Joanne Watson

Palm Island is situated in north Queensland, 65 kilometres northwest of Townsville, in Halifax Bay. It is the largest Indigenous community of Queensland. The traditional home of the Manbarra people, Palm and its surrounding smaller islands, as well as Magnetic Island, are linked to the mainland through the creation story of the Carpet Snake or Big Snake. People of the offshore islands were linked to each other and to the mainland linguistically and socially, through trade and travel and through movements that occurred for large gatherings. These became frequent as European traders and fishermen began to invade the sea frontier.

While the journey of the Carpet Snake explains the creation and shaping of the land, waters and elements through the spirit ancestors of the region, and links the traditional owners spiritually to that land, the first British colonial records perceived a ‘landscape’, something separate and alien, an object for criticism and even contempt.  In resisting colonial intrusion in the 1850s, Aboriginal people exploited the terrain’s rainforests, rugged mountain ranges and escape routes via the sea. In the following decade the Native Mounted Police conducted some of Queensland's most violent frontier reprisals in the Cardwell and surrounding region.

‘Penitentiary for troublesome cases’

The introduction of the Queensland Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 facilitated the forced removal of Aboriginal people to isolated reserves across the State. Chief Protector J.W. Bleakley designated a specific role to Palm Island as ‘a penitentiary for troublesome cases’. The concept of using the geographical features of an island to form a closed institution was not new to Queensland.   

The Select Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines in 1846 had recommended the use of Fraser Island for ‘martial law’ and proposed that other penal settlements could be established along the Queensland coast.’ Queensland’s geography offered favourable conditions for the expansion of this strategy, so that by the 1880s a vast array of punitive institutions was established on the offshore islands to confine the poor, incapacitated and infirm. According to Archibald Meston in his Geographical history of Queensland of 1895, even the wildlife was being imprisoned, with Rattlesnake Island, south of Palm and off the coast at Kurukon, annexed as ‘a penal settlement for town goats’!

Removals of Aboriginal people severed connections to land and kin, while confinement to segregated reserves ensured their long term exclusion from white settlements. Palm’s separation from the mainland and its operations as a reserve from 1918, rendered its Indigenous community remote from access to public discourse and political power for over half a century. The island’s first superintendent, Robert Henry Curry, a returned serviceman, set about establishing control and instructed residents to clear the land, housing himself in a tent on the beach. More than forty different language groups were sent to Palm, locating their camps in areas to mirror their positions on the mainland.

Apartheid-like arrangements

White residents, schoolteachers, storekeepers, and other staff were housed in ‘the white’ section, in homes built by Aboriginal residents. Following construction of Mango Avenue by the Hull River people, it was subsequently declared ‘out of bounds’ to all who were not white, with gates barring access at each end of the road.  Apartheid-like arrangements of space and design extended to the schools, with a ‘white school’ for the children of officials and ‘a Native school’ on opposite sides of the road. Children were separated from parents, and women from men, by confinement to dormitories. 

By 1919 a lock-up was established on Palm to confine those who breached the stringent reserve regulations. The authority of Curry and all subsequent superintendents was reinforced by a team of police who operated as a private, paramilitary force. ‘Speaking out’ or practicing Aboriginal culture and languages, could result in punitive retribution. Eclipse Island was used as a further penal outpost, and ‘offenders’ could be sentenced there, without food or water, to slowly starve to death. People tried to catch fish with their bare hands. Despite shark infested waters, many braved the dangerous channel crossing back to Palm while others made their way to the mainland using improvised canoes. 

Fears that he was unable to control the inmates, conflict with other white staff and the death of his wife in childbirth, culminated in a breakdown and a rampage by Superintendent Curry in 1930. Having destroyed the main settlement, Curry was shot by Aboriginal inmate, Peter Pryor, on the orders of white officials. Pryor was later forced to serve time on a murder charge.

Fantome Island

White fears of racial contamination dominated in the moral panic of the 1920s about the spread of venereal diseases and leprosy. In 1928 a lock hospital was established on nearby Fantome Island, to confine Aboriginal sufferers of venereal diseases. Fantome became the site for a leprosarium in the 1930s. The island soon became a vast burial ground, with screenings not conducted prior to treatments and drug doses provided by a wardsman with no training in the task.

Explosive events

In 1957, in response to Superintendent Roy Bartlam’s punitive and often brutal regime, Aboriginal residents of Palm Island conducted the first community-wide strike on an Indigenous settlement in Queensland. A squad of twenty police arrived by RAAF crash launch from Townsville to conduct dawn raids on the homes of the strikers. Placed in chains, with guns pointed towards them, the strike leaders were exiled to mainland reserves.

In recent times this strategy of exile was repeated in response to a ‘riot’ over a death in custody in 2004. Yet while Palm’s history is peppered with some of the most explosive events in Queensland’s history, many of these have, until recently, been poorly recorded and understood.

References and Further reading (Note)

Joanne Watson, Palm Island – through a long lens, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010

References and Further reading (Note)

Willie Thaiday, Under the Act, Townsville, North Queensland Black Publishing, 1981