Frontier: episode guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“…The Government Should Shut Its Eyes”

Wed, March 19, 1987 (8.30pm)

Part Three: 1860-1938

When the land wars moved north to Queensland the Aborigines resisted and after two infamous aboriginal attacks, vigilante bands and the Native Police set out to clear the land of blacks. An estimated ten thousand Aborigines were shot dead and the colonial government turned a blind eye.

Towards the end of the century governments across Australia began what they believed was a mopping up operation. Officials adopted a new fad - Social Darwinism and assumed Aborigines would die out as a natural consequence of competition with the white race. The next fifty years saw various attempts to fulfill the prophesy. Blacks would be imprisoned on reserves, have their children taken from them, be encouraged to "breed" themselves out.

But even as massacres continued in the remote outback, Aborigines started to organise politically and would inform white Australia that they had no intention of dying away.

From 1850 Australia's land wars escalated. Farming land to the south had been claimed and waves of new settlers drove north and west. The Queensland frontier soon became Australia's longest and bloodiest. In the meantime, impotent to restrain settler violence authorities simply turned a blind eye.

Native Australians went on resisting as best they could. The foundation of Queensland coincided with two infamous aboriginal attacks. At Hornet Bank station in Central Queensland Jimman men launched a dawn raid to revenge the rape of their women. Fourteen year old Wessie Fraser listened as his mother and sisters were raped and other family members clubbed to death. The attack became an instant frontier legend of Aboriginal savagery. Massive reprisals followed. Eldest son Billy Fraser carried out a lifelong vendetta, leading local posses in decimating the Jimman and according to legend, shooting Aborigines on sight for years afterwards.

Only three years later another party of whites was attacked further north at Cullin La Ringo. Nineteen white settlers were killed, the worst massacre of whites in Australia's history. Across the colony settlers met to declare frontier policy: the land would be shot clear. By the end of the century two thousand whites and at least ten thousand Aborigines had died in Queensland's land wars.

To many the killings had the stamp of a new pseudo science. Charles Darwin had lately published his Origin of the Species. A distorted version of Darwin's ideas about survival of the fittest was quickly applied to the Australian Aborigines. The talk was of a dying race. "They are surely destined" one theorist said "for that eternal darkness to which all inferior races are doomed to wither and disappear".

However by the end of the 19th century thousands of blacks had survived and began to appear on the streets of white towns, in shanty camps and around the station homesteads. For whites this posed a problem that could no longer be dealt with by the bullet. In response Queensland authorities sent out an eccentric self styled Aboriginal expert to investigate. Archibald Meston travelled the length of Queensland and found a paradox. In places Aborigines were impoverished and diseased, yet elsewhere they provided the know how that ran the great cattle stations on which the Queensland economy was built.

Now, after half a century's absence, Government made its return to the scene. At Meston's direction, Queensland passed a double-barrelled law that locked in Aboriginal labour to the pastoral industry. Aborigines could be forced to work. Their wages would be paid to a Protector. Yet those who did not work for whites would be moved onto reserves. The movement, marriage and children of these people would be strictly controlled.

On Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville, these policies were lived out by thousands of people, forcibly sent there from all over Queensland. It was a grim exile.

This obsession with sex and breeding was typical of new concern with racial purity. In the 1920s and 30s the new politics of Eugenics decreed that a race could be kept pure and undesirables bred out. The solution was assimilation, the absorption of the black races into the white. In the language of the racial theorists, full bloods would die out, half-castes would be bred out. To speed the process, Aboriginal children would be taken from their families.

At the same time old frontier ways persisted. In northern Australia two major massacres of Aborigines by white police went unpunished. This was not the 19th century: this was the 1920s.

In 1938, though, as white Australia celebrated its 150th birthday, Aborigines met in Sydney to declare a Day of Mourning. It was the first national meeting of black activists, the birth of an Aboriginal rights movement. They issued an open letter to white Australia: "You are the new Australians but we are the old Australians. ...We ask only for justice, decency and fair play. Is this too much to ask?"


  • Bill Hunter as Thomas Murray Prior
  • Pamela Rabe as Rosa Campbell Praed
  • Justin Rosniak as Wessie Fraser
  • Barry Otto as Archibald Meston
  • Rachel Maza as Marnie Kennedy
  • Kevin Smith as Peter Prior
  • Bradley Byquar as 1938 Declaration

With the voices of:

  • Keith Buckley
  • Norman Kaye
  • Patrick Blackwell
  • Harry Lawrence
  • Robert Coleby
  • Tony Martin
  • Ruth Cracknell
  • Julian Pulvermacher
  • Max Cullen
  • Richard Roxburgh
  • Alistair Duncan
  • Geoffrey Rush
  • Raymond Dupac
  • Bruce Spence
  • Nicholas Eadie
  • Paul Smythe
  • Jerome Ehlers
  • Noah Taylor
  • Chris Haywood
  • Bruce Venables
  • Nicholas Hope
  • Hugo Weaving
  • John Howard
  • David Webb
  • Martin Jacobs
  • William Zappa