On the Queensland frontier

Tragedy in the tropics

THE 1850S BROUGHT dramatic changes to the Australian colonies – the gold rushes, the end of convict transportation in the eastern colonies, the granting of internal self-government through New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania in 1856. Queensland followed in their wake and detached from NSW in June 1859. Its inaugural elections were held in April the following year and the parliament sat for its first session on 22 May 1860. From the very start the colony’s novice politicians were confronted with the problem of dealing with fierce resistance from the First Nations across a vast frontier.

The killing of nineteen members of the Wills family and their servants in November 1861 at Cullin-la-ringo led to demands for savage and massive reprisals. A writer in the Queensland Guardian reported that news of the deaths was ‘so sudden and horrible as almost to take away all power of language or even thought’. The tribe, he thundered, must be punished ‘whether it number scores or hundreds…the deadly bullet must do the work of the more legitimate executioner – justice must triumph over law’.[i]

The subsequent mass and indiscriminate killing – of seventy people – by the Native Mounted Police and bands of vigilantes made news all over Australia. The fledgling colony was acquiring a notoriety that was to last until well into the twentieth century.

The most powerful attack on the Queensland Government – in the wake of Cullin-la-ringo – was mounted by John West, the distinguished editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, in two editorials in December 1861. He understood the behaviour and motivation of the frontier settlers but the active participation of the government was another matter altogether. He wrote:

We, of course, know all the difficulties which environ these subjects, but we fear the evidence is irresistible that the destruction of the blacks is the aim as well as the result of our colonial policy…and that the guilt of these horrible massacres must finally rest with the Government, which it is too weak to prevent because it is unwilling to punish them.
The murder of those seventy people is a murder as cruel, cold blooded and inexcusable as any to be found in the annals of the race.[ii]

The criticism of the government kept coming. In 1865 the prominent colonist Gideon Scott Lang published a widely read pamphlet, the result of considerable experience on the frontiers of South Australia, NSW and Queensland. He believed that there had been greater destruction of Aborigines in Queensland during the occupation of new country than in any other colony. In the years since the establishment of the self-governing colony, the destruction had been wholesale and indiscriminate and carried on with a cold-blooded cruelty on the part of the whites, who were able to do as they pleased. The ubiquitous presence of the Native Mounted Police made it unnecessary for the frontier squatters to attempt to come to terms with the resident bands. Lang accused the government of adopting a policy of extermination. Wholesale execution without warrant, apprehension, judge or jury had been institutionalised. Like many of Queensland’s critics he wondered whether the colony could be trusted with the colonisation of the enormous country placed under its rule by the imperial government.[iii]

Queensland’s moral culpability was assaulted even more vehemently in GW Rusden’s three-volume History of Australia, published in London in 1883. ‘How does the heart ache,’ he declared, ‘to think of the Aborigines “done to death”, and left stark on the soil of Queensland.’ The very air of Queensland ‘reeks with atrocities committed and condoned’. Even the government statistician fell in with the ‘prevailing vice’. He found no place to record the deaths of the Aborigines in his account of mortality in the colony – and in dealing with causes of death he ‘omitted the rifle’.[iv]

But none of the criticism coming from the southern colonies matched the campaign launched in 1880 by the leading weekly paper The Queenslander. Under the heading ‘The Way We Civilise’ the paper ran thirteen editorials between 1 May and 17 July and opened up the columns to correspondents – twenty-seven of whose letters were published between May and September. The whole collection was then published as a pamphlet and issued widely. In this second form The Way We Civilise became one of the most influential political tracts in Australian history.

The editor, Danish immigrant Carl Feilberg, opened the campaign with a reference to the ‘brutal war of races’ that was being fought out in the out­lying regions of Queensland hoping that the government would be convinced to adopt policies that would bring less disgrace on the colony. What followed was a detailed denunciation of ‘how we deal with the Aborigines’. It merits extended quotation:

On occupying new territory the aboriginal inhabitants are treated in exactly the same way as the wild beasts or birds the settlers may find there. Their lives and their property, the nets, canoes, and weapons which represent as much labour to them as the stock and buildings of the white settler, are held by the Europeans as being at their absolute disposal. Their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away, entirely at the caprice of the white men. The least show of resistance is answered by a rifle bullet; in fact the first introduction between blacks and whites is often marked by the unprovoked murder of some of the former – in order to make a commencement of the work of ‘civilising’ them.
Little difference is made between the treatment of blacks at first disposed to be friendly and those who from the very outset assume a hostile attitude.[v]

Feilberg’s crusade was deeply controversial, attracting both support and fierce antagonism. But it failed to force the government to establish a Royal Commission into the Native Mounted Police – the idea of which had been promoted by a group of progressive members of parliament led by John Douglas. They were defeated after two long debates that were, in their way, as revealing as the letters contributed to The Queenslander. Douglas declared that the Native Police troopers

did nothing else but shoot them down whenever they could get at them. That was the sole function of the native police. As far as could be judged from their instructions and practice, they were chiefly kept as a military force dispersing natives when they congregated, and patrolling districts to drive the blacks into positions where they would not come into contact with the European settlers.[vi]

Douglas spoke with authority. He had been in the parliament since 1863, a minister between 1866 and 1869 and premier in 1877 and 1878 when he had ministerial responsibility for the force.

The Way We Civilise found readers outside Australia – none more influential than Sir Arthur Gordon, who at the time was Governor of New Zealand and the High Commissioner for the West Pacific. He was incensed by the Queensland Government’s attempt to unilaterally annex Papua in April 1883, which occurred while he was on leave in Britain.

He wrote a long letter on the matter to his personal friend, Prime Minister William Gladstone, in what he called a ‘most earnest hope’ that his government would not be ‘induced without very careful consideration to consent to the suggested appropriation of New Guinea’ to Queensland because he could ‘hardly conceive any government more unfit for such a task’. He did not think any large native population could safely be entrusted to a ‘small, for the most part ignorant, and selfish oligarchy of another race, having interests directly opposed to those of the natives themselves’.

What was more he was convinced there was ‘a special unfitness in the case of Queensland’. He drew Gladstone’s attention to the fact that an extension of Queensland’s boundaries would entail the application of colonial law that was based on the principle of terra nullius, which meant that ‘no right in the soil is recognised in the native’. He observed that a few years earlier Queensland had ‘almost silently’ annexed the islands of north-eastern Torres Strait – including Murray and Darnley islands. That these two islands had a pattern of land use and tenure similar to Papua, as Gordon noted, was a fact recognised by Australia’s High Court in the Mabo case in 1992.[vii]

There is no doubt that Gordon’s intervention led to the British Government’s rejection of Queensland’s attempted annexation.

The colony’s reputation notwithstanding, there is also no doubt that the fate of its First Nations was openly and vigorously discussed. It is reasonable to assume that this public debate carried on into the private lives of Queenslanders, wherever they lived. It would have been hard to remain detached during disputations that touched on such significant questions and that, when brought together, called into question the morality of the whole colonial project.

The public debate was never about the reality of the violent frontier. No one could realistically doubt that. Contention swirled around the questions of whether or not it was justified, whether settlement could have evolved more peacefully or if it was an unfortunate but inescapable necessity. The most ready response to the colonists who shrank from the bloodshed was to refer to it as war – which any educated person knew was an ever-present accompaniment of the ongoing expansion of the British Empire and that could not officially take place between settlers and Australia’s First Nations, as both, since 1837, had definitively been recognised by the Colonial Office as British subjects.

But the fact that the frontier wars were largely forgotten during the first half of the twentieth century has still not been fully explained. Clearly they did not fit comfortably with the growing cult of the pioneer, of an epic struggle with the land rather than brutal conflict for it. The comforting idea that the nation had a uniquely peaceful history had widespread appeal – as did the associated belief that, historically, Australians had been unusually reluctant to kill one another.


THE GENERATION OF historians who pioneered the teaching of Australian history in the 1950s and 1960s and wrote a shelf-load of general histories and textbooks had little to say about Australia’s First Nations. The Aborigines seemed to be of doubtful relevance to the large themes of national development, burgeoning national consciousness, class conflict and overseas military involvement. With this population left out of the story, much of the violence was elided as well.

The most widely read of the new national histories was Australia: A Social and Political History, a multi-authored volume edited by Gordon Greenwood. It came out in 1955 and was reprinted thirteen times over the next twenty years. Greenwood was a major figure at the University of Queensland, professor of history and member of the Senate for thirty years. He had produced what was clearly a very successful textbook. But there was nothing in it about the Aborigines. They were mentioned twice in passing and did not merit an index entry. None of the leading historians who reviewed the book noticed what appears today to be an extraordinary absence.

By 1978, when Greenwood stepped down from UQ’s Chair of History, it was clear that a new generation of Queensland historians was playing a leading role in the task of bringing the First Nations back onto the central stage of national historiography. In the last twenty or so years many more notable works have been published cementing Queensland’s place at the forefront of what we have come to call truth-telling. Local scholars provided a powerful response to the ‘history wars’ of the early twenty-first century, the central focus of which was the legitimacy of those works that looked closely at the violence on the ragged frontiers of settlement.

A reading of the studies that are now available will put the bloodstained reality of the ‘killing times’ beyond the reach of reasonable doubt. Contemporary scholarship has stoutly confirmed the assessment of the colonial critics of the direct involvement of the colonial government that funded and administered the incessant, lethal patrolling of the Native Mounted Police. At upwards of 65,000,[viii] the Indigenous death toll in Queensland was far higher than in any of the other Australian colonies. It almost certainly pushes the national figure far beyond earlier estimates and now rivals the national loss of life in each of the two world wars.

This is clearly a momentous revelation with wide-ranging implications. The frontier wars now confront us as never before. They are arguably our most important wars. They continued, albeit fitfully, for well over 100 years in almost every part of the continent. They were about the ownership and control of vast areas of land. Both property and sovereignty were in contention. How, as a nation, did we for so long overlook their gravity?


RECENT INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS have forced Australians to reconsider their response. There has been a widespread outburst of anti-colonial sentiment relating to the legacy of both slavery and Indigenous repression. All over the Americas holidays once scheduled to commemorate the arrival of Columbus in the New World have been transformed into occasions to celebrate the Indigenous warriors who fought the Spaniards. In Buenos Aires a statue of Columbus was recently replaced with one of Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza guerrilla leader who rode to war with Bolívar. In the United States statues of Confederate heroes have been taken down. In Britain statues of slavers have suffered the same fate, and the National Trust has controversially determined which of its many properties were built with the profits of slavery. Statues of Cecil Rhodes have been toppled in South Africa. There has also been a widespread movement to remove the names of slavers from prominent buildings and especially from America’s leading Ivy League universities. Even Woodrow Wilson has been targeted. Princeton removed his name from university premises because of his segregation of the federal bureaucracy when he assumed the presidency in 1914.

Australians have responded to these developments in their own way. Statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie have been daubed with graffiti. Two well-known frontiersmen – Angus McMillan and John Batman – have had their names removed from federal electorates in Victoria. The emphasis has been on the southern states and the early nineteenth century, which can be characterised as an era of British hegemony when all major policy decisions were made in London and implemented here by colonial governors. There was little that immigrants and their locally born children could do about them. In eastern Australia convicts and former convicts made up a substantial percentage of the population and they were, after all, involuntary colonists.

It is truly surprising that angry revisionists have paid so little attention to the second half of the nineteenth century and the conquest of northern Australia – driven by colonial politicians in Adelaide from 1856, Queensland from 1859 and Western Australia from 1890. Responsibility for policy towards the First Nations of the tropical north was determined here in Australia and could be sheeted back to democratically elected parliaments: it was our business then and is our responsibility now.

Surely it is time to look critically at the careers of significant colonial politicians such as John Forrest in Western Australia, John Downer in South Australia and Samuel Griffith in Queensland. They were knights of the realm and fathers of federation. Griffith played a major role in drafting the federal Constitution and was the founding Chief Justice of the High Court – over which he presided from 1903 to 1919. Forrest was a federal minister in numerous administrations until his death in 1918. Downer was a South Australian senator. They stand tall in the histories of their states and have Canberra suburbs and federal electorates named after them. The John Forrest Secondary College was established in Perth in 1961. Griffith University in the Brisbane suburbs was founded in 1971.

Griffith had a distinguished political career. He sat in parliament from 1872 to 1893. He was Attorney-General between 1874 and 1878 and then premier for two terms between 1883 and 1888 and then again between 1890 and 1893. He was an energetic legislator and a significant legal reformer, bringing the Queensland statute book up to date. His career matched that of other leading liberal lawyer/politicians in the southern colonies – Deakin in Victoria, Clark in Tasmania and Kingston in South Australia. He had wide cultural interests – a man of taste and discernment. Seen from the south he was a fine representative of a generation of leaders who were Australian born or, like Griffith, had grown up in the colonies and were at the forefront of the evolution of a sophisticated and distinctive urban culture.

But far from Brisbane there was another world where the conquest of the First Nations was still underway. Violent conflict was ever present and had been during the twelve years that Griffith sat around the Cabinet table. It is sobering to consider that during those years – all 144 months – Native Police patrols were riding out to carry out officially dictated directions to ‘disperse’ any large gatherings of Aborigines.

This was all taking place a long way away from Brisbane in places that Griffith had never visited and it is unlikely that he ever met any of the white officers of the force. But there can be no doubt that, distance notwithstanding, the political and moral responsibility for the Native Police can be traced directly from the far frontiers to the Cabinet ministers in Brisbane.

No other interpretation is possible. And Griffith must bear an extra burden because he was a distinguished jurist who must have known how far Queensland had strayed from its proclaimed allegiance to the common law. His neatly manicured lawyers’ hands were deeply stained with the blood of murdered men, women and children.


DID GRIFFITH HAVE doubts about the consequences of frontier conflict? Did he discuss it with his circle of colleagues and friends? There is some evidence to suggest that he wanted to reform the Native Police Force but realised it simply wasn’t politically possible. Significant reform did not come until 1897 – four years after he had resigned from parliament to sit on the Supreme Court bench.

It seems likely that, as with many of his contemporaries, he believed that an acceptance of violent repression was an inescapable condition of successful colonisation and that the sooner Aboriginal resistance was crushed the better for all concerned. Force was necessary to effect the conquest of the north and convince the First Nations that resistance was pointless.

Even today we are obliged to think about the public debates that took place in the time of Griffith’s political ascendancy. There is no doubt that Queensland had a more violent history than any of the other colonies. But was the mayhem necessary? Could colonisation have taken a different course?

Well yes, it might have done. And the law of the time, if enforced, may have greatly reduced the bloodshed – which is something that may have troubled Griffith’s sense of judicial rectitude if not his conscience. For Queenslanders the inescapable fact was that the Aborigines were British subjects, a status that had been determined without equivocation by the imperial government in the 1830s.

Where the problem of frontier violence had been confronted in NSW and Tasmania in the 1820s by the declaration of martial law, Queensland’s governors could have legitimately declared that the Aborigines were both subject to and protected by the common law. As it was, the Native Police operated outside the law. There was no attempt to use the time-honoured procedures of the criminal law: arrest, trial and sentence. Killing was extra-judicial or, in common parlance, murder.

In Western Australia, which remained a Crown colony until 1890, frontier policing followed a quite different course. The imperial government stood in the way of those colonists who would have emulated Queensland’s Native Police Force. Large numbers of Aborigines were indeed arrested, taken before the magistrates and sentenced for specific terms of imprisonment. Though brutalised, many of them survived. Pictures of large numbers of men in chains are disturbing enough – but in Queensland their counterparts were shot down in the bush.

The criminal law mattered but so too did property law. This was apparent in the confrontation between Arthur Gordon and the Queensland Government in 1883 over the future of Papua. Gordon had informed Gladstone that in the Australian colonies ‘no right in the soil is recognised in the native’. Gordon was particularly concerned because he had been the governor of both New Zealand and Fiji, where Indigenous property rights were respected. That same policy was adopted when Britain itself annexed Papua in 1888.

It is now well known that when Britain serially annexed the Australian continent – in 1788, 1824 and 1829 – neither the sovereignty nor the property rights of the First Nations were recognised, and that decision flowed through into the law of Queensland when it was separated from NSW. But by 1859 many things had changed. As a result of frontier conflict in both NSW and Tasmania in the 1820s British policy itself was transformed. The widening of the franchise there in 1832 was a prelude to the abolition of slavery a year later.

Humanitarian reformers then turned their attention to the situation of the Empire’s Indigenous people. A parliamentary select committee chaired by Thomas Buxton, ‘the liberator’, made its report in 1837. In an emphatic statement Buxton declared:

It might be presumed that the native inhabitants of any land have an incontrovertible right to their own soil: a plain and sacred right, however, which seems not to have been understood. Europeans have entered their borders, uninvited, and when there have not only acted as if they were undoubted lords of the soil, but have punished the natives as aggressors if they have evinced a disposition to live in their own country.[ix]

There is no doubt this was written with the Australian colonies in mind. And it was written when the Colonial Office was considering whether to formally annex New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 was the most decisive illustration of the dramatic shift in colonial policy and the emphatic recognition of the native’s ‘ right in the soil’.

With the establishment of settlements in both South Australia and Port Phillip, attempts were made to set aside small reserves for the local Aborigines, but by then the most pressing problem was how to deal with the squatting rush: parties of frontiersmen brushed aside all attempts to confine them within lines on the map and within a few years had taken their sheep and cattle out into the vast interior.

Viewed from London, this was both unexpected and unprecedented. In an endeavour to exercise some control over the situation the Colonial Office created a distinctive form of lease that would be affordable and would prevent the squatters from eventually claiming ownership of their land as a consequence of long-undisputed occupation. Having done so the most pressing question was what to do with the Traditional Owners.

Secretary of State Earl Grey was adamant that the new pastoral leases gave no power to the squatters to expel the Aborigines from the land, and in 1848 new provisions were inserted in the leases in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia. In a dispatch to NSW Governor Charles FitzRoy in July 1848, Grey wrote that it was essential:

That it be generally understood that leases granted for this purpose give the grantees only an exclusive right of pasturage for their cattle…but that leases are not intended to deprive the natives of their former right to hunt over these districts, or to wander over them in search of subsistence, in the manner to which they had been heretofore accustomed, from the spontaneous produce of the soil…[x]

In February 1850 Grey doubled down on his defence of Aboriginal rights, declaring in a further dispatch that the ‘practice of driving the Natives from the cattle runs is illegal, and they have every right to the protection of the law from such aggressions’. He added that these rights were not to be taken lightly; indeed they were a matter ‘of very great importance’.[xi]

That was the law in May 1860 when the Queensland Parliament first met. It has been the law ever since – a reality confirmed by the High Court in the Wik case in 1996.

Why then was it possible to drive Aborigines away from their traditional lands with impunity? Why was breaking the law so easy and why was it sanctioned by so many administrations? It is not as if the clauses relating to Aboriginal rights were hidden away in obscure compilations of statute law. They were spelt out in every pastoral lease.

Griffith must surely have known about the law. But clearly neither he nor anyone else thought it should be enforced in Queensland.

What a difference it might have made if it had been. The Native Police could have been used to help negotiate the entry of settlers into traditional lands in the manner that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police facilitated the peaceful occupation of the prairies – an occupation unfolding at the same time as the violent conquest of Queensland’s vast savannah lands. Even recalcitrant frontiersmen could have been coerced by the realistic threat of having their leases revoked if they refused to share the land with the Traditional Owners.

Queensland’s nineteenth-century critics were not, in principle, opposed to colonisation. But they were convinced that it was unnecessarily brutal and that the government was directly responsible for exacerbating this situation. They were convinced that the Native Police Force provoked much of the bloodshed and prolonged the process of accommodation.

The great loss of life and the destruction of complex cultures was a tragedy perhaps deeper than any comparable development in Australian history.

In 1959 Queensland celebrated its centenary with an official publication entitled Triumph in the Tropics.[xii] From today’s point of view it would be more appropriate to remember and regret the tragedy in the tropics.



[i] Queensland Guardian, 6 November 1861.

[ii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 12 December 1861.

[iii] G.S.Lang, The  Aborigines of Australia, Melbourne, 1865.

[iv] G.W. Rusden, History of Australia, 3 Vols. London ,1883, vol.2,pp 252, 239.

[v] The Way We Civilize, G&j Black, Brisbane 1880, p.4.

[vi] Queensland Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 33, 1880,p.1134.

[vii] Gordon to Gladstone, 20 April 1883, cited by P. Knaplund,  ’Sir Arthur Gordon on the New Guinea question,1883’ , Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand, November 1956,vol vii, no.27, p.330.

[viii] Evans, R and Ørsted-Jensen, R, ‘I cannot say the numbers that were killed’, 2014,

[ix] Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements),  House of Commons sessional papers, 1837,7, no.425,p. 5.

[x] Colonial Office, CO 201/383, UK National Archives.

[xi] Grey to Fitzroy, 10 February 1850, Colonial Office,, CO 208/5, UK National Archives.

[xii] Cilento, R & Lack, C: Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch, Smith and Patterson, Brisbane 1959.

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