Early landowners in Cairns 1886 (State Library)

Chapter 1

New Arrivals and Oppression in an Ancient Land

Even if we forget the faces, we will never forget the bonds that were carved in our souls.
– Faith Barroa

My Arrival

Life began for me in the Far North Queensland town of Gordonvale on the 23rd of April 1967. Gordonvale, situated about 25 kilometres south of Cairns, was a small country town of about 2000 people. The town was established on Yidinji tribal land, initially called Mulgrave and later renamed to Nelson. The name Gordonvale was finally settled on as a tribute to John Gordon, a pioneer in the district who was a butcher, dairyman and grazier and early director of Mulgrave Central Sugar Mill. The town’s most prominent geographical feature is Walsh’s Pyramid or Djarragun, as it is known to the Yidinji. A cone shaped peak, rising 922m on the outskirts of the town, it resembles a small volcano. In 1967 Gordonvale had, among other things, a sugar mill, four hotels, a tennis club, a police station and two GPs, Dr Janus Brodie and Dr Raymond Davis.

To the north of Gordonvale lies the town of Edmonton, which was situated halfway between Gordonvale and Cairns. Edmonton had a smaller population than Gordonvale and a much smaller population than Cairns, with its bustling metropolis of 54 000 people. Edmonton also had a sugar mill and was typical of most country towns of that time. It had two pubs, the Hambledon Hotel and the Grafton Hotel. There was a meatworks on the outskirts of town, which along with the Hambledon Sugar Mill constituted the main source of employment for Edmontonites. There was a strong sense of community, which was characteristic of most Queensland towns of that era.

Most importantly on the day of my birth, Gordonvale had the nearest hospital to Edmonton, where my parents, Tom and Marion lived. On the 23rd of April 1967, Tom Pyne and his heavily pregnant wife Marion, both keen tennis players, were at Norman Park in Gordonvale, attending a local match. As luck would have it, another keen participant in the tennis, was Dr. Raymond Davis. Not long into the day, labour pains led to my parents and the man referred to simply as ‘Doc’ making a 400-metre trip down Norman Street to the Gordonvale Hospital where I made my debut appearance. Born as a result of a ‘love match’ I had none the less ruined Doc’s day of tennis, but he did hurriedly return to the court for a few games. Perhaps Doc’s love of tennis was the reason I remained uncircumcised, despite my mother’s request for the cruellest of snips.

Marion and Tom Pyne

Marion and Tom Pyne

For Tom and Marion, I was their second child, my sister Joann having been born 7 years earlier. Home was a small red brick house at 88 Mount Peter Road, the longest road in town, formerly known as Sawmill Pocket Road, it started at the junction with Mill Road near the Bruce Highway and ran for a mile before getting to where we lived, and then curled its way through sugar-cane paddocks, ending in an old goldmine in Mount Peter in the mountain range behind the township. At the time of my birth the house at no.88 was surrounded by a creek to the north and east and cane paddocks to the south. To the west of our house lived my mother’s parents, Bob O’Connell and May McKinnon, known to my sister and I simply as Grandad Bob and Nana.

Marion married Tom in 1955 when she was eighteen and he was twenty. The marriage joined two pioneering families, the Wienerts and the Pynes.

The Far North Queensland we had come to know and love was unique and special, but very young. Edmonton had for thousands of years been home of the Yidinji people. To the north were the Irrijanji and to the south east the Koonganji. Their traditional ways and movements stretched back longer than anyone knew. When the European invasion came,  what kind of people moved here and why?

Like today, the drivers for people to leave their homeland included  economic hardship,  political persecution and in some cases, a simple love of adventure. For new arrivals the Far North was an unspoiled tropical environment full of new opportunities.

European Arrival

The Pyne name has been in Cairns since the early days of settlement. My great-great grandfather, James Pyne, skippered the schooner “The Freddy” which plied the east coast waters, taking supplies to the fledgling settlements at Port Douglas and later Cairns. A true pioneer of the far north, he went on to become one of the founding fathers of Cairns, at a time when it was being carved out of mosquito-inhabited mangroves.. A merchant, landowner and philanthropic businessman, James Pyne became an original member of the Cairns Divisional Board (the local Council of the day).

The Queensland government showed their support for the area when they passed the Divisional Boards Act in October 1879, but they initially included the Cairns district under the Division of Hinchinbrook (centered on Ingham). In October 1881, Louis Severin and James Pyne were appointed as the two Cairns representatives on the Divisional Board, but by June 1880 Severin and Pyne had complained about the difficulties of travelling to Port Douglas. This resulted in the Johnstone Divisional Board being proclaimed and further amendments to the boundaries of the Cairns Division. It then began at Double Island, west to the Barron at Granite Creek (the future Mareeba), and south to the watershed of the Wild River, and then south-east to Coopers Point (just north of the Johnstone River). It was to these new divisional boundaries that the first six Cairns Divisional Board representatives were elected and had their first meeting on 20 July 1880, at the Cairns Court House. The Board’s primary activity related to building roads, but was limited by what it could do because of a shortage of funds and the precarious nature of the future of the district.

The first school in Cairns was located on the Esplanade, before moving to the former site of the Cairns Central School on the block bounded by Lake, Aplin, Abbott and Florence Streets. James Pyne donated the land to the Secretary for Public Instruction (the forerunner of the Education Department) with transfer registered on 7 September 1878. The school closed at the end of 1994 and the State Government sold the block in July 1995, and an overseas-owned resort hotel was built. While today we think of this land as being worth millions, such high value would not have been the case in 1878. However, it was part of the Pyne family’s long and significant relationship with Cairns and the area known as the Mulgrave Shire.

In 1894 the Cairns Argus described how the rising generation sought education under difficult conditions. It reported, “on the Mulgrave Road, a dray containing over a dozen urchins, driven by a girl, on [their] way to school being no uncommon sight.”

James Pyne’s position as a businessman and landholder were not to be characteristics of his descendants. His great grandson, my father Tom was born in 1935 in one of Australia’s most beautiful and wettest areas, the sugar town of Babinda. Any lack of material wealth was compensated by the beauty of the environment Tom grew up in. Babinda, nestled at the base of Mt Bartle Frere, Qld’s highest peak, was 40 minutes south of Gordonvale. Tom went to Bellenden Ker State School about nine miles north of Babinda and his father Jack owned a small cane farm at a place called Deeral. Dad’s parents John (Jack) and Katherine Pyne were salt of the earth people and taught young Tom that nothing comes from nothing. They had 5 children, Jack, the oldest of the brood, followed by Ethel, Frank and Grace, with Tom the youngest.

Pyne Family 1930s
Pyne Family 1930s

Tom’s early years, during the war, were a time of little money but much enjoyment as he explored with his friends, walking for miles and enjoying the local swimming holes. Of his older brothers, Frank joined the army when he came of age and Jack moved to Brisbane where he was hit by a bus while crossing the road and tragically died.

After the War, Frank was a member of the allied armed forces occupying Japan. While in Japan he met and fell in love with a woman named Cheako. Such an occurrence was not unknown. Indeed, with so many young men wedding, the term ‘Japanese War Bride’ was born. However back in Australia anti-Japanese sentiment remained strong. The hostility was real and raw, and in some ways understandable following the inhumane treatment of Australian troops during the war. So, when Kate Pyne went to the train station to welcome her son home and embraced his new Japanese wife, there was every reason to believe her heart was breaking. However, that hug would not have been just for the benefit of Frank and other family members but to send a message to any other onlookers that this woman is “one of us” and that love conquers all. Nevertheless, the racism that was such an entrenched part of the Far North would ensure that Frank focused inwards on his family and ensured they were protected and loved. Working at the Mulgrave Mill he focused on home and family and resisted the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time.

On my mother’s line, Johan Weinert was born on a boat making its way to Australia from Germany in 1880. After arriving in Australia, Johan’s family settled in Cooktown and in true Aussie fashion, Johan became Jack. He married another European arrival to the Far North, Johannah Thygesen from Denmark. One of their children was my grandmother, Christina Margaret May Weinert. Born in Gordonvale on May Day (1st May) 1915, Christina Margaret May Weinert was from that day forth, known simply as May.

May married a Scottish man named McKinnon at the tender age of 18. McKinnon was a wanderer and abandoned her with child, disappearing to parts unknown. Young May soon met my grandfather Robert (Bob) O’Connell and they fell in love, despite both already being married. Bob was born into a Catholic family living in Kenny Street in 1912. Bob and May met during the depression and had not been together long when war with the Japanese broke out. Resigning from his exempted job as a bridge builder, Bob joined the army, only to be captured in the fall of Singapore, spending the remainder of the war in the Changi prisoner of war camp.

Bob O’Connell’s generation could well be described as ‘the great generation’ for their contribution to our nation. They gave their all in the war, fighting fascism at a time when, for those living in Far North Queensland, the threat of invasion was very real and the enemy nervously close. Like the other survivors from Changi, Bob returned home from the war starved and emaciated. You could count every rib on him. Bob also carried a scar halfway between his shoulder and neck, the result of not displaying the required respect to a Japanese soldier. The poor state of these men improved over time. While the physical scars disappeared, far more problematic were the emotional scars. Back then the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ had not yet been invented and even if it had I doubt the men of that era would have readily embraced it. The only thing that passed as medication for Bob O’Connell during weekends and post retirement were his two daily trips to the Hambledon Hotel (the Hambo), his morning session and his afternoon session.

At the Hambo Bob O’Connell gave new meaning to the term regular. You could set your watch by his arrival and departure during the morning and afternoon sessions. Fortunately, except for a few metres, it was a straight line from his home at 90 Mount Peter Road to the Hambo. Drink driving was not the concern back then it became later and some said his old Toyota Corolla knew the journey that well that it would have driven itself to the pub and back regardless of whether he was at the wheel or not.

May and Bob at 1937 Cairns Show
May and Bob at 1937 Cairns Show

Bob and May were not able to wed, because Bob had left his Catholic wife who would never divorce him, and May never heard from the degenerate McKinnon, in order to officially divorce him. So my mother Marion was born out of wedlock in 1937.

Marion was a caring and giving woman, to whom the  adjective bastard would never be used. However many would apply it metaphorically to me, her son, as I took on the world on my own terms (using an approach learnt from observing a small white haired boy at Hambledon State School).

I cannot imagine a more carefree or relaxed lifestyle than growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s, surrounded by cane fields and with close access to tracks, trails, creeks and swimming holes. The small population ensured serenity for a young boy adventuring throughout the landscape. A peacefulness interrupted only occasionally by the cane trains during harvest time. The harvest period was known as the ‘crushing season’ when locomotives were loaded to take the sugar cane to the mill where it was crushed.

Life was relaxed, and living was easy. In 1971, when the leader of the Liberal Party (later to become Prime Minister), Malcolm Fraser uttered his famous words, “life was not meant to be easy”, it was hard to believe him.

Oppression of the Traditional Owners

The early European arrivals to the Far North had no understanding of the history of the aboriginal people or their place in the landscape. Inhabitants of the area for thousands of years, they were more than occupiers of the land they were part of the landscape in a way that the new arrivals could never comprehend. Their movements across the region gave them access to the natural bounty they needed to maintain health and nutrition and the land they needed to maintain their stories and ancient cultural practices.

In our hometown of Edmonton, the aboriginal inhabitants, later to be recognised as the traditional owners, were and remain the Yidinji people. As with all aboriginal people the relationship with the land had evolved over thousands of years. They considered themselves part of the land and the land to be part of them. This connection was not just practical it was deeply spiritual.

Polite white society was very successful in establishing and maintaining the myth that traditional owners had not fought to protect their land, had not resisted and were not massacred. None of this is true. Frontier wars took place across the nation as indigenous Australians fought for their country. Growing up, I never knew how Skeleton Creek north of the township gained its name. I later learned it had been the location of the massacre of a number of aboriginal men. Their heads were cut off and left on stakes for all to see, to send the message not to fight back. That is how this trickle of a waterway obtained its name. Some of the skulls of those murdered were eventually sent back to England to be ‘studied’ so Europeans could gather a better understanding of these beings from Australia. There were no treaties made with the traditional owners, in fact they were barely seen as human.

The mistreatment, abuse and murder of many traditional owners remains a dark stain on Australia’s history and this was no different in the Far North. Indeed the ‘frontier mentality’ of the settlers remained here well after other regions had established a more peaceful mindset.

By the turn of the century Australian Governments had resolved to take ‘responsibility’ for aboriginals. By 1911, every mainland State and Territory had introduced ‘protection laws’ that subjected aboriginal people to near-total control, denying them basic human rights such as freedom of movement, labour, custody of their children and control over personal property.

The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (Qld) 1897 allowed the Chief Protector to remove local Aboriginal people and relocate them onto missions and reserves. Missions were created by churches or religious individuals to house Aboriginal people and train them in Christian ideals and to prepare them for work. Most of the missions were developed on land granted by the government for this purpose. Few realise that many aspects of South Africa’s Apartheid system were modelled closely on Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act (1897).

The closest mission to Edmonton and Gordonvale was that of Yarrabah. Yarrabah was established on the traditional lands of the Gunggandji people at Mission Bay on the Cape Grafton Peninsula, just south of Cairns.

The Director of Native Welfare was deemed the legal guardian of all ‘aboriginal’ children, whether their parents were living or not. The Stolen Generations were the children of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who were removed from their families by the Australian Commonwealth and state government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments.

By the time of my childhood, these apartheid controls had been removed. While I recall no racism in the playground of Hambledon State School, as an adult there was no avoiding it. Considering our history, it should surprise no one that racism remains commonplace in much of the area today.

A Sweet Start

If there was no way of sugar-coating the treatment of the traditional owners, the establishment of white settlements was certainly coated in sugar. The sugar industry was not something I thought about a lot growing up, yet it was ever-present. Looking back, the sugar industry influenced everything from our economy to the landscape to many of the personal friendships people formed. By the 1970s the industry was transitioning to green harvesting, but cane fires were still commonplace. In decades past cane had been cut by hand and burning helped to rid the fields of snakes and rats which carried the dreaded Weil’s disease. Many of the cane cutters, who harvested the cane back then were migrants from Italy and the Baltic States.

The burning of sugar cane continued on many farms throughout my childhood. This was helpful for harvesters, particularly where fields had large rocks or other hazards that may otherwise have been hidden by the weeds and other vegetation known commonly as ‘trash’. In such situations burning lessened the wear and tear on the harvester machines that had replaced human cane cutters.

Despite the absence of cane cutting by hand when I was growing up, old cane knives could still be found in the sheds of most people. I can well remember making a mess of the vegetation along our creek with Grandad Bob’s cane knife. It easily sliced through any green vegetation as slashing a trail I imagined myself a colonial explorer in darkest Africa.

During cane fires, small embers of ash around ten centimetres long and roughly a centimetre in width would float from the cane fields and blow whichever way the wind sent them, which was usually towards the nearest houses, to the distress of the women folk of the town who had to clean after the ash floated through their windows and settled on newly swept floors. One of my first childhood memories is of running in our yard, trying to catch as many pieces of ash as I could, before they hit the ground, only to have them dissolve in my palm and later return home with hands more black than white.

In Edmonton the hub of the sugar industry was the Hambledon Mill, lying to the west of the township. Located next to the mill were houses for mill staff, all owned and paid for by the mighty Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). This mill community, while owned by CSR was what the staff made of it, with CSR employees building their own swimming pool and tennis courts to enhance the area. ‘Mill houses’ were overwhelmingly occupied by white collar staff such as accountants, chemists and managers. My parents formed close bonds with several members of the CSR community, to the extent that my school vacations often consisted of travelling down the Queensland coast to catch up with former Hambledon Mill employees who had moved on to other locations for CSR. They included people like Allan and Carol Hughes who moved to Ingham. Don and Vai Hamilton who moved to Mackay and David and Jill Sanders who moved to Brisbane.

The CSR mill was staffed by white collar workers and blue-collar workers, including labourers, boilermakers, fitters and turners and the like who lived in the town proper. I can’t remember any class distinctions or petty snobbery between the two groups, though it no doubt existed in some form. One of my early memories as a small child was working on the ‘mill float’ for our local parade called ‘Fun in The Sun’. The float consisted of not much more than a flatbed truck with sugar cane woven into circles and decorative patterns. Returning to this area today one finds a water slide theme park known as Sugar World. It is hard to recognise much at all from my bygone youth. Memories are not the most reliable of tools at the best of times, but my lack of familiarity with much of the landscape today tells me that my experience of growing up was more a product of a time in history, than of simply geographical location. Politics during any period is likewise a product of the actors of the day and the sentiment of the time. Once gone it is all but impossible to recreate.

Hambleton Sugar Mill

Hambleton Sugar Mill

The Deep North’s Slave Trade

The broadcaster Phillip Adams has likened the politics of Queensland’s Far North to that in the deep south of the United States, with social conservatism, agrarian socialism and a strong element of racism. A tragic practice the two regions had in common was slavery. Many people from the Pacific islands surrounding Australia were kidnapped and forced to work in Queensland cane fields.

From the 1860s, the demand for labour in Queensland resulted in what was called ‘blackbirding’ (to avoid use of the term “slavery” – despite so many not receiving wages). The term was commonly used by the white population for enslaving islanders to work on the sugar plantations. The Australian South Sea Islanders today consider their ancestors to have been the Sugar Slaves.

Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, traders “recruited” Kanaka labourers for the sugar cane fields of Queensland from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, PNG, New Caledonia and Niue. The Queensland government tried to regulate the trade: it required every ship engaged in recruiting labourers from the Pacific islands to carry a person approved by the government to ensure that labourers were willingly recruited and not kidnapped. But, such government observers were often corrupted by bonuses paid for labourers ‘recruited,’ or blinded by alcohol, and did little or nothing to prevent sea-captains from tricking islanders on-board or otherwise engaging in kidnapping with violence

So many ships entered the blackbirding trade (with adverse effects on islanders) that the British Navy sent ships into the Pacific to suppress the trade. By 1808 both Great Britain and the United States had prohibited the African slave trade, however the British ships were not able to suppress the blackbirding trade.

South Sea Islanders arrived at several major ports along the eastern coastline including Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Innisfail and Cairns. Shipowner Robert Towns (c. 1794 – 11 April 1873) was the first Australian to transport South Sea Islanders to Queensland for cheap farm labour. The 67 aboard the Don Juan were the first of an estimated 60, 000 South Sea Islanders transported to Australia. They arrived on 807 voyages from 80 islands to work primarily on Queensland sugar development farms between 1863 and 1904. some 30 per cent of those brought to Australia later died because they lacked immunity to many of the diseases common to the European community, while those that survived were treated as second-class citizens.

The expansion of sugar plantations in Australia also created market destinations for blackbirders. The trade in Pacific Labour drew criticism from many sectors. But it was the White Australia Policy and the desire to protect jobs for white Australians that finally ended the Labour trade. In 1901 the Labour Trade formally ceased, and the Australian government took steps to deport South Sea Islanders to their home islands. This was impossible and resulted in more hardships and discrimination for those who had helped to build the sugar industry, at great human cost,

The Red North

Given the nature of contemporary politics, many are surprised to learn that the stretch of Queensland from Mackay to Cairns was in the 1930s and 40s known as “The Red North”. During this time the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was the driving force behind the Unemployed Workers’ Union, which provided assistance that helped many ordinary people to survive the Great Depression. The CPA gained wider support when communist trade union leaders ran strong campaigns which won increased pay and conditions for workers in the mines and the cane fields.

In 1933 a deadly epidemic of Weil’s disease broke out in the sugar cane farms. Weil’s disease is spread by rats that inhabit the cane fields, and causes multiple organ failure and eventually painful death. Cane cutters and their families lived in constant fear of the disease. Burning the cane before harvesting is the best way to control outbreaks, but it also reduces the sugar yield of the cane and the profits of the cane growers. Growers therefore campaigned against burning crops, shamefully winning support from both the ALP state government and the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

Despite the forces stacked against them, the cane cutters went on strike in response, and by August 1935, 2,000 workers had shut down the sugar mills. The strike was defeated by July 1936. Striking workers were evicted from their quarters and scab labour was widely employed. While the battle had been lost, the war was won when a general order for burning the cane before harvesting was later handed down by the industrial court.

The CPA had earned wide support and by the late 1930s, North Queensland was the biggest “red” area outside the Sydney district. North Queensland Communists interspersed their political activities with community activities such as hospital visiting, exhibitions of horticulture and handicraft, and arranging social functions. Events including dances, balls, card parties, picnics and bazaars provided entertainment throughout the region. These activities helped to combat the idea of Communism as “sinister and foreign” among working-class people. It was in this environment that my grandmother Katherine Pyne became a Communist. This all seemed a million miles away from my life growing up in Edmonton.

Hambledon State School

Hambledon State School was like many state schools throughout Queensland, yet unique in its own way. The school was established in 1887 as the Black Fellow Creek Provisional School, with an enrolment of 23 students. This politically incorrect named school was relocated to its present location on Mill Road in 1910 and renamed the Hambledon State School. The name reflected the new location more than being due to any new age of enlightenment regarding treatment of the region’s first people.

The school’s buildings were high set, which protected them from flooding and the underneath area had a cement base, which was a usable space for students during recess. Next to the school was the Principal’s residence, offering affordable accommodation for the Principal and enhancing security for the school, with the Principal providing passive surveillance after-hours. Such common-sense policies were indeed common, prior to the curse of neo-liberalism, which infected the nation, with its incomprehensible management lingo, asset sales and privatisation.

When I started in 1972 the Principal was a Mr. Brady who looked very old to me. He can’t have been the Principal for too long, as I was only caned by him once. It would have been thoroughly deserved as many people in authority back then and later found me to be at best annoying and at worst, a thorn in their side.

State schools provided a community hub that brought together children from families throughout the township. State education more broadly was the very machinery of social integration, bringing together children from diverse cultural backgrounds, colour and class to learn and grow together.

For those of us born in 1967, grade seven came in 1979 and our teacher was Mr. Tom Murray. Just above average height, like most men who were not in blue collar jobs, his attire consisted of a shirt without a tie and what were described as ‘dress shorts’ and long socks pulled up to just below the knee. This was the attire that almost all white-collar workers wore during this era.

Tom Murray was the first teacher who I remember sincerely engaging in a two-way dialogue with us as students. I found these discussions interesting and they made me keen to learn. Despite my resistance to authority, I think like most problematic children I could tell when someone was sincere and wanted to make a difference and I respected that.

Tom Murray had not been teaching for too long at that point. The Murray family had a cane farm to the north of Edmonton and Tom’s father was also called Tom, as was my father and I don’t regret being named Robert as I reckon it is great for names to skip a generation to avoid confusion. As a teacher, Tom Murray Jr. encouraged students to develop their speaking skills and have some knowledge of the world around them. He also promoted civics and fostered community.

In 1988 at the age of 37, Tom married. Much to our surprise he married one of our class of 1979, Kathy Walter. Kathy would have been 20 by then. To be honest I am not sure if this caused any eyebrows to be raised, but I would sincerely doubt it. After all, in a small country town like Edmonton, any teacher who ruled out relations with former students may have risked celibacy.

My experience of state education was overwhelmingly positive and all my teachers, from old Mrs. Hancock and Arthur O’Doherty (may they rest in peace), to Anne Holden and Tom Murray. They were all first-rate educators. My overwhelmingly positive view of Murray was shared by many and a park has been named in his honour. The park is located where the family’s old cane farm was in the middle of what now is now the sprawling suburb of Bentley Park. It is located just off Hardy Road and there is space for children to run there, just as I did when it was cane land, so many years ago.

The state school system was my main contact with Aboriginal children and their families. The Oliver family was a well-known Edmonton family. Unlike most families, their ancestors had lived in the area not for a generation or two, but for thousands of years. This proud Yidinji family lived on the corner of Graham Street and Mill Road. Alan Oliver was the family patriarch and worked for Council. I went to school with many of his children.

Alan’s wife Mavis was a descendant of small people who lived in the rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands. Her and Allan had 6 children and their daughter, also named Mavis, was in my class at school (bottom-right in below photo). As well as going to school with Mavis, I knew the boys from school and rugby league. They were rugby league mad, as was their father who had a lifelong commitment to the Southern Suburbs Rugby League Club.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the curriculum in the 1970s was the telling of a colonial history. We were taught that Captain Cook “discovered Australia” in 1770 and that the nation was founded with Captain Phillips settlement at Botany Bay in 1788. We learned of explorers such as Ludwig Liechhardt, Kennedy and Burke and Wills who discovered lands ‘unknown’ (which would have been a surprise to the traditional owners). The first people themselves however were rarely even referred to during our history lessons.

My class mates and I had no knowledge of the traditional owners – no knowledge of who they were or their stories of country. Instead we were taught about European identities and their voyages and  accounts of the gold rush… including the Eureka stockade. I remember learning of the barbaric behaviour to the Chinese on the goldfields, but the treatment of our first people never received a mention.

Hambledon State School Class Photo
Hambledon State School Class Photo

A Life Lesson from the Jones Boy

One day a small snowy haired boy by the name of Alan Jones transferred to Hambledon State School. I remember my mother saying he came from difficult home circumstances. He made an impact on me immediately when I saw him being bullied by a couple of the larger kids. I saw him get pushed over, jump to his feet and get pushed over again. Young Alan then got up again and started swinging punches like a wind turbine during a cyclone! This was his response every time a larger child bullied him. I am not sure how much damage the diminutive Jones boy ever did, but the bullies knew they would cop at least a few swings and defending against his energetic tirade would take up a lot of their time and energy so they never bullied him again!

I have always hated bullies, whether in the schoolyard, politics or in management. I have never forgotten Jones` response as a metaphor for how to engage with bullies. Fighting back has cost me jobs and a career in politics, but I have never forgotten the lesson I was taught by an 11-year-old snowy haired boy by the name of Jones. It really is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. This was an attitude I would take with me through life as I faced powerful enemies and developed an understanding of the struggle of oppressed groups. I would always be prepared to champion the cause of the underdog.

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

The Fight for the Underdog