European History

The first recorded contact of Europeans with the Australian continent occurred on Cape York Peninsula when William Janz in the Duyfken made contact with the Wik people at Cape Keer-weer in 1606

The first European settlement in Cape York Peninsula was proposed by Sir George Bowen, the first Governor of the Colony of Queensland. His vision for this northern outpost included the provision of harbour of refuge for shipwrecked sailors, a supply depot and a coaling station to service the major international shipping route. He believed that, as an administration centre, it would encourage the growth of commercial activity and provide a settlement that maintained friendly relationships between settlers and Aborigines.

After first selecting a site on the western side of the island of Pabaju (Albany Island) ten kilometres south east of Cape York, it was agreed that the settlement should be set up on the mainland opposite the island. Mr John Jardine was appointed as Government Resident and established the settlement of Somerset in 1864. The need for a supply of fresh meat prompted Jardine to establish the first cattle station at Vallack Point five kilometres south of Somerset with some 200 head of cattle.

Mining brought further European settlement to Cape York Peninsula. In 1873, James Venture Mulligan led a party of 100 Georgetown diggers with 300 horses and bullocks to the Palmer Goldfield. At the same time other prospectors came by sea to the estuary of the Endeavour River. From there a trail to the Palmer was cleared under the direction of the surveyor A.C. Macmillan.

olice and staff from the Goldfields Department accompanied these miners and established the township of Cooktown in 1873. The gold rush continued up to Coen five years later. The rapid population growth created an increased demand for meat production, resulting in the establishment of many cattle stations over the following twenty years.

In 1885, John Embley, a Licensed Surveyor attached to the Queensland Department of Lands, surveyed an area to make York Downs his headquarters. From there he conducted surveys on the Peninsula for twenty years, setting the boundaries of many pastoral leases.

Following the collapse of gold mining during the early years of this century, the population of settlers rapidly declined and the pastoral industry diminished. Cooktown supported a population of 7,000 only a year after gold was discovered on the Palmer River in 1873. By 1880 there were 24 hotels and several banks and the population reached a peak of 30,000 in 1884, only to gradually dwindle to 400 by the outbreak of World War II. The town survived mainly through small scale tin and gold mining and the reduced cattle industry.

The war years saw a rapid increase in development on Cape York Peninsula. A new aerodrome was built at Cooktown, and other military aerodromes were constructed at Coen, Iron Range, Higgensfield (near Bamaga) and Horn Island. The influence of the war effort with the temporary increase in population and the resultant infrastructure development should not be underestimated. The provision of these aerodromes enabled the establishment of regular public transport, and DC3 aircraft made the remote communities more accessible.

The introduction of Brahman cattle which responded more favourably to the tropical conditions, and the demand from the American hamburger market in the 1950s, stimulated a revival in the beef industry over the next two decades. Extensive investment from the United States of America in several large cattle stations in the mid-sixties further boosted the prosperity of the pastoral industry. With the sudden drop in cattle prices in 1974 and the introduction of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Program (BTEC) in the early 1980s, the pastoral economy of Cape York Peninsula declined again.

Large scale bauxite mining at Weipa started in the early 1960s. Production levels have increased and associated activities have continued sustaining a population of about 2,000. With the bi-centenary of James Cook’s landing and the opening of the National Trust museum in the old Convent, the tourist industry was established in Cooktown. Cooktown’s population has increased to 1,500 and an elected Shire Council has been re-established.

In summary, the history of non-indigenous land use has involved:

  • three waves of settlement beginning in the 1860s with pastoralists and miners, followed by wartime use by American and Australian service personnel and culminating in a third wave of visitors seeking a wilderness experience
  • the waxing and waning of the size of resident communities as mining ventures upon which they depended underwent periods of prosperity and decline
  • fluctuations in the area’s pastoral industry through heavy dependence on external prices
  • short lived agricultural experiments in sugar and rice production in the 1880s and more recent involvement in broadacre legume pastures and other agricultural development