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Opinion And World View: Robert Christison Of Lammermoor

In the midst of the brutal dispossession of Aborigines and the callous indifference to their fate on the pastoral frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century in North Queensland, there were humanitarians who stood out against the norm. One of these was Robert Christison (1837–1915) who set up Lammermoor Station south east of Hughenden in the district of Bowen in 1863,'' writes Paul W Newbury.

In the midst of the brutal dispossession of Aborigines and the callous indifference to their fate on the pastoral frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century in North Queensland, there were humanitarians who stood out against the norm. One of these was Robert Christison (1837–1915) who set up Lammermoor Station south east of Hughenden in the district of Bowen in 1863.

In Christison of Lammermoor, his eldest daughter, Mary M Bennett, tells the story of her father’s relationship with the Yirandali people on Lammermoor. Mary Bennett is well-known as a feminist and an advocate of the Indigenous cause. The humanitarian work of father and daughter spans one hundred years of Australian history.

In 1863, Christison set up Lammermoor Station near the town of Bowen in Far North Queensland. From the beginning, he planned a strategy of living in peace with the blacks on his run. His fellow pastoralists scorned him for refusing to allow the native police to come onto his station.

The native police consisted of Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white officer. Following the installation of the telegraph in the 1860s, they were able to respond promptly to calls from pastoralists about Aboriginal attacks on cattle and sheep.

Christison found it difficult to approach the Yirandali and whenever he came near, the people fled. So, he detained a young man he came to know as Barney; he led him to understand he wanted to co-exist with the Aboriginal people on his run; and he sent him back to his people to tell them of his proposal.

He promised the people on Lammermoor would not hurt the Yirandali but they must pledge the same. He said the people must not to hurt the horses or sheep. Bennett says the essential message Christison wanted to convey was: ‘the country belongs to you; the sheep belong to me’. Eventually, Christison employed the Yirandali all year round as shepherds.

When Christison heard that the Native Police had been called in to deal with cattle spearing on a neighbouring station, he rode out to stop the troopers coming onto Lammermoor. He came upon the white commander of the native police who, thinking he was the owner of the speared cattle, assured him his troopers would deal with the culprits. Shaking with rage, Christison said: ‘If you molest the blacks on my station, I’ll run you in for assault at Bowen’.

One day, Christison came upon four young Aboriginal men who each shouldered saplings from which hung a bag of kangaroo skin. They put the bag down and tried to escape as he rode up. When Christison dismounted, he was astonished to find that the bag contained an old crippled woman. Her hair was white and her teeth worn to the gums but she looked well cared for. Barney told him that the woman had been born deformed and had been carried in a litter all her life—members of the tribe took it in turn to carry her.

The Yirandali knew the station as their country and they cheered loudly whenever it won awards at the local show. At Christmas, Christison gave them rations and a spring-cart and horse so they could go on a month’s ‘walkabout’, staying at their favourite waterholes.

William Chatfield of Natal Downs Station west of Bowen was another squatter who had a more civilised attitude towards Aboriginal people. Before Chatfield bought the station in 1871, the owner had experienced many years of conflict with the local tribe.

Citing Christison’s lead, Chatfield pursued a humane policy of letting the blacks live in safety on his station. He said he believed pastoralists placed too much emphasis on the few cattle the people speared and he pointed to the positive effect they had on conserving pasture by keeping marsupial numbers down.

These stories of humanitarian policies show that on the few occasions pastoralists took steps to establish communication with local Aborigines, the parties were able to establish good relations.

The humanitarian enterprise begun by Christison prefigured the informal co-existence that developed between pastoralists and Aborigines in pastoral country. Pastoralists began to allow tribal groups to live in security on their ancestral land while using them as a pool of cheap labour.

In this reciprocal relationship, the people were able to continue their Indigenous practices; maintain their language; carry out their ceremonies; and raise their children according to their law. Though their labour was not properly rewarded in European terms, they were able to spend their spare time and the off-season in traditional ceremonial and hunting practices.

In a reciprocal way, Aboriginal peoples’ value as stockmen and women helped the pastoral industry survive in these drought-prone areas of northern Australia for more than a century afterwards.

In 1996, the Wik decision of the High Court of Australia validated the position Christison had taken. The Court ruled that the granting of leaseholds in the nineteenth century did not extinguish native title and there was no intent by colonial authorities to deny Aboriginal people access to their land.

Mary Bennett was educated in London. She came back to Australia on the death of her husband in the 1930s. Bennet committed herself to help Aboriginal people improve their standard of living through education.

She taught Aboriginal children on mission stations and she wrote articles in the hope of educating Australians about the human rights of Aboriginal people. In 1950, Bennett wrote Hunt and Die: the Prospect for the Aborigines of Australia published by the London Anti-Slavery Society. In the book, Bennett censured the WA Government for its policy of genocide by neglect.

Bennett said the policy of leaving the natives to hunt for survival was killing them through famine because there wasn’t enough natural food to keep them alive. Bennett asserted this outcome suited officials like A O Neville because their non-intervention would in time solve the ‘problem’ of full-blooded Aborigines in WA.

In September 2003, the National Native Title Tribunal issued a media release: Flinders Shire, Yirandali People sign historic native title agreement. The notification concerned the Hughenden Industrial Estate Indigenous Land Use Agreement signed by the State of Queensland, Flinders Shire Council and the Yirandali native title group.

Under the agreement, the government signed over two hectares of freehold title to the Yirandali people in exchange for them surrendering any native title rights to the Hughenden Industrial Estate. The agreement acknowledges the Yirandali as the traditional owners of the Hughenden region.

Under the agreement, the shire established the Yirandali Flinders Forum to ensure regular meetings and information exchange between the Yirandali people and the shire. This is a pact of coexistence that expresses pride in Indigenous heritage and commemorates the agreement between Robert Christison and the Yirandali people, one hundred and forty years earlier.


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