Fighting Grounds: WEIPA 1898-1998 John Harrison

In the beginning

The Weipa shell mounds debate

Long before the first European mariners sighted the western coast of Cape York, Aboriginal people migrated from Asia to populate the coast where the modern township of Weipa now stands. They were a sea people, drawing much of their sustenance from the molluscs and other seafood along the shoreline.

Evidence of their presence can be found to today in the huge shell mounds along the river banks of the waterways that flow into Albatross Bay. Most shell middens are located on the banks of the Hey River, which flows north into the Embley River and then into Albatross Bay.

Radiocarbon dating by Cambridge archaeologist Geoff Bailey in 1977 suggests continuous settlement for at least one thousand years perhaps two thousand years. An archaeological excavation in 1972 found traces of stone artefacts sourced from rock 100 km east of Weipa.

But little by way of stone artefacts have been found in the area, because the predominant rock types are laterite, but fragments of bone spear tips were also found.

The diet of the people included wallaby, bandicoot, fish, particularly bream, and crab as well as shellfish (Andara granosa) . However, the huge volume of shells has led some anthropologists and archaeologists to conclude that the middens could not be result of human activity.

Anthropologist WEH Stanner who examined the middens in1960 concluded they were wave accumulated beach deposits, because such huge quantities of shell could not have been accumulated solely by human activity.

Subsequently Stone argued the middens were really scrub fowl nests made by the orange footed scrub fowl (Megapodius reinwardt). Bailey, Wright and Beaton all believe human agency responsible. Bailey estimated there were over 500 middens, of which he examined over 300, some as high as 10 m. Ethnologist Dr WE Roth reported the middens in 1901; as did government geologist CFV Jackson in the following year.

Anthropologist Richard Wright led an archaeological excavation of two sites in 1963 and 1971, which confirmed his view that the sites were of human origin, and the middens - thought to be at risk from possible future mining developments - were placed on the Australian Heritage Commission's Register of the National Estate since 1980, mainly because as Richard Bailey argued, their cultural heritage value far is greater than their natural heritage value.

John Douglas: calming Cape York's troubled waters

John Douglas was Queensland Government Resident Thursday Island 1885-1904 and Premier of Queensland 1878-79. This photo shows John Douglas with his sons at Thursday Island in 1903, the year before he died.

His was the vision to calm the troubled waters of western Cape York Peninsula through the establishment of a string of missions down the coast. Commercial fishing based at Thursday Island had made lucrative profits from the export of pearl shell and beche-de-mer, but also had considerable impact on the population of the Torres Strait, and on the Aboriginal peoples on the western and eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. Thus the Queensland Government was under some pressure from both the Colonial Office and liberal opinion in the colonies and in England to address the impact of the fishery on the indigenous populations.

Douglas lobbied his old friend and political ally, Queensland Premier Samuel Griffith to support establishing missions in the region as a means of maintaining civil order.

Image: John Oxley Memorial Library

The imperative behind the mission regime was always political and this bedevilled not only church-state relationships, but also the relationship between the church and the Aboriginal people. Subsequently, a number of historians have been highly critical of the church's subservience to and dependence on the government.

Hugh Milman: policing the frontier

As Police Magistrate on Thursday Island at the turn of the century, Milman made frequent reports of Aboriginal people being kidnapped for work on the pearling luggers, and like John Douglas was a strong supporter of the missionaries and their work, and an advocate for the human rights of the Aboriginal people.

Hugh Milman

"I have information," Premier Samuel Griffith told the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1884, "that the kidnapping of our own natives has been going on for a considerable time; and we should be prepared to put it down with an equally strong hand as the kidnapping of South Sea Islanders." Milman's reports were the source of Griffith's information.

The Moravians come to Mapoon ... and Weipa

The first missionaries to staff the missions on western Cape York Peninsula were from the Moravian Church in Europe.

The Moravian Church of the late nineteenth century owed its existence to the resurgence of German Pietism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, although the pietistic roots of Moravianism predate the Reformation. In pre-Reformation times the Moravians were part of a sect of evangelical non-conformists, "strongly represented amongst the artisans in the great cities" more generally known as the Brethren. The Moravian movement soon spread to England, where, according to Hey, it "played a far larger part in the great Evangelical Revival in England than many people supposed."

John Wesley was profoundly influenced by the German Moravians in England. After his return from Germany, Wesley had written to Moravian leader Nicholas von Zinzendorf:

I greatly approve of your conferences and bands; of your methods of instructing children; and in general, of your great care of the souls committed to your charge.

This peculiarly Moravian form of Christian communalism, and isolation from the secular world, which Wesley lauded as "deadness to the world", was still vital in 1891, a century and a half later. The Moravian presence in Australia can be traced back to Charles James Latrobe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, who was trained as a Moravian minister.

This group founded Mapoon in 1891 (left to right): James Ward, Minnie Hey, Matilda Ward and Nicholas Hey. Minne Hey and Matilda Ward were sisters. James Ward died of fever at Mapoon in 1895; his widow retired from Mapoon in 1917. Nicholas and Minnie Hey retired from Mapoon in 1919. Minnie Hey died in Sydney in 1970 aged 100 years. Image: Arthur Ward Miracle at Mapoon 1908

While in Victoria, Latrobe requested the Moravian Mission Board in London send missionaries to Victoria to establish Aboriginal missions there. The Victorian Presbyterian Church financially supported the Moravian Mission at Ramahyuk from 1863, and quite naturally, when the Wards arrived with Hey in 1891, they visited this stations. Matilda Ward wrote:

We also visited several aboriginal stations and became acquainted with the blacks of Victoria. These we found living in comfortable homes neatly furnished, clad in European costume and the children attending school.

Edwin and Thekla Brown: first missionaries at Weipa

English Moravians Edwin and Thekla Brown had already been selected to staff the next mission to be established on the lawless and wild western coast of Cape York Peninsula, when James Ward died of malarial fever at Mapoon in January 1895.

When the Browns arrived in 1895, the Moravian missionary magazine Periodical Accounts recorded that, "after spending Christmas (1895) most enjoyably at Ramahyuk, where they obtained a very valuable insight into the working of an aboriginal station on Moravian lines, they returned to Melbourne."

In April 1896, the Browns arrived at Mapoon where they were to stay for two years, preparing for the establishment of Weipa.

Thekla Brown.

On June 10, 1898 Brown, his un-named assistant and a party of seven Aboriginal men from Mapoon, travelling by whale boat, arrived at the site to establish the mission.

"Seven of the Mapoon men, selected by Brown himself, went to help him and his assistant in founding the new station.

"They left Mapoon on 6th June, travelling in small boats. They were five days on the way. There followed a series of disasters. Almost all the party suffered from illness. The Mapoon blacks removed from the influence of the station and their old teacher, lapsed into heathenish practices under the spell of native etiquette and some of them ran away. By the end of the year only half the house was finished. But patience and perseverance overcame difficulties. The seven were punished in the wise fatherly fashion of Mapoon, where it is quite understood that revenge is not punishment." Arthur Ward Miracle at Mapoon 1908: 224

Just what were the so-called heathenish practices of the Aborigines remains unrecorded, as does the nature of their punishment, but it should be noted that in 1909 Hey was the subject of a magisterial inquiry into his use of corporal punishment at Mapoon.

John Douglas' first visit to Weipa September 1898

Thursday Island Government Resident John Douglas visited Brown in late September 1898, stopping off at Mapoon on the way to collect Hey. Douglas' own account of his trip to Weipa was published in the Torres Strait Pilot newspaper, and the report appears in barely legible facsimile here. The government steamer White Star, successor to the Albatross anchored at the junction of the Hey and Embley rivers, and the party disembarked to the whale boat to row the eighteen miles up river to the mission station, a four hour trip on the rising tide. Brown, Douglas reported, was "hard at work on an extensive building for which all the piles were in position, and a portion of the framework erected."

Douglas surveyed the surrounding neighbourhood on horseback, and found it satisfactory saying: "There appeared to be a good supply of water, and the soil gave every indication of being suitable for cultivation." Part of the logic in selecting an inland site was to attract the indigenous people away from the coast where they were subject to the depredations of the fishery, and to keep the missionaries away from the fever-carrying insects of the coastal lagoons, but most importantly to find a good source of soil and water; deficiencies that were to bedevil Mapoon for most of its life.

As to the indigenous inhabitants, Douglas reported, "there was a camp of blacks at the station and Mr Brown gave them a good character as willing workmen." More locals appeared down river at the junction of the Embley and Hey rivers where the White Star was moored. (Source: Torres Strait Pilot, 8 October 1898)

Dr Walter Roth, Protector of Aboriginals 1899-1906

Dr Walter Roth. Image: John Oxley Library.

The new century saw the development of the system of Aboriginal "protection." In 1897 the Queensland Parliament passed the Protection of Aboriginals and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act at the initiative of the then Home Secretary, Sir Horace Tozer. Under this Act, local officials, usually police officers, were empowered to act as the local Protector of Aboriginals, sewing the seeds of the tragedy of stolen children.

The missionaries pleaded with Douglas to be included in the new regime, to be appointed Protectors and Superintendents of the newly created reserves. Their wishes were granted. Supervising the whole system were two officials: the Southern Protector of Aboriginals and the Northern Protector of Aboriginals. Dr Walter Roth, an English medico was the first Northern Protector. An immensely humane man, who was an amateur anthropologist, Roth strongly supported the missionaries in their work and made a substantial number of visits to Weipa. Roth resigned in 1906, fed up with the strong opposition his policies aroused.

Home Secretary Justin Foxton visits Weipa in 1899

Weipa opening, 1899. Image: John Oxley Library.

One of the strongest supporters of the new regime was Sir Horace Tozer's successor as Home Secretary, Justin Foxton. Foxton made it his business to visit Weipa within a year of its foundation where he participated in the distribution of blankets to the Aboriginal people. He was accompanied by his wife, Walter Roth (the Northern Protector of Aboriginals), William Parry-Okeden the Police Commissioner, at least one journalist and a photographer, as well as Hey from Mapoon.

Strangely, the Government Resident from Thursday Island, John Douglas was absent from the party, finding pressing business to attend to on the outer islands of the Torres Strait at this time. This photo shows the party gathered at the mission house with Aboriginal people from the area. It was not until after the discovery of bauxite in 1955 that politicians found it necessary to return to Weipa in large numbers.

The Embley River Mission is named Weipa in 1899

During the Home Secretary's visit to Weipa in 1899, Mrs Foxton planted a mango tree outside the mission house and officially named the station Weipa, which according to Hey, meant "hunting ground" but which is a word for the Embley River in the Anathangnayth language.

Watching Mrs Foxton plant the tree are (left to right): Mr Foxton (Home Secretary) holding the spade, Weipa missionary the Rev Edwin Brown, Zoe Brown (his young daughter), Mrs Thekla Brown. Over Mrs Foxton's shoulder is the Rev Nicholas Hey, Mapoon Superintendent.

First church building at Weipa

The foundations of the first church built at Weipa were made of pise, a form of rammed clay. These foundations are still there today, though the old church building has been demolished.

This site at the area now known locally as Twenty Mile will be the site of the centenary celebrations on June 10, 1998.

Image: Arthur Ward, Miracle at Mapoon, 1908

The wind, the sea, and "The J G Ward"

The missionaries were forced to rely on the services of the government steamers QGS Melbidir and QGS White Star for transport, communications and the delivery of supplies.

The opening of Weipa in 1898 stretched this demand further, and Mapoon missionary Nicholas Hey was determined that the mission should have its own transport. In 1901 the church purchased and commissioned a sailing lugger from the Brisbane Oyster Co, and re-naming it the J G Ward, plied it between Weipa, Mapoon and Thursday Island.

Photo Source: Arthur Ward Miracle at Mapoon 1908

Edwin Brown's Boys Brigade 1911

The Moravians saw it as part of their role to convert the Aboriginal people not only to Christianity, but to the cultural attitudes and values of the Europe from which they had come; to be the peasants and artisans characteristic of Moravian history.

Therefore, cultural and religious institutions like brass bands and Boys Brigade units were formed, complete with late nineteenth century style uniforms. The only concession to Weipa's steamy heat being that some of the boys were allowed to parade sans shirts, but still wearing the distinctive white haversack and pill box caps. Similarly, the Aboriginal crew members of the mission ketch JG Ward were attired in quasi-naval uniforms.

Sam & Elsie McKay at Weipa in 1936

Sam McKay grew up on the family farm at Walkerston west of Mackay in North Queensland. After serving as a Home Missionary at Proserpine from 1924 to 1926 he entered the Theological Hall in Brisbane to study for ordination, spending some time at Aurukun with Bill MacKenzie in 1929, and then most of 1930 at Mornington Island.

Elsie & Sam McKay. Image: Norman F Nelson manuscript collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland

Ordained in October 1930, he married Elsie and moved to Weipa as Superintendent in May 1931 where he stayed until 1936. Sam McKay and his two brothers Fred and Les were all ordained to the Presbyterian ministry; Fred and Les serving with the Australian Inland Mission. All sons of the soil, they were practical ministers in the tradition of John Flynn, who would fix a tractor, help with the mustering, and baptise the children of the bush all in a day's work.

Ted Butler, who worked for both church and state in the Gulf for many years summed it up well saying: "The spirit with which some of those early missionaries worked has been captured by a writer who described them as those who had faith to move mountains and the will to help shift it by taking hold of a shovel., (Alumina News, Weipa 3/7/1966). After his term at Weipa, Sam McKay served in several Queensland parishes, before retiring in 1965.

Weipa mission house 1936

Weipa mission house, 1936. Image: Norman F. Nelson manuscript collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

The most important event during the thirties was the relocation of the mission from the junction of Spring Creek and the Embley River to Jessica Point on the coast. What was the rationale for the move?

Aboriginal health was a major concern. In 1933 the Aborigines Mission Committee reported that at Weipa," Malaria continues its ravages among the people, 94 acute cases being treated during the year."

There was apparently debate among the missionaries themselves about the desirability of and necessity for the move and Bill MacKenzie was ultimately responsible for selecting the new site. Responsibility for overseeing the move fell on Sam McKay. It took some time to clear the scrub and to plant trees and gardens at the new Jessica Point site. When Norman Nelson visited in 1936, the site looked bare and treeless, with no trees around the mission house, and the gardens barely established.

Weipa dinghy dance 1936

This is one of the few extant photographs of traditional indigenous activities at Weipa in the early decades. Taken by Norman F. Nelson during his 1936 visit it portrays the "dinghy dance".

Given the Moravians' desire to mould the Aboriginal people into a European yeomanry, not a great deal of traditional culture survived. Much more Aboriginal culture survived at Aurukun, where the Moravian influence was least, and Bill MacKenzie encouraged the retention of language and many ceremonies.

Weipa in war time

The entry of Japan into World War II and the threatened invasion of northern Australia in 1942 caused anxiety among the residents of Weipa. In an interview in 1992, Joyce Hall described the impact of the war saying, "It was frightening." A number of Weipa men joined the military forces and served in the Thursday Island based water transport group.

This 1960 photo is of veterans (left to right) Laurence Mathew, Samuel Harry, Robert Day, Tic Tic Dick, Willie George, Peter Chrissie, Joseph Anmdron, Frank Motton and Ralph Cocoanut.

Even before the outbreak of hostilities after Pearl Harbour, Japanese submarines were sighted in Albatross Bay. Margaret Little, daughter of Jim Winn tells how in the middle of 1940 a group of Aboriginal people camping at Duyfken Pt were surprised hearing marine engines, and were astonished to see a Japanese submarine surface in the main shipping channel.

Others recall Mission Superintendent Jim Winn standing on the tank stand with binoculars to confirm the Japanese ensignia on the conning tower of a submarine in the Embley River. He then turned to calming those who feared imminent invasion.

By March 1942 female mission staff (i.e. Europeans) from Mapoon, Weipa and Aurukun had been evacuated to the Anglican Mission at Mitchell River to the south.

Ted Butler tells the story of how later in the war, Jimmy Winn went by canoe to investigate two downed American fighters which had force landed on the beach near Duyfken Point after running out of fuel.

On arrival at the scene, Jimmy found it hard to make himself understood to the Americans who found his broad Scots accent incomprehensible. Fortunately one of the Weipa men with him, Ian Motton, was able to act as interpreter.

It was in fact Jimmy Winn's accent that is believed responsible for the pronunciation of the name Weipa changing from the original WHY PAH to WEE PAR. Try saying WHY-PAH with a broad Scots accent and you get WEE-PAR!

As exploration and mining got under way after the war, the newcomers all adopted Jimmy's pronunciation, much to the chagrin of Bill and Geraldine MacKenzie at Aurukun, who blamed Jimmy Winn for the change and maintained the original pronunciation to their dying days.

1957 Change in the air...

The discovery of bauxite at Weipa in 1955 brought bucketloads of change to the people of Weipa. In the ten years following the discovery of bauxite, the church - the Australian Presbyterian Board of Missions - had come to the view that they were not smart enough to match wits with the mining company.

They determined to hand over the secular administration of the mission to the Queensland Government, and to maintain spiritual oversight of the Aboriginal community through the appointment of a chaplain.

That transition took place in 1966 and Wally Johnson was the first such chaplain. As a sign of the change at Jessica Point, Ted Butler, the administrator, moved into the big house, and Wally Thomson, the chaplain, moved into the number two house.

There can be no doubt that Conzinc and Comalco were dab hands at publicity. At the time of the negotiations between the company and the church in November 1957, as the Comalco Bill was being prepared for Parliament, a photo appeared in the Courier-Mail of a model of the new Weipa village Comalco was to fund, held by three Presbyterian parsons in dog collars, grinning like Melanesian cargo cultists, rather than the dour inheritors of Calvin and Knox. (Courier-Mail 14.11.1957).

A later press photo shows Premier Nicklin and Comalco chief Mawby smiling amid pensive Weipa children.

This 1957 photograph shows the then Federal Minister for Supply in the Menzies Government, Alan Hume in conversation with James Winn outside the mission house at Jessica Point.

...and the big men fly in

The bauxite exploration brought politicians and businessmen to Weipa in droves. James Winn was reportedly a strong supporter of the bauxite mine. He could see that it would provide a solution to the chronic under-resourcing that was a perennial problem for the missionand he had an excellent rapport with Harry Evans and other members of the exploration team.

His daughter, Margaret Little told historian Geoff Wharton how the family was sometimes forced to eat bush foods because of a shortage of food supplies at the mission.

1963 The end of an era

Mission Superintendents from Weipa and Aurukun and their wives meet in Brisbane with key mission committee members and their spouses, at Sherwood Presbyterian Manse in October 1963.

(Left to right) Rev Rowellen Ramsay, Rev Bill MacKenzie, Mrs Geraldine MacKenzie, Mrs R Ramsay, Mrs Jean Forrest, Mrs Elizabeth Winn, Rev J Fairlie Forrest and Mr Jim Winn.

The Winns retired in 1963 and the MacKenzies in 1965. The old style Australian Presbyterian Board of Mission was subsequently replaced by the more trendy sounding Board of Ecumenical Mission and Relations (BOEMAR).

Image: Presbyterian Church of Queensland Historical Records.

Weipa Mission House 1966

Image: Private Collection of the Rev Wally Johnson

Jim Winn was succeeded by Angus Ewin who was invalided out of Weipa with a heart condition in August 1965. His replacement, sent in initially for a few months from November 1965, was Wally Johnson.

Fresh from post-graduate study in the US, where he had been influenced by the civil rights movement and the theological ferment of the early sixties, Wally was, he says "naive and idealistic."

At Weipa North as the mining township developed, Wally Johnson formed the Weipa North congregation in September 1966, which ten years later became St Luke's Anglican-Uniting Church Co-operative Parish. The Anglican priest Tony Hall-Mathews also began visiting at this time. Arriving by the single engined plane he piloted across the Diocese of Carpentaria for many years, he would then unpack a small motor scooter from the back of the plane, so he could move independently around the township.

The company built a swimming pool - for all the community - as part of the new Rocky Point township. When Wally Johnson arrived with a bunch of kids from the mission for a swim, they found out that the pool had indeed been built for all the community: all the WHITE community!

...and the changing of the guard

Ted and Marj Butler and family at Jessica Point ca 1966. Ted was described as the "Technical Missionary" at Weipa and when the church handed over the secular affairs of the mission to the Queensland Government in 1966, Ted became government manager of the Weipa Aboriginal community. Ted was later to be highly critical of the policies of BOEMAR and the church, particularly in the dispute over Aurukun and Mornington Island in 1978.

Butler family, Weipa. Image: Private Collection of the Rev Wally Johnson

Freedom riders or wage slaves?

The development of the mine site and the construction of Weipa township did provide some employment opportunities for the Aboriginal people of Weipa, particularly during the test drilling of the minesite. However the understanding remains to this day that the people were promised training and jobs by Maurice Mawby of Comalco during the negotiations to establish the mine and township.

Workers from the Weipa South village (ca 1966) (i.e. the old mission at Jessica Point) returning from work on the bus that ran daily between Jessica Point and Rocky Point, site of the new township.

When taxed with this offer, Comalco is reported to have replied that yes they did make the offer, but had subsequently changed their offer.

No provision for training and jobs for Aboriginal was contained in the Comalco Act rushed through the Queensland Parliament in December 1957.

The Act did provide however for most of the Weipa Aboriginal Reserve to taken over by the mining leases. Comalco did contribute £300,000 to the Australian Presbyterian Board of Missions to rebuild the Weipa Village.

Aye, self determination means... a fully fledged Kirk Session

This photo shows the Weipa Church Council, not yet a fully fledged Kirk Session, led by the Rev Wally Johnson in black Geneva gown and white ordination bands amid Weipa's tropical heat. While the church through the Australian Presbyterian Board of Missions felt unable to match wits with Comalco, and handed over the temporal running of the mission to the Queensland Government in 1966, it did find both the courage and the time to tackle the question of how to legitimise the local church structures on the mission stations through the regional Presbytery, state General Assembly and the national General Assembly (GAA) and process the resulting changes to its Code through the arcane procedures of the infamous Barrier Act.

BACK ROW (Left to right): Philip Johnson, Lawrence Matthew, Eddie John, Gibson Jankai; FRONT ROW: Eddie Barkley, Ernest Hall, Wally Johnson, Roy George, John Andrews. Image: Private Collection of the Rev Wally Johnson.

1970: Share and share alike?

Shares in Comalco were offered to employees of the company, to some Aboriginal entities and most controversially to serving politicians and their families including the then Queensland premier, Mr Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

However, it appears that the workers at Weipa did not get the volume of shares they felt they were entitled to and resented the fact shares were offered to Aborigines, but this cartoon by Rocky Point identity Dusty Miller in the local rag The Bauxite Bulletin in June 1970, illustrates their view that the Aborigines were better off that than Comalco's employees! After the political furore, Comalco announced that it would discontinue the practice of offering shares in this manner.

The expectation that all would share in the benefits of bauxite mining was an ever-present myth, as Ian Gall’s cartoon in the Courier-Mail in 1957 shows.

Napranum 1997

A century after Edwin Brown began the work, St Barnabas Church at Weipa South is a flourishing congregation of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress established in 1985.

Weipa today...

Today a century after Edwin Brown began the work, St Barnabas Church at Weipa South is a flourishing congregation of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress established in 1985. The Congress is the indigenous body of the Uniting Church in Australia which has national responsibility for the church’s ministry and community development.

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John Harrison

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