“Like hyenas…” Conflict on the frontier of colonial settlement at Cambridge Downs Station in 19th century Queensland

 “Like hyenas, the savage crowd come sneaking up to the house, and Charlie chuckles as he coolly drops two of the foremost with his double barrelled carbine. ‘By God! Missus,’ he exclaims, ‘that’s the way to wake ‘em up blackpellow’.”

The North Queensland Register, 21 December 1892

The savagery of conflict on the frontier of colonial settlement in 19th century Australia is apparent in countless reminiscences published in the newspapers of the time, in official documents penned in spidery script using antiquated language, and in the memory and oral tradition handed down through generations of both Indigenous and colonial settler descendants.

Although it sounds like a story from the Boys Own Annual, the above account was published in The North Queensland Register in December of 1892. It refers to events that took place on a pastoral station on the Flinders River in the Burke District of northern central Queensland, presumably sometime during the 1860s, and describes several bloody encounters between local Indigenous people and pastoralists. It is significant in that it describes the spatial context of the conflict – the pastoralist’s hut, and much is suggested by the language and style of prose adopted by the author.

The subjective nature of documentary evidence regarding conflict has resulted in an historical narrative whereby the violent nature of events has been either repudiated or ignored (Foster 2009); that is to say, history has either painted the colonial settler as a valiant innocent, bravely defending their territory, or concealed the occurrence of conflict altogether. And although we’ve long acknowledged the role of bias in understanding history, this is an issue which has been particularly problematic to our understanding of the ‘frontier’. Consequently, some historians have suggested that archaeologists could make a valuable contribution to this field of research (see Attwood and Foster 2003:23).

Cambridge Downs Station, also located on the Flinders River, was established sometime during the 1860s, and was one of the largest and most successful pastoral enterprises in the region. The first homestead built on the property was unusual in that it was constructed of stone, and had a “cane grass roof, flagstone floor, and one inch bars in the windows” (Authurs 1995:267). It was sturdily built and unlike any other homestead in the region. Local anecdotal evidence suggests that the substantial nature of construction was a response to the threat of attack from local Indigenous people and, indeed, other researchers have suggested that fortification of dwellings is apparent in other homesteads in a number of other states (Burns 2010; Grguric 2008, 2010).

The purpose of my directed study, then, is twofold. In the first instance I will be bringing together available documentary sources in an attempt to reconstruct the history of the Cambridge Downs Station during this period of settlement and conflict. I will also be analysing the construction of the homestead in an attempt to ascertain whether it really does provide independent evidence of conflict on the frontier.

Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student

References

Authurs, J. A. 1995 From Wyangarie to Richmond: An Historic Record of the Richmond District of North Queensland. Richmond, Australia: Richmond Shire Council.

Burns, K. 2010 Frontier conflict, contact, exchange: Re-imagining colonial architecture. In M. Chapman and M. Ostwald (eds), Imagining … Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference, pp.70-80. Newcastle, Australia: Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand.

Foster, R. 2009 ‘Don’t mention the war’: Frontier violence and the language of concealment. History Australia. 6(3):68.

Grguric, N. 2008 Fortified homesteads: The architecture of fear in frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca. 1847–1885. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4: 59–85.

Grguric, N. 2010 Staking a claim: Fortified homesteads and their place in Australian settler identity construction. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 25: 47–63.

Anonymous  1892  In the Sixties. The North Queensland Register 21 December 1892, pp.14–19. Retrieved 29 March 2014 from http://trove.nla.gov.au/.

Comments are closed.