Songs of life

Survival against the odds: the story of the Keppel Islanders

Woppaburra People, Keppel Island c1898PHIL FITZPATRICK

IN August last year, I wrote an article suggesting that the attempt by the Queensland government to annex British New Guinea in 1883 could have been disastrous given Queensland’s incredibly brutal and bloodthirsty history of dispossessing its indigenous inhabitants.

Just recently I’ve been working with the Butchulla people, the traditional owners of Fraser Island, just a hop, skip and jump from my front door in Hervey Bay.  They have only just gained native title to the island.

Native title isn’t as good as it sounds.  It doesn’t give them exclusive rights to the land or anything else on the island.  At best it gives them some rights about how the island is managed in the future.

One of the things we’ve managed to do, using modern, non-invasive ground penetrating radar technology, is locate several old cemeteries at the site of the island’s infamous Bogimbah Mission.

The mission was set up in 1897 when most of the surviving Butchulla people were rounded up in Maryborough and shipped out to the island during a sort of ethnic-cleansing tidy-town program.

The mission only lasted seven years but over that period almost 100 Butchulla and other tribespeople died there of disease, neglect and malnutrition.  The survivors were shipped to Yarabah, near Cairns, in 1904 and the loggers moved in and proceeded to obliterate the mission and its cemeteries.

Part of the preliminary research that our little band of volunteers conducted resulted in the discovery that at some stage 17 Keppel Islanders from up north had been brought down to the mission too.

The Keppel Islands lie about 15 kilometres off the Queensland coast opposite Yeppoon, just north of Rockhampton. There are two main islands, North and South Keppel.  They are most-well known today for the resort that operates there. Back in the 1860s they were seen as fine places to run cattle and sheep.

In 1865 a group of Europeans and Native Police visited the north island.  They were heavily armed and “peering among the rocks a little cave was discovered in which huddled a number of naked black gins. 

“Away out on the rocks were seen some black-fellows, who had evidently gone out on the rocks to avoid the approaching whites. 

“When the gins saw they were discovered they raised the alarm and bolted out of the cave, running towards the sea.”

The Native Police, who “usually fired at the wild blacks on sight”,did exactly that.  The matter was covered up but in 1903 a line of human bones stretching more than 100 metres was discovered at the site.

The surviving Woppaburra people were either moved to the mainland to make way for the sheep and cattle or used as unpaid labourers on the islands. 

In 1886 on South Keppel Island a shepherd was in charge of one Woppaburra man and nine or ten women who assisted in shepherding and shearing. Some visitors had a meal with the shepherd and “after satisfying our wants in this respect, the egg-shells and scraps of bread were thrown to the blacks, who eagerly crunched up and swallowed egg shells and crusts of bread like so many animals.”

A few years later some other visitors saw “native men and women harnessed to the plough and an ex bullock driver wielding a stock whip to induce them to greater effort.”

When the Woppaburra refused to work they were “chained up in a tidal cave to teach them a lesson”.  That this actually occurred is evident in the form of a rusting iron ring embedded in a coastal shelter at the promontory at Little Svendsen’s Beach on South Keppel.

When I saw a photograph of the cave and the rusting iron ring I was puzzled but two of the young Butchulla men with us recognised it immediately.  They had Woppaburra relatives and knew that is was a “drowning cave”.  It seems that people chained up there overnight often drowned.

Despite all this appalling treatment, the Keppel Islanders survived against the odds to this day.

When premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen lost power in Queensland in 1989 he and his cronies went on an orgy of records destruction, including many files from the distant past.  The file on the Keppel Islanders was saved by a conscientious public servant who thought their story should be told.

One wonders what other records of Queensland’s appalling history went up in flames – a history that, save but for a fluke of timing - could have been visited on Papua too.

Of course, one cannot conflate nor draw conclusions about what happened 100 years ago (or 30 years ago) as being relevant today because everything has changed dramatically, especially people’s views about race and ethnicity.

However, in drawing parallels with what happened in the early days of colonisation in Queensland and in PNG one aspect does stand out.  This is the willingness of the people subjugated, especially those recruited into the police forces, to savagely turn on their own people at the behest of their colonisers.

That the Native Police in Queensland and the early PNG police both perpetrated atrocities against their own countrymen and women is a sobering reminder of just how fragile our so-called civilised society really is.  It also demonstrates what a destructive, bloodthirsty and appalling species we humans are.

For more information on the history of the Keppel Islands read Michael Rowland’s article Myths and Non-myths: Frontier ‘Massacres’ in Australian History – The Woppaburra of the Keppel Islands, Journal of Australian Studies, No 81, 2004

Photo: A group of Woppaburra circa 1898. The teenage girl in the centre is Konomie, immediately behind her is Fred (Mogga), and behind him Yoolowa.  Konomie Richards died in Acacia Ridge, Brisbane in 1973 aged ninety years. Konomie’s daughter Ethel Richards (the most senior elder) still lives in Brisbane.  Konomie Richards has many descendants throughout Queensland


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Philip Fitzpatrick

That's interesting about the photograph Sonny. Mike Rowland must have somehow got the wrong caption.

I must admit that delving into what when on around Maryborough and Fraser Island was a sobering experience - that humans could treat other humans so brutally in Australia was not unexpected but still shocking. Queensland really stands out in that respect.

A movie about it would make 'Roots', about American slavery, look tame.

Sonny Van Issum

Just a brief comment. Albert Peters (aka Munquadum), my great grandfather was taken from Keppel in 1902 as a 14 year old boy. He actually married Bessie Blair from Camooeel in 1912. After spending time in Cherbourg they settled in Hervey Bay with Great Grand dad employed in logging on Fraser. Bessie Blair had one son Gordon and one daughter Lilly who is my grandmother.

I should also point out that the picture listed are not Keppel Islanders but a group from Mt. Morgan (I have viewed the orignal at the Rockhampton Historical Society with the caption indicating this).

Only a few Keppel Islanders were taken to Fraser in 1900. The majority of Keppel Islanders went to Durundur (Woodford) in 1902 which was a Police Paddock in those days until it closed and all were taken to Cherbourg in early 1904. The women and children went by train and the men had to dismantle the old buildings, walk 180km to Baranbah (Cherbourg) and rebuild them. A feat of human endurance, with little food or water, that might rival Aussie diggers on the Kokoda track. A harrowing tale that someday would make a good documentary or movie.

Chrissy Hansen-Doherty

Hello Phil, I find your article interesting, and have a very close connection, I am the great granddaughter, of Grannie Konomie Richards, in the photo above.

I am a Woppaburra woman, and story teller for my Family Group, the family group of Grannie Konomie Richards (above). I also have Butchulla connection, as my Grannie Konomie married a Butchulla.

I retraced the removal journey of my Woppaburra ancestors, the last 17 were removed in 1902, placed on a train at Emu Park, and their final destination, was Bogimbah Mission, I travelled this pathway and my cousin Joe Gala, took me to Bogimbah Mission many years ago.

Yes, the treatment of my ancestors, was brutal inhumane, but they were resilient survivors, who adapted to catastrophic change, colonization.

My Grannie Konomie, had 10 children and lived to the age of 90. My mother is Grannie Konomie's eldest grandchild. In my traditional eyes, the treatment of our first nation ancestors across Australia, was nothing short of genocide, a mass exodus of slaves, taken from their ancestral lands, and placed (as prisoners) on Aboriginal Missions, where our culture, custom, language was forbidden.

Stories yet to be told though, of courage and bravery.. Nice to meet you.

Philip Fitzpatrick

For those interested Lorraine Wooley, a Butchulla lady, supplied the following information:

These people lived in Hervey Bay , Mogga is Fred Ross and Yoolowa I think is Albert Peters Konomie was thier sister.They had an aboriginal mother and white father the fathers name was Robert Ross he was a Scotsman .

Albert changed his name to Peters because the police were looking for him after he escaped with Fred when Fred was about 14 the police wanted to send them to a mission . I have an idea Albert may have been a boxer at some stage .Fred and Albert became fishermen in Urangan . Konomie married Charlie Richards they had a camp near the test house more towards Booral . Charlie was a Fraser Islander . My family were friends with them in the early years .

Fred Ross married Maidie Owens the descendants live at scrub Hill . Fred and Maidie lived in Miller St Urangan the house still stands there . Fred bought the house from Fred Wondunna ,it was the house Wondunna's lived in on Fraser Island .They bought it to the mainland by boat .

Albert Peters married a lady by the name of Lilley Brunette from out west somewhere . Lilley had a son Gordon who lived in Urangan .

Philip Fitzpatrick

Hello J Stewart. I work with Butchulla people recording their heritage and the sites that go with them.

The man to contact is Glen Miller. If you email me I can pass on his details. I'm at [email protected].

J Stewart

Hi Keith - I found out recently, to my great shame and disgust, that one of my relatives played a key role in massacres and atrocities perpetrated against the Butchulla people as part of the Frontier Wars in Qld. I am just starting on this journey but I'm hoping to possibly be able to offer my own apology to the elders for what occurred. If you could possibly point me in the right direction about where to start, I'd be most grateful. Thanks.

Harry Topham

Phil - The next time you are down Gympie way would be worth a spare hour or two looking at the most extensive historical museum located near the site of the original gold mine and overlooking a quite picturesque parkland.

This exhibit would have to be one of the most extensive collection of early historic memorabilia and artefacts in Queensland.

In the main exhibit building is a small but very interesting collection of the history of the original indigenous tribes that inhabited that region before colonisation occurred.

Worth a look besides they have a nice cafe which overlooks the adjoining parklands.

Was there a week or so ago and before I noticed two hours had slipped by.

Mathias Kin

Indeed a "truly an inconvenient truth". It is amazing that mankind has survived thus far. Humans are looking into the face of obliteration if we do not alter our destructive habits.

The colonial fronts were merciless, the political wars heightened genocide and a world in ruins, the religious wars today are equally merciless and has potential to end the human race.

And may I provoke another; the biological warfare today in HIV/AIDS and Ebola could be another front humanity should be wary off.

Chris Overland

It is hard to read accounts of the fate of people like the Keppel Islanders without feeling both appalled and despondent.

The casual male violence and brutality of the 19th century was an aspect of Australian colonial society that we seem to have made a concerted collective effort to forget.

Convicts and Aboriginal people bore the brunt of it of course. Women still do.

Sometimes it gets a mention, such as in Robert Hugh's marvellous history "The Fatal Shore" but, mostly, it is glossed over or simply omitted altogether. It is truly an inconvenient truth.

The situation in Queensland was made that much worse by the fact that it imported so-called "Kanakas" from the South Pacific islands to work in the cane fields under conditions that the recruits (many of whom were simply kidnapped) rightly regarded as slavery.

Even the not very squeamish Queenslanders of the day finally thought that "black birding" was totally unacceptable in any civilized society and so abolished the trade.

In the context of PNG, it seems probable that acts of casual violence and murder took place that escaped official notice or were simply suppressed.

Mathias Kin has uncovered at least prima facie evidence of such behaviour against the Simbu.

How widespread this was remains a matter of conjecture but, given the apparently in-built tendency of many humans to behave like merciless predators when granted any sort of power, it would be naïve to think that it didn't happen in PNG.

Like Phil, I believe that we humans are collectively on our way to utter ruin owing to our greed, corruption, environmental vandalism, racism and inherent propensity for violence.

The only grounds for optimism are that it still remains a bare possibility that we might pull back from the brink when the early and ominous signs of disaster become unambiguously apparent.

Phil Fitzpatrick

In Queensland the Native Police were sent to areas well beyond their home country, just like in TPNG.

However, the net result was that they then had no qualms about brutalising the local people. Their white officers encouraged them to do this as well.

On your other point, I've no doubt that we humans are well on the way to extinction, unfortunately it looks like we're going to take the planet with us.

Paul Oates

Interesting observation about local police Phil. When I arrived in the then TPNG, every effort in police recruitment was made to have a broad representation from all areas and Districts in each training platoon and detachment. This was to help ensure there was no one region that predominated in the force.

In other countries where there are ethnic tensions and regional issues, police are required to spend a 'qualifying and training' period well away from their home area prior to being able to apply to serve in their home area.

Could it be the promise of power and to be sanctioned to use force if necessary? Is the possibility of obtaining prestige together with a uniform a potentially lethal result? Is it the fault of those who were in charge and that they didn't determine or care who would make a good recruit or to properly train and supervise those who were enlisted? Maybe old habits, ethnic tensions or frustrations come to the fore in times of stress and danger? How thick or thin was the veneer of discipline in these circumstances?

Maybe its sometimes a combination of all of these faults? Are the seeds of our own destruction already genetically sown within us?

Robin Lillicrapp

Bound or free, humanity can be a shameful lot, eh?

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