Saturday, 4 December, 2004

Aborigines' dark island home

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

Aboriginal residents of Palm Island in northern Australia are preparing for another depressing chapter in the story of their isolated home.

The funeral of Cameron Doomagee is expected to take place in the coming days.

This history of how white colonisers have treated black people on this island is appalling and we are seeing now the result of that legacy
Paul Wilson, Bond University, Australia

The death of the 36-year-old Aborigine in police custody last month sparked a violent disturbance.

The scars of a rampage by hundreds of islanders stand in vivid contrast to Palm Island's natural beauty, with its sandy beaches and lush tropical vegetation.

The police station and the courthouse were burnt to the ground. Their destruction symbolise almost a century of tense relations between the Aborigines and the authorities.

Aboriginal enclave

The Aboriginal settlement on Palm Island was set up in 1918 by the government in Queensland after a cyclone had devastated another state-run institution near the town of Innisfail on the mainland.

Over the years, hundreds of Aborigines were sent to live on the island, which is part of a small archipelago. The practice continued until the late 1960s.

Erykah Kyle was born on the island. She is a member of the local council and is proud of her home.

"With its rainforests and sunsets, it's the most beautiful group of islands you could find anywhere," she told the BBC.

Her mother was seven years old when she was forcibly taken to the island. Erykah Kyle believes it was part of a plan by the authorities to seize valuable tribal territory across Queensland.

"It was a grab for Aboriginal land," she insisted. "They wanted us out of the way."

The Palm Island settlement became an all-purpose repository for Aborigines. It served as a detention camp, an old people's home and a centre for the mentally ill.

On nearby Fantome Island an infectious diseases hospital was established.

Criminologist Professor Paul Wilson from Australia's Bond University, who has closely studied the island, told the BBC that its current problems were caused by the repression of the past.

High rates of violence

"This history of how white colonisers have treated black people on this island is appalling and we are seeing now the result of that legacy," he said.

"The rates of violence on Palm Island are amongst the highest in Australia, and some would argue amongst the highest in the world."

Sister Christina McGlynn, a Catholic missionary on Palm Island, recently spent two years working at a refugee camp in Northern Kenya and has seen alarming similarities between her postings in Africa and Australia.

"In both cases I've been dealing with very, very traumatised people," she told the BBC from Palm Island.

A jogger passes a mural featuring Aboriginal children by Australian artist Michael Byrt in the indigenous community of Redfern in Sydney, 15 October 2004
Aborigines across Australia complain of prejudice and lack of opportunity

As for its reputation for violence, Sister Christina believes it is undeserved.

"I don't believe that it's a violent place," she stressed. "It's a sad place but I wouldn't say that it's an unsafe place for anyone."

She hoped the death of Cameron Doomagee would be a "real turning point for Palm Island and an opportunity for the community to come together and look at solutions to the problems".

The settlement is home to 3,000 people. Alcohol abuse is an extremely corrosive social problem.

Council member Erykah Kyle said the island also suffered high unemployment and a chronic housing crisis. It was not unusual, she said, to have up to 20 people living in a three-bedroom house.

The authorities in Queensland have promised to find new ways to address the disadvantage.

Mrs Kyle is not convinced they will find them.

"The real problem is the state government's view of us as not being capable of making hard decisions for ourselves," she insisted. "That does not make any community anywhere feel pride and dignity."