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A history of the Wellesley Islands from first European contact

Mornington Island is the largest of the North Wellesley Islands located in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Lardil people, the traditional owners of Mornington Island sometimes refer to it as Gununa, and this is now the name of the small township on the Island. There is no definite information when the Wellesley Islands were formed in their current state, but it has been suggested that the people on the Islands have lived there in almost complete isolation for between six and eight thousand years.

To the South of Mornington Island, between Mornington and the mainland, are Denham Island and some small islands that were the home of the Yankaal people.  To the South East is Bentinck Island with a few smaller islands that make up the South Wellesley Islands.  These were the home of the Kaiadilt people.

Almost all Lardil, Yankaal and Kaiadilt people now live in the township of Gununa, together with people that originally came from the mainland, predominantly from the Gangalida tribes.

The first Europeans to visit the Gulf of Carpentaria were Dutch traders of the East Indian Company in 1606. The first documented visit of what are known as the Wellesley Islands took place when Abel Tasman visited the area in 1644, and charted the islands as part of a peninsula, which he called “Cape van Diemen”.  Another Dutchman, Maarten van Delft, on an expedition to the area was ordered to enter the “Bay of Hollandia Nova” (i.e. the Gulf of Carpentaria) and pass the “Cape van Diemen” in order to establish whether there might be a passage through Australia.  At that time it was thought that Australia might consist of two large islands.

The Wellesley Islands were visited in the 17th century by Macassan fishermen, hunting for beche-de-mer. Their expeditions were later described by Flinders as large undertakings involving many ships and large crews, who took the habit of interbreeding with the native populations of the lands they visited.

Contact with the British began when Mathew Flinders anchored the HMS Investigator off Sweers Island (South Wellesley) in 1802.  Flinders named several islands at the time, including Mornington. The British did not return until 1841, when Captain Stokes visited Bountiful, Fowler, Bentinck and Sweers Islands in the Beagle.

Contact with non-Indigenous people intensified after Burketown was established in 1865.   Burketown residents were relocated to Sweers Island in 1866 after an outbreak of ‘gulf fever’.  The following year the Customs House and township of Carnarvon was established at Sweers Island, bringing many people into the Wellesley Islands including Chinese and Pacific Island labourers.

Increased commercial activity in the Wellesley Islands impacted heavily on the traditional hunting practices of Aboriginal people.  Commercial fishing competed for sea foods, and island ecosystems were devastated by the introduction of cattle, sheep, horses, rabbits and goats. Competition for land and resources sometimes led to violence.  In 1872 Customs Officers fired upon Kaiadilt people fishing at Sweers Island.  Kaiadilt oral histories also refer to the murder of eleven people at Bentinck Island in 1918 by a party of non-Indigenous people. The abduction of Kaiadilt women and children was also a relatively common.  In 1867 armed Kaiadilt men were reported to have successfully retrieved two of their boys from local settlers at Sweers Island.

Despite the activity at Sweers and Bentinck Islands, few non-Indigenous people visited Mornington Island until the early 1900s when commercial operators became interested in the Southern Gulf region.  Lardil people were increasingly exposed to the outside world, particularly men, who were recruited to work in the marine industries.  Employment on beche-de-mer and pearling boats was physically demanding and dangerous, and often exposed Aboriginal workers to abuse, alcohol and opium. In 1905 the Government responded by declaring all islands in the Wellesley groups Aboriginal reserves, in an attempt to exclude recruiters from the Southern Gulf.

Government attempts to contact Lardil people were unsuccessful until 1908, when Chief Protector of Aboriginals R. B. Howard visited Mornington Island.  He met a group of people who took him inland to show him a nearby lake. After a second visit in 1912, Howard appealed to the Government to establish a ‘protectionist presence’ on the island.  Two years the Presbyterian Church established a mission at Mornington Island with the assistance of the Government.  Founding missionary Rev. Hall arrived on 19 May 1914, together with assistants Mr. Paul and Walter Owen. Hall’s wife Katherine soon followed.  It was estimated that around 400 people lived on the island at the time.

Hall attracted few permanent residents during his brief time as Superintendent.  Peter Kangarumgully, Big Billy, Paddy Marmies and Gully Peters were among the first.  Hall’s successes included the establishment of a beche-de-mer enterprise using the mission ketch ‘Morning Star’. Rev. Hall was killed by a Lardil man named Kidikur (also known as ‘Bad Peter’ and ‘Burketown Peter’) in October 1917.  The highly publicized event led some to suggest missionaries had no place on the island.  The Government appointed a permanent replacement in 1918, namely the Rev. Robert Wilson.

Under Wilson, mission residents performed all the work necessary to develop and maintain the mission. Many men worked as stockman, tending to cattle bought to the island to provide a food and revenue source.  Up until the 1930s mission residents also sold sandalwood, beche-de-mere, dugong oil, turtle shell and fruit and vegetables to supplement mission income.

By 1921 the use of dormitories to isolate children for education and Christian conversion was well established. The Sunday service provided one of the few opportunities for girls to spend time with their parents.  Dormitory boys were released twice a week to see their families.  Discipline was strict and physical punishments were common during Wilson’s time.  Children were segregated from the opposite sex and were locked into dormitories after evening meals. In addition to attending school and church services, the children were responsible for much of the agricultural and domestic work at the mission.

The mission was poorly funded and residents often experienced shortages of ‘white man’s food’.  Dormitory children often relied on bush foods brought to them by relatives, including dugong, turtle, oysters, fish, crab, goanna and wild honey.  The reliance on traditional foods was probably influential in Wilson's policy of releasing teenage boys from the dormitories to allow them to learn traditional hunting skills from their relatives. Girls often remained in the dormitories until they married or were sent into domestic service on the mainland. 

The mission did not receive dedicated medical assistance until 1931.  Health problems at the mission included hookworm, whooping cough, gastro-enteritis and mosquito born illnesses.  An airstrip was completed on Denham Island in 1934 to assist missionaries to import food, medical services and supplies.  Many mission men, women and children worked together for about a year to complete the airstrip. 

The mission population grew rapidly at times.  In 1936 forty people were removed to Mornington Island from Turn Off Lagoons, many of whom were Waanyi people.  The new arrivals were met by a severe cyclone which destroyed almost all of the mission buildings that same year. Fortunately no one was killed.  In 1947 and 1948 many Kaiadilt people were relocated to Mornington Island by the Government, after drought and a cyclonic tidal surge made living conditions on Bentinck Island very difficult. Some people had to be ‘induced’ to leave their home island.

During the Second World War, mission residents were encouraged to ‘go bush’ in preparation for a Japanese invasion. Almost all mission staff were evacuated in 1942, as were a small number of dormitory children. The return to bush provided many dormitory children their first experience of traditional life under tribal law.  Modern influences arrived when the Royal Australian Air Force established a radar station on the island in 1943. Concerts to entertain troops and locals were a regular event.  Some mission men experienced the wage economy for the first time, after being sent to Burketown to work as stockmen to alleviate wartime labour shortages.

Mission staff returned to Mornington Island in 1944 without Rev. Wilson, who had been replaced by Rev. McCarthy. Unlike Wilson, McCarthy interfered with the rule of elders in the camps surrounding the mission.  He also introduced legal marriages, Aboriginal police and initiated the development of the first permanent housing in the community. He left the mission in 1948.

More people arrived in 1958 when several Doomadgee mission families voluntarily relocated to Mornington Island to take advantage of the liberalised philosophies of the new Superintendent, Rev. Belcher. Belcher closed the dormitories in 1954.  Mission residents called Belcher ‘kantha’ (father), reflecting his popularity. He remained until 1970.

After the war the Presbyterian missions were in serious debt.  With little money to develop the missions, living conditions deteriorated and sanitation became problematic at Mapoon and Mornington Island missions. Periodic drought and water shortages compounded these problems, and Mornington Island residents were regularly sent into the bush due to food shortages.

Media coverage of a gastro-enteritis outbreak at Mornington Island during the drought of 1952 drew national attention to the impoverished conditions at the mission.  An evacuation of residents to Aurukun was narrowly avoided after McCarthy supported residents who refused to leave without a guarantee they would be allowed to return when the drought broke.  The following year, eleven children died during an outbreak of dysentery at the island.  Health workers went public, blaming poor sanitation and water quality, sub-standard housing and poor diet.  By 1954 the Government was pressuring the Presbyterian Church to close both Mornington Island and Mapoon missions. The Mornington Island closure was abandoned as a result of strong community protest and the discovery of a new source of drinking water.

Rev. Belcher introduced a cash economy into the community in 1954.  Housing supplies, clothes and food items became available at the island store for the first time. Residents gradually replaced the bark and galvanized iron huts with prefabricated homes, constructed by the residents themselves.  Many residents took up work on the mainland as domestics, stockman and fencers, or worked on cargo boats.  With Rev. Belcher’s encouragement, a cultural revival developed during the 1960s which enabled several residents to become professional artists and dancers, notably Dick Roughsey.

During the late 1960s and 1970s the Church introduced policies at Mornington Island and Aurukun missions which supported the community’s aspirations to achieve self-management and recognition of Aboriginal land tenure.  This placed them in direct conflict with the Bjelke-Petersen Government, who threatened to assume administrative responsibility for the missions unless the Church complied with official ‘assimilation’ polices.  The relationship broke down completely after the Church began aggressively supporting the Aboriginal land rights protest which developed at Aurukun in 1975, after the Government introduced legislation to facilitate bauxite mining there.

Cyclone Ted crossed the Mornington Island coast in December 1976, and destroyed almost all of buildings and houses in the community.  Mission residents lived in tents for over a year while the Queensland Government disputed the terms attached to disaster relief provided by the Commonwealth Government for rebuilding.  The relationship between the Fraser and Bjelke-Petersen Governments was particularly dysfunctional by this time, partly because of their polarised policies in relation to Aboriginal land rights and self-determination.

The Fraser Government provided financial and political support to the Aurukun and Mornington Island communities after the Queensland Government withdrew funding to the Church in March 1978, and initiated an administrative take-over.  By this time, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was preparing legislation to facilitate self-management at Aurukun and Mornington Island missions, after the communities requested his intervention. 

Eventually the State and Commonwealth agreed to pursue self-management through the creation of local Government authorities at both Mornington Island and Aurukun communities.  The Aurukun and Mornington Island Shire Councils were constituted in 1978 with the introduction of the Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act. A renewable fifty year lease to former reserve lands was issued to both Councils. In 2008 the Lardil, Yangkaal, Gangalidda & Kaiadilt peoples were acknowledged as the traditional owners of the Wellesley, South Wellesley, Forsyth and Bountiful Island groups.

(This article is mostly based on a document produced by the Australian Department of Communities)