Academic journal article Queensland Review

On the Utmost Verge: Race and Ethnic Relations at Moreton Bay, 1799-1842

Academic journal article Queensland Review

On the Utmost Verge: Race and Ethnic Relations at Moreton Bay, 1799-1842

Article excerpt

The native races know us chiefly by our crimes.--Karl Marx (1)

'Moreton Bay' was certainly a name to be conjured with among the early Australian penal stations. As well as being a forbidding secondary detention centre, it represented--both within and around itself--a microcosmic world of early colonial race and ethnic relations. For this custodial system was rudely imposed upon pre-existing and long-enduring social orders of a dramatically dissimilar kind. It intruded into human populations that greatly outnumbered its own, implanted itself and militarily usurped portions of territory in a variety of locations, occupied by and spiritually amalgamated with a substantial body of Aboriginal communities. To these people, for whom life was 'a billowing of the consciousness of country', it was a visitation utterly without precedent. (2) The repercussions of its ongoing presence were largely uninvited and unrehearsed. The station's existence was at first a wonder and a puzzle, then an impediment and a curse. It greatly transformed immutable lifeways, invariably impoverishing them; it reduced social options rather than expanding them; it denuded the host culture of its efficacy; and it assailed the people's health and decimated their numbers. The familiar environment was reconstructed and the old place-names largely obliterated and changed. For the incomer, to name was to own. The many visible signs of Aboriginal material occupancy were ignored as palpable evidence of legal possession and, eventually, erased. Erased too was much of the evidence of these very acts of erasure, whether material, cultural or human. Detailed evidence of what happened--or was perceived to have happened--in the myriad interactions between Aborigines and non-Aborigines of the convict settlement between 1824 and 1842 is scanty and fragmented: staccato bursts of often-tantalising information against an otherwise frustrating backdrop of silence. Distance from Sydney as well as London was the essential buffer that nurtured this atmosphere of secrecy, feeding its potency and allowing the Moreton Bay regime to proceed virtually as a law unto itself insofar as northern frontier relations were concerned.

As a penal outpost of Sydney, Moreton Bay was a predominantly British establishment, yet Britishness itself invites ethnic deconstruction. In this English-run institution, the majority of secondary punishment convicts--male and female--were Irish-born, as were a considerable proportion of the soldiers who guarded them and defended the settlement from possible Aboriginal attack. Only three of the eight penal commandants had no Irish connections, while every regiment stationed at Moreton Bay had seen service in Ireland before departing for the Australian colonies. Ironically, while Moreton Bay evolved as yet another small experiment in Western expansionism, simultaneously within its confines certain consequences of a prior act of English colonialism--still being played out a world away--also unfolded. The colonised Irish were Australia's first substantial migrant minority, composing up to 30 per cent of male convicts transported and some 40 per cent of the females. Yet, consistent with their reputation as the most fractious of transportees, and the most heavily disciplined, at this secondary punishment centre they were even more disproportionately represented: Irish men composed some 50 per cent of male prisoners and Irish women almost 60 per cent of the re-transported females.

In a sense, therefore, Moreton Bay was substantially an Irish prison camp. Perhaps this ethnic component contributed in some degree towards the peculiar oppressiveness of the institution. Elsewhere it has been argued that, because many of the soldiers shared a similar demographic profile with the convicts, this could conceivably serve to mitigate official severities--familiarity breeding tolerance rather than contempt. (3) Yet a more persuasive case can be made that the intensity of unequal power relationships might rather have been enhanced by having transgressors, victims and resisters of English colonialism back in Ireland directly under the thumb (and against the bayonets) of Irish military collaborators at Moreton Bay. …

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