our canoes.17
Keeping the canoes
‘out of their reach’, the whites made their way to the river mouth.
With Finnegan as a
guide, surveyor-general John Oxley entered the Brisbane river a few
months later, seeking an appropriate site for a new convict settlement.
His party saw an Aboriginal group on the north bank of the West
End/Toowong crossing. In his official report endorsing the Brisbane
site Oxley spoke of the friendliness of the ‘very numerous’ natives whom
he described as ‘superior in their domestic habits’ to those in southern
The following year
Oxley was again in the area of the West End/Toowong crossing and saw ‘a
very large assemblage of natives’ on the north bank:
It was evidently a favourite place with them, most probably on account
of water being convenient, as among the company was a full proportion of
women and children.
Oxley described the
men as fine and athletic; some of ‘the strongest and best-made muscular
men I have seen in any country’,19 an
impression endorsed by Edmund Lockyer in 1825 - ‘a fine people, stout,
clean-skinned and well-made’ and by Rev John Dunmore Lang in 1846 -
‘they are tall, strong, athletic, able-bodied men...far more of them are
over 5'8" [173cm] than under.’ They were, said Oxley, ‘superior
physically to any race of civilised white men living at the present
time...We simply conquered them with gunpowder.’20
Artefacts attest to
Aboriginal presence in the south Brisbane area. Axeheads and stone
tools have been located near the Grey/Peel streets intersection and also
in the area near the Captain Cook bridge.21
More axeheads, along with stone scrapers for sharpening spears, cutting
hair or skinning game were found in vicinity of Musgrave Park. Scarred
trees and human skulls in the same area add other dimensions to
territorial occupation. An early resident recounted finding a skull in
the Kangaroo Point scrub in 1856 and said others were collected around
River Terrace.22 William Clark, who
lived in south Brisbane from 1849, wrote that it was a common
entertainment in the 1850s for the ‘cabbage tree hatters’ to form
themselves into ‘secret commandoes’ and use long sticks to dislodge
burial remains from the tree forks in the south Brisbane/West End area.23
In general tribal
groups of between 50 and 60 moved often, setting up new camps easily.
Each family erected a hut of a little over a metre wide and almost two
metres in diameter, enclosing a triangle of three sticks with a covering
of tea tree bark, the latter always carried by the women in case none
was available. Bark flooring protected sleeping bodies from any
dampness. Skins provided warmth or, failing possession of those,
families snuggled closely together. Fires burned continuously at the
openings for warmth, light and cooking.24
The huts faced
westward and pre-set fires in nearby hollow logs were lit at sunset,
enveloping families in a cocoon of warm smoke. William Clark recalled
Lying wrapped in
possum skin rugs, with their ‘bingies’ (stomachs) exposed to the
westerly draught driving the heat of the fires over them, they slept
like the proverbial top. We old boys of the period still envy them as
we bask in the scant comfort of modern registered grates.25
waddies, nets, dilly bags and water coolamons were placed or hung from
surrounding trees and bushes. Only the stone knives were kept on the
person, carried in a twine belt or in a small dilly under the arm.
Although irregularly scattered, the disparate grouping of huts denoted
the variety of tribes.26
Until the fateful
incursion of Europeans Aborigines were characterised as a ‘free, healthy
and happy race’. Swamps, creeks and lagoons were covered with wild fowl
and swarming with fish and eels. Food was killed purely to satisfy
appetite; the white man’s ‘sport’ of arbitrary slaughter was unknown.
The main weapons were the long spears of brigalow (Boonooro) and
ironbark (Tanderoo), traded from the tribe in the Rosewood scrub through
an exchange of shell ornaments and reed necklaces known as Calgirrpin.
Archibald Meston was adamant that the vitality of pre-contact Aborigines
exceeded that of ‘civilised’ people and their senses of hearing and
seeing were infinitely keener. Riddles and games were popular. Except
on special occasions of ceremonies and dances everyone retired to sleep
soon after sunset; ill-treatment of children was rare.27
Clark agreed with
Meston’s appraisal, describing Aborigines of the ‘early days’ as a
healthy, virile race where endemic diseases were unknown. Sickness was
treated by either heating or cooling; never in seventy years’ experience
had he seen use of any native herb or plant for medicinal purposes.
Wounds were packed with moist clay, pains were treated with warmed
stones. Measles were cured by continuous bathing in waterholes, quite
the opposite to contemporary treatments for white victims, (although an
effective regimen to reduce high temperatures.)
Aboriginal culture as ‘remarkable’ for its ‘well-ordered and wise
communal laws and inviolate tribal customs.’ They were very agile,
being expert swimmers and skilled tree-climbers, scaling nearly
perpendicular trunks with the aid of scrub vines. Their tracking skills
were legendary. Leadership was not hereditary but based on superior
skills in hunting or fighting. A successful hunter shared his food with
those who returned empty-handed and left their evening fires unlit as
evidence of their failure. After the food was cooked, the unlucky would
be given some of the kill.28 Lamenting
the lack of enthusiasm for the scant rewards of daily drudgery, land
commissioner Stephen Simpson acknowledged in 1844 that the local people
‘prefer the joyous life of the bush’,29 whose abundance
provided a day’s food in only two hours’ labour.30
In November 1824 the
penal colony of Moreton Bay was founded among an estimated population of
5000 Aboriginal people occupying the arc formed by the Pine river, the
dividing range and the Logan river.31
The various groups were interlinked through marriages, trading and
ceremonies, with the region supporting more than 120 bora grounds used
for important rituals, especially male initiation.32
Regular gatherings of many hundred families for ceremonies, contests and
at the triennial bunya feasts brought southern groups through south
Brisbane well after white occupation (see page 18 below).
commandants insisted it was hopeless to attempt escape because of the
‘ferocious’ surrounding tribes,33
convicts absconded into the southern bush so frequently that local men
were recruited to apprehend and return runaways. In 1826 the commandant
reported being on good terms with surrounding Aborigines, whose
confidence was encouraged through a daily distribution of sugar and
water which they called bull. He had rewarded the return of two escaped
bushrangers with tomahawks and blankets.34
No Aboriginal women were allowed near the outpost during convict times,35
a major factor, according to Meston, in maintaining harmonious
Late in 1825 surveyor
Edmund Lockyer noted a large group of Aborigines on the south bank
opposite the settlement (ie at the Cultural Centre). Until then these
locals had only shown themselves in twos and threes, but here was a
group of about thirty men, women and children who seemed about to swim
across the river. This they eventually did at a point slightly ‘higher
up’ which almost certainly would be the West End/Toowong crossing.
Although the whites tried to entice them into the settlement they
preferred to view the buildings and the cattle from a distance of around
250 metres. After about an hour they returned to the bush and were not
Lockyer’s map of 1825
had identified the farming potential of the south bank. In the
Yeronga/Fairfield area he noted ‘pretty spot, land good, spring water in
a rock’, and at West End he wrote ‘good land’.38
This fertile area was known to the Coorpooroo people as Kurilpa and was
the prime hunting area for the southern tribes for thousands of years,
its swamps the domain of thousands of water rats which were caught in
nets and roasted.39 From a swamp in
the low pocket of the Brisbane State High School site ran a creek which
meandered along and across Dornoch terrace. Another creek threaded
between Glenelg and Ernest streets to empty into the river where the
present South Bank development is located. Another creek ran the length
of Montague road, emptying both at Jane street and near the William
Jolly bridge. At this point was a much frequented sandy beach, a haven
for pelicans. Physically bounded on three sides by the river, this
fertile wedge was a natural trap into which local tribes regularly ran
game as late as the 1850s.40
fertility was exploited by the new arrivals. South Brisbane became the
colony’s market garden and by April 1826 over 34 hectares of land in the
Merivale/Peel/Glenelg street area was under cultivation. Maize was the
main crop, worked by 80 prisoners in leg irons; sugar cane was also
trialed. Within a year the farm area had doubled, yielding 12 months’
In their regular
usage of the Kurilpa swamps, Aboriginal people made no differentiation
between cultivated crops and nature’s bounty. Raids on the ripening
maize by large parties of men became common, prompting the stationing of
a permanent armed guard, the threat of the musket deemed sufficient to
disperse the locals. But in May 1827 the ruse failed to work and the
guard was speared through the hand. It soon transpired that this more
persistent attack was abetted by two escapees who no doubt assured
Aborigines that a single musket would not repel a large group with
spears. By evening Aborigines were massing on the south bank ‘to such
an alarming degree’ that two constables and three extra soldiers were
sent to support three placed after the first attack. Several soldiers
tracked the escaped convicts to an Aboriginal camp, sitting near a small
fire apart from the main Aboriginal group. Betrayed by barking dogs the
soldiers fired and in the mêlée one Aboriginal was shot. His body was
located in the bush the next morning, but had already been removed when
authorities returned to retrieve it.42
In January 1828 an
overseer and a convict detailed to guard the crop wandered away. Their
fate was reported ten days later by an absconder who returned with the
news that the men had been speared some distance south of the river and
he himself had been wounded in the shoulder. An Aboriginal man
identified as the murderer was later seen in the town and chained in
custody. Within weeks commandant Logan reported ‘the blacks have become
exceedingly troublesome’ raiding the crops, and a guard was again
positioned on the field. Forced to defend himself against a group of 50
spear-throwing men he fired a shot, wounding one man. For a week there
were no further raids.44
Anxious to minimise
the costs of open aggression, crop cultivation at south Brisbane was
halted for several months in 1828 on orders from Sydney.44
However records for June show clearing for cultivation and burning off
proceeding apace on both banks with 200 hectares completed, including a
second farm at Kangaroo Point. Convicts continued to abscond, making
their way southwards to Port Macquarie, the favoured destination. Many
were successful due to ‘the friendly disposition of most of the natives’
with whom they lived for many weeks, primarily on a diet of stale fish.45
clearing along the river, the south bank still mainly comprised the
dense primeval forests. However several new tracks now breached the
area, one along the bank for timber-felling at Oxley Creek and an eight
kilometer track directly south, through what is now Coorparoo and Stones
Corner,46 to the fresh water holes on
the creek at Rocklea. This track also gave access to ‘Cowper’s Plains’,
a thinly wooded area of several thousand hectares proposed for
agricultural exploitation.47 A tenuous
link also extended to Emu Point (Cleveland) to access the quarantine
station at Dunwich, frequently used for unloading heavier vessels which
would not risk the Brisbane bar. By the early 1830s the white
population broached 1100 individuals, most of them convicts.
Of the four tribes
near Brisbane, Quaker missionary James Backhouse described the south
Brisbane tribe in the mid-1830s as ‘less familiar with the White
people’, although just as prone to picking the ripening maize. A guard
house had to be built on the Kangaroo Point farm to safeguard the corn
and maize crops from local Aborigines. Watchmen were ordered ‘to fire
at them if they are detected stealing, but if possible, not so as to
materially hurt them.’48
By 1837 many of the
hard-core prisoners had been shipped to Norfolk Island, leaving only 300
offenders. Land escapes to the south had all but ceased, partly because
the remaining short-term prisoners were less desperate and partly due to
the ‘great spirit and cleverness’ exhibited by local men in finding and
returning absconders.49 It was now
said that ‘a good understanding’ had been reached with local
Aborigines. ‘They come amongst us with confidence’, commandant Cotton
reported, even the tribes on the banks of the river beyond the
settlement which had formerly been ‘extremely hostile’.
At this time, apart
from the farms at Kangaroo Point and south Brisbane, the only permanent
structure south of the river was the ferryman’s hut, built near a
(white) camping ground where the ferry crossed (now Victoria bridge),50
and there was a boiling down works at Kangaroo Point. The killing and
‘punishment’ of Aborigines by armed troops following attacks on whites
had dampened open aggression. Squatters and labourers were now moving
safely to the two sheep stations at Limestone (Ipswich) and Eight Mile
Plains, to the cattle property at Cowper’s Plains and the saw-pits on
Canoe (Oxley) creek,51 all of which
took travellers through south Brisbane. The Cowper’s Plains road
intersected the ‘squatters’ highway’ which ran from the newly opened
Darling Downs to the port at Cleveland.
Even so, the white
toehold remained tenuous. It was said that the dense surrounding bush
still ‘swarmed with Aborigines’,52 calculated to number 1500
within a fifty mile (eighty kilometer) radius of the town.53
While commandant Gorman reported in 1840 that excellent relations
existed with Aborigines ‘for forty miles around’,54
it was common knowledge that ‘the blacks were still dangerous’ beyond
this enclave.55 Charles Melton, who
lived in Brisbane since the 1850s, was not alone in his conviction that
many of the crimes committed by Aborigines in the early days ‘were acts
of retribution for outrages previously perpetrated by white men’,
particularly the abuse of Aboriginal women.56
From the earliest
days whites acknowledged Aboriginal occupation by recording names and
meanings and often adopting local names for aspects and localities.
Steele gives the following in the near south:57
Woolloongabba, actually Woolloon-capemm (whirling water) (although see
page 14 for a different interpretation), Highgate Hill was
Beenung-urrung (frilled lizard), White’s Hill was Bulimba (peewee),
Mount Gravatt was Kaggar-mabul or Caggara-mahbill (echidna resort),
Hemmant was Kuwirmandadu (place of curlews), and Yeronga (sandy).
Somerville House was originally named Cumbookieqa meaning ‘crayfish
there’ and Yeerongpilly meant rain coming.58
whose early days were spent in south Brisbane early this century, wrote
that Moolabin creek, which fed into the water holes at Rocklea, was
named after the ‘plenty fish’ which thrived there, and Bloggo, which
later became Boggo, meant two leaning trees.59
Maida Simmons, whose grandmother lived at Fairfield at the turn of the
century says the two trees stood at the corner of Wilkins street and the
Bloggo area covered Fairfield, Yeronga, Yeerongpilly and Moorooka from
Clarence corner. The name was changed to Boggo because of the boggy
terrain along the track, renamed Annerley road in 1905.60
3. A free
When Moreton Bay was
declared a free settlement in March 1842 Dr Stephen Simpson was
appointed commissioner of Crown Lands, a position which included the
protectorship of Aborigines.61 Captain
John Coley arrived later that same year, and in evidence to the 1861
Native Police Inquiry stated that Aborigines from several nearby tribes
frequented the town in the early days. They were especially attracted
to his house, the first private dwelling in Brisbane, and many spoke
quite good English.62 Several worked
as menials and domestics but, as Simpson reported, ‘with little
advantage to their moral condition.’ He said they were good humoured,
intelligent and with few wants; the labour needed to access the
attractions of the white lifestyle ‘dearly purchased’ at the expense of
‘that merry, jovial life they lead in the Wilds.’63
Raids continued on
the readily available produce of local farms and gardens. Tom Petrie
spoke of a short-term prisoner whose job it was to guard his father’s
garden across the river from Kangaroo Point. From a small hut in a tree
he could make sure no-one swam across or came by canoe to steal corn or
sweet potatoes. The Aborigines, Petrie said, were very daring in those
days, and were only deterred by the noise of the flint pistol which was
fired whenever they appeared on the opposite bank.64
William Clark remembered parties of Aborigines swimming across from
Kangaroo Point, twenty or thirty at a time to avoid sharks:
water, they began to tread it with their feet; each swimmer placed a
spear between his legs, holding it with both hands above his head, and
leaning forward on the spear, rotating it in the way a man would scull a
boat. They crossed rapidly, in an almost upright position. They could
remain for a long time under water, and swim for long distances.65
Another method was to
use a small log as a float and carry their dillys on their heads.66
On one occasion an Aboriginal was fatally shot while stealing corn on a
Breakfast Creek farm. Relatives took the body across the river to the
southern bush where complex ceremonies were performed and the bones
ultimately returned to his country on the Logan river.67
By the mid-1840s, the
new settlement comprised ‘three insignificant and rival towns’ beside
the river - Brisbane, south Brisbane and the rival enclave of Kangaroo
Point. A second ferry serviced Kangaroo Point and a municipal plan at
that time shows the two pockets of real estate with larger blocks
surveyed around the river at West End. A different map shows the
official town limits south of the river demarcated along Boundary and
Vulture streets, Wellington road and the river.68
Even so, the
Aboriginal presence remained prominent. The Coorpooroo tribe still
occupied the watercourse campsites, and large numbers of people from
Ipswich and the Moreton Bay coast moved periodically into south
Brisbane. Here they occupied longstanding camping areas which were well
known to elderly white residents who spoke of people frequenting Toohey
mountain, Tennyson and the river bank at Yeronga.69
The main camping area
was around Woolloongabba which, on special occasions, held up to 500
people, ranged along the ridges at Vulture street (east of Stanley
street) and along the high ground of Hawthorne street/Mater Hospital.
Woolloongabba was the favourite fighting ground for southern tribes and
from this its name derived, according to William Clark, ‘Woola’ meaning
talk, ‘Wooloon’ meaning fighting talk, and ‘gabba’ meaning place,
therefore, a place of fight talk. The low narrow flat between the
ridges was neutral territory, reserved for the organised fights
themselves.70 In the late 1850s people
regularly swam over from Milton and St Lucia to join in corroborees.71
Another regular camping area, near Shafston at Kangaroo Point, had its
fighting ground under the Story bridge. Ray Kerkhove also mentions
‘villages’ at Stones Corner, Greenslopes, and Dutton Park. Apart from
Kurilpa, favoured hunting-gathering grounds were at Norman creek north
of Stanley street, Woolloongabba south of Hawthorne street, Moolabin
creek Rocklea, Yeerongpilly, Sinclair Hill, East Brisbane and Stones
A network of pathways
linked the various sites. Clearly defined, they were about a metre wide
and kept well-cleared with intruding branches bent back into the
foliage. Near regular camping grounds they widened considerably.
According to William Clark the Brisbane tribes used to make a system of
tomahawk notches on the trees when they moved camp as a sign to
stragglers and others of the direction they were travelling.73
One well-used pathway from the sandy beach (end of Montague road) ran
parallel to Grey and Stanley streets back to Woolloongabba; another from
the same beach led back into the Kurilpa jungle. New corroborees were
shared with other tribes and messengers, wearing a white cockatoo
feather on both sides of their heads to denote their status, could
safely move along paths into hostile areas to pass on this, or other,
Bora rings were
maintained at Tarragindi, Hamlet street Annerley and at Moorooka, where
there was also a corroboree ring at the end of Newman road.75
Another ‘favoured’ south Brisbane corroboree ground was located at ‘the
pineapple paddock in Baynes street’ (Highgate Hill).76
Aboriginal elder William MacKenzie remembered a bora ground at Musgrave
Park near the corner of Russell and Cordelia streets which was still
used in the 1870s for ceremonial and initiation purposes. Its ‘Sacred
Path’ looped along Cordelia street and its Sacred (smaller) ring was
near St Andrew’s Anglican church. Paddy Jerome, another Brisbane elder,
said that as white expansion progressed Musgrave Park survived as the
last special gathering area for all the neighbouring tribes.77
recorded that a bora ring was known to have existed on the site of the
Railway Hotel at Woolloongabba, and Ray Kerkhove gives the location of
the larger ring as between Reid and Hubert streets and the smaller ring
on the hill near the Anglican church in Hawthorne street.78
This would probably be the same bora ring described by William Clark,
although he positioned the primary ring on the hill at Merton road.
According to Clark this was the largest and most frequented local bora
ground. Here, ‘in a circular scoop-out’ on the hill top, Aboriginal
youths or ‘kippars’ were inducted into manhood. Clark and his mates
tried to watch one of these ceremonies but elders stood guard around the
base of the hill, and, although they knew Clark and his friends, they
whirled bull roars to warn off the uninitiated. These ‘bulls’ were made
of hard dry kangaroo skin tied to ‘bugaroo’ or native string, making a
deafening roar when whirled round and round.
The sacred rings were
a short distance from each other, connected by a passage:
On this passage way were placed, one on each side, two uprooted wattle
trees, the stems left being about seven or eight feet long. The tap
root was removed, and the radial roots cut to an equal length, and bound
round with the red inner bark of the ironbark tree. These roots, when
brought together, formed a crude circular basket. The kippar, passing
along the passage way, was expected to leap from the ground in a
ball-like shape, while blacks holding the shafts clashed the roots
together. It was a feat of agility.
initiates were specially dressed and painted, and wore beads and
amulets. At a separate camp near the rings they would sit in a circle
while the ‘turwans’ or elders stood behind them, instructed them quietly
in tribal and hunting secrets. As young men many foods were now denied
them including new honey and fish roes. On occasion the boys would be
sent into the swamps to catch frogs to eat; they were also allowed to
feed on the geebung, a native fruit with a delicious soft yellow pulp.79
Corroborees were also
a major occasion for inter-tribal gatherings and Clark said it was
common for between two and three hundred performers to take part in
these dramatisations of key incidents. Days were spent gathering
pigments, including pipe clay and the soft red rock which was ground and
mixed with the ‘coochie’ or fat from possums and porcupines and the wax
of the ‘cubba’ or new honey. The effect was sensational:
The black when fully adorned was so strangely metamorphosed that his
friends did not know him. He had white stripes down the legs, and the
body was fantastically marked with red, the toning of the red round his
eyes with the dark grounding of his skin gave him a weird appearance.
After many days of
rehearsals, large fires were lit on the designated evening, lighting up
the bush for a considerable distance around. Rhythmic chanting was
accompanied by the women seated in the rear beating sticks upon a drum
‘of tightly folded skins placed on their knees’ or slapping their
thighs. Men danced in the firelit arena and as the chanting increased
in tempo and volume, white spectators were impressed ‘with a feeling of
awe, and they began to gain an idea it was the recounting of some real
adventure of native life.’80
But many whites did
not share Clark’s appreciation of the richness of the Aboriginal
culture, and were increasingly uneasy with what they saw as improper
behaviour. Newspapers carried indignant complaints from Kangaroo Point
residents stating their women were affronted by Aboriginal nudity in the
streets, and a stick throwing contest, also at Kangaroo Point, was said
to inhibit the movements of Sunday pedestrians. Anger was expressed on
one occasion through rifle shots.81
The Moreton Bay
Courier of 1846 described an all-in brawl among a large group of
Aboriginal men and women at Kangaroo Point, sparked by an assault on one
of the women. Two men were badly injured and were carried away by the
women. Usually, the writer lamented, fights between tribes were
carefully orchestrated and executed with much caution.82
Charles Melton, writing under the pseudonym ‘Nut Quad’, recalled seeing
a similar knife fight near Shafston avenue when he was eleven. The two
men involved were about 25 years old and ‘fine, stalwart men’, each
holding a sharpened shear blade with which, initially, they
‘pin-pricked’ each other, but soon inflicted long cuts ‘from shoulder
blade to hip bone’. During 15 minutes of deadly struggle the men became
covered in blood. The fight ceased when one man fell to the ground.
The other limped off to Barker’s Pocket on Norman creek (across from
Coorparoo secondary college) where about 150 others were camped. The
young Melton helped the defeated man to his feet and he hobbled off in
the same direction. He later heard that the wounds had been dressed
with goanna oil ‘overlaid with clean white ashes of the swamp oak and
powdered baked earth from the camp fire’. A few months later, when the
camp had moved to Woolloongabba, he again saw the men, apparently
completely recovered from their terrible injuries.83
Clark described these
deadly contests as ‘duellos’. They were a common method of settling
personal grievances and caused the most excitement in the camps. As
with all encounters there were set procedures. The knives were
inspected to ensure only the regulation length of about 2.5 centimeters
was exposed, the remainder tightly bound with ‘bugaroo’, a native cord
made of soft tree bark compacted with a plaster of tree gum. In the old
days sharpened shells were used, but by the 1850s sheath knives or
broken shear blades were preferred. Cuts had to be along the flesh
only, avoiding ‘vital parts’. Frequent spitting and cursing was
allowed, the latter invariably aimed at invoking some personal defect of
the opponent. The fight ceased when the first man fell, weakened
through loss of blood; however the wounds quickly healed ‘under the
influence of impacted wet clay.’ As a boy, Clark witnessed several of
these ‘Aboriginal duellos’ at the old One-Mile Swamp (Woolloongabba) at
In contrast, formal
contests were ‘more like tournaments’ and resulting in few injuries,
according to Simpson.85 Known as ‘pullen-pullens’,
they were held regularly. These were times for contests of skilful
highly ritualised fighting. At the Woolloongabba site opposing sides
would range themselves along the ridges, armed with spears, while the
‘turwans’ or head men stood in front to harangue each other and those
behind shouted and stamped their feet. In their hundreds, this would
create a very impressive noise. At the height of the excitement the
elders would fall to the rear and the lines of fighters would move to
the base of the ridges:
soon hundreds of hurtling spears were crossing and recrossing each other
in the air. They were very expert in warding off spears. I have seen a
native catch several spears on his ‘countan’ or shield, while leaping up
from the ground to let others pass under his feet.
The countans were
made of soft wood from the mountain scrubs. It dried ‘as light as cork’
but was so tough spears seldom split it. These fights ended when
someone fell wounded, his side retreating to the camp with the dogs
bringing up the rear, and the victors making a theatrical pretence of
By far the most
important and largest gathering was for the triennial bunya festival,
when the ripening nuts in the Blackall Range brought thousands of people
from miles around. Brisbane elder Paddy Jerome said southern tribes
used to meet at Musgrave Park to delegate to selected individuals the
right to gather nuts for their tribe.87
Brisbane would have attended the ‘grand coroboree’ at the Logan river
late in 1844, said to have attracted people for more than 160 kilometers
around, which culminated in ‘a meeting or council’ to plan resistance
strategies, according to the correspondent to The Sydney Morning
Herald. A few months later he wrote of another huge gathering, near
Brisbane, which tribes from Wide Bay and the coastal islands also
attended. Over 200 men contested with spears and boomerangs over
several days. Late in 1846 he reported that ‘large numbers’ of
Aborigines from all areas were gathering near Brisbane for another
Early in 1850 a big
pullen-pullen was held at Yorke’s Hollow (exhibition grounds) and was
attended by hundreds of people from miles around.89
This is probably the occasion which Petrie described involving 700
Aborigines which entailed a major kippa-making ceremony, corroboree, and
a staged fight which ranged on and off for several days. Of relevance
here are the frequent breaks for hunting and food gathering, during
which the Logan, Stradbroke and Moreton Island people went to the big
scrub at West End, crossing in canoes or simply swimming.90
that the south Brisbane area in those days was still served by abundant
waterholes, swamps and creeks, providing ample food in lily roots, fish,
crustaceans, turtles, water fowl, possums and birds. The Dutton Park
area was thickly timbered with steep gullies and Stanley street was then
a track cut by a two-metre deep creek which serviced a chain of eight
waterholes.91 Clarence Corner (the
Mater Hospital corner) was known as the One Mile Waterhole,
Woolloongabba was the One Mile Swamp, Yeerongpilly the Four Mile Swamp,
and the Ekibin/Tarragindi area was known as Sandy creek. Coorparoo (the
place of the mosquito) was fed by salt-marsh swamps and creeks. It was
said that according to Aboriginal legend a red dragon lived on Mount
Gravatt; when the Coorparoo school was opened in 1875 this became its
In William Clark’s
youth Aborigines often camped around the ridges around One Mile Swamp.
He said in the early morning it was not unusual for 400 to 500 men,
women and children to travel through south Brisbane on their way to
town. Another early resident also recalled Aborigines travelling
through the bush in their hundreds at night. Using lighted fire-sticks
to guide them, they made their way along the pathway which later became
Ipswich road travelling towards Annerley.93
Young Clark and his
friends shared their childhood with the Aboriginal youngsters, ‘we were
splendid chums’, he remembered. Often the young kippas would challenge
the white boys to box, pulling out, as was the custom, when blood
flowed. At other times they would ‘maroochy’ or swim in the
waterholes. A most popular ‘corella’ or large long waterhole near the
(’Gabba) cricket ground was a favourite with both black and white;
another favoured spot was the sandy beach at Kangaroo Point.94
Contests with reed spears were also popular, their flattened points
doing little harm. Diving competitions to see who could stay longest
underwater were invariably won by the Aboriginal lads. Maroochydoring,
or imitating the black swan, was another favourite game.95
Tom Petrie’s father
often used to swim across to Kangaroo Point, invariably joined by
Aboriginal friends. They would fish together for bream and flathead, or
just laze in the sun on the sandy beach. Tom swam frequently himself,
and as a boy was rescued by Aboriginal men after he was attacked by
jelly fish and in danger of drowning.96
He also mentioned two white men gathering wood round the mouth of Norman
creek who were surprised by a group of Aborigines and ran off in fright,97
an incident described elsewhere in much more disturbing detail.
Apparently in their panic one man shot the other while they were
clambering into their boat. To mask his guilt he claimed the death was
the ultimate outcome of threatening actions by Milbong Jemmy, (the
Aboriginal rendering ‘Yilbung’ meaning one eye). A reward of 10
(around $800 today) was posted for the arrest of any member of Yilbung’s
tribe, who owned the Bulimba area. Tricked by sawyers who offered him
food, the unsuspecting Yilbung was attacked and shot through the head as
According to one
old-timer, the 1850s and 1860s were often referred to as ‘the black and
white days’.99 Aborigines were regular
visitors to many white homes and businesses. According to Clark they
carted water from the reedy swamps to the white houses, taking it in
buckets balanced on their heads.100
From the same swamps they collected the reeds used for housing thatch
which they bartered for food, clothing and other goods.101
Fish and game and wild honey gathered from the eucalyptus trees at
Sinclair street Woolloongabba were also traded,102
as were ornamental ferns and animal pelts. The proceeds could then be
used to provide for family or to fulfil tribal obligations.
In the late 1850s
Aborigines continued to use their camps at the One-Mile Swamp, Norman
creek, or on the site if the present Fairfield railway station, which
was then on the edge of the ‘dense jungle scrubs’ around the river at
Hill End. There was another camp at the foot of Highgate Hill, and here
Charles Melton wrote of seeing people wearing clothing which was
distributed annually with blankets from Gaol Hill (now Brisbane Post
Residents of those
days recalled Aborigines ‘wandered in friendly groups’ to the south
Brisbane settlement.104 Charles Melton
remembered an Aboriginal named Nelson who bought goods from the store
near the Russell street ferry, returning with ‘tobacco, cigars, bread,
boots, whips, rum etc to share with the south Brisbane blacks.’
Although the spree was apparently financed by silver stolen from a man
at Moggill creek, it can be assumed it was common for local Aborigines
to frequent the stores. Described as a ‘rather good looking’ young man
who spoke English well, Nelson had been driving bullocks for a station
owner outside Jimboomba and it was here that he was finally apprehended,
only to escape in the Boggo scrub (now Fairfield), never to be
The ‘south Brisbane
tribe’ in those days numbered around 400, and their ‘head man’ was
Molrubin, whose wife was Gulpin; Molrubin was later killed in a family
feud. Molrubin had been one of Clark’s ‘blackboy chums’ in his idyllic
youth; others recalled in 1909 were Munipi, Mulkcrum, Menemene, Dulipi,
Crippy and Wooran (the left-handed one).106
As adults, many were frequent patrons of local hotels. Clark listed
Crippy and Dulipi among the many ‘quaint personalities’, along with
Muropi, Hopping Tommie, Mr All round-my-hat, the Duke of York and Old
Glory, the latter a well-loved legend who had led the rescue when the
‘Sovereign’ foundered in the south passage off Stradbroke Island in
1847.107 Petrie also mentioned Billy
Bing, whose sense of comic timing regularly reduced local squatters to
During the late 1840s
regular rowing contests were held between the south Brisbane and north
Brisbane Aborigines and also between blacks and whites. These were run
from the sandy beach (end of Montague road) to what is now Gardens Point
and were written up in great detail in the sports pages. The Moreton
Bay Courier of 29 January 1848 mentioned Gulpin and Wallaby Joe
beating Jack and Moonbeam in the 7th race. The next race, between
Aboriginal-manned four-oared canoes, was judged the race of the day.
Amid much cheering from the crowd, the Amity Point team won the prize of
two pounds ten shillings (about $200 today)109
The 1860 regatta celebrating the first anniversary of separation as a
colony included another all-Aboriginal contest, this time between
six-oared craft. However, in a revealing indication of attitudinal
change, the prizes were flour and tobacco for first, sugar for second
and tobacco for third.110 Rowing had
become the chief inter-racial sport, with Aboriginal teams the
overwhelming winners. Eventually they were barred, on the grounds that
as employees of the Customs department, the crewmen were professionals
and therefore disqualified from competition.111
Many whites did not
share their pastimes so generously with the local Aborigines. Mrs
McConnel, another south Brisbane resident who arrived in 1849, spoke of
the building of the first southside Presbyterian church (in Grey street112):
Before it was
enclosed the natives or ‘blacks’ as they are called, were much attracted
by it. When they saw people going in and singing etc they said ‘Goorai!
Budgery Corobery!’ and when the sermon began one or two men gesticulated
like the minister, upsetting him a good deal...The disturbance was
prevented from happening again.113
Humour and ridicule
worked both ways. Clark recalled that round the camp fires at night
‘fun and laughter prevailed’ as these ‘inimitable mimics’ amused
themselves until midnight at the expense of unsuspecting whites.114
It seems this was a new and rich source of entertainment; Archibald
Meston had stated that ‘in the wild’ most families went to sleep soon
James Porter, who
also arrived in the immigration boom of the late 1840s, recalled how
‘very numerous’ were the Aborigines living in the districts around
Brisbane. He said the Logan tribes from the south always camped around
Shafston street and Norman creek. In the town itself were many
Aborigines ‘of both sexes almost in a state of nudity wherever you might
turn’, taking advantage of white foodstuffs during the leaner winter
recalled that Aborigines were ‘particularly troublesome’ on West End
farms during the 1850s, frequently stealing sweet potatoes and pumpkins.116
John Davidson, who owned a farm covering the Melbourne/Edmonstone/Boundary
streets area complained that local people raided his orchards so
consistently that he was sure they were trying to drive him away. One
man even entered his house at night, coming down the chimney to steal
flour and sugar. The low-lying land at Hill End was then known as
Coombes Swamp and was owned by a Mr Wilkes, who employed Aboriginal
workers to cut the reeds sold for house thatch.117
Another man who ran a store at south Brisbane lost goods worth thirty
pounds (nearly $2500 today) to thieves. A local Aboriginal man traced
and found the goods which had been stolen by white labourers working for
the Survey department.118
The early 1850s
heralded the first shipments of Chinese labourers, and from Clark’s
writings it is apparent that some animosity arose between the ‘newchums’
and the original occupants. On one occasion as a group of young
initiates were ‘trooping in’ from their camp in the One-Mile Swamp they
were invited to share a chinese meal under a bark lean-to, which was
collapsed upon them as they settled to eat. The youngsters escaped, but
soon ‘all the blacks in the settlement mustered up’ and a pitched battle
ensued. The Aborigines kept retreating towards a pocket in the
saltwater creek which crossed Stanley street and the Chinese thought
they had them cornered:
as they were meditating an onslaught the blacks hopped over the creek
and through the mangroves like a lot of wallabies. On the high bank of
the creek opposite the black gins had collected heaps of stones, which
the blacks showered down on the Chinamen in the creek below.
Clark said the
clashes became so frequent that officials insisted the Chinese travelled
directly to the Darling Downs.119
Another source of
complaint in the 1860s concerned south Brisbane’s water supply which
depended on a small stream flowing from the swamp near the corner of
Wellington road and Mowbray terrace (east of the ‘Gabba cricket ground).120
The main water hole was still unfenced and from its inception the
Moreton Bay Courier campaigned to have the area quarantined for
white use. On one occasion it was described as ‘a clayey hole in which
cattle, dogs, and blackfellows wallow and bathe at pleasure.’121
Although, by the
mid-1850s, the Aboriginal people might have lost control of south
Brisbane area which they had nurtured and visited since time immemorial,
they remained a dominant presence. The encroaching white settlers held
only a couple of pockets on the southern river banks. One early pioneer
who arrived in 1854 wrote that Stanley street was still dense scrub, the
’Gabba was just the One-Mile Swamp, and ‘a dense, sweet, wattle-scented
grove extended the whole way round what is now river terrace.’122
Another old-timer remembered hunting in the bush beyond the south
Brisbane cemetery (Dutton Park) to lose himself in the ‘silent scrubs’.
At that time (1853) there were 425 white residents at south Brisbane
with a further 127 spread through Woolloongabba and West End, and 269 at
Kangaroo Point with another 89 nearby. Corn was still grown west of
Melbourne street and Norman creek held abundant fish even in its upper
reaches in the Burnett swamp (near Cornwall and Juliette streets).
Patches of convolvulus, so remarked on 30 years earlier by the first
white spectators, still survived in secluded pockets. Also surviving as
of old were groups of Aborigines wielding their towrow nets to harvest
‘a couple of hundred fish in a few minutes.’123
In fact Aborigines
continued to frequent Brisbane in large numbers during this period,
camping and hunting in the nearby bush.124
Inter-tribal clashes persisted. One such incident was recorded in 1853
at Burnett’s swamp. This was a major confrontation between the Amity
Point and Logan tribes who were currently at south Brisbane and the
northern tribes of Bribie Island and Toorbul Point, also there in great
numbers. It started as a knife fight between a Logan man and the
father of a girl he had taken from the northern tribes, and an observer
wrote that it ended with ‘a grand mêlée, in which the spears and
boomerangs flew about with great rapidity; and, in the course of which
the blacks displayed great tact in the use of their small shields.’
It is apparent that
this was a carefully organised contest rather than an unexpected brawl;
the men were highly decorated for the occasion and the women voiced
The warriors were all hideously bedaubed with red and yellow ochres,
their hair frizzled out and ornamented with parrots’ and other
feathers. During the fight, the old women of the tribe, decorated in a
somewhat similar manner, stood round a fire, chanting, or intoning, in a
most monotonous manner.
the Logan and Amity Point people retired after some time, and it was
then discovered one of the Bribie men had been killed by a spear through
the chest. All of this occurred ‘within three miles of Brisbane’.125
In the 1870s and
1880s Aboriginal people continued to be prominent in the south Brisbane
physical and social landscape. Before the Dutton Park school was built
children walking from Fairfield to the south Brisbane school remembered
people camped on the ridge where the jail was later built. One morning
one of the Aboriginal women told them to take another route, warning
that the men of the tribe resented their intrusion.126
Historian Clem Lack
wrote that in the early 1880s it was not unusual for gathering of up to
300 people, from as far away as Ipswich, to hold corroborees on the
banks of the Norman Creek at Holland Park. Whites making their way
along Logan road by foot or on horseback were often accosted by
Aborigines who leapt from the bushes to demand tobacco.127
Charles Melton recalled that at the many isolated homes in the dense
bush of the southern suburbs it was not uncommon for residents to be
‘alarmed by half a dozen stalwart blacks’ coming to their doors and
demanding flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and rum.128
Many white children
of those times grew up with fond attachments to Aboriginal nannies,
housemaids, cooks and cleaners. Writing of her early married years at
Bulimba (part of the country belonging to the Coorpooroo tribe), Mrs
McConnel said she employed several Aboriginal women when her children
were young. She remembered Kitty, whose husband Piggie Nerang was
unworthy of her, in Mrs McConnel’s estimation, and another fine woman
named Polly whose husband assaulted her and knocked her teeth out.
Demonstrating the attitudes of the day, Mrs McConnel made persistent
attempts to bring her servant’s little children under white control.
She mentioned trying to influence Kitty’s daughter Topsy and Lola’s
daughter Clara, but without success:
tried to separate, in a measure, these children from their tribes. I
arranged a room for them where their clothes were kept, and where they
had a tepid bath every morning, for although I had provided warm beds I
could not wean them from going off to the camp to sleep by the camp
introduced them to rudimentary reading and sewing, and the recital of
simple poems and hymns, she could not shake their cultural ties. ‘When
the tribe went on their nomadic excursions nothing would induce them to
leave the little girls behind, so on their return all was to do over
again. They are certainly very fond of their children.’
Like many whites of
this era, Mrs McConnel was well aware how committed Aboriginal people
were to their own territory. She described another Aboriginal woman,
Long Kitty, who on occasions would look proudly over the country and
say, stretching out her arms, ‘All this “yarman” (land) belonging to
me.’ At least, in those days, it was not difficult to admit the truth
of dispossession. ‘It did seem hard to have it all taken from them’,
conceded Mrs McConnel, adding, ‘but it had to be’.129
In fact Aboriginal land had been taken from them, as Gideon Lang had
deplored ten years earlier, ‘with utter disregard of their interest,
rights, and even subsistence, as if they had been wild dogs or
During the last
decades of the nineteenth century Aborigines were increasingly
marginalised on their own lands. Although they were ‘allowed’ into
Brisbane town during the day, they had, since the early 1850s, been the
targets of a curfew which was enforced after 4pm and on Sundays. Rev
Henry Stobart, who arrived in 1853, remarked that the ‘the blacks seem
to leave this town at one regular hour each day, and one of the boundary
posts was at Cumbequepa (Somerville House) south Brisbane.131
The major demarcation south of the river operated along Vulture and
Boundary streets. Charles Melton wrote that police were empowered by
regulation ‘to drive them out of town at nightfall’, but because police
were so greatly outnumbered by Aborigines in the town the regulation
‘was difficult to enforce’.132 By 1877
it would appear the curfew was more efficiently applied. Recalling the
forced expulsion of all Aboriginal men and women at sundown, one
traveller wrote: ‘After 4pm the mounted troopers used to ride about
cracking stock-whips to notify the Aboriginals to get out.’133
Those whose lands lay south of the river would have retreated beyond the
town boundaries to the camping areas of Woolloongabba, Dutton Park,
Fairfield, Annerley and the Coorparoo watercourses.
By 1895, according to
Archibald Meston, only three or four Coorpooroo elders remained on their
land of the magnificent clan which had boasted 400 to 500 people only 50
years earlier. In 1897 Queensland passed a law which gave the
government complete control over all Aboriginal lives.134
During the next seventy years more than half the Aboriginal population
- men, women and children - were cleared from towns and cities and
confined on missions and government settlements. From these
institutions many were contracted out to employment. In 1899 an
Aboriginal Girls’ Home was established in a house at Hill End, in the
vicinity of Victoria and Kurilpa streets. Any girl or woman travelling
through Brisbane, visiting for medical attention or merely between
domestic service stints was forced to stay there.
During this century
Aboriginal men and women, controlled by the government, have worked
around Brisbane and elsewhere in the state as labourers, drivers,
domestics, cleaners and nursing aides. It is almost certain that
several of these individuals were employed at the Princess Alexandra
hospital. Others lucky enough to have remained with their families free
from government control may have received education and training
sufficient to take skilled positions. It is entirely possible that in
this way descendants of the Coorpooroo tribe may have maintained links
to their ancestral lands during the last 100 years.
This brief study of
contemporary and recent writings has charted the dispossession of the
Coorpooroo people who cherished, and were sustained by, the sweep of
land from Oxley to Bulimba creeks, country within which the Princess
Alexandra Hospital is located.
intrusion they had followed an idyllic lifestyle eloquently immortalised
for us by early residents who were moved to record an appreciation which
at times bordered on envy. Tentative contact in the town and around
south Brisbane was carefully nurtured and generally amicable. The first
decades of free settlement were remembered as ‘the black and white
days’, a sharing of skills and needs which embraced the bartering of
game, pelts and ferns, and also of labour as wood choppers, water
carters, farm workers and domestics. Sport on the river itself was,
initially, a shared passion. Also, and chronicled with unmistakable
affection, was the wonderful inclusiveness of the games and adventures
of boyhood, where the inquisitiveness and exuberance of youth was so
much the richer for the absolute indifference to colour.
The Coorpooroo people
had from time immemorial used all of this area, and regularly shared
noted camping, hunting and ceremonial sites with hundreds of
neighbouring tribes for major events. Initial reticence was converted
to wary confidence, the regular movements through the area continuing
for decades after white occupation had alienated significant Aboriginal
sites. Residents recall the presence of more than 400 Coorpooroo people
in the 1850s, and 300 were still using the Norman Creek campsites in the
1880s. Pullen-pullens and corroborees were regularly held with all the
traditional preparations and procedures. ‘Friendly groups’ of
Aborigines frequented the streets, and ‘characters’ in the local pubs
kept regulars entertained.
Perhaps it was the
debased rowing prizes of 1860 which most clearly signalled the new
contempt, the cash bonus from ‘the black and white’ camaraderie now
degenerated into flour, sugar and tobacco, surely never offered to white
winners. The water-holes which had sustained Aboriginal hunting and
leisure, and where Clark had revelled with Molrubin and his mates a
decade earlier, were now said to be contaminated by Aboriginal use which
had continued for millennia. The sunset curfew and the ‘civilised’
determination to take Aboriginal toddlers from their families both
exemplified and reinforced a willingness to see the original inhabitants
as unwanted and incompetent. Marginalisation and the stripping of human
dignity and basic rights was cemented in the law of 1897. The scars
remain painful, the long-term damage appallingly public.
This is, inevitably,
a white account of Aboriginal use of the area. There are two major
avenues which could be pursued to include an Aboriginal account of this
history. A careful accumulation of oral testimony would add both
richness and authenticity to this recorded evidence. There will be
people today, whose grandparents and great-grandparents still live in
family stories and anecdotes which are passed through the generations.
Time and sensitive communication could breathe life into this rich store
In addition, such a
vast establishment as the Princess Alexandra Hospital, which has
encompassed so many forms of employment over so many years, almost
inevitably would have counted Aboriginal workers and staff within its
ranks, whether in construction, maintenance, cleaning, cooking or
nursing. Many, possibly, may have lived locally. Their forebears might
have also, perhaps always, lived in this area. This would be illuminate
a continuum, and is worth further research.
transported from Redcliffe in 1825, quoted by ‘an old
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The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of