Forced Aboriginal removal 'forgiven, not forgotten'

The only house left standing in Mapoon after the mission was closed and razed to the ground by government workers in 1963 (Stefan Armbruster)

The forced removal of Aboriginal people and destruction of the Mapoon mission 50 years ago by the Queensland government will be commemorated this weekend in Cape York.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Known as "the burning", November 15 marks the day in 1963 when police arrived to clear out the mission and razed their houses to the ground.

The Mapoon people never gave up hope, returned to their lands, secured title and finally received an apology in 2000 from the state government.

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While the Mapoon elders have forgiven, they have not forgotten the injustice of the Queensland government's scorched earth policy.

"It was real cruelty, burning down our houses, it was a very beautiful place, I could say," says the late Aunty Jean Jimmy on a recording made a decade after her forced removal by the Queensland police.

"They didn't give us any reason why they burnt down our homes (but) anyone could think that they burnt down our homes so that nobody would ever return to Mapoon."

Mapoon on western Cape York is now again a busy little community, rebuilt on the site of the old Presbyterian mission.

"Sure, we're commemorating the event 50 years ago, but we're also celebrating our return. We are rising out of the ashes of the burnt homes," says Mapoon's long-serving mayor Peter Guivarra. "I suppose the message is you don't have to accept, you can object and you can fight and you can succeed."

Mapoon was originally set up in 1891, funded by the Queensland colonial and then state government.

"It was a place of refuge primarily. A lot of traditional owners were still living on their land, really up to the early 1900s. In fact I've seen evidence where people from the Batavia river country were still living traditional lifestyles right into the 1930s," says historian Geoff Wharton, who has spent decades researching Mapoon.

"It was a gradual process of people moving into Mapoon. Initially I think it was to seek protection - particularly for the inland people - protection from attacks by local pastoralists, who had a policy of 'shoot first, ask questions later', and there is certainly evidence of massacres that occurred in the region."

Fears of a Japanese invasion during the Second World War saw many Mapoon men serve their country, including in the 23rd Queensland Volunteer Defence Corps on Cape York.

They would have been on the front line of an invasion.

After the war, the federal and Queensland government pushed for the economic development of the state's far north as a bulwark to any future threat, but Mapoon did not fit into that model.

"Before mining came onto the scene with the discovery of bauxite, in the early 1950s, the Queensland government looked at Mapoon as not suited for industrial development," Geoff Wharton says. "It was (originally) selected because it's on the Port of Musgrave but it was not good for growing vegetables or raising stock."

The government ordered Mapoon to close and relocated several hundred people, using the Aboriginals Protection Act.

The residents were not consulted and most refused to leave for what is now known as New Mapoon, 200 kilometres north on the tip of Cape York.

It was November 15, 1963, when police arrived on the government boat Gelam with a list of ringleaders to remove.

On the orders of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Patrick Killoran, 24 people were rounded up clutching only a few possession and put on the Gelam.

"You see they caught us at night, by surprise. We didn't know."

Aunty Jean Jimmy recalls the events in the 1975 recording made by Geoff Wharton. "I think it was midnight when the police came and I heard the children crying. It almost broke my heart, to hear the children crying for their grandparents."

What happened next gives the incident its name: "the burning".

"The government workers, they burnt the houses and it just devastated it," says mayor Peter Guivarra.

"A lot of those houses were private houses, built by the people themselves - they weren't built by the church and they weren't built by the government. A lot of the men were ringers, crocodile shooters and they processed the skins and from that money they bought the building materials and built their own houses."

Aunty Jean remembers the Gelam sailing away from her home.

"When we looked around, we couldn't see the sun, the harbour was just covered with birds, all sorts of birds, and the Gelam was sailing just under the shadow, and the birds formed a capital V," Aunty Jean says.

"It was marvellous, just looking up at the sky, and I said what these birds mean is that maybe in time to come, well fight it and there'll be a victory because it is a fight between us and the director (government official)."

Over the next six months the remaining Mapoon people were dispersed as far away as Palm Island and Stanthorpe, near the New South Wales border.

The dream to return home endured and in the 1970s people started return to what had been Mapoon.

Aunty Jean Jimmy was among them.

Through years of hardship they rebuilt their houses, their lives and their community and finally in 1989 gained control of the land.

"Bob Katter is a friend of the Aboriginal people, certainly up around here, and he gave us our land back and we're grateful for that," Peter Guivarra says of the then Queensland, now federal, parliamentarian.

The Presbyterian church made a formal apology in 1991 and almost a decade later, the Mapoon people secured another victory.

Then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie gave the community local government council status in 2000.

"He did. He wrote a letter of apology," says mayor Peter Guivarra. "He didn't actually come to the community but he apologised in Parliament and look, we've got the letter in our council chamber; it hangs high and proud within our council chambers."

Celebrations this weekend will mark this remarkable victory against the will of the government.

But Mayor Peter Guivarra says there is still some unfinished business.

"We think that more should be done, so do the older people, the ones removed in particular were always trying to get back compensation for houses that were burnt and destroyed. Over the years the state governments have poured cold water on that, straight away.

"When you think it was only 50 years ago: we haven't forgotten. The old people have certainly forgiven, but the old people still tell the stories about what happened."

 

Source: World News Australia