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Humour and hope amid hate

17 April 2010 2,142 views No Comment

How rare is it that two equally fine books appear at roughly the same time about the same, or similar, topics?

2008 saw the publication of Chloe Hooper’s remarkable non-fiction novel THE TALL MAN. This award-winning work deals with the death on 19 November 2004 of a 36 year old Palm Island man, Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee, who swore at a policeman, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – then 33 years old, weighing 115 kilograms and 200 centimetres (6 feet and 7 inches) tall. Forty-five minutes later, Doomadgee was found dead in a watch house cell.

Now in 2010 we see the appearance of Joanne Watson’s passionate and magisterial history of Palm Island, whose opening and final chapters also deal in detail with the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee, as well as the riot and widespread civil unrest that followed this tragic event. As a result of the burning down of the police station, courthouse and police barracks, a state of emergency was declared and local police were evacuated from Palm Island. Authorities only “regained control” after reinforcements, including members of the Special Emergency Response Team, were flown in from Townsville by Chinook helicopter and from Cairns by plane.

Ms Watson recounts how, after a 2006 inquest found Senior Sergeant Hurley was responsible for the horrific internal injuries that caused Doomadgee’s death, in June 2007 Hurley was acquitted of manslaughter by a supreme court jury in Townsville. What is not disputed is that Mulrunji Doomadgee had sustained massive injuries – including scalp and jaw injuries, a black eye, four fractured ribs and a completely ruptured liver and portal vein, with the liver ‘cleaved in two.’ At the time of writing this review, a reopened coronial inquest into Doomadgee’s death in custody was taking place at Palm Island and also in Townsville.

Published by the innovative Aboriginal Studies Press, PALM ISLAND is the first substantial history of the island from pre-European invasion to the present. Exploring some of the most explosive and intriguing events in Queensland’s history, Watson’s compelling narrative is the outcome of over twenty years of oral history and archival research, including a comprehensive examination of church, court and administrative records, and diverse media reports.

Established in 1918 as a penitentiary for “troublesome” Torres Strait Islanders and especially Aboriginals from north and northwest Queensland, Palm Island became, Watson persuasively argues, “the receiving centre for survivors of bitter clashes between colonisers and Indigenous people on the Queensland frontier.”

In the 20th century this reached a crescendo in the Palm Island strike of 1957, which was widely covered by the Australian media who, with the conspicuous exception of Communist Party newspaper the Tribune, came out strongly in favour of white officials, government administrations and the Queensland police who fought a running battle on the Island with ‘indigenous agitators.’ Thus this strike, which in a population of 1400 was only opposed by seven Murri residents, was characterised as a ‘native revolt’ and ‘ the ‘Palm Island Riot’.

Ever since the brutal ex policeman Roy Henry Bartlam took control as Superintendant in 1953, resentment was growing about his relentless persecution of so-called ‘trouble makers’ as well as inadequate or non existence payment to indigenous workers and to the unsavoury rations, which often included fly blown meat.

In June 1957 a protest, initially led by women, marched up Mango Avenue – a street which for decades had been barred to indigenous islanders. Yet despite the forbidding presence of heavily armed police freighted in from Cairns and Townsville and a patrol boat whose machine gun was pointing towards the beach, Murri residents took control of the distribution of goods, including food and drink. Although only temporary, for a while this reversed the social roles on the island.

Government retribution was harsh. Many of the island’s indigenous leaders, including Bill Congoo and Willie Thaiday and their families, were deported from Palm to other ‘native reserves’ and ‘ places of exile’, including the Cherbourg mission and Woorabinda. Not surprisingly, the Tribune’s call for a searching public inquiry into these events was utterly ignored. For decades there had been massive official misstatements and untruths made by government and the media about conditions on the island. Thus while future Labor premier E.M. (‘Ned’) Hanlon described it as a ‘demi-paradise’, in 1932 Palm Island’s resident doctor, Thomas L. Bancroft, defined it as ‘the Black-fellow’s Graveyard’. He revealed conditions of ‘filthiness and squalor’ and a ‘great mortality’ among the residents.
As Watson makes clear, it is Dr Bancroft who should be believed.

Differentiating herself from what she takes to be Chloe Hooper’s moralistically black and white position, Watson powerfully contends that there is a very close nexus between alcoholism, addiction and social breakdown, and alcohol related violence, sexual assault, crime and suicide resulting from chronic stress and poverty. Thus at the same time that indigenous islanders experienced an 80% unemployment rate, a federal inquiry in 1977 reported that over 90% of men and 80% of women on Palm Island severely abused alcohol. If anything, the current situation is even worse. As Noel Pearson and international authorities make clear, there is an unambiguous causal connection between being on welfare, being at the bottom of the social order, and a very high incidence of endemic alcoholic intoxication and other forms of addiction.

Yet this compelling history explores the rich tapestry of humour and hope, as well as helplessness and hate, and especially the combined existence of powerlessness and resilience that characterises the indigenous peoples of Palm Island. Watson’s thoroughly researched narrative demonstrates that the island community has had an extraordinary past; a history at the same time “rich, staggeringly brave, stoic and humorous, tragic and inspiring.” As historian, Dr Rosalind Kidd, rightly points out, Watson’s compelling narrative of and about Palm Island and its peoples is “an important caution to those who mistake official statements for historical truths.”

Indeed it is primarily talented and hard working historians like Joanne Watson who can best write Queensland and Australian history.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 17-18 April, 2010

Review of Joanne Watson, PALM ISLAND: Through a Long Lens, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2010 pp 212, $34.95.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald has written 32 books, most recently the co-authored Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia and his highly praised memoir My name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.

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