Mapoon: the burning of a community

With the government threatening to close so-called “unviable communities” as part of the intervention in the NT, Mark Gillespie looks at the shameful history of Mapoon—an Aboriginal community declared unviable and burned to the ground forty-five years ago

On November 15, 1963, an armed detachment of Queensland Police arrived at the Aboriginal community of Mapoon with orders to forcibly remove 23 Aboriginal residents and to “commence demolition of the vacated shanties on the Reserve”.

That night the police burst into people’s homes and rounded up the occupants. The next day they were hauled off on a barge as their homes and community buildings were burnt to the ground.

“Yes, I saw them go up in flames” said Mapoon resident Simon Peter, “From my Mother-In-Law’s place down they burnt everything…The Church, cookhouse, school, work-shop, butcher shop, store all burnt down. They left the medical store but they took all the medicines”.

Against the expressed wishes of the Mapoon Aboriginal people, they were forcibly relocated to Bamaga, about to 200km to the north.

The burning of Mapoon was the culmination of a vicious campaign to remove the Aboriginal residents. The state Coalition government justified this brutal repression arguing it “was in their own interests and the interest of their children. Mapoon was a hopeless proposition if their children were to succeed as assimilated members of the community”.

The government’s assimilationist agenda, however, was never about Aboriginal welfare. The biggest deposit of bauxite in the world and the desire to develop an aluminum industry in Queensland was what drove their policy.

If Aboriginal people were in the way—then just as in the colonial times—they’d have to be removed.

Mapoon’s history

Mapoon was established as a church mission at the mouth of the Batavia River in 1891 on the traditional lands of the Tjungundji people. It was run by Moravian missionaries on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Australia with some financial support from the Queensland Government.

As the influence of the mission spread more traditional owner groups were incorporated into the community. Following the gazetting of Mapoon as an industrial school in 1901, many children, stolen throughout the Gulf country, were brought to Mapoon. South Sea Islanders who’d assisted the missionaries also became part of the community.

The government established the missions on “Aboriginal reserves” as an alternative to the outright extermination being carried out as the pastoral industry spread north. One local pastoralist, Lachlan Kennedy, had twenty notches on his gun—the number of Aborigines he’d personally shot.

“At Dingle Creek they killed most of the tribe,” recalled Mapoon resident Jerry Hudson, “…only 50 left out of 300”. The missions were meant to give “protection” to what they declared to be an inferior and “dying race”.

The other role of the missions—besides spreading the Christian message—was to provide cheap labour. Mapoon labour was used extensively in the pastoral industry and on the pearling fleets stationed at Thursday Island.

Working in the pearling industry, however, had disastrous consequences for the Aboriginal workers. Many died from lung complaints or through the exposure to infectious diseases. During 1897, only one third of the 100 young Mapoon men who worked in the industry, survived. Despite knowing the source of these diseases, the missionaries cooperated with the industry to gain revenue for the mission.

Prison camps

The missions were essentially prison camps. Indigenous people where denied land rights, voting rights, couldn’t leave or return without permission, possess alcohol and they had limited access to the justice system. Authorities had the power to remove children, forbid marriages, censor mail, compel them to work for low wages, withhold wages, control bank accounts, and seize property.

Stolen wages were used to fund the mission at Mapoon, “… wire fencing was brought out of the boys’ wages…. The boys have also paid for a new pump… Most of the young men go beche-de-mer fishing and earn a few pounds. All their money is put in a common fund…”

Aboriginal labour also built the mission, “The hours of work are four in the morning and four in the evening, and the men work well and steady. All the timber is sawn and dressed by the blacks… The soil of the garden has all been made by seaweed manure, carried from the beach with incredible labour.”

Everybody worked at Mapoon, even the children, “The 3 1/2 acre ‘school garden’… made and tended by the school children after lesson-hours, keeps them in fruit and vegetables…”


The Aboriginal people survived measles, tuberculosis and hookworm, to build homes and a community. The meagre supplies they received from the mission store was supplemented with traditional food.

The Mapoon people managed to pass on their culture in spite of deliberate attempts to destroy it.

Rachel Peter explained her attachment for Mapoon, “I was born here, my father was born here, my mother, my great grand parents. This is our tribal land…I hope we will never leave this place. …there’s plenty of everything for us to eat… pigs, wallabies, kangaroo, oysters and crab, fish, prawns, arrowroot, wild yams and a lot of other things that we were taught to eat by our grandparents and our fathers and mothers.”

The wishes of the Aboriginal people, however, weren’t even a consideration when Church and government officials decided in 1954 to close the mission. They weren’t even consulted.

The initial impetus to close Mapoon was a desire by the then Labor government to cut costs. “No further aid would be forthcoming” unless Mapoon became “more self-supporting”, the Church was told.

Alternative ways to earn income were considered, but once the vast deposits of bauxite had been discovered, these plans were completely shelved.

Nearly 8000 square kilometres of Aboriginal Reserve land was given to Comalco with the passing of the 1957 Comalco Act. The only condition was to establish an alumina refinery in Queensland within five to seven years. Royalties and rent paid to the government were severely discounted and there was no compensation at all for Aboriginal people. In fact the Act didn’t even mention the existence of Aboriginal people.

‘Assimilation’ at Weipa

Assimilation was official government policy at the time. Similar arguments are being made today about Northern Territory communities, so it is worth looking at the experience of Weipa where some of the people from Mapoon were forced to relocate.

Like Mapoon, Weipa was an Aboriginal community that lost their land to the mining companies. Compensation wasn’t necessary, they were told, because the company would provide jobs and houses and “an opportunity for these people to assimilate, to live as human being should”.

But the company had other ideas and tried to relocate the Weipa mission. (It was considered best if they didn’t mix with the white workforce.)

The Weipa mission survived because its removal would have exposed the ugly truth behind the government’s assimilationist policies. But the jobs, housing and opportunity never developed.

To totally “discharge their obligations” to the Weipa people, the company spent a grand total of 150,000 pounds on housing. This amounted to less than 3000 pounds per house. At the same time the company was spending 14,000 pounds per house for its white workforce. The Aboriginal houses had no stoves, handbasins, sinks, plumbing, external laundries or toilets.

The Aboriginal people, too, were led to believe that would own their homes. In fact they were forced to rent from the government and didn’t even own the small piece of land they were built on.

While the company provided electricity to the white community, the Aboriginal community had to wait another eight years. While the streets in the white community were sealed, in the Aboriginal community they were dirt.

In 1974 Comalco employed only 24 Aboriginal people on a permanent basis out of an available workforce of 131. Aboriginal people also had the worst jobs. A 1967 report found that out of the 20 Aboriginal people employed by the mine, only four had jobs with any level of skill.

Another promise made to Aboriginal people in 1957 was that the company would “build a trade school”. As late as 1975 no trade school existed and people were told it was “only a suggestion”.

If this wasn’t enough, in 1963 Comalco made an application to the Arbitration court to pay “non-integrated Aborigines” the legal minimum wage, which was half the average white worker’s wage at Weipa.

Rather than jobs, housing and opportunity, what they got was an apartheid style slum. Mathew Cooktown, a Mapoon resident, described his experience at living in Weipa, “My family and myself have been very unhappy since we arrived here.

“This is not our country. At Mapoon we could catch fish, turtle, duck, geese, wild pig. We could grow fruits and vegetables. Here at Weipa we must go a long way to hunt and fish and we may dig yams only when the Weipa people will permit us. We have no country that is our own…There are many quarrels and arguments.”

Hidden Valley (New Mapoon), a new mission built for the Mapoon people outside of Bamaga, was no better. A promise that “excellent water will be available for domestic and gardening purposes” amounted to water “piped into rusty drums standing on the front of each house”.

The housing at Hidden Valley was shoddy. “They were just put up roughly for us and talk about leaks!” said Robert Reid. “Well it was just a roof over our head, some with two rooms and some with three rooms but they haven’t got any doors, like to close the rooms with. We had no privacy…” said Victoria Luff.

The viability of Mapoon

The Church argued that Mapoon should be closed because it was not economically viable, it was run down, lacked good soil or a good water supply, was inaccessible, suffered from a hookworm infestation and had no income potential.

The Mapoon people, however, strongly disputed these claims.

While the soil was unsuitable for large scale agriculture, it was suitable for the yams, sweet potatoes, melons, coconuts and similar foods that people grew, while the land nearby was “good grazing land” according to a Cairns based stock inspector.

The older people said there had never been a shortage of water. In any case there was no attempt to drill for water at Mapoon.

Mapoon had a harbour and an airstrip and was just as accessible by road as Weipa. The buildings were dilapidated only because the Church had deliberately diverted funds away from the community.

The hookworm infestation —introduced by Europeans—was a problem but mainly because of the wrong initial decision to site the mission in a sand pit. The suggestion by the Mapoon people to re-situate the mission nearby to the Batavia outstation where the water supply and soil was better, was completely ignored.

The Church themselves saw the potential to develop the fishing and cattle industry at Mapoon and as late as 1958 were considering investing in cold rooms and a vehicle. These plans, however, were abruptly shelved once the Comalco Act was passed. The Church, reliant on the government for funding for its other missions, wasn’t about to rock the boat.


The Aboriginal people of Mapoon resisted relocation to Hidden Valley. The Church threatened them, saying the store, transport, radio, medical facilities, school would be closed leaving the people destitute and that the government would then take their children because of neglect.

But the people weren’t deterred. “Some will stay to the bitter end,” reported one missionary.

In spite of assurances from the Church and the government that they were “leaving the decision with the people”, this was never the case.

Increasingly the Church began using the powers conferred on it by the racist Queensland Act to break the resistance. Frank Green, a sympathetic missionary was sacked while the highly authoritarian Garth Filmer and his wife ran Mapoon like they were the “King and Queen”.

They provoked a strike amongst the domestic staff after the girls had their hair hacked off. The missionaries then tried to break the strike by depriving the girls of rations and sacking all their working relatives.

When one of the girls left Mapoon to go to Thursday Island for treatment for tuberculosis, Filmer wrote to the Department of Native Affairs requesting that she not be allowed to return, that “her presence creates disciplinary problems”.

Separating families was another tactic used to get the people to move to Hidden Valley. Jean Jenny recalls:

“He [Filmer] was the one who stirred up everything, shifting people to punish them, to put them in Hidden Valley. They sent them out. Maybe a wife goes to hospital on Thursday Island to have a baby, but she isn’t allowed to return…they have to go to Hidden Valley.”

Petitions and letters from the Aboriginal people were ignored. When an elder “asked permission to go to Cairns to see the Aborigines Advancement League… I of course declined,” reported one missionary.

By the time the Church finally pulled out of Mapoon in July 1963, about 70 Aboriginal people still remained. They survived through a combination of bush tucker, small scale farming and the sale of crocodile skins.

The government expected their resistance would soon collapse, particularly now that the Flying Doctor was no longer servicing the mission and the supply boats from Bamaga were going straight past and no longer replenishing the store.

The Mapoon store ran out of food on the 8 November 1963, but the Mapoon people got resourceful. They sent their own dingy to Weipa, and with help from the people there, brought back supplies.

This resourcefulness proved too much for authorities. The order was given to “effect the transfer of the families.”

The fight continues

Some families remained after the burning but continuing hardships finally forced them out. But the fight for their land continued at Hidden Valley.

Jean Jimmy traveled to Canberra in 1964 and spoke at the annual conference of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) about their plight. To get there she raised money by hunting and selling crocodile skins. This was at a time when there was growing awareness in the wider community about land rights issues and FCAATSI took up the struggle.

Inspired by the rising land rights movement, a number of families moved back to Mapoon, in the early 70s. They were joined by more families and gradually a community was rebuilt and finally received official recognition under a “Deed of Grant in Trust” in 2001.

But like Aboriginal people everywhere, the people of Mapoon are still waiting for justice—for land rights, for security and for compensation for past wrongs.

History never repeats itself precisely but the racist ideology that underpinned the dispossession and the burning of Mapoon lives on in the assimilationist policies inflicted on prescribed Aboriginal communities under the Northern Territory intervention.


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