Chapter 21 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XXI


Settlement at Moreton Bay — Its abandonment — The Gladstone Colony at Port Curtis — Separation of Queensland from New South Wales — The new colony proclaimed — Its boundaries — Bowen’s governorship.

The first settlement at Moreton Bay was founded in September 1824, under the command of Lieutenant Murray of the 40th (South Lancashire) regiment, principally as a place of punishment for convicts who had committed offences after transportation to Australia. But Governor Brisbane also had in view the preparation of the country by convict labour for habitation by a farming class. The establishment of penal depots at points favourable to cultivation was, he considered, ‘the best way of paving the way for free populations.’ The rough labour of clearing and of making highways would thus be done at little cost. It is hardly doubtful, however, that from the point of view of pioneer development the experiment was expensive out of proportion to the beneficent results obtained from it. The convicts did clear the site of Brisbane town, where the Quaker philanthropists Backhouse and Walker, who visited the penal settlements in 1836, found ‘some fine cleared and cultivated land on the south bank’ of the river.

Experiments were also made with sugar-cane growing and other varieties of culture, but much of the work was unskilfully directed. Dr. Lang related that when rice cultivation was attempted, instead of the natural seed being sown, manufactured rice bought from a grocery store was used; whereupon the climate was reported to be unsuitable for rice growing! In view of the fact that some thousands of men were kept at hard labour during the fifteen years that Brisbane was a convict settlement, and that the establishment cost many thousands of pounds, the amount of useful work done was very small. Governor Bourke in 1832 advised the abandonment of the Moreton Bay settlement, and in 1839 the prisoners were withdrawn from it. The original site was not up the river, where the city of Brisbane was built, but at Redcliffe, on the shore of Moreton Bay. After the abandonment of this position on account of the absence of water, the aboriginals called it Oompiebong, an ‘oompie’ (or, as more commonly spelt, humpy) being a hut, and ‘bong’ signifying dead; it was the place of the abandoned huts. Hence it is called Humpybong to this day.

During the penal period free settlers were strictly excluded from within fifty miles of Brisbane. The precaution was taken in order to make it very difficult for convicts to escape. Many did attempt to do so, aided by the thick scrub and the long grass, and perished. Others got away and lived for years with the aboriginals, but some of these became weary of the life, and at length surrendered. Messrs. Backhouse and Walker recorded that they found even women convicts wearing chains ‘to prevent absconding, which they have frequently done under cover of the long grass.’

As related in Chapter XVII, Gladstone, while Secretary of State for the Colonies in Peel’s administration (1846), determined to resume convict transportation to Australia. As part of his policy he ordered the establishment of a new penal settlement at Port Curtis, 350 miles north of Brisbane. It was to be called Northern Australia, but is more generally known as the Gladstone Colony; and it must not be confused (as it has sometimes been) with the district of Gladstone on the west side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Colonel George Barney, of the Royal Engineers, had been sent out to report upon the site, and he condemned it as unsuitable; but Governor Fitzroy rejected his advice, and founded the Gladstone Colony there in January 1847. The intention was that some prisoners who were sent abroad under the conditional pardon system should be deposited at this tropical station. They were to be called exiles, not convicts, and Gladstone had an idea of sending out women from the poorhouses of England, who were presumably to be married to the ‘Pentonvillains.’ Barney, who was to govern the establishment, was especially commanded by the Secretary of State to ‘promote by all possible means a healthy moral tone in the community.’

But Gladstone was in office only a few months at this time, and his successor, Lord Grey, considered that the founding of the Gladstone Colony was ‘a needless and impolitic measure.’ Indeed, the despatch cancelling the order to found it was on its way before Colonel Barney, in the Lord Auckland, sailed from Sydney. He was ordered to remove the whole company forthwith, and by August not a soul remained at Port Curtis. When the Rattlesnake put into the bay in November she found only a few piles of bricks, some posts, wheel-ruts, and empty bottles, to indicate the former whereabouts of the last penal settlement controlled from New South Wales. Robert Lowe, in his Atlas newspaper, made much fun out of the failure, and Barney especially became the mark of his satirical muse. In verses ridiculing the Colonel’s search for a place for the erection of buildings Lowe wrote:

For six long hours he did the search pursue —
For six long hours — and then he thirsty grew;
Back to the rescued steamer did he steer,
Drew the loud cork and quaffed the foaming beer;
Then ate his dinner with tremendous gust,
And with champagne relieved his throat adust,
Fished for his brother flatfish from the stern,
And thus victorious did to Sydney turn.

The Gladstone colony had, however, one permanent result. Northern Australia was to have comprehended all of New South Wales above the latitude 26° S. It included very fertile land, and Governor Fitzroy was afraid that, if care were not taken, it would be all occupied by squatters in an unauthorized manner, much as the land north-west of Sydney had been in the early squatting days. He therefore decided to lay out a town at Port Curtis, and to place a Government Resident there to protect the rights of the Crown over the land. In these circumstances the town of Gladstone was founded in 1853. Captain Maurice O’Connell was appointed Government Resident, and held the office as long as the country remained part of New South Wales. When a separate colony was formed many favoured making Gladstone its capital, instead of Brisbane, on account of its more central situation; but the movement in that direction did not succeed.

In consequence of the discoveries of Oxley, Mitchell, Leichhardt, and other explorers, attention was directed to the richness of the Moreton Bay district, and immigration to it became general shortly before the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1860 it had a population rapidly approaching 30,000. The great progress which had been made by the Port Phillip District after it had been erected into the independent colony of Victoria by separation from New South Wales stimulated these settlers of the north to agitate for a new division. At present the entire territory of eastern Australia, from Cape Howe to the Gulf of Carpentaria, was governed from Sydney, and the northern people did not think that their interests were sufficiently considered. The Imperial Government, in granting a constitution to New South Wales, under the Act of 1842, had reserved power (by section 51) to ‘erect into a separate colony’ any territories then included within it — provided, however, that no land should be detached from New South Wales southward of the 26th degree of south latitude. That provision is important as showing two things: first, that the probability of a necessity for the creation of a separate northern colony was foreseen as early as 1842, and secondly, that at that time it was intended that the country in the latitude of Moreton Bay, where the penal settlement then was, should not be removed from the control of the Governor in Sydney; for the 26th parallel cuts the country near Wide Bay, which is a hundred miles north of Brisbane.

But the separation did not take place till seventeen years after this date. In the meantime the agitation for it continued. Moreton Bay had its representatives in the Legislative Council of New South Wales, but was not content. Under the Act of 1850 ‘for the better government of Her Majesty’s Australian colonies,’ power had been reserved to constitute a new colony ‘northward of 30 degrees of south latitude.’ The departure from the terms of the Act of 1842 would have given to the new colony, when formed, the whole area from Wide Bay to a point south of the mouths of the Clarence and Richmond Rivers, an especially rich district. But powerful influences were exerted to retain this belt for New South Wales, and when the colony of Queensland was proclaimed in 1859 the southern boundary was fixed at Point Danger ‘in latitude about 28 degrees 8 minutes,’ which left the Clarence and Richmond Valleys under New South Wales jurisdiction. With this alteration, however, the territory northward from Point Danger to Cape York was, by letters patent dated June 6, 1859, erected into ‘a separate colony to be called the colony of Queensland.’

Very many of the separationists were disappointed that the boundary line was moved, and Dr. Lang, who had been for years a fervent champion of independence for Queensland (which he wished to have named Cooksland), boiled over in angry denunciations. The means employed to effect the change were, he said, ‘discreditable.’ But it seems clear that the majority of the inhabitants in the district concerned wished to remain in New South Wales; that the Colonial Office was influenced by their desire; and that the result was not arrived at because, as the furious Presbyterian divine alleged, Sir William Denison, Governor of New South Wales, having two brothers holding nearly a quarter of a million acres of land as squatters on the northern frontiers of that colony at a merely nominal rental of a twentieth of a penny per acre, ‘could scarcely be expected to be a disinterested referee’ when the question was ‘referred to him for his decision.’ It is true that a petition signed by many inhabitants of the Clarence and Richmond Rivers district asked for transference to the new colony; and much stress has been laid upon this petition in later years by the advocates of the formation of a new state in northern New South Wales. But a petition from a section of a population is an imperfect index of general public opinion. There was, also, a petition to the contrary effect. As there was opposition in New South Wales to the separation of Queensland as being ‘premature and inexpedient,’ and as this opposition would certainly have been stronger had it been proposed to detach the Clarence and Richmond, the boundary decision was prudent.

Queensland was the only one of the six Australian States which did not require a separate Act of the Imperial Parliament for its establishment. The letters patent were sufficient to confer upon it separate being and constitutional authority. It was also the only State of the group which did not pass through the probationary period of government under a Legislative Council before full rights of representative government were conceded. Two houses of Legislature were established, the Legislative Council, according to the New South Wales model, consisting of members appointed for life, whilst the Legislative Assembly was elective. But Queensland abolished the Legislative Council in 1922; and since that date has had only one house of Legislature.

Sir George Bowen, the first Governor, set the necessary machinery to work directly after his arrival in Brisbane in December, 1859, and the first Parliament of Queensland commenced business on May 7, 1860. In the interval Bowen managed affairs with admirable discretion. He had no funds, no civil service, no police, no military force. The whole mechanism of administration and order had to be created. ‘As to money wherewith to carry on the Government,’ he wrote, ‘I started with just 7 1/2d. in the Treasury. A thief — supposing, I fancy, that I should have been furnished with some funds for the outfit, so to speak, of the new State — broke into the Treasury a few nights after my arrival and carried off the 7 1/2d. mentioned. However, I borrowed money from the banks until our revenue came in.’

Bowen exposed himself to much hostile criticism by appointing to be the first premier of the colony a young man of twenty-eight, Robert Wyndham Herbert, who had come out from England with him as his private secretary. Certainly it was a surprising selection, and it naturally occasioned jealousy and heart-burning among local politicians. Herbert was a scholar, who had been private secretary to Gladstone, and had a thorough knowledge of British parliamentary practice. Bowen doubtless felt the need of the assistance of a well-trained mind in inaugurating parliamentary government in a new State; and, after all, if the Queensland Parliament did not like Herbert, it could turn him out.

But, strange to say, the first Queensland Parliament found this polished son of Eton and Oxford very much to its taste, and had no wish to turn him out. Herbert’s aptitude for business, his agreeable manner, his political skill, made his premiership a pronounced success, and he retained office till 1866, by which time the Queensland Parliament had given scope for several men to manifest capacity for leadership. After his return to England Herbert became Permanent Secretary for the Colonies, and held that post for twenty-one years.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 235-241

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