• The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on Quandamooka Country in Queensland was once the largest government institution in the state. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A little-known but significant victory by Queensland's Quandamooka people is being celebrated more than a century after the fight first began.
Karen Michelmore, Lindy Kerin

The Point
21 Sep 2021 - 4:59 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2021 - 5:01 PM

Minjerribah, or North Stradbroke Island, is a long way from the red dirt of Wave Hill in the Northern Territory, the site of Australia's most famous early protests by Aboriginal workers for equal pay and conditions.

But the 26-year-struggle by the Quandamooka people came first.

It came even before the Pilbara Strike 75 years ago, where 800 Aboriginal workers walked of dozens of pastoral stations for three years.

"They were staunch people, they were activists" says Quandamooka researcher Tegan Burns, from the North Stradbroke Island Museum.

"It definitely instills a sense of pride in me to know that my relatives and my family and the Quandamooka community in general were staunch people, they were activists.

"They were intelligent people who were writing these letters and petitions and able to articulate what they wanted and what they knew that they deserved."

A long campaign

The campaign started in 1918 and centred around the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, once Queensland's largest institution, set up on Minjerribah in 1865 to look after the poor and the needy.

It housed up to 1200 people at any one time; around 21,000 over it's 80-year history.

It was run mostly by an Aboriginal workforce, but they weren't paid as much as white workers, Ms Burns says.

"The Aboriginal workers here on the island, they were really the life force behind the Benevolent Asylum," she says.

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"They kept it running, they did all the heavy work."

The fight for fairer rations and wages started with a petition, and a strike at the wharf, by those who unloaded the supply boat.

"There were a number of petitions, a number of delegations to government ministers, and they were writing letters and petitions to the Department of Health and Home Affairs as well," Ms Burns says.

Coming together to fight

Decades after their campaign began, they were successful in 1944, when the government agreed to pay the Aboriginal workers at the asylum award-rates.

"(It) was 20 years before anywhere else in Australia, so quite a significant achievement for Aboriginal people at that time," Ms Burns says.

"It's definitely not a well-known movement, which is why we really wanted to focus on it here at the museum, to get the story out, not only to our community but to the wider community as well, to tell the story of these amazing people who stood up for what they believed in, campaigned for what they deserved."

Ms Burns has documented the stories of the fight for equal wages in a new exhibition, Getting Equal, at the North Stradbroke Island Museum on Minjerribah, which runs until February next year.

She believes the group was aware of what was happening in other equal rights campaigns around Australia.

"I think they were definitely communicating that with other mobs around the country," Ms Burns says.

Families learn the history

Quandamooka Elder Evelyn Parkin says three generations of her family worked at the asylum, including her parents.

"My dad had received a certificate, which was known as a second-class engine driver certificate, and I was really surprised to know that," she says.

"When you think about our people working and almost for nothing at that time around Australia, that he had this certificate...it was a real shock to learn about that."

Tegan Burns says she feels a sense of pride from learning the history.

Both her grandfathers had also worked at the asylum.

"It's been really empowering to work on this project, - it's a story of resistance and resilience of Aboriginal people," Ms Burns says. 

"I'm proud to be able to tell my community the story and other people the story, as well as my children, to let my children know who our people are, and how deadly we are."

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