Lockhart River was established in 1924 when people from five traditional territories in the area were coerced into a new Anglican mission (now known as the ‘Old Site’). They spoke a number of different languages and were not used to living together.
Aboriginal people were not allowed to speak their language or to practise their cultural traditions and they were moved inland away from their sea country.
Marked by the good intentions but often misguided policies of successive governments and missionaries, our history is steeped in the traditional culture of our peoples.
Early European contact
The first European contact with Lockhart River was by William Bligh in 1789. Most people know of the infamous ‘mutiny on the Bounty’ but many do not realise after being cast adrift, Captain Bligh spent one night ashore close to where the Lockhart River mission would one day be built.
Explorer Edmund Kennedy passed through the traditional lands in 1848, swinging westward across the hills to the upper Pascoe River, in the first European attempt to survey the interior and peninsula of this part of Australia. He left a base party of eight on the Pascoe River, six of whom starved to death after refusing fish and other food from the Kuuku Ya’u people.
No further land exploration took place until William Hann came across from the Holroyd River in 1872, passing just south of the present town of Coen. Lockhart River was named during an exploratory expedition by government geologist Robert Logan Jack in 1880 after a friend of his (Hugh Lockhart), of Edinburgh.
From the 1880s, sailors enlisted Aboriginal family groups to dive for beche-de-mer and pearl shell. Some of the lugger captains paid as little as $1.50 a month and Aboriginal labour on luggers was later prohibited. This period is known as ‘lugger time’.
Early last century, Orchid Point on Lloyd Bay was a centre for the trade of sandalwood. A base camp for gathering sandalwood was set up by Hugh Giblet. Giblet recruited Aboriginal workers to gather sandalwood, protected them from unscrupulous lugger captains and rewarded them with food, clothing and cased liquor for a Christmas party.
Giblet died about 1923. According to oral accounts, his death was caused by an infection (which he refused to have treated) from a woomera blow which broke his jaw during a drinking session.
In 1906, Chief Protector of Aboriginals, RB Howard, recommended an Aboriginal settlement be established at Lloyd Bay. He wrote glowingly of the ‘fine stamp of people – strong, healthy, active fellows who seemed delighted at the idea of a settlement being formed in their own country’.
In 1910, Howard noted sandalwood prices were falling and the Aborigines of the region would ‘keenly feel hardship’ when employment ceased.
He also pointed to problems relating to the supply of intoxicating liquor to the Lockhart Aborigines and referred to the ‘urgent necessity of at once placing an officer of this Department at the Pascoe or Claudie River to see that the provisions of the Aboriginals Protection Act are not evaded’.
A mission is formed
It was not until 1921 that Bishop Newton asked the Government to help set up a mission on the Pascoe River reserve. It had a superintendent and priest to supervise the settling of people in villages with a school, store, medical facility, sailing vessel, fencing and a few dairy cattle. Because the proposed mission was on a mineral belt, Bishop Davies (who replaced Bishop Newton) requested a change of site and the government agreed to transfer the reserve to the Lockhart River region where there were no leases.
Harry Rowan was appointed Lay Missionary and Superintendent and arrived at the Waterhole (Orchid Point) in Lloyd Bay, next to Giblet’s old camp in July 1924.
This was a difficult time when people were denied access to their country and forced to live with comparative strangers and, in some cases, enemies.
By January 1925, Rowan reported more than 80 Aborigines at the mission. High infant mortality in the previous decade meant the number of children was small but a school started by the end of 1925. In 1928, a church was under construction and cutting sandalwood was still the main income for the mission.
During the early 1930s, Rowan tried cotton, bananas, pawpaws, cassava, sweet potatoes and taro. A new launch was obtained so fish, dugong and turtle as well as garden produce sustained the mission.
An Act passed in 1934 which gave the Queensland Government the right to move Aborigines at will. People of the Flinders Islands area of Princess Charlotte Bay were brought to Lockhart. By 1936 only a few Aborigines in the north-eastern area remained in traditional lands. That same year, 80 older Aborigines were removed from the Coen and Batavia districts to the mission. In 1937, the mission had a population of 388 but 35 lives were claimed by whooping cough in 1938.
World War Two
Locals tell how during the Second World War, all outsiders left to go down south and Aboriginal people were advised to ‘go bush’ to escape air raids.
Although times were still difficult, people re-established connection with their ngaachi (place/land/estates) and spread out like before.
The mission was re-established in 1947 with H Johnson as Superintendent. To try to establish community spirit, Johnson changed the structure from a series of sub-villages (representing tribal grouping) to a single settlement. He saw it as a necessary step in the ‘breaking down of old tribal enmity and establishment of community spirit’.
Trochus fishing and other commercial activities were established. Johnson encouraged traditional skills such as language, bushcraft and hunting. His successor, Briggs, noted the ‘complete absence of vindictiveness or arrogance’ in the Lockhart Aborigines, whose spiritual qualities were ‘outstanding’. Briggs resigned in 1950 and was succeeded by John Warby, whose name is commemorated in an era of Lockhart history as ‘Warby time’.
Lockhart by now was in a desperate situation. Author Kylie Tennant described it as an ‘insanitary and poverty-stricken little pesthole’ and ‘the worst mission of them all’. Warby re-organised the housing to bring people under closer medical and hygiene supervision.
In a couple of years the number of deaths was, for the first time for some years, less than the number of births.
In 1953, Warby reported all people living in Lockhart had embraced Christianity.
With the encouragement of the Anglican Board of Missions, Warby established the Lockhart River Christian Cooperative. Among other things, it aimed to teach people to run their own cooperative business, provide employment, establish a voluntary night school, improve living conditions and foster church activities. For the first time, mission residents were allowed to participate in decision making and play a role in routine administration
Trochus fishing continued to be the major economic enterprise. By 1956, the Cooperative was on a sound basis. Warby reported it was building up initiative, self-respect and self-reliance backed by a dramatically improved health situation. But the trochus market collapsed and evening classes closed due to lack of attendance.
Staff shortages were critical. Warby left in 1959 and his successor JT Currie found it necessary to close the Lockhart River Christian Cooperative in 1961.
Financial difficulties and the failure to find permanent church workers led to the church relinquishing its control of the mission. In the early 1960s, the Anglican Bishop of Carpentaria secretly negotiated with the Director of Native Affairs to transfer Lockhart River to the state.
In 1964, the Anglican Church handed over the mission to the Queensland Government who tried to relocate the people to Bamaga. The people refused to go but, in 1970, were forced to move away from the traditional area of the coast to Iron Range. This move was not a good one culturally or geographically. It took the settlement from one reasonably neutral location to one owned by a major group in the community; and from a traditional place on the coast to further inland. Friction resulted and continued.
On 30 March 1985, the Lockhart River community elected five councillors to constitute an autonomous Lockhart River Aboriginal Council. In a then ground-breaking recognition of Aboriginal land rights, the council area, previously an Aboriginal reserve held by the Queensland Government, was transferred on October 29, 1987 to the trusteeship of the council under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT). Locally elected councillors now provided administration for the Lockhart River DOGIT.
Part of the Lockhart River DOGIT area was transferred to Traditional Owners in September 2001 and placed into the Mangkuma [mung-Kooma] Land Trust.
In December 2003, the Lockhart River community signed a shared responsibility agreement with the Australian and Queensland Governments to help develop a community plan around economic development and improved community involvement in education. On January 1, 2005, pursuant to the Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004, Lockhart River Aboriginal Council became the Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council.
A successful Native Title determination for an area north of Lockhart River was ruled in favour of the KuukuYa’u [Koo-kooYaoo] people by the Federal Court of Australia in 2009.
A revival of cultural life took place in the 1970s with a number of dance festivals and traditional activities. Few people realise Lockhart River was the birthplace of the dance festival which later moved to Laura where it became the longest, continuous cultural festival in Australia. Today, Lockhart River dancers still perform regularly at festivals including the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival.
The community would dearly love to see a return of the dance festival to the place where it began some 30 years ago.
The community’s strong cultural identity – as expressed through its dancers and also internationally-renowned Lockhart River Art Gang – makes Lockhart River a natural place to come together to celebrate the proud cultural heritage of Cape York.
A move by some Lockhart people to reoccupy the ‘Old Site’ has also been considered.