Aboriginal History

Ancient Aboriginal history is recorded orally in the stories and ceremonies of the numerous clan groups of Cape York Peninsula. These tell of hunting, gathering and nurturing the land, sea and resources of the region. The oral history also records momentous events, such as rising sea levels, cyclones, droughts, fires and the coming of the Europeans.

The earliest recorded contact between Aboriginal people of Cape York Peninsula and the European explorers occurred in 1606 when William Janz visited the Wik people at Cape Keer-weer.

Aboriginal history is also recorded in the distribution and populations of contemporary Aboriginal communities with many of the existing Aboriginal communities owing their survival to the establishment of missions from 1867. These missions enabled Aboriginal people to take refuge in the face of European occupation. They also provided education and health services, which were otherwise, not provided.

The need for Aboriginal labour on the bêche-de-mer, trochus, and pearling boats working the waters of the inner Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait in the nineteenth century involved abduction of able-bodied Aboriginal people and thus severely depleted the Aboriginal population on the east coast. Because the Gulf waters did not contain the vast quantities of maritime resources being exploited at that time on the east coast, there was no need for a similar labour force to be obtained on the west coast. Accordingly, the Aboriginal population of the west coast communities (at Napranum, Aurukun, Pormpuraaw and Kowanyama) remains larger than that of the east coast.

From the latter part of the nineteenth century, many Aboriginal people moved to missions, with some of them moving 100’s of kilometres from their homelands and subsequently living on land belonging to other clan groups who spoke different languages. These moves were at variance with Aboriginal custom and caused hitherto unknown conflict over land use.

The most recent relocation occurred in 1963 when the Aboriginal residents of Mapoon on the west coast were forcibly moved to a new place near Bamaga, which was called New Mapoon. Also in the mid 1960s, an opportunity was given to the people resident at Lockhart River Mission to move to the Northern Peninsula Area and a small number of people voluntarily established the new community of Umagico.

In 1970 the Queensland Government built a new village adjacent to Iron Range aerodrome, and the people of Lockhart River moved from the old mission site.

On the west coast at Weipa, a large area of land which had been set aside as an Aboriginal Reserve was converted to a mining lease following the discovery in 1955 of deposits of bauxite (aluminium ore). The 350,000-hectare Aboriginal Reserve was reduced to 124 hectares in 1959. The operator of the bauxite mine based on some of these deposits, Comalco, was required to surrender land from the Special Bauxite Mining Lease No 1 to the Queensland Government by 1997. This lease was reduced from 616,420 hectares to 259,000 hectares. While the surrendered land was not re-gazetted as Aboriginal Reserve, most of it was later incorporated by the Queensland Government into land holdings at Aurukun, Napranum and Mapoon communities.

In 1988 a Deed of Grant in Trust was issued to the Weipa Aboriginal Council (now called the Napranum Aboriginal Community Council). Over the last two decades, relations between mining companies and Aboriginal peoples have improved, as evidenced by royalty, compensation, employment and enterprise packages which have been negotiated at mines on Cape York Peninsula and in particular at the major mines at Weipa and Cape Flattery.

Despite a history of conflict, there have been some positive aspects of interaction between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures and there has been, at times, involvement in the enterprises introduced by settlers and their descendants over the last one hundred and fifty years. These enterprises include the pastoral, mining, maritime, tourism and service industries.

Recent changes in Aboriginal and Islander land tenure legislation and recognition of native title have given indigenous people a stronger position relating to land use on Cape York Peninsula.

In summary, the history of Aboriginal land use has involved:

  • A period of some 50,000 years of subsistence during which land was managed and used in accordance with a complex set of cultural practices involving some ecological modification (principally by fire) and resource management which included a degree of replenishment. Over this period, climatic and topographic changes had significant influences over the land.
  • A period of almost 400 years since the coming of the first European explorers and later colonists, during which the Aboriginal people were largely dispossessed of their land and their culture was greatly modified. During this time, the community structure has undergone significant change and the Aboriginal population declined. Over recent years this population has started to increase.
  • Periodic involvement in mainstream European land use, particularly in the pastoral, mining, tourism and service industries.

Aboriginal History Inc. includes index to Aboriginal History Journal and list of monograph publications.

Indigenous Libraries Unit (ILU) of the State Library of Queensland which was first formed in 1997 and is based in Cairns.