Into the blue…

Personal images collection. Mornington Island, 1980

I wrote a memoir last year.

It was part celebration of my mother’s 80th birthday, it was also part exploration of difficult events in my chilhood.

There were so many positives that came out of writing the book. There was healing and redemption and also a fair bit of understanding realised.

In writing the memoir, I stepped back in time to 1980 when I visited my mother who was living on a remote Indigenous community in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I was shocked to discover the depths of deviousness displayed by the Bjelke-Petersen government in its ‘takeover’ of the Mornington Island and Aurukun Aboriginal communities. In this blog and others to follow, I’ll distill the events which led to the takeover and its lasting ramifications.

Mornington Island: 1976

I first visited Mornington Island in 1976 when it was still a Presbyterian Mission.

As McKnight in his book, ‘People, Countries and the Rainbow Serpent’ explains:

There were two major events that completely and irreversibly altered the traditional scene.  These events were the founding of Burketown on the mainland and the establishment of a Presbyterian Mission on Mornington Island.[1]

The establishment of the Mission in 1914 led to the beginning of the deconstruction of Lardil culture.  Geoff Wharton in his book ‘Mission Time’ argues:

Perhaps the most severe regulation used by the government was the power to remove people from their place of living and transfer them without appeal to another community…It is recorded that people from Presbyterian Missions were removed at the request of missionaries to government reserves such as Palm Island, and sometimes were never allowed to return.[2]

Children in Mission times were housed in dormitories run by the Missionaries and this created a ‘generation gap’[3] where children were brought up in Christian ways rather than traditional ways.  It is to the Islanders’ great credit that they could so easily adopt a system of belief far outside their own, and yet adopt it they did.  Labumore (an Aboriginal elder and mother) explains that for her, ‘God, and that known as God’[4] allows her to experience the Christian God in the same way she experiences, ‘that known as God’.  Certainly, when understanding Aboriginal people’s deep connection to land, and the ceremony that emanates from that connection, including chants of healing, recognising the spirit world around her, and knowing and respecting culture (including laws), is not far removed from the Church’s prayer requests for healing, obedience to the law and a recognition of the realms of the spirit world about us.[5]  Creation beings feature in both traditions.  The Lardil name their creation beings as ‘Marnbil, Djual Djual and Djin’ who named the sacred places of the land, ‘strengthen[ing] the ties to ‘Law and Ceremony’ passed on by the ‘ancestral beings, Thuwathu and Nyaranbi’[6]

Our spiritual belief in our stories beginning from our creation beings Marnbil, Djual Djual and Djin

Djin who named our sacred sites and sites of significance and who helped strengthen the ties to Law and Ceremony that was passed on by our ancestral beings, Thuwathu and Nyaranbi, have become the backbone of our society and the songs and dances teaches and educates us on our history, our identity, our culture and our way of life.[7]

Not only was the Mission taking charge of Aboriginal people’s lives, the government also, in the form of the Director of Native Affairs, by 1957 was:

…promoting a policy change to a gradual progression from protection to assimilation of Aboriginal people into white community.  However, the legislation continued to provide government bureaucrats and church missionaries with levels of control over people’s everyday lives which would not have been acceptable in non-Aboriginal Australian society in the 1950s.[8]

Aboriginal people moved from a period where their spiritual and physical loci were controlled by, firstly, the Missionaries and, secondly by the Government.  McKnight explains that Mornington Islanders:

…lost control over their bodies in every aspect of their lives, from where they are born in the hospital, to where they are buried, in the local cemetery.[9]

McKnight is talking here about the officials removing mothers to the mainland to have their babies, rather than staying on the Island and being attended to by local women and family, and of burials being ‘westernised’.  Further, the Queensland protectors from the Office of the Director of Native Affairs issued a decree to all Mission Superintendents that every Aboriginal had to have a ‘surname as well as a Christian name’:

Where an adult male Aboriginal has only one name, the father’s name should be the surname, and the Aboriginal’s present name his Christian name.  Thus – Aboriginal ‘Billy’ has a father ‘George’, his correct name for identification pruposes should be ‘Billy George’…In all cases the wife must take the name of her husband for her surname.’[10]

Some Missionaries refused to allow ceremony, others separated children from their mothers and fathers and still others encouraged a system of housing resembling that of the growing suburbs to the south and east, including the village-style accommodation complete with ‘home garden[ing]’.[11]

The last Missionary however, the Reverend Douglas (and his wife, Doreen) Belcher ‘phased out’ the ‘dormitory system’ and ‘children were returned to life with their parents’[12]

Reverend Belcher must have been something of a fresh breeze of reason in the suffocating years that preceded his arrival.  For instance, Rev. Belcher ‘actually encouraged the people to continue using traditional names’[13] and, as Hodder explains:

Reverend Belcher encouraged the retention of certain aspects of the traditional culture and facets of this were blended into the Christian religious services. [14]

The Belchers’ were instrumental in a number of measures to revive local Indigenous culture (through advancing the work of Gooblathaldin – Dick Roughsey – and encouragement of dance and ceremony).

The Presbyterian Church, for the most part, continued this legacy, advocating for self-management of the community into the 1970s. However, this provision for self-determination was to take a fatal blow when mining interests in Aurukun (on Cape York Peninsula) led to Government intervention in these two communities, to the detriment of all.

More on the Takeover later.

Until then, all the best


[1] McKnight 1999 p. 4

[2] Wharton 2000 p. 23-24

[3] McKnight 1999

[4] Labumore 1984 203

[5] Labumore 1984

[6] Mirndiyan n.d.

[7] Mirndiyan n.d.

[8] Wharton 2000

[9] McKnight 2002 p. 4

[10] Wharton 2000 p. 2

[11] Hodder circa 1980 p. 14

[12] Hodder circa 1980 p. 14

[13] Wharton 2000 p. 22

[14] Hodder circa 1980 p. 14

[15] Queensland Government 2015

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