In a year of anniversaries, the anniversary of one significant protest that was hidden for many years was commemorated in North Queensland recently.
Palm Island is located on the Great Barrier Reef about 60 km north of Townsville.
In 1957 all residents went on strike against the autocratic management of the settlement. The strike was only resolved when seven defiant men and their families were removed from the Island and sent to live elsewhere permanently.
Dulcie Isaro was a 15-year-old living on the Island when the strike took place. Her father, Willy Thaiday, was one of the seven men who remained defiant against the authorities to the end.
She says that the strike happened because of the terrible living conditions on the Island.
“Well the living conditions for one, the pay, they got tobacco for wages, the girls were in dormitories, they used to place the young girls in dormitories, if they were punished they had to wear sack bag dresses and sweep the main street as punishment for running away from the dormitory.
“If they were punished, they were given beans to crack in the hot sun. There were so many different things they punished us and nobody in Australia knew that was going on, I suppose apart from the Government officers I think, nobody else knew that was going on,” she said.
“Back in the 50s, from the time they arrived there to the 50s, it was very bad. We were forced to do a lot of things, like tourists did come to Palm Island, and we had to dance for them to welcome them and present a friendly Island, to welcome people and carry them to shore if the tide was right out, they’d carry the tourists on the boats into the shore,” she said.
“They had to do that because otherwise they’d go to jail. Jail was the main place people would go as soon as they said no to anything. The jail was the answer to everything. The Superintendent was the
judge, jury, all in one. We had no rights at all,” she said.
Mrs Isaro said that the fear that the residents felt on standing up for their rights at the strike was very real and was created by their long-term treatment on the island.
“Well after being treated like slaves, you all know what slaves are like, what they can and cannot do, the fear that they have. We were exactly the same way when our men got up,” Mrs Isaro told Aboriginal Way.
“I mean slaves are not treated too good you know, and we were born into that protection life. Born into slavery, our education limit was four, grade four. And the work was already planned for us, we’d have to be house maids for anybody that wanted people to work for them. That was our limit in that life,” Mrs Isaro said.
Sixty years later she still recalls the day of the Palm Island strike.
“I remember the day, I followed a lady by the name of Rose Conlgu, I followed her around and wherever the men went, I was there,” she told Aboriginal Way.
“I tell you, the fear that I felt. I was sick in the stomach, shaking like a leaf. Because I’m thinking what’s going to happen?” she said.
While the whole population of the Island went on strike initially, many people decided to back down because of fear.
“The whole island went on strike, then after a while the superintendent sent for the police and between twenty and forty policemen came over to check it out. It was a non-violent strike.
“But they came over and the people, having lived under those conditions of fear, started to get afraid when they saw the policemen and many backed off. And they came and said to the main leaders – look we’re going to leave you because we’ve got to think of our families. So one of them said ‘that’s fine brothers if you want to leave the strike, go to the other side of the island’,” said Mrs Isaro.
The majority of Island residents went to the other side of the island, leaving the strike, but a small group remained.
“Alby Gaia said ‘which way brothers, what are we doing to do?’ because they had no supporters now and my father said ‘We go for broke!’ and they all shouted ‘Go for broke!’”
The strike was only resolved when the remaining seven strikers and their families were taken away from the Island with Mrs Issaro’s family taken inland to central Queensland.
“We were sent to Woorabinda, a settlement in the valley of the Great Dividing Range, beautiful little spot, but totally different from Palm Island,” she said.
Mrs Isaro has always been determined that the history of Palm Island be remembered, by residents and the broader community.
“Well at the time they hushed it up and just wanted to silence the men, so it went like a hidden and forgotten history, even the people on Palms sort of forgot there was a strike and their faith mainly was in the government that was giving them referendum, they believed, that was ten years after the strike, they seemed to have forgotten about the strike
“So when I went back after 40 years and I asked them about that they didn’t know anything about it. I called it forgotten history and from that time 40 years, then 50 years, now 60 years, I’ve fought for those people to know this was their history and to be proud of it,” she said.
“They might have been hush hushed, you know. They were not like the people that struck in Canberra, they had the media, the world media on them. Our fathers had zero. Absolutely no contact, no support. But that didn’t stop them. They had the courage, they were so, so mighty for doing it. They knew they’d be hushed up, but they went ahead anyway.” Mrs Isaro said.
Each year on 9 June, the Palm Island community remember their history and celebrate the bravery of the strikers.
“We’re going back to Palm Island to celebrate for three days what happened on Palms, the strike, a beautiful celebration, dancers and all kinds of stuff to celebrate,” said Mrs Isaro.
By Lucy Kingston
SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.