North Queensland has been settled by Aboriginal Gunggandji, Kuku Yalanji, Guugu Yimithirr, Yirrganydji and many other tribal clans for thousands of years, prior to the first Europeans arriving on ships and exploring the coastline.
In 1756 the French Explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had encountered the outer Reef as he sailed north from Tahiti, without sighting the ‘’Great Southern Land’ that was believed to exist. Bougainville Island is named after him.
In 1770 the first English explorer to sail up the coastline of New Holland as it was called at the time was Captain James Cook RN, who drew charts and maps of the coast sailing the ‘Endeavour’ while the Botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander recorded the details of plant specimens when they came on shore at different points of the journey.
Unfortunately Cook’s ship hit a submerged reef north of Cairns and he was forced to beach the ship at the mouth of a river, where he spent seven weeks repairing the ship, before heading northwards. He named the river “Endeavour River” after his ship. The Endeavour River National Park and today’s Cooktown is located there.
On board the ‘Endeavour’ with Captain James Cook were Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander- both Botanists, who collected samples and made notes of the plants that the saw, together with the illustrator Sydney Parkinson.
Samples, notes and illustrations were then taken back to England to add to Joseph Banks collections and for further study by other the Royal Society members.
From the Endeavour River, Cook sailed north once he ship was repaired and in August 1770 at Possession Island at the tip of Cape York he proclaimed in the name of King George III, the whole of the East Coast that he had sailed past and mapped as a British Territory.
In 1802 further exploration and mapping of the northern coastline was made by Mathew Flinders sailing the ‘Investigator’ as part of his voyage circumnavigating the whole of ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. On board with him was the Botanist, Robert Brown, who also had worked with Joseph Banks and studied many of the plant samples that Banks had brought back to England on his earlier journeys. By this time, the northern coastline area was deemed to be part of New South Wales, the colony having been well established in Sydney Cove by this time. It was first established by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1787.
When Flinders left Harvey Bay in the south on July 27th 1802 he set sail up the inside of the Reef, recording in his log book that the Reef was more than 500 miles long, before he could find a passage that would allow him to head out to the Ocean beyond.
On this 1802 journey, they also came across ‘trepangers’ and small sailing boats called ‘praos’ or ‘perahus’ in the Gulf of Capentaria. These boats were from the Celebes Island (today called Sulawesi), and were collecting Bêche de Mer (Trepang /sea cucumbers) making camps on the coast to boil, sun dry and then smoke the Bêche de Mer before loading them on their Praos to take back to Makassar in the Celebes and then on to Timor Laut (today’s Penang in Malaysia) and to China, where trepang was a delicacy used in Chinese cooking and medicines. By all accounts the trepang trade was well established, and Torres Strait and aboriginal clansmen were also working as fisherman to search for and find the trepang too, and Flinders was quite amazed to find that the praos that they came across were part of a fleet of 60 Praos – a regular fleet.
In 1819 Lieutenant Phillip Parker King (the son of Governor King, and born on Norfolk Island) and the Botanist/explorer Alan Cunningham also surveyed the coastline sailing the ‘Mermaid’, and in 1848 Captain Owen Stanley further surveyed the area, even conducting extensive depth soundings to establish the depth of the sea and making notes and maps of the coastline.
The North Queensland coast, extending to Torres Strait was considered a new frontier when the first European pearl divers (seeking mostly mother- of-pearl for buttons and jewellery, but also pearls), beachcombers (killing and collecting turtles for their shell, to be used in making jewellery, hair combs and other objects) and fishermen set up isolated camps in the 1850’s, one of the first being J.S.V Mein, who in 1857 claimed to have established a camp on Green Island to catch and boil, dry and smoke the trepang to sell to ships heading north and to traders from the Celebes. In 1864 a trepang curing station was set up on Albany Island on Cape York and by the 1870’s trepang fishing operations had been set up on both Green Island and Fitzroy Island, but a number of murders and conflicts between aboriginals and fishermen also followed.
In the 1890’s pearling was one of the biggest industries in North Queensland and Torres Islands, with European boat owners and divers being mainly Malays, Pacific Islanders and Japanese – the Japanese having great interest in pearls as much as the shells. Diving however was dangerous, with a death toll of over 10% of those who dived. Initially the divers would just dive using goggles for better vision, but helmets with air lines attached to a hand pump on the boat above became the norm from 1870 onwards, to enable deeper dives to take place. The pearling fleet was based in Albany Pass, adjoining the settlement of Somerset (now abandoned) near Thursday Island. Somerset was also where a cattle property was set up by one of the early farming pioneer families in North Queensland, the Jardine family, with Bertie Jardine also working with William Saville-Kent too.
In 1907 Trepangers were stopped by the Australian Government ceasing to issue licences for this activity.
In many ways, the 19th Century was an age of discovery and exploration of the new world with advances being made in medicine, anatomy, astronomy, zoology, botany, biology, pharmacy, navigation, cartography, photography and many other fields. The great land and sea voyages and explorations were accompanied by scientists and adventurers in search for knowledge but also in the hope of finding new wealth and good fortune. Many of the great sea journeys and individual explorers and scientists were funded on that basis and in England The Royal Society played a leading role in this.
William Saville-Kent (1845-1908) was an English Marine Biologist and Naturalist who had worked and studied in the British Museum, Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and a number of aquariums in England. He had received funding from the Royal Society to study coral and sponges off the Portuguese coastline, before taking up a position in Tasmania as the Superintendent and Inspector of Fisheries in 1884, where he was instrumental in making a number of advances in oyster cultivation. He subsequently worked in Victoria in a similar role, before moving to Queensland in 1889 to further his interest in sponges and corals, and subsequently writing two books – ‘The Great Barrier Reef’ and ‘The Naturalist in Australia’. After leaving Government employment, he spent time in the Cook and Solomon Islands and then at Somerset on Cape York setting up a Research Station there working on culturing spherical pearls. It was here that a Japanese Biologist, Tokishi Mishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise made contact with William Saville-Kent before returning to Japan. The two Japanese subsequently patented the Mise-Nishikawa Method of culturing pearls. Another Japanese, Mikimoto Kokichi (1858-1954) had also been working with pearls, creating a hemispherical shaped cultured pearl and taking out patents on some of his development. In 1916 Mikimoto began using the Mise-Nishikawa method of culturing pearls and Mikimoto Cultured Pearls are now seen in Jewellery shops around the world.
During the 1950’s Mikimoto Pearls became one the star attractions at local country shows around Australia as part of their promotions. How much William Saville-Kent contributed to the success of the Mise-Nishikawa method is uncertain, but he certainly played a role in the development of the Cultured Pearl Industry.
In Australia, the Pearl Industry is today also still very significant, and is based out of Darwin in the Northern Territory. The industry has been developed by a Greek immigrant to Australia, Nicholas Paspaley (1914-1984), whose Paspaley Pearl Company also has a fascinating history too. (See www.paspaley.com ). The company has 20 pearl oyster farms located in isolated locations spread out across 2500 kilometres of the North west coast of Australia.
William Saville-Kent returned to England where he died in 1908, with his grave at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth on the south coast of England outlined with coral. It is worth reading more about him and his early childhood, when his mother died, and his half brother was murdered by his sister who then spent 20 years in Gaol (See Australian Dictionary of Biography).
The biggest impetus in North Queensland’s development occurred in 1872-3 when gold was discovered by James Venture Mulligan in the Palmer River. A gold rush followed bringing with it, prospectors from around the world, with more gold discovered in 1876 on the Hodgkinson River on the Atherton Tablelands, leading to a port being established at Trinity Bay that same year. Timber Cutters also arrived too to cut down giant Red Cedar trees, as well as teamsters and their bullock teams to cart the Cedar to Mossman Bay to load it onto ships.
Land ownership was the dream of many an adventurer, and the Government which claimed sovereignty over all the land, sold off ‘selections’ to men on the condition that they also develop the land too, with the first of these being granted to William Thomson in 1877 in Mossman. Another was Dan Hart from Jamaica, who brought him his knowledge of sugar growing. Others would follow.
The 1863 European settlement and military outpost that had been established near the tip of Cape York on Albany Island and then at Somerset on the mainland, continued to be an outpost in the north for ships sailing north from Sydney and Brisbane as well as through the Torres Strait. By the early 1870’s missionaries had followed as well as pearlers and Turtle shell fishermen, and in 1879 the Torres Strait Islands were annexed to the Queensland Colony.
The Gold Rushes in Palmer River and other gold fields brought wealth and publicity to the region around Cairns, Mossman and Port Douglas, and more importantly people, leading to tracks and then roads being built from the coast to the tablelands, and development of ports, agriculture and timber – with a timber mill being constructed at Cairns in 1877, the same year that public land sales of ‘selections’ were granted to new settlers. Cairns had been declared as a township on the 1st November 1876, and named after the Governor of Queensland, William Wellington Cairns.
Port Douglas was also developed, with a rough track called the ‘bump track’ cut through the bushland in 1877 from the Hodgkinson River gold fields to Port Douglas – the settlement named after the Queensland Premier, John Douglas. By 1882 Port Douglas had 14 hotels to serve the public with liquor with banks and government offices also set up – the port a hub of activity.
In 1882 miners near Herberton could only get supplies and send their gold and tin via the boggy road to Port Douglas, and during the wet season this road became almost impossible to travel on. Demands were made on the Government to establish a railway to the coast, and the search was on to find the best place to do this. Proponents from Cairns and Port Douglas both vied with each other to have the rail line build to their port, and a third contender, Geraldton (now called Innisfail) also added their voice too, recognizing the economic benefits that would flow on from its construction.
The route eventually chosen was from Cairns through the Barron Valley Gorge up to the Atherton Tablelands to Mareeba, via Kuranda, and in 1891 the Railway was eventually opened. It took more than 1500 men, mostly Italian and Irish to build the 75km rail line – with 15 tunnels, dozens of high viaduct bridges over waterfalls and the river and 93 curves. The Kuranda Scenic Railway and the station at Kuranda are still one of the premier attractions in the Cairns region.(See www.ksr.com.au )
Gold miners, English, Irish, Italian, Chinese and many other nationalities who had either struck gold or had given up stayed on too, and taking up ‘selections’ to start up farms, open hotels and other businesses. A large number of Chinese arrived on junks from China in 1875-76, and tensions arose between the Chinese and other miners – which led to the Chinese miners being stopped from taking up mining leases. Many then moved to establish market gardens, and build businesses and while they were restricted from buying land, they could lease the land from European settlers and open businesses.
A number of fruits and other crops, including rice and cotton were tried, but it was sugar and bananas that proved to be the most successful. Cattle were also raised, but when tick fever hit the region, many of the cattlemen turned to sugar as a better alternative.
The British Empire had already seen sugarcane being grown successfully in the West Indies and elsewhere, but it was also very hard work, planting by hand, using hand hoes to control weeds and then later harvesting the cane by hand to then be milled. The Colonies in Sydney and Brisbane had been built using convict labour, but convicts were no longer being sent to the Colonies, but growing cane also needed cheap labour too – and this was found by bringing islanders from Vanuatu, the New Hebrides, Samoa, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and others to work in the cane fields.
Between 1863 and 1904 around 62,000 Pacific Islanders were brought to Queensland to work in the cane fields from Brisbane in the south to the far north of Queensland.
In 1886 the population of Cairns was 4650, of which 3765 were males and 885 females. Some 30% of the population were Chinese and 17% were South Sea Islanders. At the time Aboriginals were not counted as part of the population, but these were thought to number around 10,000.
As with other frontier towns, the majority of the population were males, and there were certainly tensions between the different races including with aboriginals. The cane growers recognized the need for the South Sea Islanders to work the cane fields and the Chinese to clear land and work on garden leases, but at the same time the Europeans were worried that they could be overrun by these other races. A Royal Commission was even held to examine the so called “Recruitment” of Pacific Islanders, following a number of murders, a riot in Mackay and in view of the high mortality rate of the islanders – around 14% of all those recruited.
Cairns developed a Chinatown – in Sachs Street, now called Grafton Street, and there were also a number of Chinese business people, such as George Loy Choy, who were able to set up bigger business ventures exporting bananas, rice, corn, pineapples and sugar. The Hap Wah Sugar Plantation during the years 1878-86 crushed cane and in 1882 managed to export 110 tons of sugar. Sachs Street became quite notorious during this period too as a ‘Red Light District’, with Japanese Geisha girls, while Chinese vegetable sellers in the town would also sell “Pak-a-pu” tickets as well as fruit and vegetables. The buyers could buy vegetables and a ‘Pak-a-pu’ which gave them a chance in a Chinese lottery game. Chinatown was eventually closed down by the Police in 1937.
In 1901, the newly formed Commonwealth Government of Australia passed the “Immigration Restriction Act”, (the so called white Australia policy) to curtail Chinese Immigration into Australia, and in 1904 bringing South Sea Islanders, by fair or foul means (Blackbirding) was stopped, with many, but not all South Sea Islanders being deported back to the islands in 1906. In a strange twist, the Pearlers were allowed to continue to use Asian and Islander divers, but the boat licences could only be held by Europeans!
By 1901 the population of Cairns was 64.1% European, 20.6% Chinese, 10.3% South Sea Islanders, 3.3% Japanese, and 1.1% Indian and Sinhalese, while Aboriginals were not counted.
The larger sugar plantations that relied entirely on indentured Pacific and South Sea Islander labour, gave way to smaller family owned sugar farms, and a new era began, with a growing number of Italians and other Europeans coming to Australia and becoming farmers and cane cutters. Returning soldiers and what were called “Displaced Persons” following World War I also came to settle in North Queensland.
The Returned Solider Settlement Scheme led to Chinese being evicted from many of the land leases, in and around Cairns, and also on the Tablelands where the Tinaroo Divisional Board declared that
“All lands at present being leased to Asiatics in the Atherton, Tolga, Kairi area are to be resumed for soldier settlement.” A Chinatown settlement had been set up at Cedar Creek, just out of Atherton town, and a Chinese temple was built there. That temple remarkably still exists and is now a museum owned by the Queensland National Trust. The address is 86 Herberton Rd, Atherton Tel: (07) 4091 6945. The ‘Lit Sung Goong Temple’ is Cairns, constructed in 1877 lasted until 1964 when it was closed down.
Cane cutting until the 1960’s, when mechanical harvesting took over, was almost entirely done by hand, and at the time of harvesting, the cane fields would be torched by fire to burn off the leaves around the cane storks. The cane cutters would then move in with their machetes, working through the blackened cane fields, and emerging at the end of the day, themselves blackened by the ash and burnt leaves. It was hard and also very dirty work. Small sugar mills on individual farms, gave way to larger mills, where farmers could send their cane, and to get the cane to the mill, small tramway (cane trains) were set up, with a string of carriages initially pulled along by horses, and then later by steam train engines, running on narrow gauge 2 feet wide tracks. The trains took the freshly cut cane to the mills for crushing. Cane cutting by hand continued until around 1978, and the huge cane burn offs, so much a feature of cane growing have largely (but not entirely) become a thing of the past. New harvesters able to handle the stalks and leaves, and environmental concerns have largely eliminated the need for the big burn-offs.
Today those small gauge train tracks can still be seen, and the trains with diesel engines still run from cane farms to Mills in North Queensland, including to the Mossman Sugar Mill that began operations in 1897.
Train lines were built between Cairns and Herberton in 1886, and Cairns continued to develop, with the Port and new hotels, shipping offices and new buildings being constructed along the esplanade and elsewhere in the town. In 1903 Cairns was officially declared as a town and then in 1923, a few years after World War
1, Cairns officially became a city with schools, a newspaper, hospital, council and electricity to light some of the streets, becoming a centre for agriculture. In 1924 a rail line connected Cairns to Brisbane for the first time, and in 1935 “The Sunshine Express” train pulled by a steam locomotive could bring passengers from Brisbane to Cairns – a journey that took 52 hours. Roads were also improving, and the Cook Highway between Cairns and Mossman was built in 1933. This road bypassed Port Douglas.
Each summer Cyclones during the summer months (wet season) were also a constant threat to Port Douglas, Cairns and all of Queensland, but particularly North Queensland and that threat from winds, rain, floods, storm surges and from tidal waves has continued to this day. There have been many cyclones that have destroyed crops, buildings, boats, bridges and industry along the coastline as well as inland, and each year cyclones are tracked by the weather bureau, with a category listing given as to the ferocity and details relating to the direction the cyclone is heading and where it is likely to hit the coast and do most damage.
In the early 1930’s French’s cane beetles and Greyback cane beetles were destroying cane crops by eating the leaves and also parts of the root systems, so in an attempt to eradicate the beetles “The Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations” introduced Cane Toads from Hawaii, which it believed would eat the beetles and so save sugar crops. Around 100 Cane Toads were released into cane fields around Cairns and Gordonvale, but the experiment didn’t work, and the cane toads have since become a feral pest, spreading throughout Queensland’s coastal regions and even as far as the Northern Territory and parts of NSW. A female cane toad can lay 8000 to 35,000 eggs and breed twice a year, and unfortunately they have no natural predator, and have a poison venom gland, so if eaten by a crocodile, dingo or other native animal, this venom will kill the animal. They also don’t come high up in the beauty stakes, with a dry and warty skin, and grow to a size of up to 20cm or more.
With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, plans for a new road from Cairns to Kuranda on the top of the mountain were made, but it took until 1942 for the road to be built, by which time Cairns had become a centre for Australian and United States troops fighting the war in the Pacific.
With the Japanese advancing and possible invasion, many residents fled south, and at 3.30am the 31st July 1942, a Japanese Kawanishi H8K1 Emily Flying Boat, piloted by Kiyoshi Mizukura based at Rabaul in New Guinea dropped 8 bombs on Mossman. Fortunately he missed the main town, dropping them 16 km north next to a farm house (There is a monument at Bamboo Creek Rd in Saltwater). A 2 ½ year old child, Carmel Zullo suffered shrapnel wounds, but this was the only casualty. A further 8 bombs were also dropped on Townsville, but again missed their main target.
The beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, coastline, beaches, rivers and mountains surrounding Cairns and the region to the north, south and west had long been recognized, even though the mangroves shores were often just seen as breeding ground for mosquitoes – rather than the nurseries for fish and other marine life.
In 1900 the area around the Barron Falls had been gazetted as a National Park, and as Cairns developed, so too were churches and schools built and more women arrived, married and in turn had families. Sundays became a day of rest for many, and the beaches, the National Park and Green Island became popular destinations for a Sunday excursion or picnic.
In 1924 a Ferry Service from Cairns to Green Island was set up by the Hayles family, running every second Sunday, but it wasn’t until 1936 that Green Island was gazetted as a National Park by the Queensland Government. The first glass bottomed boat in the world was built in 1948 creating a new way to see fish and coral on the reefs off Cairns, and in 1954 an underwater Observatory was built on Green Island.
In many ways this was the start of the Tourism business on the Barrier Reef, with painted coral, concertina postcards, individual postcards, bottle openers, tea towels, pencil cases, rulers with pictures of the reef and other tourist souvenirs becoming a business.
By the 1950’s motorised tractors, cars and trucks were replacing horses, wagons and buggies as a means of transport, with roads and the railway bringing new people to Cairns from the south to see the wonders of the Barrier Reef. Guest houses and hotels also enabled the tourism business to grow further, and the weekly ‘Sunlander’ air-conditioned train from Brisbane and the south, which began operation in 1953 brought a new level of sophistication to travelling north.
In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II on her Royal Tour of Australia, took time out to visit Cairns, and Movietone News, screened at every movie picture theatre in Australia, showed photos of the Queen and the estimated 40,000 people waving their flags as a welcome to Cairns. This added publicity helped create the identity of Cairns as the gateway to the Barrier Reef, and with more tourists arriving, new hotels, caravan parks, guest houses and holiday accommodation followed.
Advances in diving equipment also led to the start of the adventure tourism market, and with advances in plastics, new snorkels, goggles and flippers began to be sold and snorkelling and scuba diving on the Barrier Reef became a popular holiday activity. Crocodile hunting also became more popular too in the 1950’s and 1960’s with hunters using powerful 303 rifles to shoot and kill both Saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. Numbers of Crocodiles declined rapidly but it took until 1974 for Crocodile hunting to be banned in Queensland and Crocodiles protected, and in 1985 the first crocodile farms were set up. These farms are strictly controlled, and along with the skin trade and crocodile meat being sold, they have developed into Tourism businesses, where people come to see rather than shoot crocodiles.
The Adventure tourism market has continued to grow, and new ‘sporting action’ activities, mountain climbing, river rafting, wind surfing, jet skis, paragliding, skydiving, hot air balloons, bungy jumping, deep sea fishing, 4WD safaris have all added to Cairns as a destination for a diverse range of people and activities.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s Cairns and the hinterland and particularly Kuranda also became a mecca for hippies and young people, seeking a new alternative lifestyle. It was the ‘Age of Aquarius’, ‘VW camper vans’, ‘peace man’, ‘love-ins’, ‘save the earth’, ‘Indian Gurus’, ‘drop-outs’, ‘flower power’, ‘pot, dope, bongs’ and ‘grow your hair for peace’ – with ‘anti-Vietnam War peace activists’ and art, craft and music becoming a siren for change.
Protecting the environment became a catchcry to protect the Reef, Rainforests, mangroves and the towns themselves from over development that could destroy the natural beauty of the area. In 1960 the rough Bloomfield track was cut through the Daintree forest to the Daintree Township, and in 1966 the Daintree National Park was established. In 1983 the local council decided to rebuild the track into a proper road through the rain forest, and mass demonstrations took place to stop it. In spite of the protests, the road was built and eventually sealed in 2002. In 1988 the Daintree National Park was ‘World Heritage listed’, providing more protection over the ancient rainforest.
Cairns airport first opened in 1928, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that TAA and Ansett Airlines started to bring tourists to Cairns from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. The airport became an International Airport in 1984, and it is now one of the busiest airports in Australia, after the main Australian capital city airports and the Gold Coast.
During the 1980’s further development of Tourist facilities occurred, and Port Douglas changed from a small coastal fishing village to a town with tourist shops, a yacht club, and in 1988 the entrepreneur, Christopher Skase built his 5 star Mirage Resort Hotel in Port Douglas. Shortly after the resort opened with much fanfare, the 1989 Airline Pilot’s strike took place lasting several months, and airflights bringing tourists to the resort disappeared almost entirely. Christopher Skase fled to Spain followed by an army of creditors, the press and a deluge of abuse. His resort, now called the Sheraton Mirage Resort and the avenues of Palm tree he planted however remain.
In 1994 a Skyrail cableway was built from Cairns to Kuranda over the top of the rainforest canopy, adding a new tourism experience, and since then other tourist facilities and attractions have mirrored the changes that have occurred in the Tourism market.
Adventure tourism, extreme sport, backpacker accommodation, tourist Parks, luxury resorts, educational tours, eco-lodges, holiday house rentals, B&B’s, business conference facilities, markets, shopping centres, swimming pools, farm produce, fruit, 4WD adventures, helicopter tours, art galleries, bus tours and charter boats have enhanced the total tourist experience catering for a diverse range of people, interests and age groups.
What is clearly apparent too is that the natural beauty of the region in the reefs, islands, rivers, lakes, dams, waterfalls, Coral Sea, rainforest, mountains and the animals, fish, birdlife, crocodiles and butterflies is still the main attraction.
So often, history and people are forgotten or just passed by without seeing or understanding what has transpired and been achieved on the road to where we are now.
WE SINCERELY HOPE that is some small way, we have helped you to enjoy your visit and understanding of Cairns and North Queensland a little more by what has been written here.
Welcome to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and North Queensland.
Enjoy your trip.