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Missions, Reserves and Stations

In order to control our movements, colonial governments set aside areas of land for us to live on called ‘reserves’. Managed reserved (called stations) provided rations, education and housing, while unmanaged reserves provided only rations. Reserves took us away from our country, our sources of food, our sacred sites and our families. Many of us adapted to these changes and engaged in agricultural pursuits such as growing hops and establishing craft industries. We had some freedom of movement in the early days and were able to work but the laws were changed over time, restricting our abilities to travel and control our lives.

In the Torres Strait, too, we were subjected to controls over our movement. Cinemas, schools and churches were segregated and we were excluded from hotels, and from Thursday Island at night. We were not able to travel freely and were made to live apart, while being offered fewer health and educational opportunities than non-Indigenous people.

The influence of the Church

Religious bodies sometimes set up schools, churches and dormitories on both reserves and missions. While reserves were set up by the government, missions were set up by the church. Ultimately though, they served the same purpose. The missions varied according to the financial support they received and the personalities of their directors. However, all were united in their view that until we became Christians we had no hope of civilisation.


While protection may have been the main aim of the Protection Acts, in practice the Aboriginal Protection Boards were given complete power and control over the lives of the Aboriginal people on reserves.

Some reserves essentially operated as prisons. Children were separated from their families and lived in dormitories.

Depending on the place and the people in charge, the treatment was in some cases physically cruel and authoritarian. Stories of brutality and unnecessary cruelty have come from many missions, including from Moore River (WA) and Palm Island (Qld).

Under the various Land Rights Acts, many of us who remained on the government reserves and missions were granted ownership of our land. Mission stations such as Lake Tyers and Lake Condah in Victoria and some in most other states are now under our control. In Western Australia the land was not transferred.

wooden houses on a sandy ground

Aurukun Presbyterian mission, far north Queensland, 1962. Photo © Webb Collection, AIATSIS

Aurukun Mission was established in 1904 with the reserve being managed under the provision of the Queensland Aborigines Act by the Presbyterian Church. Aboriginal people were relocated from a large surrounding area, many against their will, to the mission settlement. Today’s township is on the site of the original mission.

Source: www.aurukun.qld.gov.au/31.html.

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Regret and Disgust

Life on the Frontier

Coranderrk Farming Success

Cape Barren Island

Station life

On stations we became an accessible workforce for pastoralists: men were seasonal drovers and labourers, and women domestics and very occasionally stockworkers.

Pastoralists were responsible for the distribution of government-issued rations to those of us who were too old to work. In reality they dispensed rations as they chose, sometimes withholding them as a method of discipline. This had a devastating effect on the health of those with limited access to bush tucker. Pastoralists justified not paying Aboriginal workers a cash wage on the basis of poor returns and our supposed unreliability. However, our cheap labour sustained the economy of pastoral Australia.

Sometimes we refused to undertake some tasks, and on occasions, we went on strike. The decision of the Northern Territory Cattle Station Industry Award Case in 1966 granted equal wages to Aboriginal people. Although long overdue, its poor planning and implementation in 1968 had devastating consequences. Pastoralists refused to employ us and we were exiled from our land. In the subsequent exodus into towns, we faced the dangers of access to alcohol, the loss of our skills and our self-esteem. Many communities are still recovering from these losses


Cape Barren Island is one of several islands in the Furneaux group, off the north-east coast of Tasmania, in Bass Strait. Some descendants of Aboriginal women and sealers moved from Flinders Island to Cape Barren Island, where a reserve was formally established in 1881. Over time, the Cape Barren Islanders were forced to let the Tasmanian government take control of their lives. Rather than helping them, the government demanded they move to the mainland, or their children would be taken away from them. By the 1950s, child welfare laws were used increasingly to remove children, with some parents being imprisoned for neglect. The removed children were fostered to non-Indigenous couples or sent to homes. In 1973 the government established the Aboriginal Information Service, which helped to reduce the number of removals of children. The Aboriginal Information Service is now called the Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service. In 1984 the Tasmanian government decided it would place children with Indigenous families.

Tasmanian Aboriginal elder, Ida West, has many memories of growing up on Cape Barren Island, especially cooking:

'We used to make a brown stew in the old iron pots. There is grilled mutton-birds, fried mutton-birds, baked mutton-birds with onions and stuffing, curried mutton-birds with rice, sea pie and salted birds. For smoked mutton-birds we used to thread the birds on a stick and put them over a drum and keep the fire in the drum for four to six weeks.

'We made kangaroo tail soup and brawn. We would dip the kangaroo tails in hot water and scrape the skin off.

'We had coupons to buy meat, sugar, tea, butter and clothes. We made our own soap out of dripping and we used mutton-bird oil for rubbing our chests for flu. Garlic in your shoes was a remedy for whooping cough. We would boil the buzzies from the vine of the bush and bottle.

'We ate grass tree bread which is the meat of the tree — white in colour and sweet in taste. We loved it. All my people cooked fruit cakes with mutton-bird fat dripping. The women were good cooks.'

Source: I West 1987, Pride Against Prejudice, Montpelier Press, Tas.


The mission at Corranderk near Healesville in Victoria is a good example of farming success. The Corranderk farm won awards at the Melbourne Show for its hops and other produce, but neighbouring farmers resented the success and combined with the detractors of Indigenous progress to erode government support for the mission. The Corranderk mission people got on well with the manager, John Green, who allowed some self-determination and had genuine respect for the people under his control, but the mission was always under threat from those contemptuous of us. The debate raged without resolution for another two years but greedy men and unsympathetic politicians finally drove the Corranderk people from their home.


In Very Big Journey, Melissa Lucashenko tells us:

'Hilda Muir was born at Manangoora, near the small outback town of Borroloola in about 1920. It was an era of pearl luggers and bullock drays, and, as a child, Hilda heard graphic first-hand accounts about the dangers of wild white men and their guns. For the Yanyuwa people, the sound of shooting still resonated through their homelands, which were only then coming under the firm control of white authorities. Hilda was born, in other words, on the very frontier of modern Australia.

Hilda herself remembers being taken away from her family:

"When that good old horse took me away from Borroloola on the long journey to Darwin, it changed my life forever . . . I stopped being an Aboriginal girl and became a half-caste girl. From someone who’d had so much, I was now someone who had nothing, with no past and an unknown future."'

Source: H Jarman Muir 2004, Very Big Journey: My life as I remember it, Aboriginal Studies Press, ACT.


'My heart is filled with regret and disgust. First because you were taken down by those who were supposed to be your help and guide through life. What a wicked conception, what a fallacy. Under the so-called pretence and administration of the Board, governmental control etc. I say deliberately. The whole damnable thing has got to stop and by God[s] help it shall, make no mistake. No doubt, they are trying to exterminate the Noble and Ancient Race of sunny Australia. Away with the damnable insulting methods. Give us a hand, stand by your own Native Aboriginal Officers and fight for liberty and freedom for yourself and your children.'

Thus Fred Maynard, Aboriginal activist, wrote to a young Aboriginal girl in 1927; one who had been abused within the government-operated Aboriginal apprenticeship system.

Source: J Maynard, Fight for Liberty and Freedom The origins of Australian Aboriginal Activism, Aboriginal Studies Press, ACT.