I’ve criticised the Queensland state government a number of times over issues such as their poor response on the Stolen Wages issue, their slowness reaching agreement on Native Title issues in the south-east part of the state and their failure to seriously address Indigenous housing problems. So I must acknowledge the positive action which occurred this week when the state government handed back 170 hectares of land under freehold title to its traditional owners, the Woppaburra people. The Keppel Islands – traditionally known as Ganumi Bara – are off the Queensland coast just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. This handback is of about ten per cent of the largest island, known as Great Keppel. It is a small but very important act of restitution and acknowledgement of dispossession, which also provides some significant opportunities for the future.
It also serves to draw attention to what was done to the Woppaburra people in dispossessing them of their land in the first place – a horrific story which I had not been aware of. Indeed even with this handback occurring, I quite possibly would have remained unaware of it had I not been informed of some of the details by a journalist working on the story.
In short, it is a story over 40 years of shootings, poisonings, beatings, physical and sexual slavery, eventually leading to the removal and exiling of the survivors. You can read a reasonably detailed outline of this history in this piece by Queensland archaeologist, Michael Rowland.
He outlines the plight of the Woppaburra people from the Keppel Islands from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Over that time ”some were shot, some poisoned, and others removed. Those left on the island (mainly women) were worked as slaves, poorly fed and clothed; on occasions punished and sexually assaulted.” Their population numbers were reduced by about 75–80 per cent. Eventually, the Islands were cleared completely of the surviving Indigenous inhabitants, who were shipped to a reserve on Fraser Island in 1902.
Following are some excerpts from a story in The Age from August last year which contained some stark paragraphs, such as the following:
while the beaches shimmer under the sunshine, closer inspection reveals traces of the island’s brutal history. Along Little Peninsula are two rust-eaten metal rings cemented into the cliff face. These are all that is left of the shackles used to torture the island’s original inhabitants, the Woppaburra people, from the 1860s, when colonial settlers effectively enslaved the Woppaburra, forcing them to work for minimal food. Those refusing to work were chained to the beachside caves at low tide and left overnight. Depending on the tide, some of them would spend a night naked and freezing in neck-deep water; others would drown.
One account reveals the conditions the Aborigines were forced to work under: “I saw a native man and woman harnessed to the plough and an ex-bullock driver wielding a stockwhip to induce them to greater effort.” Archaeological reports have acknowledged that the Woppaburra became “captive slaves” on Great Keppel. Many of the Woppaburra men were shipped to nearby Taranganba, on the mainland, to provide cheap labour for a proposed coffee and sugar plantation. They soon deserted their workplace and were rounded onto Voss’s Point and up to 60 of them were shot and killed by armed troopers.
It is important to know some details about this history, as it gives extra value to the present – in particular it shows the strength of the Woppaburra descendents who have survived and who will be using this small returned part of their land to help build a stronger future.