"The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it.
And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing,
becomes as political an act as speaking out.
There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."
In Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man the Doomadgee family describes the period of the 1860s and 70s in North Queensland as the Wild Time. I describe here Curr family involvement in ‘Contact Wars‘ in the Gulf Country. Members of the Curr family moved to North Queensland in 1862. My grandfather, Fred Curr (b. 1865), grew up on Abingdon Downs station on a tributory of the Einasleigh River near the gulf of Carpentaria. The property is bounded by the Einasleigh and Etheridge Rivers. This property is aboriginal land. According to the Native Title Register, the traditional owners of this land are the Ewamian People. The Curr’s named their run “Abingdon Downs” after the famous Benedictine Abbey founded in 675.
‘Dispersal’ of aboriginal people.
Throughout his memoir, The Curr Family in Far North Queensland (1862-1913) my grandfather describes ‘skirmishes’ with aboriginal people by various members of the Curr family in the Gulf country. Readers may bear in mind when reading about these violent encounters that the Curr brothers, their uncles and father were practiced horsemen, keen bushmen and were heavily armed. The aboriginal people that they fought were (at best) armed with spears, nullas nullas, woomera and boomerangs. However the first nations people understood warfare, especially when their adversaries had access to armouries, advanced technology, horse, livestock and ships capable of long sea journey’s.
The original people of far north Queensland that the early pioneers faced had defeated their northern cousins from Papua & New Guinea. The spear and woomera had defeated the bow and arrow. When white people arrived on their land, blackfellas conducted economic warfare wearing down their opponent by killing their domesticated animals, their cattle and their horses. The Curr’s were proud of their large stocks of horse and cattle. They were dismayed when these animals were taken, speared and poisoned.
Horses at Abingdon Station circa 1900
Merri Merriwah Station
The first property that the Curr brothers. Marmaduke and Montague, bought was Merri Merriwah on the Burdekin River near Ravenswood in 1862.
According to my Aunt Alice, her father, Marmaduke, paid £6,000 for the property. This money came from the dowry of his bride, Mary Anne Kirwan, whom he married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on the 21st of January, 1862.
Later in 1862, Marmaduke went up to Bowen in North Queensland and then on to the Burdekin River where he ‘took up country‘ and stocked it with 400 head of mixed cattle. His brother, Montague Curr, was in partnership with him at the time, and their brand was CB2.
Robert Grey gave this account of an aboriginal attack on the Curr’s property Merri Merriwah circa 1864.
“The Curr’s, who had a station thirty miles farther up the river, experienced a very formidable attack, which might have easily been disastrous. Montague Curr lived with his brother, Marmaduke, and his wife. The latter, who used to milk the cows, told me his brother was out one morning after some horses, but for some unaccountable reason on this particular occasion he himself was late in turning out, a most exceptional occurrence. The blacks were almost at the door when the servant girl rushed in from the detached kitchen exclaiming, ‘Blacks, Blacks.’
He had barely time to seize a firearm before the leading darkies were at the door, and spears came rattling in. He and Mrs. Curr opened upon them with effect. Mrs. Curr, however, was grazed on the wrist by a passing spear. The brother returning about this time and coming to their assistance with his firearms, the blacks retreated to the river. They were followed up and did not renew the experiment of attacking Curr’s station, one of the neatest and tidiest little places to be seen anywhere, not a thing out of place, and no bones or unsightly debris lying about, as there often are on a cattle station, and on a sheep station also sometimes.” – from Reminiscences of India and North Queensland by Robert Grey London 1913.
This incident was also described in Fred Curr’s book The Curr Family in Far North Queensland. According to Aunt Alice, Fred’s account was ‘highly romanticised and full of inaccuracies’. Fred could not have had any direct knowledge of these events because he was not yet born when they took place.
“Our first adventure was early one morning in 1865. My father had taken his black boy Paddy and his big Tranter loading revolver and started out to look for the horses. Having no paddock at this time, the horses had strayed away some three miles up the Burdekin River.
My father had been gone some little time, and my uncle Montague was just going to the yard to milk the cow. When he went outside the house he spotted about thirty wild blacks, all painted and armed with spears, nulla nullas, and boomerangs. My uncle ran into the house and snatched up a long heavy 40 bore Rigby muzzle-loading rifle, and helped my mother barricade the bedroom.
My uncle opened the door a few times to show them the muzzle of the rifle, but the blacks took no notice. They then ransacked the other rooms and also robbed the kitchen and store which were separate from the main house. Finding they could not get in through the barricade into where my mother and uncle were, they decided to burn us out. The house was covered with a thatch roof, so they put fire sticks into it. As there was a heavy dew that morning the thatch did not burn too well.
While they were trying to get it to burn, the horses that my father had gone after came galloping home as horses will do on a cold morning. The blacks, thinking it was Inspector Fitzgerald and his black troopers, lost no time in disappearing into the scrub and the river. A little while afterwards my father and Paddy arrived. The blacks had taken all the powder with them, in fact everything they could lay their hands on.
It appears that some days before this event my father had given Paddy a half-pound red canister of powder. The boy had stuck this tin of powder into the thatch of the house, and the blacks had not seen it, so it was all we had. However there was enough to load two old Brown Bess Carbines, the long Rigby rifle, and the double-barrel shot gun.
My father’s Tranter revolver was already loaded, so he took Paddy, and leaving uncle Montague to look after my mother, he tracked the blacks to where they were camped, galloping into the camp and firing a few shots. The charge was so sudden, and with the noise of the firearms, the blacks left in a great hurry leaving heaps of spears, boomerangs, nulla nullas and fishing nets.
My father took a lot of these weapons home, and I remember seeing them hung about the house for many years afterwards. My father told me that it took fourteen horse loads to bring all the stolen goods back to the station. He also told me that he followed the blacks by leaves from two books, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Dombey and Son”.
After this episode, the Curr family were extremely careful about keeping their firearms in good order and handy to reach, with plenty of ammunition ready in pouches. My uncle Montague was wounded just above the eye by one of the spears.” – Curr Family in Far North Queensland 1862 – 1925 by Frederick Carlton Curr.
The most serious encounter for my family during the ‘contact wars’ was where my grandfather’s uncle, Montague Curr (b. 1837), participated in the massacre of five aboriginal people. I am indebted to my brother, John Curr, who researched the murders described below. I also have consulted Queensland transcontinental railway: field notes and reports by railway engineer and surveyor, Robert Watson, written in 1881; and, based on his testimony, I have come to similar conclusions as by brother.
These shocking events occurred on Montague Curr’s property “Kamileroi” (variously spelt) in the Gulf. The Gamilaraay people, also rendered Kamilaroi, originally came from NSW. They form one of the four largest indigenous nations in Australia. As a result of a split in the tribe, some migrated to North Queensland and this may be the reason Montague Curr’s property was called “Kamileroi”.
Robert Watson, a surveyor for a northern railway describes the murders in his field notes:
Tuesday, April 19, 1881
“We came through some splendid country all the way to Kerr’s Station, Camilroy (sic), about twenty miles to-clay, fine undulating plains, lightly-timbered, and most luxuriously grassed.
“Very few creeks or water courses; those that there are well defined; only one creek of considerable size, about five miles from camp. This we crossed at its Junction with the Liechhardt (sic); in fact, we crossed it in the river, or rather rounded its mouth. We saw a lot of cattle, all well to do, sleek and happy. We passed a lot of pretty lagoons, but they will soon be dry. The river, wherever we saw it, was very beautiful, and the country very fine. When we stopped for dinner as I was under the impression that we were close to the station (Camilroy).
“I afterwards found we had fully five miles to travel. We found Mr. Curr at home, and I stopped with him during the remainder of the afternoon.”
“Referring to the unfortunate stockman (Turner) recently murdered by the blacks, Mr. Curr told me that the stockman and a black boy were hunting for stray cattle. They came upon a black’s trail which they followed to their camp.
Then, they drove away the black men and took possession of the gins with whom they remained in camp. Presently the stockman fell asleep. One of the gins stole his revolver and gave the signal to the blacks who came around, put a spear through both his thighs pinning him to the earth and then beating out his brains with nullas.
Then they cleared out.
This is the boy’s version but he did not report the murder for four days. It seems the stockman had been thrashing him for some days and it is thought he may have had his “revenge”.
Mr Curr told me that he and others had pursued the blacks and shot five and that the police were coming to give them a further dressing as that was the only thing they understand.
It seems hard to steal a man’s gin and child and shoot him when he objects but I believe there is no help for it but a speedy ostensible annihilation.
The conduct of many of the whites towards the blacks is simply disgraceful.
The name of Brodie’s Station is Lorraine. It is about sixty miles above Floraville, and on the Leichardt River. They were exceedingly hospitable, and we had all our meals with them. This is Camp 49.”
Finally, Fred Curr had this to say about his uncle Montague:
“The blacks appeared to be afraid of my uncle. He was six feet one inch tall, and very strongly built. He had a long beard down to his belt, of which he was very proud, and the day before the blacks attacked the station he had shaved his head clean, so he must have appeared very uncanny. Undoubtedly this all helped to scare the blacks away until the horses came galloping home and saved our lives.” – Curr Family in Far North Queensland 1862 – 1925 by Frederick Carlton Curr.
Guilty as charged
These direct testimonies are shocking, but also they are typical of how settlers dealt with aboriginal people both in the Gulf and elsewhere in Australia. Despite denials by right-wing warriors during the History Wars the facts can’t be in dispute. Previous generations of the Curr family were coy about their direct involvement in ‘aboriginal dispersal’ which is code for murder. An important aspect of truth & reconciliation is truth telling within our own families.
Historians Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen conclude, by cautious assessment, that roughly 66,680 people were killed and a similar number wounded on the Queensland colonial frontier from the 1820’s to Federation. [Pale Death … around our footprints springs: Assessing the Violent Mortality on the Queensland Frontier from State and Private Exterminatory Practices by Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen]. The five murders committed by Montague Curr should be added to that grizzly list.
Discovery of Gold
The Curr family owned ‘Abingdon’ from the 1860s till 1913. If I recall correctly ‘Abingdon’ was sold for what they paid for it. My grandfather claimed that the period just before WWI was the nadir of the pioneering family pastoralists. Fred may have put the extensive Vestey family interests during this period on another level. The early pastoralists benefited from cheap aboriginal labour and later, stolen wages.
My grandfather Fred thought of himself as a pioneer. He claimed this was no longer possible in Australia after 1913. He later took himself and my father and uncles off to British East Africa. I still regard him as being a wealthy man. A little of that wealth came to my mother after my father, Joe Curr, died at the age of 50. We were all still quite young. Mum in her early forties struggled for some years to pay off Dad’s debts and the mortgage on our house. At least we had a roof over our heads and Mum had a job (several actually).
All that glitters …
I first read about Montague and Marmaduke’s role in the cover-up of gold discovery in the Charters Towers Museum in 1980.
However there are conflicting accounts. D.C. Roderick states in his memoir:
“… Montague Curr is accredited with the first find of gold in the Ravenswood area; while mustering in the Elphinstone Creek area he found a ‘show’ of gold in his pannikin when drinking at the Creek…”
The Curr brothers (were) interested in land and cattle and subsequently made their way to Townsville to purchase large areas of land adjacent to the new town subsequently to become Aitkenvale.
Mr Roderick does describe how Marmaduke Curr took prospectors to one of the sites. This conflicts with family oral history passed down which claims that he and his brothers covered up this discovery because they wished to pursue their pastoral interests unhindered by a gold rush similar to that in Victoria.
My great Aunt Alice gives her own (less romantic) version of some aspects of Fred’s account. Historians may note these Curr men were bushmen (see photo) – they were largely self-taught – so their stories are anecdotal and sometimes difficult to reconcile. Aunt Alice took care in a letter to point this out about Fred’s memoir. My cousin Eleanor included Aunt Alice’s remarks in Fred’s book.
As the reader may note from the photo the ‘Curr women’ were used to greater refinement. They were keen to leave the bush and seek refuge in the coastal towns. Fred’s mother was killed, thrown from a buggy in the bush when he was young. By the way I knew Aunt Alice when she was a great age. She was an amazing woman (loupe in photo) who gave us a living human connection to another time and place, so long ago.
Neither of my great uncles benefited directly from the discovery of gold at Ravenswood, to my knowledge … they went into cattle, horses and land. My great Aunt Alice says that Marmaduke had nothing when he married Mary Anne Kirwin in 1862, and it was her patrimony that enabled Marmaduke and Montague to establish “Merri Merriwah.”
Fred Curr wrote that the Curr boys (were) without property as another impractical son, Richard, had convinced their mother Elizabeth to sell their stations. This caused their financial ruin. Fred wrote: “At this time, gold was discovered in Victoria, and we know that Marmaduke, after completing his time with the Cunninghams, went to the diggings at Ballarat. Perhaps this financed his trip to South Africa where he planned to buy a farm.“
Bushman’s ‘code of honour‘
My brother, John Carlton Alexander Curr, undertook an investigation into the murders of the five aboriginal people. His findings rely on an account by a surveyor by the name of Robert Watson. There was reference to Robert Watson’s story in Don Watson’s book “The Bush”.
My brother, John Curr wrote of Don Watson’s account: “The latter (“The Bush”) is largely a history of the influence of people, mainly Europeans on the Australian environment. In parts it drifts towards impression and poetic description. In other words, it does not present as a formal history with a strict historical method.”
My brother wanted to do his own detective work and to verify from original sources the allegation about our family member and he also wanted to ascertain whether it was Fred’s father Marmaduke or Fred’s uncle Montague against whom the allegation was made. My brother ordered up from archives the original 1881 diary of Robert Watson (no relation of Don Watson so far as we can tell).
Robert was a “surveyor” sent to explore what the local resources and geography were for the purposes of an inland railway line or transcontinental railway line. What my brother found was that it was certain that it was Montague who was the person implicated in the murders of five aboriginal persons who happened to be in the vicinity of an incident of Kamileroi station which was north of present day Mt Isa, on the Leichhardt River. There is a reference to the survey party riding 5 miles from Mr Curr’s home to the junction of the Leichhardt River and Gunpowder Creek which is at 19°14’00.0″S 139°58’44.3″E or -19.233334, 139.978975 on Google maps.
My brother relied upon Fred’s publication in the Townsville Daily Bulletin in 1931 which places the brothers in different parts of North Queensland. Fred’s father Marmaduke was at ‘Abingdon Downs‘* in the vicinity of Georgetown whereas Montague was much further to the West.
The only remaining small reservation he had about the identity of the murderer was that Robert Watson’s diary gives the account of the murders of aboriginal people slightly out of chronological order.
In the diary entry made on the day after he left ‘Mr Curr’ and in the entry when he was at a station owned by a Mr Brodie. My brother had hoped that the entry may have been a mistake and that references to Mr Curr were intended to be references to Mr Brodie. However this is unlikely because there are two separate references to Mr Curr.
The lack of contemporaneity is explained by the fact that Robert Watson may not have wanted to make the entry implicating Mr Curr in murder whilst he was in his company and on his property. It was common at that time to conceal or to be less than specific about the murder of aborigines as people knew that it was murder, hence the common reference to ”dispersal“ of aborigines which we all know meant murder. For nearly a century these despicable acts fell under the Bushman’s code of honour.
No doubt my grandfather, Fred Curr, adhered to this code so it is ironic that it was his memoir that helped bring the murders to light. Fred Curr was a member of the learned Royal Geographical Society, devoted to colonial exploration lands claimed by the British monarch.
I can only wonder what the Royal Society would say to the discovery of murders covered up under a ‘code of honour’ over land never ceded. For my part I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country and the war of genocide waged against them.
Edward Curr (1798 – 1850)
In 1824 Edward Curr senior published a book titled An Account of the colony of Van Diemen’s Land for the use of Emigrants advising British immigrants on their prospects of making a new life in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land. At the outset the Jesuit educated businessman quoted Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin:
“… quas vento accesserit oras;
Qui teneant, nam inculta videt, hominesne, feraene,
Quaerere constituit, sociisque exacta referre” – Virgil
“to seek out what regions he has reached by the wind,
to seek out who occupies the land (for he sees it is uncultivated), whether humans or wild beasts,
and to report his discoveries to his companions.”
As early as 1824, Edward Curr had identified the owners of the land but could not see that he had stumbled upon an ancient civilisation with its own dreaming, a people that managed the land and cultivated its plants for food and medicine.
In his younger years, Curr was infused with idealism and pioneering spirit. Was he to shape a new Rome in New Holland? At his death he was referred to as the ‘father of separation‘. The colony of Port Phillip was separated from the colony of Botany Bay. By the 1850s Australia’s federated structure had begun taking shape.
Ignoring the reality of whole nations that preceded them, of which the Yorta Yorta was one example, fledgling colonies set up in Van Diemen’s land, Port Phillip, Botany Bay, Moreton Bay were to become the states of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
‘Edward M Curr and the tide of history’
Curr’s oldest son Edward Micklethwaite Curr wrote a number of books including Squatting in Victoria and The Australian Race (in 4 volumes). These became the cornerstone of the High Court’s justification of dispossession of the Yorta Yorta people from their country near the junction of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in Northern Victoria and southern New South Wales.
He describes the tribe which he calls the Bangerang as savages and in one instance complains about murders committed by an aboriginal man he refers to as Jack Jumbuk-man. Yet he makes no mention of how his brother, Montague, murdered five aborginal people at Kamileroi station in the Gulf nor of how he father turned a blind eye to the massacre of 30 aboriginal people at Cape Grim by four Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDLC) workers in his employ.
Samuel Furphy in his book, Edward M Curr and the tide of history, describes Edward Curr’s role in the dispossession of tribes where he set up his runs. There were explicit statements of contact wars in Van Diemen’s land by Edward Curr and his son, Edward. There was talk of the need for armed struggle to dispossess aboriginal people of their land. The pioneering Curr’s were fearful that aboriginal nations would combine to drive settlers out of the country. Nowhere in the many volumes of the Curr’s books, dairies, or correspondence with the Van Diemen’s Land company and with the governors of the colonies was there a single reference to terra nullius. This was because they were squatting right beside the original inhabitants often using them for cheap labour and to rely on them for better knowledge of country. That myth of legal rights to land, rivers, seas, mines and pasture was propaganda invented in 20th century. Sadly, by federation in 1901, both courts and governors in Australia had built their own narrative separate from the reality of an ancient dreamtime.
Curr’s ‘cartwheels turned up tubers’
Just as the myth of terra nullius was long exposed by the various Curr’s writings and photographs, so too was the common belief that aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers. The journals of early settlers like Edward Curr, James Kirby, George Augustus Robinson, Mitchell and Sturt disclosed that there were yam, tuber and grain farmers among aboriginal nations.
Edward Micklethwaite Curr testifies to this in his book Recollections of Squatting in Victoria. The young man on his venture up the Goulburn River describes aboriginal agriculture and how his ‘cartwheels turned up tubers’. Curr recognised that it was his sheep that destroyed native yam crops cultivated by tribes living along the Murray River. Sadly the High Court gave no weight to this part of the historical record in its decision over the Yorta Yorta claim for land rights. No one who reads the historical novel, Secret River, written by Kate Grenville in 2005 or watches the series of the same name on ABC TV could fail to recognise that settlers on the Hawkesbury River stole yam farms from first nations people.
In the words of William Augustus Robinson in his report to the colonial office in London, Aboriginal people had ‘nowhere left to stand‘ thus provoking this ‘whispering in our hearts’. Bruce Pascoe says, as an aboriginal man, he came across by accident these discoveries in early settlers journals. ‘Other people read them before me, but looking at it from an aboriginal perspective, professors did not see any significance to aboriginal civilisation’ says Pascoe. Young people between 5 and 25 are interested in it, says Bruce Pascoe.
I commend Furphy’s book ‘Edward M Curr and the tide of history’ to readers interested in how Australia was setup as a settler state. Two hundred and fifty years after the landing of James Cook at Botany Bay, Australian people still carry the burden of that historic fiction. I include an excerpt of the book below.
“When the High Court of Australia rejected the final appeal in the Yorta Yorta native title case in December 2002, a headline in The Age announced: ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman’. [Fergus Shiel, ‘Claim sunk by pen of a swordsman’, The Age, 13 December 2002.]
“The man in question was Edward M. Curr (1820-1889), who was certainly fond of fencing in his youth, but is better known as the author of Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883), an engaging account of his early life as a pastoralist on the Goulburn and Murray rivers. In 1841 Curr was among the first squatters to occupy land belonging to ancestors of the Yorta Yorta people, described by Curr as ‘the Bangerang Tribe’.
“His nostalgic memoir is one of very few written accounts of Indigenous life in the early years of the pastoral invasion of northern Victoria. The apparent failure of Yorta Yorta people to maintain traditions identifiable with those that Curr had described was a key reason for the defeat of their native title claim.
“Born in Hobart in 1820, Curr was the first son of English-Catholic immigrant parents. His father was an influential businessman and politician, who played a prominent role in the early colonial affairs of Van Diemen’s Land and the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (later Victoria). Curr himself was educated in England and France before managing his family’s squatting runs for a decade.
“His pastoral endeavours were highly successful and the dispossession of the Indigenous owners was swift. He later experienced financial failure but recovered to forge a successful career as a government official in Victoria, rising to the senior position of Chief Inspector of Stock. From 1875 he was an influential member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines during a highly controversial period; he doggedly pursued the closure of the Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve near Healesville, publicly displaying a profound paternalism and disregard for the wishes of the Indigenous people concerned. ‘Edward M Curr and the tide of history’ by Samuel Furphy
Montague Curr was guilty of murder most foul by killing five (5) aboriginal people at Kamileroi Station in 1881, but his father and brother performed more insidious crimes against humanity through their deeds, connivance and writings.
Always was, always will be.
27 Dec 2020
Thanks must go to my brother, John Curr, who did such good detective work to find out that one of our relatives, Montague Curr, in the company of others, was responsible for the murders at Kamilleroi Station. We both recommend that these murders should be included in the Colonial Frontiers Massacre map 1788-1930.
My mother was a great story teller and mauch of the knowledge I have about Fred Curr comes from mum. I thank my mother, Bettina, and my siblings, Pam, John and Georgina for the many hours spent discussing this history of dispossession by our forebears.
Finally, thanks to my cousin, Eleanor Freeman, whose endeavours delivered the original text of the memoir by Fred Curr that gives first hand accounts of the frontier war that was waged in North Queensland in the latter part of the 19th century.
Any errors in this digital version of that history are, of course, my own.
Queensland transcontinental railway: field notes and reports, with map showing positions of various camps – Watson, Robert, active 1882-1883 nla.obj-116096067
Reminiscences of India and North Queensland, 1857-1912 by Robert Grey
Recollections of Squatting in Victoria by Edward M Curr
The Australian Race by Edward M Curr
The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper
Tree by Don Watson
Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History by Samuel Furphy