Palm Island — on the inside and out

Book Launch of Joanne Watson’s ‘Palm Island through a long lens’

Joanne Watson’s ‘Palm Island through a long lens’
“My people don’t need no introduction, we are the people you label with white dysfunction, our beauty, our pride you just don’t mention, I gotta ask, people, what’s your intention?” — Palm Island Rap artist, Lizzy G.

One hundred and sixty people turned up at Avid Reader  bookshop last week (25 Mar 2010) to hear songs, welcome to country and speeches to mark the national launch of Joanne Watson’s “Palm Island: through a long lens” [Aboriginal Studies Press]. All this while the killing of Mulrunji by Snr Sgt Hurley on 19 Nov 2004 is being revisited for the third time by the coroner.

4PR Recording of Book launch

4PR recording of Joe Gitano’s songs and speech about Palms

Gitano set the night off with “Island of Tears” “I am black” and sung us out later with a well-known Palm Island song written about the 1957 Palm Island strike by Joe Geiar: “Nobody knows Uncle Willie, but he knows about you, our lives are like his, we are the ones living out there under the sun, we’ve got to fight, fight for our rights, these are the fears of our lives, let me tell you ‘we are the people…” To listen to the sound recordings of these songs see the References and Resources section at the end of this article.

Bob Weatherall, aboriginal elder and long-time advocate for Foundation for Aboriginal Islander Research Action FAIRA, gave the welcome to country and paid respect to the Jagera, Yugambeh, Toorubul and Nunnuccal people who all live in the South East around Brisbane. Bob described his own experience of Palm Island, of how he went to make a film about Palm in the early 1980s. The film was never finished because ‘he did not know how to speak to the white filmmakers and they did not know how to speak to him’. From that day on was the beginning of his political consciousness. He had come from St George where they had fibro walls and only the earth to sleep on, that his dad was a ringbarker. He knew about river banks and tents but nothing of the ‘other world’. But early when he came to Palm he learnt about it, doing that film over a period of five days. Bob said that he cried when read Rachael Cummings’ Foreword. Everything came back.  He joked that he looked for a page that would be give you prosperity and good fortune, like reading the I Ching but that there was ‘none of that in there’. He said that what he had read he could not put down. He said that the stories in the book were true.  He closed by saying that when you walk on the land that is the property of the traditional owners — what is not yours — to look after it.

Rachael Cummings told us her story about how her grandparents were removed to Palm via Hull River mission. Somehow Rachael found the time between full-time work, 6 children, and 10 grandchildren to connect with Joanne Watson and share with her the journey of this book over a period of more than 25 years. Both Rachael’s parents were born on Palm. Rachael managed to get an education even though she came up through the dormitory system under strict control of managers, matrons, a curfew system, and hard manual labour.  She told the story how she was nearly caught out after curfew by police on the intersection of Mango Avenue (then a whites only street on Palm).  She and the others had to make a dash back home along the shoreline, ‘fortunately the tide was out’, and Rachael said for if they got caught it would mean jail for her Dad and the dormitory for Rachael. Rachael remembered the scrubbing of the concrete floors with brush and kero down on hands and knees. So much scrubbing by aboriginal women meant the floors became polished cement over the years. Rachael pestered the Dutch South African manager, Daniel Le Roy (Sp?) until he sent her to boarding school at Charters Towers (a town well four or five hours drive inland from Townsville).  Rachael was too embarrassed to tell her migloo (white) friends about what was happening on Palm.

Prior to going to boarding school Rachael thought it normal to sleep in a bed in a dormitory. This was in the 1970s and her friends from the mainland would say: “Rachael, come to Magnetic Island (a holiday place near Townsville).” Rachael would make excuses for why she could not go; she covered up the fact that the Murri kids had police escorts on transport trucks to make sure they did not run away.” One time she was going to the Aitkenvale reserve (in Townsville) in a big army truck with canvas over the top and there was a policeman sitting at the very end of the truck ‘so that we could not jump out’. As they pulled up at Hayles (the wharf where the Palm boats departed) ‘my migloo friends had their jaws on their chests to see the police escort’. Embarrassed, Rachael covered this up by telling her friends that the policeman was just ‘coming along for the ride.”

A couple of years later Rachael made her way to Brisbane and met Judy and Huey Hamilton, both members of the Communist Party, along with Jeannie O’Connor and their families and found out that they (Murris) had ‘other choices’ and did not have to toe the line on everything and would not have to go to jail, did not have to live in exile (on Palm). Later still in the 1980s Rachael met aboriginal leaders from North Queensland people like Tony Geia, Erika Kyle, and Mick Miller. Even then Rachael described how she would wait at the airport in Townsville to get permission from the white manager to return to her home on Palm, even though she had two babies by then. Times were changing in her physical environment, ‘things were moving forward, though not in our heads’ Rachael said.

Joanne Watson described her own background where she lived in the ‘extended non-blood family’ of the Communist Party and how she and her sister, after they lost their mother at a young age, Judy and Huey Hamilton ‘became instrumental in the survival of her family’.  Joanne described how she met and became friends of the children of trade union and communist activists, people like Jeannie O’Connor, Auntie Anne O’Rourke, Uncle Bob Anderson, George and Imelda Britton, Charlie and Lydia Gifford. These people ‘fed into this book through the values that they taught us and through their love of labour and social history.’ She said that she grew up with ‘a wonderful sense of connection and community’. Joanne said that she met Rachael Cummings through Huey and Judy’s daughter, Jan, and Jeannie O’Connor’s daughter, Kerry — they all went to Cav Road High School — whereas Joanne and her sister went to Yeronga. She said that children who know that they are different tend to gravitate together and they have maintained that connection throughout their lives.

It comes as no surprise that Joanne’s heroes as a young woman were Angela Davis, Huey P Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — Joanne described how she knew about the Deep South in America but knew nothing of the slavery in the deep north of Queensland. She had not heard the black stories of rape, murder and poisoning; she knew about black civil rights movement in America but knew nothing about Aboriginal resistance here in Queensland. Joanne said she had ‘no idea of who Jandamarra was,  Pelmulwuy,  let alone Willie Thaiday, Bill Congu, Ivy Sam…’ Joanne said that later when doing her research she noticed that the Communist Party newspaper, the Tribune, did cover the 1957 strike on Palm and the links made by Murri activists with trade union leaders during that time.

Joanne went on to study Social History at University of Queensland and had two teachers, Raymond Evans and Kay Saunders who were ‘doing ground breaking work’ in the field of race relations in Queensland. In Brisbane Joanne met Murri leaders like Lila Watson and Pastor Don Brady (born on Palm Island and of Kuku-Yalanji descent). ‘The scales fell off my eyes’ Joanne said. Don Brady explained to Joanne how Palm Island was ‘set up as a prison’. She learnt about the 1974 dispute on the island when Bjelke -Petersen, pursuing unbridled tourist development, wanted ‘a replica of Ayers Rock’ on Palm Island.

Joanne later won an award to do a PhD and she asked Rachael Cummings for advice whether it was possible to do it about Palm Island. Rachael told her that the elders wanted their stories told for a long long time but that Joanne would have to discuss it with council (Palm Island Council). From her research Joanne learnt about the white colonial invasion, the massacres signified by map names like ‘Battle Mountain’, ‘Slaughter Creek’, ‘Carbine’ and ‘Blackfellas Leap’ where you would have to ask what they were jumping from. She heard about the squatters pleas for native police to hunt down aboriginal people ‘resisting the invasion’. She learnt of the Stolen Generation. Joanne saw statistics showing the death rate on Palm outstripping the birth rate. She heard the story from Iris Clay about how she and her father were taken by the white authorities out to a lugger and as they were being rowed out in a boat her siblings followed until the water was ‘up to their necks’. She learnt about Snr Sgt Hurley’s predecessors, policeman Roy Bartlam, and Superintendent Currie and how they ran amok on the island causing death and misery for all.

History, a scholarly practice
Towards the end of her speech Joanne spoke of the historical basis of her work. She quoted oral historian Deborah Bird Rose:

‘It is said that to the victor belong the spoils, and one of the spoils of war is narrative, and if the victors chose to eradicate stories other than their own then. However history is a scholarly practice that can oppose this power to erase memory.  The settler descendent, anthropologist r historian enters a field loaded with power relations and histories of violence. Our desire for knowledge raises the question of why aboriginal people would want to share their knowledge with us, and of course it needs to be said that not everybody does and further that nobody has to. We are privileged to receive what we receive there is no natural right to be told history. I have spent a lot of time sitting on the ground with aboriginal people often with a cassette recorder on the calico between us listening to stories of extreme violence and cruelty. Often I wondered why are we doing this. Why were they speaking and why was I listening.”

Joanne then said in her speech how Deborah Bird Rose how she grappled with that and then quoted her conclusion:

“If we know anything about orally we know it because someone chose to tell us, when we ask why they might tell us we one answer of this account is that they believe we are people capable of understanding and responding.”

Joanne then said “We two, Rachael and I, have every faith that you too, our readers, are capable of the same.”

Joanne Watson came from the broader Democratic Rights movement in Queensland during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She cut her teeth in the various struggles against the Bjelke-Petersen government such as the Women’s Rights campaign or 1979/1980. Back then Joanne joined the International Socialists and was always a strong and well prepared speaker for Democratic Rights. She marched under threat of arrest with hundreds to parliament to defend women’s rights. In the 30 years since has taken up the struggle for Aboriginal Rights through her work and research. She wrote an article in Radical Brisbane – an unruly history (Carole Ferrier & Raymond Evans eds.) about the 1982 Commonwealths Games Protests organised by Brisbane Blacks. As a participant in one of the marches she described (from Mt Gravatt shopping centre towards QE II stadium where the games were held) I know how accurate her description of that march was.

I do not know how much the death of Mulrunji on Palm Island in 2004 has influenced this publication but in her opening Joanne gives a harrowing account of how the life of such a carefree and proud Bwglcolman was extinguished by Hurley’s hand. Times have not changed; it is my feeling that this is not an account of ‘them bad old days’ or the difference between Queensland and the rest of Australia. Queensland has the largest aboriginal population of any of the states, far more than the Northern Territory for example, so it is not that the system is any different in itself, the racism of the Melbourne is no less than the racism of North Queensland, the racism in North Queensland is clearer because that is where aboriginal people are, out and about, some resisting still the occupation of a white settler society.

Three books have come out about Palm since Mulrunji died. Each book comes from different ‘disciplines’ — journalism, literary, history — and their perspectives are understandably sometimes at odds.

Jeff Waters said in Gone for a Song that he was a product of the Bjelke-Petersen era. He knew about the street marches, that Queensland Murris lived under the Acts and the racism demonstrated during the South African Springbok tour when protesters were beaten and crushed by police. Jeff left when he could to take up postings with the ABC as a journalist around the world. On his return he heard about Mulrunji and thought that some things had not changed, that the Bjelke-Petersen era persisted for some at least.

Chloe Hooper began her book The Tall Man saying that she had no experience of the deep north when she was invited by Andrew Boe, a lawyer for the Doomadgee family, to write about Palm. So when Chloe got off the plane to Palm she felt ‘incandescently white’. However Chloe was taken under the wing of the Doomadgee sisters and went to the Gulf Country to learn about the stories handed down from Lizzy Daylight who lived through the ‘wild time’ in the 1860s and 1870s when the massacres, rapes and poisonings occurred at the hands of white settlers. Joanne Watson criticises Chloe for being uncritical of and making out that Hurley’s problem was that he was a white man bought into Aboriginal dysfunctionality. I do not agree with Joanne on this. Hooper was critical of Hurley and clearly believed that the police union had used their power to help him get an acquittal before a racist jury in Townsville.

Hooper got sufficient insight from the Doomadgee sisters to describe ”the wild time” that occurred during colonisation – Chloe ‘obtained’ this insight because she followed through and went to the gulf, talked to Hurley’s ex-girlfriend, and spoke to the murris from Georgetown and Doomadgee — but, most of all, got talking to the women from Palm to hear the oral history first hand and to know what Lizzy Daylight had said about the rapes and the shootings during ”the wild time” of the 1860s and 1870s. How the pastoralists hounded the murris with rifle, dogs and horse and drove them from their land or subdued them into domestic slavery.

Joanne Watson, like Jeff Waters, is a product of the Bjelke-Petersen era.  Joanne chose to stay and fight in the democratic rights struggles of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was these struggles that, in the end brought down Bjelke-Petersen and the era that he represented. But equally, in part at least, it was out of these struggles that emerged Goss, Beattie and Bligh all steeped in the capitalist dream or nightmare depending on which side of the class divide you fall.

The organisers of the book launch did not invite the usual questions of the author from the audience however one that is still heard on the streets from the mouths of Murri protesters could well have been asked on the night:

“Is it lawful for a Queensland police officer to kill a blackfella?”
It seems the jury is out of sight, out of mind on that question. Don’t forget it is a racist jury as well. We may know more when Coroner Brian Hine hands down his decision on 14 May 2010 in Townsville. Considering that there have been 6 deaths in custody Australia wide since 14 Feb 2010 (today is 10 April 2010) it is unlikely this coroner will have any more to offer than the past two coroners did on Mulrunji’s death. First it was an accident, then the coroner dismissed himself because he had a beer with the Palm Council’s hired lawyer and then Christine Clements (O righteous judge!) said that Hurley killed Cameron Doomadgee and then the District court found that Clements had made conclusions that could not be drawn from the evidence and then the court of appeal and now this. Six years. No Justice.

Joanne’s perspective is consistent with her efforts down the years and the strengths and weakness of the struggles that she came out of — they all ended in defeat but somehow bought down Bjelke-Petersen — I recommend that readers who wish to understand the dysfunction in Queensland society that produced the reserves, penal settlements and missions under the Queensland Acts to take up this book and read it.

Ian Curr
April 2010

One thought on “Palm Island — on the inside and out

  1. Ian,

    I have a query your readers might be able to help with.

    In the 1960s or early 70s, Aboriginal leader Pastor Don Brady led a successful campaign to de-segregate the movie theatre in the Queensland township of Eidsvold.

    Everyone knows about the famous NSW Freedom Rides, but this is a Queensland example of a similar campaign that does not appear to have been documented.

    I am trying to find out when it happened.

    Can anyone help?

Please comment down below