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Indigenous artistic legacy

A small, blue-lined notebook filled with drawings by a young aboriginal boy named Oscar helps show how the discovery of alluvial gold on Queensland’s Palmer River in 1873 affected aborigines and thousands of Europeans and Chinese people who risked hardship or death in the search for fortune.

Oscar and other aborigines had to compete with goldminers for their own lands. They were often subjected to violence and forced to adapt to new ways of life. Through his drawings Oscar produced a detailed record of what must have been some of the most influential events of his young life.

In about 1895, when he was 18 years old and working on Rocklands cattle station in northwestern Queensland, he was given the notebook by his boss Augustus Henry "Gus" Glissan who was station manager from 1884 to 1914. The book, with 40 pencil drawings, was eventually given to the National Museum of Australia and is accompanied by a letter from Glissan that reads:

"Ever since the boy came here he has had a liking for drawing and some of his etchings on stone with charcoal and chalk etc were so really well done, that I thought some day I would get him a book and some coloured pencils & let him have a good try at it.

I now enclose you the book under separate cover... The index will give you all the information, this the boy gave me in his own way, & I have put it as well as I can."

The letter is dated 30 March 1899 when Oscar would have been in his early twenties. It, the book and Glissan’s captions are all that is definitely known about the young artist.

Glissan described Oscar as one of "my boys" and told how the Cooktown police brought the youngster to him in 1887 when Oscar was about nine or ten years old. Oscar had travelled on a steamer to the Gulf of Carpentaria and then on horseback to Rocklands.

Glissan (1847–1935) was the son of an Irish immigrant doctor. He made Rocklands one of the most important stations in the district, increasing its productivity by using wells and bores to tap artesian water. The previous manager had been killed by local aborigines, so Glissan surrounded himself with aboriginal "boys" from distant areas as it was widely thought that the local aborigines feared strange tribes with whom they had no previous contact.

Another letter written by Glissan in 1899 to amateur ethnologist R.E. Mathews explained that none of his aboriginal employees came from the area – " fact they do not know 'who they are'. They have all been with me from small boys".

It is thought that Oscar’s drawings are an autobiographical account of his life. They focus on traditional life in the Palmer River area, contemporary life in the gold field towns of Maytown and Cooktown, the activities of the Queensland Native Mounted Police and aspects of life at Rocklands.

Oscar, Drawing No. 28
Palmer River Fighting Men
From Drawings by Oscar
Copyright National Museum of Australia

Oscar’s drawing no. 28, Palmer River Fighting Men, shows warriors with elaborate decorative scarring on their bodies, holding spearthrowers and bundles of spears. It’s likely he’s remembering his early childhood in the Palmer River gold fields area in what would have been a highly disrupted time for aborigines.

On 1 January 1878, the Cooktown Courier newspaper described a "state of open warfare" between aborigines and gold miners in the Palmer River district. Causes included disputes over land and resources, killing of stock and even murder.

Oscar, Drawing No. 8
Native Police Boys Palmer River
From Drawings by Oscar
Copyright National Museum of Australia

Drawing no. 8, Native Police Boys Palmer River, shows a group dressed in linen-covered round peaked caps, called shakos, and blue jackets with red braid. W.H. Corfield, a carrier between Cooktown and Maytown in the 1870s told how a young aboriginal boy of about six years of age was adopted by native troopers and how they "delighted in instructing him in drill and discipline". He described how the young boy remained loyal to the police even after he had been taken to live elsewhere.

Drawing no. 17, Palmer River Govt Officials, is a lively sketch of miners being chased and punished by mining wardens. The late 1870s saw conflict between the government and the Chinese gold diggers. Accounts of the government’s attempts to regulate mining tell how a chain fixed to a tree was used to handcuff 150 Chinese people at a time. Despite attempts to ban them from the Queensland goldfields in the late 1870s, the Chinese were responsible for the last gold rush to the lower Palmer River in mid 1878 which attracted up to 10,000 Chinese and 500 Europeans.

By the beginning of the 1880s the alluvial gold on the Palmer had run out. However, at Maytown and on the Hodgkinson River the reefs were still productive. An impression of the wealth generated by the gold in this area is captured in Oscar’s drawing no. 34, Some Maytown Swells doing the block. The men look relaxed while smoking pipes and the ladies carry parasols and are dressed in neat patterned crinoline dresses with shoulder decorations, small brimmed hats and shawls.

Oscar’s drawing no. 20, Big Fella Steamer longa Cooktown, childhoods reminiscences(?), shows a steamer with three masts and sails. It includes native police with their distinctive caps and possibly himself as the small boy at the rear of the ship.

Oscar, Drawing No. 35, Boss ordering bous to bathe (cold weather)
from Drawings by Oscar
Copyright National Museum of Australia

Drawing no. 35, Boss ordering boys to bathe (cold weather), is the only drawing connected with Oscar’s life as a stockman. Oscar may be the smallest figure, far left. The "boss" is a good likeness of A.H. Glissan, who was tall, solidly built, with a prominent moustache.

The discovery of gold in north Queensland affected the course of Australian history and the lives of tens of thousands of people. For Oscar it meant being separated from his culture and having to adapt to a new life as a stockman, but he didn’t forget his past. His drawings remain as an extremely rare aboriginal record of those changing times.


Adapted from Legacy of a gold rush – drawings by Oscar by Carol Cooper and Kim McKenzie in Gold and Civilisation, National Museum of Australia 2001. Published by Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd and the National Museum of Australia.


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