Revisiting Palm Island

It’s sometimes best not to (pre)judge a book by its title.

I confess that when I first heard about the publication of Joanne Watson’s Palm Island: through a long lens (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010), my first reaction was to wonder whether we really needed another book examining the story of Cameron Doomadgee’s death in custody in 2004.  Beyond the copious newspaper coverage of the event, the ensuing riots, the protracted legal battles, the investigations into police conduct, the battles between Coroner and CMC, the sad fate of Lex Wooton, the unending reversals of decisions, there have been two big-selling books, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2008) and Jeff Waters’ Gone for a Song: a death in custody on Palm Island (ABC Books, 2008).  I have written about the story several times over the years, reviewed the books, and learned a bit of history from Bill Rosser’s two accounts of life on Palm in the 70s and 80s, This is Palm Island (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978) and Return to Palm Island (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

But if I thought I had heard it all before, I was wrong.  Very wrong.  Before I’d reached page 50 of Watson’s book, my jaw had dropped several times and I was racing through its pages, astounded by its revelations and awaiting the next chapter with a mixture of fascination and mounting dismay.

Watson opens her story with a chapter reviewing the history of Cameron Doomadgee’s arrest and death, the riots, and the violent police response to them. She closes with a another chapter focused on the inquest and its aftermath.  This is the total of her coverage of the “current events” on Palm Island, and while it provides enough information for a reader new to the story, Watson wisely chooses not to duplicate material that has been more extensively covered elsewhere.  She has a different agenda.

The bulk of Palm Island: through a long lens is instead a history of the island, beginning with the traditional stories of its creation by the ancestral Carpet Snake, and moving quickly to its occupation and exploitation in the nineteenth century.  Here again, her exposition is brief in its recounting of the development of a penal colony for Aboriginal resisters and offenders, whose “crimes” were often simply adherence to traditional ways (like speaking a native language) in the face of Queensland’s brutal assimilation policies and desire to “disperse” (read, eliminate) the Indigenous population as pastoral and extractive industries moved into the northeastern sectors of the Australian continent.

This history becomes truly explosive at the end of the twelve year tenure of Robert Henry Curry, who as Superintendent, lorded over the Bwgcolman* during the 1920s.  Curry’s reign of terror ended spectacularly on February 2, 1930.

A few minutes after midnight on that fatal day, Curry decided to end the long simmering tensions that existed between himself and the other white staff.  In short, Curry dynamited his own home, destroying it completely and killing his own children (after first injecting them with morphine to sedate them and spare them suffering).  He then went on a mad rampage, shooting and seriously wounding the Island’s doctor and his wife, and setting fire to more buildings, including the dormitories and jail, before absconding in a boat (which he destroyed after transferring to a second vessel) to nearby Fantome Island.  By morning, however, Curry was on his way back to Palm.

Curry’s second in command, Thomas Hoffman, frantically tried to rescue the situation on Palm Island, alerting police at Townsville on the mainland, attending to the wounded doctor and his wife, and organizing and arming a posse of Indigenous men to protect the beach against Curry’s return.  Most of the island’s white population literally headed for the hills, hiding out in the bush until reinforcements could arrive.  When Curry did come ashore sometime after eight o’clock that morning, he saw the native men arrayed on the beach and opened fire.  They returned fire and a shot from a Bwgcolman man named Peter Prior brought mad Curry down; the Superintendent died on the beach.  Prior and Hoffman were arrested for murder, the newspapers played up the savagery of the response to Curry’s rampage, and accusations and counter-accusations flew through the pages of the press.  Eventually, an inquiry was convened, and in August, six months after the night of madness,  the Supreme Court dropped the charges against Hoffman and Prior.

But life on Palm Island remained hellish through the 30s and the war years, with a succession of superintendents continuing the policy of total control over the Bwgcolman inhabitants.  And despite the fact that the community was in many ways physically and psychically isolated from the mainland, the growing Aboriginal advancement and rights movement of the post-war years led the native Palm Islanders to begin believing in better lives for themselves.

Political striving culminated in a general strike on the Island in 1957.  This time the Superintendent was an ex-policeman named Roy Bartlam.  Not a madman like Curry, Bartlam rather incarnated the concept of paternalism like perhaps no other Superintendent in Palm’s history.  While the Bwgcolman’s ability to marry was always subject to the approval of the authorities, and wages (for those who earned them) were routinely deposited in welfare or trust accounts that neither provided welfare nor engendered trust, Bartlam operated from the extremes of a position that held that Indigenous people were irremediably child-like and incapable of thinking for themselves. This convenient premise allowed him to justify total control over the lives of the Islanders.

Eventually a group of about a dozen men led the Bwgcolman in what Watson describes as an unarmed insurrection.  Their demands included adequate supplies of edible meat, increased wages, improved housing conditions, and the departure of Bartlam from the Island.  By the second day of the strike, police reinforcements had been called in from Townsville once more and the Director of Native Affairs declared the situation to be well in hand, although in fact the protestors were still refusing to work.

But by the fifth day of the strike, Bartlam hit back with a series of raids on the homes of the strike’s organizers, bursting in and terrorizing their families at four in the morning (a tactic that would be successfully deployed again in the wake of the 2004 riots), imprisoning the ringleaders and quickly shipping them and their families off to the mainland to missions and reserves across Queensland.  Ironically, most residents of Palm Island had originally arrived there in exile (or their forebears had); now the troublemakers were being exiled from their land of exile in retribution.  Bartlam reasoned that by splitting the leaders off from their community and from one another, he could quell the dissent and bring the penal colony back under control.  But in the final sad irony, by sending dozens of Palm Islanders back to the mainland, Bartlam succeeded mostly in sending witnesses to the brutality of conditions on Palm into the wider world where they helped build the momentum of the Aboriginal rights crusade.

In the decades that followed the strike (an action that survives in the living memory of some of today’s residents) the push for Indigenous rights made occasional inroads onto Palm Island.  Local councils were formed and proposals drafted to improve conditions and provide a greater degree of self-government and personal control of the resident’s private lives.  But the century of total control was not to be brushed aside so easily.  The government retained its management of facilities like the hospital and the schools and of services that brought essential food and supplies from the mainland.  Indigenous council that made demands for reform were dismissed or simply never had another meeting convened.  And so things continued into the twenty-first century up to and beyond the day when Sgt Chris Hurley took offense at Cameron Doomadgee’s cheekiness, arrested him for drunken swearing, and brought him to the fatal watch house.

In the final pages of the book Watson finally lets her anger spill out.  Her tone throughout most the narrative had been even, factual, dispassionate, and her asssertios well-documented despite being focused somewhat selectively on the Curry and Bartlam incidents.  Those few days in 1930 and 1957 are probably given at least as much space in her history as the entire period from the 1860s through 2004.  She clearly wants to see those incidents as parallel examples of abuses that were to be replicated by the police in 2004 and by the media treatment of the Doomadgee case in the following years.  She has harsh words for Chloe Hooper’s account in The Tall Man: she finds Hooper too sympathetic to Hurley, too wiling to overlook reports of his earlier incidents of brutality, too willing to provide exculpatory moments that soften the portrait of a killer into that of an officer who mentored Aboriginal children in sport.  She has harsher words for the Queensland police, who have honored their fellows for bravery in the face of riots occasioned by one of their number, the sergeant who has since been promoted, reimbursed, and protected from the consequences of his actions on November 19, 2004.

Doomadgee’s family ultimately won a civil suit for damages and were awarded only $192,500 for their loss; Hurley received $127,878 in compensation for loss of property when angry residents burned down his home.  Late last year, the Courier-Mail reported that the Queensland Police Union held that Hurley was under no obligation to pay back $35,000 in a redundant insurane award: he claimed damages twice, once from his insurer and again from the QPS.  (And tellingly, the award from the QPS was nearly three times the amount he received from his commercial insurance provider.)  The Crime and Misconduct Commission’s powers to investigate irregularities in conduct like those surrounding the investigation of Hurley–led by two of his friends whom he picked up and the airport and cooked dinner for the night of Doomadgee’s death–have been weakened on instructions from former Premier Peter Beattie.  Watson is right to be outraged for, after more than a century, the balance of power on Palm Island has not shifted at all.  The residents of Palm Island remain in the stranglehold.

*According to a note on the title page of Watson’s book, “The Manbarra are Traditional Owners of Palm Island.  The Bwgcolman (pronounced Bwook-a-mun and meaning Palm Island) are historical residents.  They and their ancestors were deported to Palm Island reserve from across Queensland.”

This entry was posted in Books, Communities, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revisiting Palm Island

  1. After reading this I feel I need to rush out and buy this book. It is so unbelievable the
    history of this island. On seeing the film of The Tall Man, after reading the book, I still have such a sense of utter disbelief and shock at the way we close our eyes to what goes on. Oh sad world!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s