The Gulf Country has long been home to people from a surprising array of cultures.
The Gulf Country has long been home to people from a surprising array of cultures.

Brutal story behind Aussie town

A vivid and disturbing picture of brutal violence, non-stop drinking and a surprising blend of cultures in one of Australia's most remote regions has been uncovered in an incredible new book.

Human ears were nailed to walls, violence and reprisals took place and racial tension was commonplace in the unforgiving landscape of Queensland's isolated Gulf Country, in the state's northwest, shortly after settlers landed.

In the settlement of Burketown in the mid-19th century, there were four bustling pubs but no doctors, medical facilities or fruit and vegetables in sight - as grog and disease reigned supreme.

Social science expert Richard J. Martin - who has been researching the region's history for more than a decade - says his gruesome discoveries and the stories of Aussies battlers in his new book, The Gulf Country, tell us a lot about who we are as a nation.

Queensland’s Gulf Country has a disturbing history of violence, death and disease. Picture: Supplied
Queensland’s Gulf Country has a disturbing history of violence, death and disease. Picture: Supplied

"A lot of people drive through these towns or see them on the map and think: 'How do people make a living in these places?'" he told news.com.au.

"But, just in this one place, there's huge legacies of violence and conflict but there's also fascinating stories about people different cultures making their home together."

 

VIOLENCE, DRINKING AND DISEASE IN 'THE WILD TIME'

Mr Martin begins his book by describing a period of debauchery and violence known as "The Wild Time" - which began shortly after Europeans first established the settlement of Burketown.

He said wide-eyed explorers like William Landsborough described the region in gushing language that made it seem like a paradise.

Soon after, squatters and settlers arrived in droves around 1865 but they found life in the "plains of promise", as they had read was far tougher than it was cracked up to be.

"There was nothing," said Mr Martin.

"No doctor, no medicine, no vegetables and huge amounts of violence between colonisers and the indigious people whose country they were colonising."

There was, however, one thing: Booze, and lots of it.

Two pubs shot up in no time, and one adventurer, Francis Birtles, painted a disturbing picture of everyday life in Burketown.

"The usual program was races in the morning, funerals in the afternoon and debaucheries at night," he wrote.

"Bets were freely made as to whose turn it would be next."

Willie Sou Kee (pictured 1918)— walked to the Gulf Country from Darwin.
Willie Sou Kee (pictured 1918) – one of many Chinese men who travelled to the Gulf Country’

Mr Martin writes that disease was rampant after a fever broke out in 1866, quickly killing dozens and leading Mr Landborough to write that he found "almost everyone in the town sick".

If that wasn't bad enough, natural diasters wreaked havoc - bringing drought, flooding and fires - and racial tension between indigenous locals and settlers escalated with horrific consequences.

When Native Police Sub-Inspector Wentworth D'Arcy Uhr arrived at the town in 1867, the settlers were given a brutal new ally.

A Brisbane Courier article from 1867 states that "everybody in the district was delighted" when Native Police shot upwards of 30 indigenous people for cutting steaks off horses - and when one of them didn't die after being shot 20 times, a trooper finished him off by smashing his skull.

Another horrendous act of violence was described by a young British settler, Emily Caroline Creaghe, who was passing through the region 1883.

During her stay at Lawn Hill station, she detailed how the station owner Jack Watson had around 40 sets of Aboriginal ears nailed around the walls of the homestead, again because of a livestock dispute.

SURPRISING CHINESE, JAPANESE AND 'AFGHAN' ROOTS

Despite the sickening violence described in his book, Mr Martin told news.com.au there is a positive message about how the region battled through and picked itself up over the years.

One of the fascinating aspects that came to shape the isolated community was the rich tapestry of cultures that called the Gulf Country their home in the 19th century.

Mr Martin said scores of Chinese migrants came to the region by foot in an attempt to avoid paying punitive £10 poll tax (equivalent to six months' wages for an average worker) they would be forced to pay to enter Queensland officially.

The racist tax and the £5 cost of a steamer ticket from Darwin - where many migrants entered Australia - to Townsville meant they would attempt to walk the three-month 1780km coastal track to Burketown to enter Queensland via the Gulf Country.

"The Gulf Country drew people from all over because of its remoteness and lack of official policing," he said. "They could live with more opportunity, so they walked into the Gulf Country to avoid taxes and ended up in stations and small scale mining, as well as marrying and having children with the local aboriginal women."

 

Mr Martin has been researching the area’s history for more than a decade.
Mr Martin has been researching the area’s history for more than a decade.

Through oral history, Mr Martin writes that these migrants were welcomed into Aboriginal communities which were often more accepting than the white settlers.

He told news.com.au there were also pockets of migrants of Japanese, Malay and 'Afghan' migrants who settled in the remote bush of the Gulf Country - although the 'Afghans' were often of Egyptian heritage.

"Many of these people came overland and ended up working in camel trains - where they transported goods such as ores from the mines across great distances," he said.

- The Gulf Country by Richard J Martin is published by Allen and Unwin is available for $29.99 -

This battler spirit embodied by everyone who ended up calling this desolate corner of Australia their home is something that Mr Martin follows right up until today in his book.

"This was an incredibly violent, chaotic and unhealthy place," he said. "But out of that, came something incredible.

"One of things is the different types of native land claims that have been resolved to address some of this dispossession and a new generation of indigenous and non-indigenous people are making their homes here together.

"They have an attachment to the region which they both see as their home."