Conflict between Aborigines and Europeans began almost immediately after the first arrival of settlers in Cairns in October 1876. Before this time early navigators had passed through the seas off Cairns, but had had little or no contact with the Aborigines.
Relations between Aboriginals and Europeans began poorly. Apart from some trade between the two peoples, the attitude of the Europeans towards the Aborigines in Cairns was one of contempt, fear and hatred. Aborigines at first tried to fit Europeans into their society. They found whites hard to deal with because they broke Aboriginal law and took food from Aboriginal land without permission. Soon they became angry and tried to punish white "misbehaviour". Beche-de-mer fishermen started this change in trust because they often kidnapped Aborigines to work for them, almost as slaves.
Aborigines struck back with ambushes being laid for Europeans who were unlucky enough to fall into them. As they lost their hunting grounds and trade routes to land-grabbing Europeans, the Aborigines turned their anger on any European they could find. These were usually isolated farmers, lone travellers and miners who were alone. Europeans fought back by killing every Aborigine they could find, whether these people were responsible for the attacks or not.
The white people of Cairns appealed to the Queensland Government who brought Native Mounted Police troopers to Cairns. These troopers were Aborigines from New South Wales or southern Queensland, who were organised in military bands with a white commander and a sergeant. They were sent to do the dirty business of 'dispersing' the Aboriginals from districts which were wanted by the Europeans. There were Native Mounted Police camps at the Mulgrave River near Cairns, the Johnstone (Innisfail) area to the south, Port Douglas to the north, and Mareeba to the west.
The Native Police were good trackers and soon learned their way around the country. Aborigines believed that other blacks from far away were enemies, so the Native Mounted Police were responsible for a number of massacres of local Aborigines. These 'dispersal raids' were very effective. By 1898 only around 500 of the original Aboriginal population remained in Cairns and the surrounding districts. Aborigines were also killed off by disease, as they had no immunity to European diseases like measles and influenza.
Aborigines killed the following people. These people would be considered invaders:
When Aborigines were killed, there was much less publicity. People kept quiet about it. However there are a reports of "dispersals" (massacres) at Smithfield in 1878, Bibhoora near Mareeba in 1881, Clohesy River near Kuranda in the early 1880s, Speewah (near Kuranda) in the mid 1890s, and Spring Creek Valley between Cairns and Port Douglas. Others which are unconfirmed were at Mona Mona and Flaggy Creek near Kuranda. In the late 1880s, groups of Aborigines were killed by leaving poisoned food for them.
Generally, in the war for the land, the death rate was ten Aborigines for every one European. This was because the white settlers had guns and the Native Mounted Police.
From the mid 1880s Aborigines began to "come in", looking for work, food and safety.
They were forced to eke out an existence, taking any menial jobs that they could find. Whites found them useful as cheap labour, especially as domestic servants. Women and children were often stolen from their families for this.
Some white people felt badly about what was happening to the Aborigines, especially in the Churches. Missions were established. The first was built at Yarrabah on the south side of Cairns in 1891 by the Church of England. The other mission in the area was at Mona Mona, near Kuranda. It was set up by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1913. At first Aborigines came to the missions looking for protection from white violence. They also needed help to survive as their hunting grounds were taken. The missionaries, like Reverend Gribble, wanted to help them and give them skills to work and live in white society. However the main aim of the Missions was to turn them into Christians. This meant destroying the Aborigines' culture and ways of living, and taking their children at age 6 or 7 to be brought up in dormitories. This was so the children would not learn traditional customs and languages.
Once the missions were established, Aboriginal people from other areas were rounded up by the Government and sent there against their will, as indigenous people have very close ties to their land. By 1910 only 60 of the 300 people at Yarrabah were actually from the area. At Mona Mona, there were people from as far away as Normanton. Missions may have helped Aboriginal people to survive, but they created many more problems. Aboriginal traditional society was destroyed, yet they were rarely accepted into European society.
In 1897 the Aborigines Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was passed by the Queensland Government. This took away many civil rights of Aborigines. Their work, income, marriages, children, the people they could be friends with, the places they could live, were all controlled by Government officers or the missionaries. For example, they were not allowed to have the low wages they worked for. Pocket money was given out to them by Protectors (usually the local policeman). Aboriginal people could work all their lives and see very little of their own money, and they could not pass it on to their children when they died. The restrictions of this Act only ended in the 1960s.
For more information on the Aborigines of Cairns consult the following books: