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The Indigenous tribes of the Jagera, Giabal and Jarowair people inhabited the Darling Downs for at least 40,000 years before European settlement. Estimations place the Indigenous population pre-settlement from 1500 to 2500 people. The Jagera people were of the foothills and escarpment, Giabal were of the Toowoomba area and the Jarowair were of the northern areas towards and including the Bunya Mountains.
The Darling Downs was originally known as the 'upland area' and Indigenous people of this area used a technique in hunting food where they would burn the grasslands as the new, green sprouts attracted animals. This earned them the name "Gooneburra", or, "the ones who hunt with fire", by the coastal tribes.
In 1827 the Darling Downs was 'discovered' by Allan Cunningham and 13 years later Patrick Leslie and his party began the first wave of settlement. Aboriginal knowledge of the existence of Europeans preceded Leslie's party's move as 'Boralcho' Baker, an escaped convict, lived from 1826 to 1844 with the Jagera people. European settlement had disastrous consequences for the original inhabitants of the Darling Downs. The settlers brought with them diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles which were devastating to the indigenous population. These introduced diseases as well as social disruption, relocation and murder, caused the Indigenous population of the Darling Downs to be almost wiped out by 1870.
An important aspect of Indigenous life on the Darling Downs was the Bunya Nut Festival. This festival was held in the land of the Jarowair tribe every two to three years or whenever the nuts were abundant. Archibald Meston, amateur anthropologist and inaugural Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland, recorded the Bunya Nut Festival as attracting tribes from Gympie, Maryborough, Balonne, Maranoa, Moonie, Barwon, New England, Brisbane River, Tweed River and all parts of the Darling Downs. It is estimated that at least 14 different Aboriginal dialects would have been represented at the festival. The festival was important as it was a time for the tribes of Southern Queensland to meet and conduct initiation ceremonies and corroborees (ceremonies in which there is traditional dancing and singing), to settle arguments, swap information and, of course, feast on the bunya nuts. This feast continued in the area until as late as the 1870s.
When Europeans settled in the area, the festival was seen as a threat as such a large and organised group of Indigenous people frightened the settlers. In the early period of European settlement in the Darling Downs, the only official government charity event aimed at aiding the Indigenous population was the annual Queen's Birthday blanket distribution. Dalby was the main site for the distribution to the Northern Downs for many decades following 1860. In 1866 blanket day coincided with the Bunya festival. The settlers were uncomfortable with a large number of Indigenous people and so, in an attempt to intimidate the tribes, police arrested two alleged cattle thieves - resulting in one arrest and one fatality. This brutal tactic employed by police was praised by the Justice of Police in Dalby in a letter later written to Sub-Inspector Applejohn as 'ostensibly an attempt to capture Yorkey (the name of the Indigenous man killed in the arrest) but really more to intimidate and disperse the gathering'. This exemplifies the harsh treatment Indigenous people faced at that time and continued to face for many more years.
In the early years of European settlement on the Darling Downs, relations between the two races were mostly friendly. However, by the 1840s relations had turned sour. The European settlers did not understand the Indigenous population's deep spiritual connection to the land and so often treated their sacred sites (natural features of the land) poorly. This led to tension and soon conflict. The most famous and serious of conflicts on the Downs was the Battle of One-Tree Hill which took place on what is now known as Table Top Mountain.
In September 1843, an elder of the Jagera tribe called Multuggera (also known as 'King Moppy') sent a warning to his friend - John Campbell of Westbrook Station - that an uprising was imminent. Campbell ignored the warning and on September 12, 1843, Multuggera led around 100 Aborigines in an ambush of three drays heading up the range crossing. This was an attempt to stop the drays from travelling and so starve the settlers. They were determined to first rid the Downs of the settlers and then blockade the road to prevent more invaders from coming. The armed white men, numbering about 18, fled to the campsite of a group of squatters and police. Multuggera and his men took supplies from the drays and made their retreat into the nearby mountain. When the European men returned to the scene the Aborigines threw stones at them until they withdrew to a nearby shack. In the following weeks, the settlers located Multuggera and his men to reclaim the stolen goods. It is believed that Multuggera was killed when found and today there is a plaque in Duggan Park honouring him.
By the turn of the century, the Aboriginal survivors of frontier violence were under the absolute control of the Queensland Government.
The widespread mindset of the time was a belief in white supremacy and so the Europeans felt they 'knew best' when it came to the lives of the Indigenous people. This belief led to the Queensland 1897 Aborigines Protection and Restriction on the Sale of Opium Act which was the first step in gaining legal control over the Indigenous people. In a move to separate the Aboriginal people from the whites, the Aboriginal people would be removed from their traditional land, for virtually any reason, and relocated to reserves and missions set up throughout Queensland designed for their containment and control.
Aborigines of the Downs were often first sent to Fraser Island and later to Taroom reserve (land between Wondai and Murgon) post 1911. Barambah reserve (named Cherbourg after 1935) also came to house an estimated 141 Aborigines from the Downs. Arbitrary relocation could happen to any Aboriginal person but children - even more so orphans - and single mothers were especially vulnerable. These removals resulted in the breakdown of many regional affiliations and families – tearing people from their traditional values and way of life. This was all done under the blanket of humanitarian efforts, often referred to as 'White Man's Burden' – a belief that white man has the duty to civilise and save the 'uncivilised'. This humanitarian veneer is illustrated in Chief Protector's report for 1905 that concluded the section on removals with: 'It will be seen, therefore, that during the year upwards of 70 children and young women have been rescued from undesirable surroundings."
During World War II non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians were both sent to war and so came in close contact, prompting a change in European attitude towards the Aborigines. The belief in the policy of segregation changed to the belief that the Indigenous people could and should adapt to white Australian culture. They realised that the Aboriginal people had the ability to 'attain white standards' and so the 'protection' policies were abandoned and replaced with a policy of assimilation – where Aboriginal people were expected to identify with the white Australian culture and so benefit from the same rights and privileges. This meant that in order for the Downs Aborigines to survive they would have to separate themselves from their Aboriginal heritage and take up the white Australian lifestyle. Aborigines from reserves began to move to the Darling Downs in the 1960s but they were not descendants of the original Darling Downs tribes – instead of coming from South West Queensland and northern New South Wales. It was not until 1972 that the Cherbourg could move freely off reserves.
Evidence accumulated from oral, written and historical sources indicates the survival of descendants from the original Darling Downs Aborigines – although not of full descent, Jerry Jerome became the first Aboriginal boxing champion in 1913 and is of Giabal/Jarowair descent. On 20 October 2000, a list of attendees at the Jerry Jerome plaque-unveiling ceremony contains 18 signatures from people who identify themselves as descendants of the Giabal people.
The 1993 Native Title Act was a legal dismissal of the original belief of terra nullius (the belief that pre-colonial Australia was unoccupied) meaning that Australian society now recognised that Aborigines originally owned the land. This meant that the Indigenous people could claim ownership and gain access to their traditional sacred sites. On 9 September 2000, Matt Foley, the Queensland Attorney-General, ceremoniously returned to the Wakka Wakka, Warra and Jarowair people the ownership of the initiation site of the Meringandan Aboriginal Reserve. Like the rest of Australia, relationships between white and Indigenous Australians on the Darling Downs are being repaired and a mutual understanding of cultures is being gained. The acknowledgment of the lie of terra nullius as well as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's 'Sorry' speech in 2008 (recognizing the wrongdoings committed against the Aborigines) were steps toward the ultimate goal of reconciliation between Australia's Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people.
Burke, V.G., 1983, Aboriginal History on the Darling Downs pg. 3-4Laurie, R, 1995, The Aboriginal People of the Northern Darling Downs. Life Under Occupation, 1860's – 1930'sRiethmuller, N, 2006, The Darling Downs Aborigines. 1787-2004, Genocide and Survival. N. Reithmuller, Toowoomba.Smith, J.M., 2008, The Story of the Swamp. A Children's History of Toowoomba. Toowoomba Regional Council's Toowoomba Library pg. 4, 5.