• 2018 marks 100 years since Palm Island was established as an Aboriginal reserve. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A century ago, white settlers transformed a tropical island paradise into a prison. A hundred years on, Palm Islanders have broken free of their shackles, and are determined to carve a pathway to a brighter future.
Ella Archibald-Binge

Living Black
27 Jun 2018 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 27 Jun 2018 - 12:59 PM

On tropical Palm Island off the coast of Far North Queensland, there’s a street called Mango Avenue.  The idyllic name belies the island’s brutal history.

The street was once reserved for white officials only. “Blacks” were forbidden under threat of swift and harsh punishment.

Established in 1918, Palm Island earned for being a reputation as being one of the harshest Aboriginal settlements in Australia.

Thousands of First Nations peoples from across Queensland were forcibly taken to the island after being branded troublemakers – often for having the audacity to ask for wages, or practising traditional ceremonies.

More than 40 different tribal groups, each with unique cultures and many with pre-existing conflicts, were thrust together in an open-air prison, and made to do backbreaking labour in exchange for barely edible rations.

The conditions, which included morning roll calls and nightly curfews, were only lifted in the 1970s.

However, it’s a time that lives on in the memory of locals like Magdalena Blackley, who shares her stories with visitors at the Palm Island museum.

She says that as a 16-year-old schoolgirl the island’s feared superintendent, Roy Bartlam, threatened to shave her head, dress her in a bag and force her to sweep the streets.

Her crime? Leaving the island for a school excursion without the superintendent’s permission.

Celebrating a century of survival

For much of the 20th century, Indigenous people across Queensland lived under tight government controls known as “the Act”, which dictated where you could live, who you could marry, where you could work and what you could earn.

But Palm Islanders could be punished for other things, too: failing to salute a white official, waving to a spouse, appearing untidy, wearing a dress above the knee – even laughing could result in a police beating, if the authorities deemed it disrespectful.

Now locals are marking the Palm Island centenary by showcasing their hard-won unity, pride and resilience through dance, song and ceremony.

It’s also an opportunity for many visitors to learn about Palm Island history for the first time.

In April, hundreds of tourists took the two-hour ferry ride from Townsville to Palm Island to attend the three-day Deadly Didge and Dance Festival.

In Pictures: Palm Island celebrates 100 years of survival
Palm Island marked its centenary with a three-day cultural festival with some of the country's best First Nations performers, moving ceremonies and a world record attempt for the largest Aboriginal dance.

Local Elder George Friday also hopes to dispel some myths about his beloved home.

“The media, they painted this place with a bad name,” he says.

For most, their knowledge of Palm Island is based on events reported by the mainstream media, most notably the 2004 death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee and the resulting fallout, or the 1999 listing by the Guinness Book of Records which declared Palm Island the most violent place on earth outside a combat zone.

Uncle George, and other Elders who lived through the darkest chapter of Palm’s history, are now eager to step aside to make way for a new generation of leaders.

“We’ve got opportunities today,” he says.

“We’ve got to support our young ones and invest in our children, help them to get that education and live amongst society, and we can be anything we want to be.”

Janaya Barry, a 21-year-old student, is one of many young people who are seizing those opportunities.

After moving to the mainland to complete her education, Ms Barry is now in her final year of university studying exercise science. She hopes to bring her skills back to the community as a physiotherapist.

“I think everyone would like to come back and help their community in any way possible, so if I can just do that then I’ll be happy,” she says.

Ms Barry hopes more jobs will be created in the coming years, so others like her can return to live.

Palm Island commemorates the centenary of the Bwgcolman people
The commemoration of Palm Island enables communities to reflect on the past 100 years and the Bwgcolman people's journey.

It’s a vision shared by Palm Island Mayor Alf Lacey.

“My thoughts is that Palm [Island] would eventually become economically sustainable and sustain itself economically. More jobs, particularly for our young people, and a nice safe liveable community is really important,” Mr Lacey says.

“We’re not able to run cattle stations or dairy farms like mainland Australia – the things that we can be good at is doing things like aquaculture, tourism drive and tapping into that industry so we create an opportunity for a robust economic footprint in our community, rather than a welfare footprint.”

But the biggest investment for the community is in its youth. 

On Palm Island’s foreshore, not far from where their ancestors would line up for rations and roll calls, around 300 young dancers form a giant circle as a hundreds watchon, cheering and whistling.

Performing traditional dances and songs is a big part of keeping youth “on track”, according to one of the lead dancers, Germaine Bulsey.

“We’re keeping it alive for our ancestors,” he says.

"This is what they gave us so we should look after it for them... showing our culture off, black and proud."

Segregation on Mango Avenue stopped in the early 1970s, courtesy of a handful of brave locals who defiantly began flaunting the rules.

Nowadays, the street is a hive of activity dotted with local business and community organisations dedicated to building a better future for Palm Island.

If you keep driving north, you’ll reach the construction site for a new housing block on the island.

Local school children were asked to name one of the roads.

They called it Paradise Street.

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