The community of Cherbourg, formerly known as Barambah, is located in the South Burnett district of south-east Queensland. According to research conducted by anthropologist Norman Tindale, Cherbourg is situated on the traditional lands of the Wakka Wakka Aboriginal people.[1] The nearby township of Murgon is now situated on the old campsites and freshwater springs used by the Aboriginal people of the area.[2] 

History of Cherbourg

European contact

The first European settlers arrived on the Darling Downs in 1840. By 1842, Simon Scott had taken up Taromeo Station near Blackbutt. J M Borthwick and W E Oliver had taken up Tarong and Nanango stations in the South Burnett and Darling Downs squatter Henry Stuart Russell had explored the Mary River and Wide Bay district.[3] Before long, squatters and their sheep were pouring north into the Burnett, Wide Bay and Port Curtis districts.

In 1843, Barambah station was taken up by the pastoralists J S Ferriter and Edmund Uhr.[4] By 1855, Walla and Gin Gin Stations on the lower Burnett River were established, as well as Tenningering Station around the Goodnight Scrub and Monduran Station on the Kolan River.[5]

The arrival of the pastoralists led to the dispossession of local Aboriginal people and widespread frontier violence. In the Wide Bay and Burnett districts, 28 squatters and shepherds were killed by Aborigines between 1847 and 1853. By 1850, the squatters had called for Native Police protection; in the interim, reprisal killings by the squatters continued.[6] A detachment of Native Police was stationed at Gayndah in November 1850, augmented by another detachment shortly afterwards.[7] The Gayndah detachments of Native Police pursued local Aboriginal groups in the Burnett district to protect the interests of the pastoralists and crush any resistance.[8] By 1853, a report from the Burnett District stated that:

‘this district is looking well, the blacks are perfectly quiet, sheep all healthy, and greatly on the increase…the native police are most efficient.’ [9]

The survivors of Native Police operations were used as cheap labour on pastoral stations or gravitated to the fringes of settlements to eke out an existence there. For example, by the late 19th century, Aboriginal men were regularly employed at Barambah station as stockmen, station hands and brumby runners.[10]

In 1899, William John Thompson, a member of the Salvation Army, began negotiations with the Queensland Government for an area of land to be set aside as an Aboriginal mission in the Nanango district. The government considered his proposal and 1,280 acres were gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve at Barambah on 24 March 1900.[11] Thompson approached the Ipswich Aboriginal Protection Society to sponsor the mission, and they agreed to support the project with Thompson acting as superintendent. The site of the Aboriginal reserve proved to be unsuitable and, when the Railways Department required part of the reserve for a rail line, the government revoked the reserve status of the land. A new location was found 3 miles from the original site and 7,000 acres were gazetted for the reserve on 23 February 1901.[12]

The first residents of the reserve were a small group of Aboriginal people from the Nanango area. They were joined by 40 Aboriginal people from Durundur reserve near Woodford and, on 30 April 1901, by 33 Aboriginal people from Kilkivan. There were no buildings or facilities to accommodate the new arrivals and they were forced to live in bark humpies. The first school at the reserve was a rough bush hut with a dirt floor. Drought and a lack of financial assistance severely hampered the development of the settlement.[13]

In 1905, the Ipswich Aboriginal Protection Society handed over control of Barambah to the Queensland Government. Thompson was replaced as superintendent of Barambah by Albert Tronson, the superintendent of Durundur. After the government took control of Barambah, Durundur was closed and its population removed to Barambah in February 1905, when 61 people were forced to walk from Durundur to Barambah. The remaining 115 residents were taken to the reserve by train.[14] After 2 years in the position, Albert Tronson resigned as superintendent of Barambah and was replaced by
B J T Lipscombe.[15]

After the hand over to the Queensland Government, living conditions and facilities at Barambah failed to improve and the Aboriginal residents of Barambah lacked adequate housing, sanitation, education and medical facilities. They were issued basic rations by the government, but the quality of the food was often poor.[16] As a result of these factors, Barambah suffered a high death rate in its initial decades, and epidemics of tuberculosis, whooping cough, dengue fever and measles were regular occurrences at the reserve.[17] The leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza, and the worst epidemics occurred after the end of the First World War, when 87 people died at Barambah in 1919 from influenza. An additional 37 people died at the reserve from other causes, with many deaths occurring within a short period of time. To cope with the emergency, the authorities ordered that the dead be wrapped in blankets and buried together in mass graves.[18]

Despite the high death rate on the reserve, the population of Barambah grew substantially, increasing from 339 in July 1905 to around 995 in 1938.[19] The increase in population was the result of government policies which forcibly removed large numbers of Aboriginal people to Barambah. Under the provisions of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld), and subsequent Aboriginal protection acts, the Protector of Aboriginals was authorised to:[20]

“cause every [A]boriginal within any District…to be removed to, and kept within the limits of, any reserve situated within such District, in such a manner, and subject to such conditions, as may be prescribed. The Minister may, subject to the said conditions, cause any [A]boriginal to be removed from one reserve to another…”[21]

The Aboriginal people removed to Barambah came from all parts of Queensland including Brisbane, regional cities, small country towns, remote communities and pastoral stations. As a result of the government’s removal policy there was a wide mix of tribal and language groups at Barambah. When the anthropologist Caroline Tennant-Kelly conducted field research at Barambah in 1934, she recorded that the population of 900 people belonged to 28 different tribal groups.[22]

There were approximately 2079 documented removals of Aboriginal people to Barambah between the years of 1905 and 1939.[23]

Government policy encouraged Aboriginal reserves and missions to be self-supporting, and, at Barambah, this was achieved by using Aboriginal residents of the reserve as a pool of hired labour. From the first years of Barambah, there was high demand from local property owners to employ Aboriginal workers from the reserve. The process of breaking up the pastoral runs of the Burnett region into smaller blocks of farming land required large numbers of Aboriginal workers to clear the land and prepare it for cultivation. Aboriginal men were also used for fencing, shearing and dairying, while Aboriginal women were hired out as domestic staff.[24] Under the provisions of the Aboriginal protection acts, the wages earned by Aboriginal workers from Barambah were controlled by government administrators. The government restricted Aboriginal workers’ access to their savings accounts and deducted money from their wages to go towards a settlement maintenance fund.[25]

Government control was also increasingly exerted through the establishment of the dormitory system for Aboriginal children at Barambah. The Reformatory Schools (Industrial) Act 1865 authorised the government to remove ‘neglected’ Aboriginal children from their families and raise them in state controlled dormitories. The first girls’ dormitory building at Barambah was built in 1909 and a boys’ dormitory was completed in 1910. The first dormitories at Barambah had no beds or mattresses and the children slept on the floor. Over time, the dormitory system at Barambah was expanded to include older girls and mothers with young children. By the 1920s, the Barambah dormitories were overcrowded. A larger dormitory building for the girls was constructed in 1925, and a new facility for the boys was built in 1928. The dormitories were situated in the administrative area of Barambah, and all children and women living in the dormitories were strictly controlled by government staff.[26] They were segregated from the other residents of the reserve and followed a structured daily routine with few personal freedoms, enforced by harsh discipline.[27]

The establishment of a saw mill at Barambah around 1919 facilitated the construction of cottages for Aboriginal families and new school and hospital buildings during the 1920s.  In 1931, the name of the reserve was officially changed from Barambah to Cherbourg.[29]

Sporting teams were established at the reserve in the 1920s, with rugby league and cricket especially popular with the residents. By the 1930s, football and cricket teams from Cherbourg were playing matches against local sides from the Burnett and Wide Bay districts, and occasional games against Aboriginal reserves such as Woorabinda.[30] Cherbourg fast bowler Eddie Gilbert was selected to play for the Queensland cricket team in 1930. On 6 November 1931, Eddie Gilbert famously took the wicket of Sir Donald Bradman for a duck in a Sheffield Shield game played against New South Wales at the Gabba.  Cherbourg footballers Frank Fisher and Jack O’Chin also gained acclaim for their displays of sportsmanship and athletic skill on the field.[32]

Norman Tindale visited Cherbourg in late November 1938 and recorded the family histories of many of the Aboriginal residents living at the reserve.[33] Cherbourg was re-gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve on 20 September 1941.[34]

During World War Two, 19 men from Cherbourg enlisted and served with the Australian Armed Forces while many others worked as labourers on farms and properties across Queensland.[35]

In 1942, around 200 ‘coloured citizens’ were evacuated from Thursday Island in Torres Strait. They were also temporarily housed at Cherbourg.[36]

After the war, the Queensland Government continued to remove large numbers of Aboriginal people to Cherbourg. There were 546 documented removals to Cherbourg made by the government between 1940 and 1971.[37]

The construction of new housing at Cherbourg was a priority for the government during the 1950s. All houses were connected with electricity during this period and an improved water treatment and sewerage system was also established at the reserve.[38]

The passing of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Affairs Act 1965 (Qld), eased some of the government restrictions on Aboriginal people living on reserves and allowed the formation of the first Cherbourg community council in 1966.[39] The dormitory system was gradually phased out at Cherbourg in the late 1970s.[40]

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

On 30 March 1985, the Cherbourg community elected 5 councillors to constitute an autonomous Cherbourg Aboriginal Council. Established under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 (Qld), local government type powers and responsibilities were conferred upon Aboriginal councils for the first time. An Aboriginal reserve held by the Queensland Government was transferred on 28 August 1986 to the trusteeship of the council under a Deed of Grant in Trust.[41]

Today, the district surrounding the Cherbourg community is governed by the South Burnett Regional Council, while the Cherbourg Aboriginal Shire Council has local government responsibility for the community area.


  1. Whilst a Native Title determination is yet to be made by the Federal Court, historical records indicate that Cherbourg is situated on land not far from the traditional boundary between the Wakka Wakka and Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginal groups; N Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (Australian National University Press, Canberra; 1974) p.421; D Horton (ed.) The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Vol.2, (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra: 1994) p.1140.
  2. T Blake, A Dumping Ground, A History of the Cherbourg Settlement (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia; 2001), 203-205.
  3. Janette Nolan A History of Bundaberg 1840-1920 (Unpublished thesis, University of Queensland, St Lucia; 1977) 8-10.
  4. J E Murphy and E W Easton, Wilderness to Wealth, (Smith & Patterson, Brisbane; 1950).
  5. Donald Dignan, The Story of Kolan (Smith and Paterson, Brisbane; 1964) 7-8.
  6. Ibid, 10-11.
  7. John Murray, ‘Letter to the Editor’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 30020 February 1851, 2.
  8. L E Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia: 1974) 59-63, 121-122.
  9. Editorial, ‘Burnett District’ The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 16 July 1853, 2.
  10. Murphy, above n 4, 210-211.
  11. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, Vol. 73, 1900, 957; Blake, above n 2, 4-6.
  12. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, 23 February 1901, 485; Blake, above n 2, 6-9.
  13. Queensland, Annual Report of the Southern Protector of Aboriginals, 1902, 1; Blake, above n 2, 9-15.
  14. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1904, 15. This document refers to those living in Cherbourg as ‘inmates’ rather than ‘residents’; ‘[t]he behaviour of the inmates has been excellent, and, except in a few instances, no trouble has been experienced in managing them, although they include several ex-prisoners and incorrigible girls.’ Further discussion on Barambah during this period can be found in Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1905, 26.
  15. Above n 4, 215.
  16. Above n 2, 99-116.
  17. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Queensland, 1912, 30; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Queensland, 1915, 12.
  18. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1918, 8; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1919,8; R Kidd, The Way We Civilise (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia; 1997) 67, 81-82.
  19. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1938, 9.
  20. Section 6 of the Protection Act.
  21. Section 9 of the Protection Act.
  22. Blake, above n 2, 34-36, 197. See also C Tennant-Kelly, “Tribes on Cherbourg Settlement, Queensland”, Oceania, Vol.5, No.4, 1935, 461-473.
  23. Community & Personal Histories Removals Database (restricted access).
  24. Blake, above n 2, 20-21, 118-123.
  25. Ibid, 138-149.
  26. Ibid, 67-84. See also Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1925, 8.
  27. For first hand descriptions of life in the Cherbourg dormitory system see, R Hegarty, Is That You Ruthie? (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia; 1999) and J Mok, Cherbourg Dorm Girls, (Multicultural Community Centre, Brisbane; 2005).
  28. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals 1919, 8; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1920, 8.
  29. Queensland, Annual Report of the Aboriginal Department, 1931, 10.
  30. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 1923, 9 ; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals 1926, 9; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals 1927, 10. See also Blake above n 2, 178-179.
  31. Queensland, Annual Report of the Aboriginal Department, 1930, 12; Queensland, Annual Report of the Aboriginal Department, 1932, 16; Unknown Author ‘Electrifying Cricket, Bradman Goes For a Duck’ Brisbane Courier, 7 November 1931, 8.
  32. Blake, above n 2, 180-181, 229-231; C Tatz, Black Gold, The Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame, (Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra; 2000), 213.
  33. Norman Tindale’s genealogies for Cherbourg is available from the State Library of Queensland website: <>.
  34. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, Vol. CLVII, No.61, 20 September 1941, 1076.
  35. Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs, 1942, 1; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs, 1944, 1.
  36. Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs, 1943, 1.
  37. Community & Personal Histories Removals Database (restricted access).
  38. Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs, 1956, 21; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs, 1957, 20.
  39. Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Aboriginal & Island Affairs, 1965, 1; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Aboriginal & Island Affairs, 1966, 1.
  40. Queensland State Archives, 01-084-026 Liaison Officer’s Reports: Cherbourg.
  41. The Deed of Grant in trust was issued to the Cherbourg Aboriginal Council for an area of 3130 hectares; Queensland, Annual Report of Department of Community Services, 1986, 3 ; Queensland, Annual Report of Department of Community Services, 1987, 2, 9