It was a full house at Mitchelton Library on November 3rd for a talk by Dr Ray Kerkhove on the boundaries and curfews affecting Brisbane Aboriginal life in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The professional historian, cultural researcher and writer is currently a visiting research fellow at Griffith University, assisting the Harry Gentle Resource Centre, a digital portal on pre-1859 Queensland history.

Ray specialises in the Aboriginal history and material culture of southern Queensland (1820s-1890s) and, as he began his presentation at Reconciliation Queensland’s general meeting, noted that he was in the company of “a very informed audience”.

“The reason I’m doing this talk is because I actually went on your walk, about some months ago,” Ray said, referring to the annual Defying Boundaries reconciliation walk across Brisbane’s CBD.

Dr Ray Kerkhove

PHOTO: Dr Ray Kerkhove (centre, left) joined the Defying Boundaries reconciliation walk on Saturday, 16 June 2018 in Brisbane.

Dr Ray Kerkhove’s early work

Ray said he started his research on Aboriginal campsites in the 1980s with Uncle Bob Weatherall and others from FAIRA Aboriginal Corporation, looking at the Boundary Street system around West End, leading to a body of research he completed on Musgrave Park.

“So, this [current work] has sort of developed out of that,” he explained.

Ray said a lot of the Elders he talked to preferred to use the word ‘villages’ instead of ‘camps’ because they were often permanent places and researchers are now finding they were much larger than originally thought.

“This is based on my talks with people like [Professor] Paul Memmott, who’s done a lot of work on the layout of these things…often you’re talking about a half [kilometre] to two kilometre area for a permanent campsite,” Ray said.

“If you could imagine,” Ray said pointing to an image on the screen of a landscape dotted with humpys, “it might be used off and on all the time. It might be just a few people in it sometimes and then other times there might be a lot, and so it can swell sometimes to thousands,” he said.

Ray said the major Aboriginal campsites often had a direct view to a nearby lookout and that these elevated points allowed “interconnection” between camps through the use of smoke signals.

“So there was communication going on. They’re not isolated spots,” he said, as the view to Mt Coot-Tha from Victoria Park, itself the site of a major Aboriginal campsite, appeared on the screen behind him.

“The other thing I’d like to point out is when you’re looking at the towns around Southern Queensland, it seems that there were often very major camps right next to what became a town,” Ray said.

“And what I’m saying is obviously Aboriginal settlement preceded where the towns are…and they didn’t go away.

“Aboriginal people have always been here. They didn’t run off because white people turned up. These [campsites] were living spaces and life went on.

“People will talk about ‘fringe’ camps, but…these places have been there all the time. They just didn’t pop up because white people were there,” he said.

To prove his point, Ray brought up a map showing the many Aboriginal campsites that had been situated along the Brisbane river. An inset in the corner of the map magnified a smaller area to show the location of the first white settlement.

“This shows that white settlement was a tiny little spot in an already very managed landscape…where there were not only camps, but also ceremonial grounds, tournament grounds, burial areas, named areas,” Ray explained.

“Forget about these suburbs,” he said gesturing to modern place names on the map, “the whole landscape’s already been named, and this is often what people have forgotten. White people didn’t create this. It was already here.”

In living so close to Aboriginal people, Ray said it wasn’t long before white settlers began calling for a boundary. But, when proclaimed in 1846, he said the recorded evidence never clearly stated the boundary’s purpose was to keep Aboriginal people out.

“You find it in little bits and pieces and we’re still trying to chase what legislation existed that allowed the police to actually drive Aboriginal people out, but we know they did because, I can tell you now there’s tons and tons of accounts from settlers and colonists remembering it, remembering seeing this, so it certainly happened,” Ray said.

According to fellow historian Dr Rosalind Kidd, in her report Aboriginal History at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Site, a traveller of the time recounted how ‘the mounted troopers used to ride about cracking stock whips to notify the Aboriginals to get out’.

Ray wins Elders’ praise

RQI management committee member Aunty Denise Proud and Turrbal Elder Uncle Joe Kirk later joined Ray at the front of the room and shared their insights into the topics discussed, from their own experiences and those of their ancestors.

Aunty Denise is also an accomplished artist and presented Ray with one of her paintings to thank him for his lecture.

He graciously stayed behind afterward for quite some time to chat with RQI’s members and guests and to sign copies of his latest book, Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane, published by Boolarlong Press.

Ray’s Linkedin profile states that he is currently working with Indigenous groups on a number of projects to revitalise aspects of their material culture and reconstruct local histories (e.g. the frontier wars period in the Lockyer region).

He is an executive member of the Brisbane Southside History Network and Chair of Q-Earth Inc, which assists small museums and community groups in their heritage work.

RQI has undertaken to hold general meetings every three months. Everyone who has an interest in reconciliation is welcome to these meetings, not just RQI members. The next meeting is scheduled for February 2019 at Mitchelton Library. Check our Event Calendar for more details closer to the date.