Series 1, Episode 1

Catherine Freeman

Catherine Freeman

Catherine was five years old when her parents separated and divorced; and 20 when her father Norman died. Catherine describes the absence of her father as the "biggest void" in her life.

Norman was raised by his mother Geraldine Roy and stepfather Claude Freeman. Catherine wants to find out about his biological father, her grandfather, Frank ‘Bigshot’ Fisher so she goes to visit his daughter, Aunt Lillian, who lives in Cherbourg, central Queensland, where Frank came from.

She arrives at a bridge, named after Frank ‘Bigshot’ Fisher which proudly proclaims his achievements as a footballer. Catherine hasn’t realised until that moment, how much of a mark he’d left. Local Percy Iszlaub an old footballing protégé explains to her that Frank was known for his strength and speed and that he was a fierce competitor on the field. Percy says Frank was like her, a great sprinter. He could have been a great track athlete like her but would have missed the team spirit of rugby. Reflecting on his talent, Catherine cannot help but see the symmetries between herself and her grandfather. She also concludes that he had none of her freedom as he lived as a controlled Aborigine in the Barambah Mission (now Cherbourg), a person whose movements were at the discretion of the state.

Catherine next finds out about her great grandfather, also named Frank Fisher. She discovers that he served in Egypt and Palestine during WW1 in the 11th Light Horse Regiment. It is a total surprise for her to find “a digger in our family”.

Catherine’s consults the Australian War Memorial archives for Frank’s military record. She also discovers how he came to be in the military in the first place. In 1917 Queensland’s Chief Protector, J. W. Bleakley, had announced that "half-castes will now be accepted into the Australian Forces provided they satisfy the medical authorities that one parent was of European origin."

Catherine learns the cruellest irony of all, that Frank’s military pay was controlled by the Aboriginal Protector. At his discretion, he would pass it on to those who had worked for it. This he did not always do – as Frank’s wife Esme learned first hand, when she discovered she could not draw on her husband’s military pay back home. Although this sequestering of wages was rationalised as a form of ‘settlement tax’ covering the cost of their food rations and so on, the unacknowledged reasoning was that Aborigines could not be trusted to spend their money wisely.

Next, Catherine decides to investigate her mother Cecelia’s side of the family. She was born on Palm Island in 1939, her parents being George ‘Salvaggi’ Sibley and Alice Mero. Palm Island was far from an idyllic tropical island – it was a penal settlement. Cecelia’s great grandparents, George Sibley and Annie Ah Sam, were sent there in 1925. Her own parents had met there.

Genealogical records of anthropologist Norman Tindale who travelled around Queensland in the late 1930s, reveal that Annie was the daughter of Tommy Ah Sam, a Chinaman. Like many Chinese immigrants he worked as a cook and gardener in far north Queensland. Catherine journeys to Dunbar Station – where Tommy worked and where the original homestead is still standing. She inspects the kitchen where Tommy would have worked and learns from present-day cook Dan MacIntosh that Tommy would have had to prepare meals for about 100 station hands. It was here that Tommy met Maggie Croyden, an indigenous woman of the Kurdjan tribe, who also worked at the station.

In Mount Molloy, Catherine visits the place that Tommy and Maggie’s daughter Annie Ah Sam ended up living with George Sibley. They had five children. Catherine learns that George worked for a local saw mill and as a half-caste was paid directly by the mill. The law at the time dictated that Aborigines could only collect wages via the Chief Protector.

Catherine already knows that he and his family were then sent to Palm Island but doesn’t know why. She discovers that the official reason for this exile, as stated in the Removal Register in the records of the Queensland Government’s Community & Personal Histories Branch, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Department of Communities, was that George "will not sign on to employment; addicted to drink and supplies other Aborigines." With the help of some historical contextualisation, Catherine questions if it was the drink, or more the case that George was an independently-minded man who, in refusing to sign on to ‘employment’ – which in reality meant his wages would be controlled by the authorities – was labelled a trouble-maker, likely to influence other Aboriginal men to do the same?

Looking further into her Sibley roots, Catherine discovers via the English census of 1881 that George Sibley (snr) born in the UK, was a dairy boy in Dorset. In England she learns that George’s life was tough and poverty was rife. He was at the bottom of the social strata with few rights and opportunities. On hearing about free passages to Queensland and the promise of land, he left England in 1883 never to return. Thirteen years later he had son George with an Aboriginal woman called Maggie. It was this George Sibley who was eventually to marry Annie Ah Sam.

At the end of her journey, Catherine realises that she has never been tested in the same way as her ancestors and that she now has a new sense of purpose for her future life.

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