Chapter 1 – Aboriginal Society – the Original Owners


For centuries, European navigators looked for this land, partly because they thought there must be a large land mass here to ‘balance up’ the other two land masses of the northern hemisphere. Slowly, bit by bit, they found traces of the continent without realizing that the pieces were connected, until Flinders circumnavigated the whole continent in 1801-3.

When the British landed in 1788 they were too busy trying to stay alive to wonder what they had found. A few 18th Century sci-entists glimpsed the uniqueness of this area but they were far away in Europe and the white settlers just saw a land for exploitation. So that’s what happened.

The Aboriginal people, the strange flora and fauna were all swept aside in the rush to transplant the mother country to the new colony; an old process and one, unfortu-nately, still being played out today in many parts of the 21st Century world.

The outlook of the early, white immi-grants was often very tribal. Many found it impossible to see the Aboriginal people as equals and so they treated them like wayward children, rather than adults with a complex culture with a detailed set of laws.

Many of the white settlers probably regarded the French, the traditional enemy of England, in the same way, but France was a strong nation, while the Aboriginal people were not. English law prevailed in the new colony and, to some extent, protected the In-digenous people. They did not understand it so continued to use their own law which lead to bitter confrontations.

In the bush there was only the law of the strong and this, in some cases, meant might is right and the end justifies the means. There were no checks and balances so, as with all people, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the Aboriginals lost, even though they did fight back in many cases.

We Europeans were taught to believe that they had no right to spear the sheep and cattle for food. We were never taught to ask why they speared the livestock. Our history books were written from the whitefella point of view, the victors; now we are beginning to see the blackfella point of view.

The Great South Land

The First People of the Land

The term Aboriginal means the first people to occupy a land and in Australia, these people arrived at least 40,000 years ago via the northern part of the continent. They were the first known group of people to use boats to reach a land empty of people.

They came to this remote, flat, dry continent with its poor soils and lack of any potential food plants to make a living. It might have been beautiful but it was no pro-ductive ‘Garden of Eden’ waiting to be culti-vated, as the European farmers later discov-ered. Consequently, by 1788, the native popu-lation was only about 300,000 and widely scattered over the entire land in small tribal and clan groups which had to move constantly in search of food.

The small population contrasted with the enormous numbers of the great food pro-ducing areas of Asia and Europe where there was enough surplus food to allow some mem-bers of those societies to specialize in tasks other than providing food. These specialists invented writing, established government, or-ganised irrigation farming, smelting of metals, all kinds of industries, armies and all the paraphernalia of ‘civilisation’ which included a high level of art, science, religion and gov-ernment. They also developed imperialism and, using their armies, set out to build em-pires.

For thousands of years the Aboriginal people walked over the land, even to Tas-mania which was still joined to the mainland. By careful observation, trial and error and use of intelligence they learned to live success-fully by hunting and gathering the natural produce, and they succeeded brilliantly.

They had names for all the plants, animals, hills, valleys, rivers, seas; even the volcanoes that were still active when they ar-rived. They understood the cycle of the seas-ons, the migration of animals, the location of waterholes in the deserts, the best places to find a wide variety of plant foods and animal species. Whenever they killed a large animal they cooked and ate it on the spot as they had no way of preserving meat; for the rest of the time the women delved and dug for plant food.

They were a hardy, wiry people al-ways on the move, carrying whatever they needed; consequently they didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. Their huts were simple, mostly made of sticks and bark, used till they moved on in their endless mi-gration in search of the next meal. “The blacks were quick at running …they also had splendid walking powers, and would travel long distances in a day without tiring. Big journeys were seldom necessary, however, except in the case of messengers from tribe to tribe. These latter my father has known to walk from Brisbane to Caboolture in a day.” (This is a straight line distance of 44 km but longer by foot along tracks through thick bush.)

They never developed a system of crop growing or animal husbandry, partly be-cause of the poor soils and the dry, variable climate. Added to this was the fact that Australia did not have any of the grains, fruit trees, vines or root vegetables that were so abundant in the other continents. There were few native food plants that could be cultivated even by the Europeans. Even today the Maca-damia, or Queensland Nut, is possibly the only native food that is being commercially grown and exported

They had no written literature so they developed a complex system of stories to il-lustrate their beliefs and explain how the envi-ronment worked. Their art work, which is probably the oldest in the world, graphically illustrated their stories of the Dreamtime which was to them what the Bible is to Chris-tians or the Quran to the people of Islam.

All the land was sacred but certain places were of special significance for cere-monies, dreaming, clan or tribal sites, spiritual and teaching. These sites would be more im-portant to the Aboriginal people than the blocks of land on which we build our houses; we can always sell up and move but they were attached to their sacred sites which were fixed for ever. Individual members of the tribe or clan owned such things as a tree or a landform and others had to obtain permission to use that area.

Some sort of comparison may be made with the way white Australian society regards its cemeteries, parks, beaches, churches, the Great Barrier Reef, the ‘Gabba’ for cricket fans, Lang Park / Suncorp Stadium for League fans, Gallipoli and heritage listed places.

They had no need of clocks and calen-dars as they observed the natural rhythm of the seasons, the cold and hot, the wet and the dry, when the leaves fell, when the birds nested, when the moon waxed and waned, when the fish runs started, when the sun rose and set. It was a complex system but it worked well and they didn’t have to carry such things as watches and books about with them.

Jared Diamond , by way of illustra-tion, draws a contrast between the well fed, desert dwelling Aborigines and the civilized, highly educated, literate, ‘explorers’ Robert Burke and William Wills who starved to death in Central Australia. The Aborigines had fed them but, for some reason, Burke fired his pistol at one of them and they all fled; the Europeans died within a month. The native people knew how the land could be used; the Europeans did not and would spend the next 200 years trying to find out, with questionable success and large scale devasta-tion.

This ancient occupation and use of the continent was, in the words of Geoffrey Blainey, “The Triumph of the Nomads” So it was for thousands of years until, in the year Europeans call 1788, the strangers arrived in, as Blainey puts it, big canoes with white things on top.

The Arrival of the Big Ships

The European invasion of, or immi-gration to, this land began with the first fleet in 1788 when armed soldiers escorting con-victs landed on the shores of an unnamed har-bour in an unnamed land. The bay and the land had names but none of the Europeans bothered to find out what they were; they simply assumed that the inhabitants were ‘un-civilised’ and as long as they kept out of the newcomers way, they were ignored. The gov-ernment in England was concerned about the native people, but they were a sixteen months round trip sailing time and 23,000 km away; the colonial governors tried to pro-tect the Aboriginal people but without much success.

The indigenous people must have been puzzled when they saw the strange, new peo-ple wearing brightly coloured skins come from the big canoes, land on the shore and proceed to perform some sort of corroboree. They must have been fascinated when the Union Jack was hoisted and saluted but the guns spoke a fearful language and they soon learned to keep well clear of them. This set the pattern for the eventual occupation of the rest of the continent.

The local people looked like humans but they were ‘different’ and obviously in-ferior to the ‘civilised’ Europeans because they didn’t have guns, or clothes, or speak English and they weren’t white. In effect the Europeans acted as all conquerors have acted since the Stone Age; they made the rules and the locals had to make way for the new order. The newcomers believed in ‘progress’, which meant making their lifestyle better, and felt that they were the most progressive people on earth, so the natives had to learn their ways or go. The whitefella was the new master of this land.

The 18th Century in Europe was termed the Age of the Enlightenment when such things as the Rights of Man were being discussed (white men, while white women were somewhat down the scale). The Ameri-can Revolution or the War of Independence had transformed the American colonies into a new nation, the French Revolution was brew-ing and would soon convulse Europe, the In-dustrial Revolution was underway in England and the British Empire already circled the globe. The Great South Land was to be the next addition, before the French claimed it. The Aboriginal people, who could not boil water, were suddenly “confronted by the na-tion which had recently contrived the steam engine.”

Since there were no farms, buildings, villages, roads, wharves, or ships as they had left behind in England, the new arrivals as-sumed that the natives didn’t ‘use’ the land, therefore nobody owned it. They had no understanding of how the Aboriginal people lived; hunting and gathering were outside white experience, or beneath their dignity. Ironically, the new arrivals almost starved when the ships bringing supplies from Eng-land were late in arriving. The Aborigines were eating, what was probably a superior diet, abundantly supplied by nature while the new arrivals were starving in the midst of plenty.

The Europeans did not mean to harm these black people, they just wanted the land which they regarded as theirs for the taking; probably as the Japanese and Germans re-garded their conquests in World War II. It was a repeat of what happened in North and South America, India, Indonesia, Africa and the South Seas. The new order, which was in reality, the same old order of empire building, had now reached the Great South Land. The British thought of the land in terms of ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no one) and they simply took possession in the name of the king of Great Britain. While some argue that the Latin term was unknown to the colonists, the fact remains that the land was taken by force from the Indigenous people with little or no compensation.

“Each tribe had its own boundary, which was well known, and none went to hunt, etc., on another’s property without an invitation, unless they knew they would be welcome, and sent special messengers to an-nounce their arrival.” The tribe owned the land, vegetation, animals and birds but certain individuals, men and women, owned specific trees, fishing spots and personal items such as spears, nets, dilly bags and other items; so much for ‘terra nullius’.

The Aboriginal people regarded them-selves as belonging to their ancestral land, and the clan and tribe remained on that land and so would their descendents for ever. The Europeans thought of the land as belonging to them, to clear, to plough, to do with what they thought was good for them. They could buy and sell the land as they did not belong to it - they regarded it as just another commodity to be used for the benefit of the owner. This was their idea of progress, which meant producing a surplus for sale, improving their lifestyle and, with luck, becoming rich. The Aboriginal people did not share this view; they were con-tent with having ‘sufficient for the day’ and the Europeans just could not understand that at all.

The Indigenous lifestyle did not re-quire the people to clear the bush, plant crops and domesticate animals because the bush provided all they needed. They knew the country and they knew how to use it and keep it permanently productive. Their lifestyle demanded a wide variety of skills and a vast store of knowledge which had sustained them for tens of thousands of years.

The people were isolated from many of the diseases that plagued the Asian and European areas and partly because of their roving life, were incredibly hardy, able to re-cover quickly from sometimes horrendous wounds. Tom Petrie recounts several inci-dents that illustrate the incredible hardiness of the Aborigines who could survive heavy blows and deep cuts with remarkable recovery rates. Petrie brought a black man to hospital after he had been slashed with a cut throat ra-zor in a fight – “from the small of his back round to the flank, letting some of the inner parts out.” He was stitched up and was soon out of hospital. A similar incident where a black man was wounded in the same way, but instead of going to hospital he pushed his in-nards back inside, held the wound shut and walked back to his camp. He lay down on his back and was treated by the others with char-coal and ashes on the wound and he recov-ered; Tom Petrie actually saw the man and visited him while he was convalescing.

They regularly used very fine charcoal to treat wounds and it is interesting to note that modern medicinal practice uses the same substance to dry up suppuration from wounds.

Their cultivation methods were sus-tainable and depended on the use of the fire stick which recognises the fact that fire is an essential part of the environment; fires started by lightning strike have been part of the envi-ronment for millions of years. The plants and animals had adjusted to fire long before the Indigenous people arrived. The Aborigines recognised this and worked with fire, care-fully burning at set times and in selected places using trial and error to find the best methods. The Europeans saw fire as some-thing to be stopped and they tried to do so, but they failed; the fires just got worse until they became fire storms destroying everything in their path; we Europeans are finally coming to realise that we have to use fire, rather than fight fire.

The newcomers, while increasing out-put greatly, failed to develop a method of cul-tivation that was sustainable in the long run. They didn’t know the country and thought of it as another England, and so they used Euro-pean farming methods. It would take some 150 years for them to partially adapt their methods to the dry continent and the poor soils. Meanwhile the country suffered and is still suffering from deforestation, soil erosion, depleted river flow, soil salinity and imported pests. Even without the current climate change Australian agriculture and pastoralism was in trouble and it only took 200 years. A prominent environmentalist, Professor Jared Diamond writes in relation to the ability of Australian agriculture:

In the long run it is doubtful that Australia can even support its present population: the best estimate of a sus-tainable population at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present popula-tion.

Instead of learning from the local peo-ple, the new settlers had to literally ‘reinvent the wheel’, whereas the Aboriginal people lost their land along with their ancient way of life; they almost lost their reason for existing.

Chermside and Districts Area

Until recently the history of Australia was seen to have started with Captain Cook or the earlier navigators but, in reality, that is only the most recent 1% of the time the land has been occupied. The other 99% of the his-tory of Australia is black history; the Aborigi-nes are one of the oldest groups of people in existence and one of the most successful. They lived in the Chermside area for thou-sands of years but there is little to show for the years of occupancy as they left little of any permanency; they were easily overlooked.

There were many connections among the tribes along the coast, and clans went walkabout to attend such activities as cor-roborees and the fights that followed, bora ceremonies and seasonal feasts such as the bunya festival in the Bunya Mountains. Sometimes as many as a thousand people travelled hundreds of kilometres to attend these activities. Such times were a good op-portunity to trade in durable items such as stone tools which were made where suitable rock was found.

Tom Petrie gives an account of a big corroboree and the fight involving about 700 Aborigines, men and women, that went on for days with interruptions when they got tired and when they had to go and hunt up food. After it was all over they packed up their wounded and marched off home content that justice had been done with the settling of old scores. This took place somewhere between Roma Street and Petrie Terrace. Another fight involving some 800 participants was at York’s Hollow, now the Exhibition Ground.

The Turrbul Land

The following information was given to the author by a deceased Aboriginal Elder who lived in the Zillmere area and was re-garded as an historian of the local people. Other authorities are also quoted and acknow-ledged.

The land of the Turrbul (stone) tribe, speaking the Turrbal language, extended from the north bank of the Logan River to the south bank of the Caboolture River, a distance of about 74km, and from the coast to the Taylor Range in the west, a distance of about 40km. Tom Petrie says “The Turrbal or Brisbane tribe owned the country as far north as North Pine, south to the Logan and inland to Mog-gill Creek.”

The tribal area was occupied by five clans; three from south of the Brisbane River - the Yerongpan, Chapara and the Coorparoo Clans, and two on the north side - the Duke of York and the North Pine Clans. Steele points out that the clans were the basic unit of Abo-riginal society with a small number of people, maybe only 70, governing themselves and living on their own land, while the word tribe means a group of clans sharing a common language or dialect.

The area occupied by each clan varied with the productivity of the land and/or sea; it was just enough to support their number which seemed to be stable over long periods. They had to ask permission to go into each other’s land and often went visiting at set times to share seasonal food resources.

The Barrabim Land

Chermside is in the area of the Duke of York Clan, which was known by the old ones as Barrabim (large goanna) clan. It is thought that the Duke of York title came from the habit of an old Aborigine in the 19th Cen-tury who used to play a button accordion and a favourite tune of his people was ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’; gradually the name was applied to the clan. They were also associated with the location known as York’s Hollow near the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

This area of sub-tropical monsoon rainfall, a natural rainforest environment, was used by the Barrabim people to supply all their needs. The men hunted kangaroo and wallaby while the women gathered varieties of seeds for biscuit making, collected bush turkey eggs and caught snakes. The children assisted the women to collect wood for camp-fires on the banks of Tighgum (Cabbage Tree) Creek and Downfall Creek, both of which would have been clean, permanently flowing streams with fish and abundant bird life.

Other foods were Bungwall Fern to make bread, Mid-yim (Midjim) berries, which are very sweet to eat, Minti (Banksia) blooms to make a sweet drink, Ta-am (Long Yam) to roast as a vegetable for the main meal at night, Kubbuhubburan (Native Raspberry) and Nyoa-Nga (Noongar) (figs) to serve after the evening meal as a desert while the leaves of the Meeamee bush (the soap tree) were used to wash their hands,

The leaves of the Dilla (Mat Rush) were used for dilly bags and bandages, the Pi-i (Piccabean) Palm and the glue from the Kum’barchu (Hoop Pine) were used to make baskets as was the Lawyer Cane vine, the leaves of the Nyoa-Nga fig are extremely rough and were used as natural sandpaper to smooth wooden utensils.