Mapoon was established on the traditional homelands of the Tjungundji (Choong-un-gee) people at Cullen Point in November 1891[1]. The name ‘Mapoon’ is believed to be an anglicised translation of a Tjungundji word meaning ‘place where people fight on the sand-hills’.

History of Mapoon

European contact

Before it came to be known as Mapoon, the site of this community had previously been called Batavia River Mission. Established in 1891, founding Moravian missionaries, James Gibson Ward and Reverend John Nicholas Hey, were said to have brought several South Sea Islander men to Mapoon to assist them[2].

The government forcibly removed many children from the Gulf of Carpentaria region to Mapoon when the mission became an Industrial School under the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act (1865) (Qld) in 1901[3]. Mapoon’s status as an Industrial School meant that it became an official location for the institutionalisation of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents under this legislation.

Around this time, Aboriginal groups from the Pine and Pennefather Rivers began moving into the mission as the reserve was expanded south to incorporate the traditional lands of the Thanakwithi people[4].

Some of the Traditional Owner groups who eventually came to live at Mapoon include the Mpakwithi, Taepithiggi, Thaynhakwith, Warrangku, Wimarangga and Yupungathi peoples[5].

Mapoon was the first of 4 Presbyterian missions established by the government to curb the abuse of Aboriginal people in the marine industries[6]. Reverend Hey reported that Tjungundji people had been ‘…decimated by the raids of the pearlers and the beche-de-mer men’[7]. Continued abuse and health problems suffered by Aboriginal divers led the government to ban this type of employment in 1903[8].

W E Roth noted in a 1901 annual report that:

‘Mapoon is the Mission Station to which hitherto we have been sending the waifs and strays from the Gulf country generally, but so far without the legal status of their being "neglected" children as defined by the Reformatories Act. This has now been remedied, an Industrial School proclaimed, and Rev. N. Hey appointed its first Superintendent … The Protectors are thus able to deal summarily with the Gulf children, and the State saved all the extra expenditure of forwarding them all round the Peninsula to the Aboriginal Reformatory at Cairns’[9].

Between 1901 and 1910, around 70 young people were officially removed to Mapoon, mainly from Normanton, Cloncurry, Burketown, Thursday Island and Seven Rivers. Others came from stations such as Fiery Downs, Lawn Hills and Gregory Downs. Over the next 30 years, children were removed from all over the Cape and placed on Mapoon, where many were adopted by Traditional Owners, who sought to provide them with a safe place in a foreign land.

Between 1910 and 1970 only 30 people were officially removed to Mapoon from other areas, under the ‘Protection Acts’, mostly from Thursday Island and Yorke Downs[10].

Poor soil at Cullin Point necessitated the establishment of outstations to the south of Mapoon in the early 1900s, where mission residents lived and grew food crops[11]. Children were housed in dormitories to facilitate their conversion to Christianity, schooling and training for domestic or rural work[12]. In 1909, Reverend Hey was subjected to an official inquiry after he flogged and tarred a young dormitory woman[13]. Hey was exonerated, but evidence published in newspapers drew attention to the cruelties of mission discipline[14].

Mapoon mission was underfunded throughout its history, and sanitation and housing shortages often caused health problems such as hookworm[15]. In the 1920s, the mission supplemented grant funding by selling sandalwood and beche-de-mer, but these industries soon became unprofitable[16]. In the 1930s, the mission relied on the compulsory financial contributions of residents deducted from the wages of those employed as domestics and stockmen outside the mission[17].

During World War Two, Mapoon residents prepared to ‘go bush’ in the event of a Japanese invasion[18]. Residents endured food and medicine shortages and suffered from illness[19]. The mission became reliant on child endowment monies to buy rations[20].

In the 1950s, a visiting Commonwealth health team identified tuberculosis at Presbyterian missions. Their report described conditions at Mapoon as ‘nauseating’, identifying malnutrition and water shortages, and describing dormitories as overcrowded and without beds[21]. These conditions led residents of Presbyterian missions to protest[22]. In 1953, Mapoon delegates went to Thursday Island to lobby the Director of Native Affairs, Cornelius O’Leary, for the dismissal of the then Superintendent Reverend R G Holmes and against his intention to relocate the mission to Red Beach[23]. O’Leary and the Superintendent of Aurukun, Bill McKenzie, went to Mapoon to ‘restore order’[24].

By 1954, the government was very critical of Presbyterian mission management, and began pressuring the Presbyterian Church to close Mapoon and Mornington Island missions[25]. Most Mapoon residents strongly protested the closure, and conflict developed between the church, residents of the mission and the government, delaying the closure. The Presbyterian Church demanded the government acknowledge that long-term underfunding was equally to blame for mission conditions[26].

The Presbyterian Church was struggling financially and O’Leary refused further funding. The church threatened to walk out and residents continued to pressure the church, who informed O’Leary they would not try and convince the Mapoon people to move to Weipa, but would rely on changing attitudes as Weipa developed. O’Leary admitted to the Under-Secretary that the Presbyterians received substantially less funding than government-run settlements. By O’Leary’s conservative estimate, the Presbyterians should have received £61,075 to bring their missions up to par with Woorabinda. They received £39,500 in 1955/1956[27].

Comalco and Alcan began bauxite exploration on Mapoon and Weipa mission reserves in 1956, creating further confusion and conflict surrounding the future of the missions[28]. Without consulting the church or residents, the government negotiated with Comalco to pass legislation in 1957 that facilitated mining on the majority of 2 mission reserves and northern parts of the Aurukun reserve. The legislation did not include any formal requirement to compensate Aboriginal communities affected by mining[29].

On 1 January 1958, Comalco was issued an 84-year lease covering an area from Vrilya Point in the north, south almost to Aurukun mission. Comalco surrendered the land on which the Mapoon mission was located.

From 1960, funding and services to Mapoon were withdrawn in an attempt to force people to relocate to ‘New Mapoon’, an area developed by the government to replace the old mission. By the end of 1962, around 162 people remained at Mapoon and, by July 1963, about 100 people had gone to New Mapoon. Those who remained at Mapoon continued campaigning against forced removal from their traditional homelands, and established alternative schooling and food supplies[30].

On 15 November 1963, Thursday Island Police arrived at Mapoon with instructions from the Director of Native Affairs, Patrick Killoran, to enforce the removal of 23 people to Bamaga. Several houses and buildings were burnt on the day to prevent their return, though a police report of this event has never been located[31]. The remaining 70 people at Mapoon were transported to Weipa and New Mapoon between January and May 1964[32].

In 1965, the Queensland Government passed the Alcan Queensland Pty. Limited Agreement Act 1965. Aluminium Laboratories, a subsidiary company of the Canadian company Alcan, was granted a 105-year mining lease (ML7031) (formerly Special bauxite lease No. 8) covering 1,690 square miles in the hinterland behind Mapoon[33].

From the 1960s, Jean Jimmy and other former mission residents lobbied for the re-establishment of the community at ‘Old Mapoon’[34]. In 1974, Jerry and Ina Hudson and several other families returned to ‘Old Mapoon’ and, in 1984, established the Marpuna Aboriginal Corporation, which gradually built up community facilities[35].

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

The Mapoon Aboriginal reserve, previously held by the Queensland Government, was transferred on 26 April 1989 to the trusteeship of the Mapoon Land Trust under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT)[36].

On 25 March 2000, after many years of lobbying for their own council, members of the Mapoon community elected 5 councillors to constitute an autonomous Mapoon Aboriginal Council under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984[37].  After its establishment, the Mapoon Aboriginal Council became one of the trustees of the Mapoon Land Trust.

On 1 January 2005, under the Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004 (CGA), the Mapoon Aboriginal Council became the Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council.

End notes

  1. Historical records indicate that the Traditional Owners for this region are the Tjungundji people. G Wharton, The Day They Burned Mapoon – A Study of the Closure of a Queensland Presbyterian Mission (Unpublished thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1996) 1, 15-17.
  2. The late David Mamoose provided the translation of the word ‘Mapoon’ to Geoff Wharton. Ward died at Mapoon in 1898. John Hey became Superintendent following Ward’s death and remained in this position until 1919. See: Wharton, above n 1; Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1899 (1900) 9; A. Ward, The Miracle of Mapoon: Or from native camp to Christian village (S.W. Partridge & Co, London, 1908) 242; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1904 (1905) 13, 17.
  3. Queensland, Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1901 (1902) 15.
  4. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, 16 July 1904, 92; Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, volume 54, no. 111, 12 December 1891, 1237; A/69764, Aboriginal reserves, Map of Mapoon mission reserve; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1901 (1902) 13.
  5. G Wharton, The Day They Burned Mapoon – A Study of the Closure of a Queensland Presbyterian Mission (Unpublished thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1996).
  6. R Kidd, Regulating Bodies - Administrations and Aborigines in Queensland 1840 to 1988 (Unpublished PhD thesis, Griffith University, Brisbane 1994) 151; S Mullins, Torres Strait: A History of colonial occupation and culture contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1995) 111; Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1899 (1900) 5; Wharton, above n 1.
  7. Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1899 (1900) 9; Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1901 (1902) 14-15.
  8. Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1903 (1904) 4-5, Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1904 (1905), 4.
  9. Queensland, Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1901 (1902) at 7 November 2012.
  10. Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database (access restricted).
  11. Wharton, above n 1, 37-38; F. Paton, Glimpses of Mapoon – the story of a visit to the North Queensland mission stations of the Presbyterian Church (Arbuckle, Waddell and Fawckner, Melbourne, 1911) 21-22; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1905 (1906) 24; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1907 (1908) 22.
  12. Paton, above n 11, 15-22, 25; Wharton n 1, 37-38.
  13. Author unknown, ‘Sensation at a Mission: serious allegations of cruelty. Official inquiry at Mapoon evidence of the Natives and their cross-examination’, The Brisbane Courier, 17 August 1909, 5.
  14. HOM/J60, 1910/4388.
  15. R. Kidd, The way we civilize: Aboriginal affairs the untold story (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1996) 61, 92-99; Queensland, Report of the Aboriginals Department, 1920 (1921) 9.
  16. Kidd, above n 15, 93.
  17. Wharton, above n 1, 39-42.
  18. The government initially planned to relocate Mapoon residents to Townsville, but abandoned the plan at the Church’s request. See: G. Mackenzie, Aurukun Diaries (The Aldersgate Press, Melbourne, 1981) 99-104; Kidd, above n 15, 158-162.
  19. Kidd, above n 15, 158-162, 166-168.
  20. When the Commonwealth introduced child endowment, it became payable for Aboriginal children. A provision in the Act allowed payments to be made directly to institutions for children in their care, including to the church on behalf of dormitory children, if the mother or carer was thought to be untrustworthy to use the money appropriately. Mothers at Aurukun and other Presbyterian missions successfully challenged mission authorities who also tried to withhold endowment payments for non-dormitory children. Underfunding of Presbyterian missions perpetuated their dependence on endowment money for food and supplies. In 1942, the Queensland Government reduced grants to Presbyterian missions. The grant given equated to around one tenth of child endowment revenue paid to the church for eligible children across the four Presbyterian missions. The number of children for whom Mapoon mission received endowment payments increased from 65 in 1941 to 132 in 1950. See: QSA Item 504738, Administration-Child Endowment-Presbyterian Mission, 1H/79, 5/9/1941; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, for the year ending 1950 (1951) 5; Kidd, above n 15, 497.
  21. Kidd, above n 15, 171, 192-198; R. Kidd, Regulating Bodies: administration and Aborigines in Queensland 1840-1988 (PhD thesis, Griffith University, Brisbane, 1994) 489-497; Wharton, above n 1, 47-49.
  22. Kidd, above n 15, 168-169, 195-197; Wharton, above n 1, 46-54.
  23. QSA SRS 505, 1A/267, O’Leary to Under-Secretary, corr. 12.08.1947; Kidd, above n 15, 168-169; Wharton, above n 1, 52.
  24. O’Leary and McKenzie subsequently reported mismanagement and policy failures at Mapoon, and suggested the closure of the mission, and relocation of ‘half-castes’ to Weipa and ‘full-bloods’ to Aurukun. The government wanted missions to be ‘re-organised towards revenue production and self-funding’. O’Leary convinced Minister W M Moore ‘that the whole question of funding for the Presbyterian missions turned on defective management practices in general and the future of the Mapoon mission in particular’. These events led to the decision to close Mapoon in 1954. See end note 25.
  25. At meetings at Mapoon in 1954, O’Leary rejected proposals by the church to relocate Mapoon to the outstation at Red Beach, which was strongly supported by the residents. At the time around 285 people lived at Mapoon. The church initially agreed to O’Leary’s proposal to ‘assimilate those ready…into the Australian way of life’ and transfer remaining residents to Weipa or Aurukun missions. The church initially agreed to O’Leary’s plan. See: Kidd, above n 21, 497-50; Wharton, above n 1, 46-54; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs for the year ended, 1954 (1955) 1.
  26. Kidd, above n 21, 495-503.
  27. Ibid.
  28. The original request to prospect for bauxite in the Cape was made by British company Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd (CZP), who applied for a 100 year prospecting lease which covered most of the Mapoon and Weipa Reserves. Kidd, above n 21, 503; SRS 505/1, 6G/20, O’Leary to Killoran, 25.09.1956.
  29. Wharton, above n 1, 69-89.
  30. Wharton, above n 1, 18; Queensland, Native Affairs – Information contained in Report of Director of Native Affairs for the Twelve Months ended 30 June 1962 (1962) 20; Queensland, Native Affairs – Information contained in Report of Director of Native Affairs for the Twelve Months ended 30 June 1963 (1963) 15.
  31. Director of Native Affairs to Officer-In-Charge, Thursday Island Police, 14.11.1963, enclosing Removal Order No. 32/63, Dept. Native Affairs, 6D/25, A/69496; Director of Native Affairs to Director-General of Education, 29.04.1964, 9M/65, Box 888; A/69497, 6D/17, Memo for file describing visit to Mapoon on 19-20 April 1964 & radio message dated 10.7.1964.
  32. Wharton, above n 1, 11
  33. Ibid.
  34. Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, ‘They have made our rights wrong’, 6 November 1962, in Joe McGinness Papers, MS 3718 (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) <> at 8 November 2012.
  35. Wharton, above n 1.
  36. Deed of Grant in Land in Trust, Register book volume 1378, folio 149, 5.12.1988.
  37. SRS 3501, Box419, 01-049-168, Mapoon DOGIT file.