The region of Rockhampton and Capricorn Coast is the traditional land of the tribes and clans of the Darumbal (or Dharumbal) Aboriginal people. Observations by Matthew Flinders and subsequent explorers noted their appearance and nature as distinctly different to the natives around Gladstone and Miriam Vale.
European settlement was understandably resisted by the Darumbals who were often recorded by explorers and settlers as a violent warring tribe. As recently as 1904 in the Early History of Rockhampton, JTS Bird described indigenous tribes of Central Queensland as perpetrators of ‘murder and outrage’.
While these words come from a different time, they nonetheless portray a landscape of European attitudes towards the blacks as being a sub-class of human without the right to defend their lands from invasion.
In modern times, we would call the Darumbal attacks a resistance movement, no different from the East Timor uprisings in the 1990s, or the Kanaka revolts on New Caledonia. Equally, we would label the retaliatory massacres perpetrated against them as ethnic cleansing.
In the mid to late 1800’s, it was this lack of appreciation from Europeans, bred from centuries of enforcing colonisation around the globe, that led to the violent clashes perpetrated by both sides.
It should also be noted that before European settlement, clashes did occur between tribes, but they were rare because each tribe knew the range of their territory. Incursions into another tribe’s region were usually due to lack of resources in their own region, eg food shortages brought upon by drought.
However, long knowledge of the seasons gave rise to alliances between tribes, and clans within tribes. In the northeast of Darumbal country for example, the Kuinmurrburra nation had six allied tribes within it; the Kutuburra, Ristebura, Wanuburra, Wuruburra, Pukanburra, and Muinburra, which existed in relative harmony to allow for nature’s swinging moods.
In the case of European exploration however, it was not a simple case of ‘white invasion’. Aborigines referred to as ‘blackboys’ or ‘native police’ were brought along on expedition, usually from Sydney or Brisbane with no connection to Central Queensland.
In the eyes of the local tribes, these southern Aborigines were perceived no less as invaders than the white man. Often the imported blacks were regarded even more harshly, for the white man at least had ignorance as an excuse for destroying the local Aborigines’ connection with the land. The imported black man did not. Aboriginal culture was not an alien concept to them.
On the bay, the natives of the Keppel Islands fared no better for their isolation. In colonial times, often referred to simply as The Keppel Islanders, and nowadays called the Kanomi-Woppaburra tribe, the island natives did not interact with the mainland Darumbals, for they mutually feared each other, and indeed spoke a much different dialect.
The Kanomi (or Conomie) of North Keppel Island and the Woppaburra (or Wonnara) of Great Keppel Island shared a common language, traded with each other, and their men interacted frequently.
With the settlement of Yeppoon in the late 1860s, the principal landholder on the coast, Robert Ross, removed the Kanomi population from North Keppel after complaints they were disturbing his cattle. Distressed, some of the natives tried to swim back across the twelve kilometres of ocean. Most drowned or were taken by sharks, while a few made it back to the islands.
In 1912, the last of the Kanomi-Woppaburra tribes were forcibly removed from the Keppel Islands and relocated to Fraser Island by the Queensland Government.
Today, Great Keppel Island is also referred to as Wapparaburra after the original inhabitants, and descendents of the clan still have landholdings there.
The Darumbal Dreamtime Centre in Rockhampton, near the Yeppoon Road turnoff, built to commemorate and educate people about the rich culture that pre-existed the arrival of Europeans, is the largest Aboriginal cultural centre in Australia.
During the 1990s, the Australian Army began to allow limited access for Darumbals into Freshwater Bay to allow them to renew their cultural ties with the land. Due to the pristine nature of the area, it is estimated that around 400 sites of cultural significance remain largely untouched.
In 2007, new access agreements were reached between the military and the Darumbal peoples.
If you enjoy this type of article, you can find more on the Central Queensland History page. Feel free to leave any related comments at the end of this page.
Andrew Thompson, editor | historian