Tag Archives: Innisfail

Diane Menghetti’s Red North

Diane Menghetti, The Red North (Studies in North Queensland History No 3, James Cook University of North Queensland 1981)

The student of North Queensland history frequently encounters evidence of widespread political radicalism which is difficult to reconcile with her personal experience of the district.

(The Red North, the beginning of the Introduction)

Indeed! Mention that the only member of the Communist Party of Australia ever to be elected to a parliament was in Queensland, where Fred Paterson was MLA for the seat of Bowen from 1944 to 1950, and the most common reaction is, ‘What happened?’ Diane Menghetti doesn’t set out to answer that question, but her book is a solid account of the second half of the 1930s when the CPA was more of a force in North Queensland than in any other part of Australia.

The Studies in North Queensland History series ran from 1978 to the mid 1990s.* I must have got hold of The Red North, No 3 in the series, soon after it was published and then been daunted by its non-commercial feel. It makes no pretence of being other than an MA thesis, set in courier with a foreword by a professor, footnotes and 60 pages of appendices.

But it turns out to be a fascinating read – for me, and I expect for many people like me who hail from that part of the world, as well as anyone interested in the history of the labour movement and Communism in Australia. With a wealth of detail, Menghetti describes how the CPA became an integral part of the social life of many North Queensland communities, supporting non-British labourers in the face of the British-preference policies of the Australian Workers Union, raising an extraordinary amount of money for the Spanish Civil War, organising social events, providing regular entertainment in the form of public meetings featuring gifted orators such as Fred Paterson.

We didn’t hear much of the history of the North in my childhood: snippets of family lore in a family that wasn’t much given to story-telling, and nothing at all at school that I can remember. When we were taught that Australia was settled in 1788, it wasn’t just tens of thousands of years of prior habitation that were ignored, but also the reality that settlement/ invasion occurred over decades – reaching north Queensland well into the nineteenth century. Even today, people talk as if Australian was mono-culturally Anglo-Celtic during the 1950s, erasing not just Indigenous peoples but also the large number of ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Maltese, Jugoslavs who I went to school with, many of whom had been around for generations.

So there’s a particular joy for me now to read a whole book about our history, about significant struggles that took place in places from my childhood: not just Innisfail, Cairns and Tully, but Mourilyan, Goondi, South Johnstone, El Arish, Flying Fish Point and Etty Bay. I especially love the moments where this narrative intersects with the little bits of history I had from my parents. I’ll give two examples.

First: in my childhood, the sugarcane was burned before it was harvested. We loved the spectacle of the cane-fires, and were told that their purpose was to kill the rats that infested the cane because the rats carried the deadly Weil’s disease. Burning the cane was necessary to save the lives of the canecutters.

That’s accurate. What it leaves out is one of the main episodes of this book, the bitterly-contested Weil’s disease strike by canecutters and mill hands from August to October 1935. Something of the flavour of the times, and of what we are deprived of when this history is erased, can be gleaned from events in Tully on 24 September 1935. The AWU, which generally opposed the strike, had called a meeting of all canecutters and millhands for that day:

During the previous night [the strike committee] had worked to turn the AWU meeting to the strikers’ advantage, and when the hour of the conference arrived, over a thousand strikers and sympathisers formed up at the top end of Tully’s main street. This street slopes fairly steeply down to where the Plaza Theatre is situated, almost at the end of the main town area. Thus the great procession, led by the Tully Pipe Band, marched right through the business area before the start of the conference. The AWU organiser opened the meeting with a call for nominations for the chair. Eric Driscoll, Communist mill representative was duly elected, and the executive of the strike committee took its place on the platform, reflecting its control over the total strike. The expressed purpose of the meeting was the election of delegates to represent the men at a compulsory conference of millers, farmers, strikers and the AWU. Towards the end of the meeting the ‘scabs’ from the mill arrived to cast their vote. They were escorted by police and their entry was considered by the strikers to be an act of provocation. Nevertheless, at [strike committee leader Jack] Henry’s urging, the election was concluded peacefully. The conference was never held.

(page 40)

Second: When I was in my 30s my mother astonished me by saying that the Depression didn’t happen in Innisfail, that out-of-work people from ‘down south’ used to come to our door asking for work or food. I knew there had been a large unemployed camp in the Cairns showground, so I put this down to my mother’s over-protected life at the time as the fiancee and then bride of a cane farmer.

Two short quotes from The Far North are relevant. First, confirming my view:

In the far north the Depression set in early with a slump in world sugar prices. With economic hardship came xenophobia.

(page 53)

But then this, offering some support to my mother’s account:

In the years preceding World War Two unemployment remained very high. The mildness of the northern climate may have reduced some of the distress among the local unemployed, but it also had the effect of attracting large numbers of men from the south, either looking for work or merely travelling to fulfil unemployment relief conditions. For many the journey terminated in Cairns where a large unemployed camp was established.

(page 109)

After I’d written most of this blog post I discovered that a new edition was published by Resistance Books in 2018 (details here). ‘The Red North,’ they write, ‘is a fascinating episode and one deserving of serious study by all those interested in seeing the development of a serious progressive force in Australian politics.’

The Red North is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


* Other titles in the series that I’ve been able to find are:

  • 2 Peter Bell, If anything, too safe: the Mount Mulligan disaster of 1921, 1978
  • 4 Christine Doran, Separatism in Townsville, 1884 to 1894: we should govern ourselves, 1984
  • 5 Dawn May, From bush to station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry, 1861–1897, c1985
  • 6 Cathie R. May, Topsawyers, the Chinese in Cairns, 1870–1920, c1984
  • 7 Dorothy Gibson–Wilde, Gateway to a golden land: Townsville to 1884, 1985
  • 8 Anne Smith, Roberts Leu and North: a centennial history, c1986
  • 9 Dorothy M. Gibson–Wilde and Bruce C. Gibson–Wilde, A pattern of pubs: hotels of Townsville 1864–1914, 1988
  • 10 Helen Brayshaw, Well beaten paths: Aborigines of the Herbert/Burdekin district, north Queensland: an ethnographic and archaeological study, c1990
  • 11 Marjorie Pagani, T.W. Crawford: politics and the Queensland sugar industry, 1989
  • 12 Bianka Vidonya Balanzategui, Gentlemen of the flashing blade, 1990
  • 13 Janice Wegner, The Etheridge, 1990
  • 14 Christine Doran, Partner in progress: a history of electricity supply in North Queensland from 1897 to 1987, 1990
  • 15 Todd Barr, No swank here? The development of the Whitsundays as a tourist destination to the early 1970s, 1990
  • 16 Ferrando (Freddie) Galassi, Sotto la Croce del Sud = Under the Southern Cross: the Jumna immigrants of 1891, 1991
  • 17 Dawn May, Arctic regions in a torrid zone: the history of the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, 1892–1992, 1992
  • 18 Bruce Breslin, Exterminate with pride: Aboriginal–European relations in the Townsville–Bowen region to 1869, 1992.
  • 19 Eileen Hennessey, A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, 1993
  • 20 Anne Smith, This El Dorado of Australia: a centennial history of Aramac Shire, 1994
  • 21 Patricia Mercer, White Australia defied: Pacific Islander settlement in North Queensland, 1995

Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP 2002)

I finished reading this book a while ago but it’s taken me until now to write about because I took it very personally.

It’s a meditation on the so-called horror stretch, country north of Rockhampton in central Queensland that has a reputation as the setting for terrible events. Starting with a number of roadside murders in the second half of last century that made headlines all over Australia, Gibson explores the cultural factors, the ‘structure of feeling’, underlying the general fascination with those crimes. A ‘badland’ such as this, he says, is a way of localising and mythologising issues that are unresolved in the society in general. This description may lead you to expect something that reads like a bad translation from the French, with lots of stuff being inscribed on the landscape, and references to impenetrable theory. But no, it’s an engaging read, and becomes positively compelling as it moves back in time to the terrible first contact between Aboriginal people and settlers, forward again to the ordeals of Melanesian indentured workers in the sugar paddocks, and forward yet again to the White Australia Policy’s denial of the extraordinary diversity of the region.

‘Sooner or later,’ Gibson writes, ‘any society that would like to know itself as “post-colonial” must confront an inevitable question: how to live with collective memories of theft and murder. Sooner or later, therefore, acknowledgement and grieving must commence before healing can ensue.’ This must also be true of the individuals who are part of that society, and my sense is that for all the impressive scholarship and historical research that went into it, this project is at heart personal, a way of making personal acknowledgement and beginning the necessary grieving. At least, coming though I do from Innisfail, hundreds of miles north of the horror strip (and yes, I knew of it by that name in my childhood), that’s how I read it.

Things may have changed, but when I was at school, history happened mostly in England (and elsewhere in Europe for Catholic Church history), and what we were taught of Australian history happened in Sydney or Melbourne, or occasionally the other capital cities. The only North Queensland figures I remember being mentioned – and that was at home rather than school – were the explorer Edmund Kennedy, speared by natives in 1848, and his faithful Aboriginal companion Jackey Jackey (whose real name, Galmahra, was never alluded to). The specific history of the arrival of non-Aboriginal settlers in the north was never even hinted at. As in the ‘horror stretch’, I’ve learned, this history involved mass murder by Native Police under white officers. Ross Gibson brings that history home, and a has a good deal to say about our collective silence about it. Even at the time of widespread killing of Aboriginal people in the mid 19th century, he says, the officers

jinked a two-step of violent action and circumspect remembrance. They wrapped their deeds in dissembling verbiage and eventually they became their own twisted idioms, developing a ‘pathological’ disconnection between doing and declaring, a disconnection which gave them no way to see the world clearly.

That ‘circumspect remembrance’ is something that has lived on in the north ever since, as ‘white people simultaneously knew and refused to know the violence behind their everyday lives’.

Now here’s why I took this all personally: in an entry in this blog a few years back I said I didn’t know much about first contact between the Mamu people and the first settlers of the Innisfail region, and I gave a link to Innisfail’s web site. When I clicked on that link I found this:

The first incursion came in 1872. Survivors of the shipwreck “Maria” arrived on the coast near the Johnstone River. Some of the Indigenous people helped; others they opposed. Sub-Inspector Robert Johnstone’s search party came to rescue survivors and punish Aboriginal people who had abused them, and ventured up river from what are now Flying Fish and Coquette Points. Johnstone wrote glowing reports of the area, and with vigilante Native Troopers attacked the Mamu people with rifle fire as he escorted the explorer Dalrymple, charting the watercourse and having it named after himself …

When European cedar cutters and Chinese gold seekers arrived later in the 1870s and early in the 1880s, the Mamu fought them and inflicted serious casualties. Again the Europeans sent in the Native Police. Superior firepower broke up the Indigenous communities and dispersed or integrated the remaining original landowners.

The evidence is that I had read that and could still say I didn’t know what happened, yet its meaning couldn’t be clearer. Words like ‘punish’ and ‘dispersed’ are transparent euphemisms: the high moral ground assumed by one and the almost kindly feel of the other could mislead only the ignorant or, it pains me to say, allow the wilfully obtuse to ward off the obvious. It’s impossible to stay obtuse after reading this book. And a further confession: I must have blithely assumed that if Native Troopers and Native Police were involved things couldn’t have been too bad. Gibson puts that assumption to rest with his account of the way armed young Aboriginal men, uprooted from their own communities and freed of cultural restraints, were directed to kill and maraud. He lays bare the mechanism by which Indigenous people, under tight white control, performed the genocidal work of dispossession, leaving the settlers – good Catholics in the case of the first farmers of the Innisfail Estate – to move in with an illusion of clean hands, deploring the violence of the unruly ones who had made their settlement possible.

Gibson’s discussion of the Melanesians who worked on the sugar farms is also compelling. I recommend the whole book.

Anybody want to buy my childhood home?

The auction is on 13 November.

It’s quite a while now since it left our family. Cyclone Larry wasn’t kind to it, and tragedy struck the man who bought it from my brother and sister-in-law. So here it is again, shorn of cane paddocks and big trees, looking for a new owner.

Bath 2 Bed 4 [having been home to at least two seven-member families] Car 5
7 acres so close to town – red soil
Large queenslander – 2 sheds – High & dry
Fantastic views of river & surrounding area – very private