Starvation and Survival in Far North Queensland

A Time of Desolation

As the latter years of the 1870s bathed the Far North Queensland goldfields in drought, the region was plagued by a dire crisis. First Peoples faced the harsh grip of starvation, a plight exacerbated by the depletion of game and natural water sources during the dry years of 1877 to 1879[i]


Heartrending Encounters

In a tragic account from late 1877, Cockey, a First Peoples stockman, encountered a group of emaciated women and children near Mount Mulligan. Desperate and near death from starvation, these women implored Cockey to save their children from the clutches of famine. Bearing witness to their skeletal frames, Cockey brought one child to Watsonville, recounting their group’s pitiful condition[ii].


Desperate Journeys to Thornborough

1881 and 1882 bore witness to heart-wrenching scenes of despair. Reports surfaced of Native Police conducting ‘dispersals’, bringing a First Peoples woman and her children into Thornborough, where they found refuge. Coincidentally, these entries into Thornborough occurred around the time of the Davies’ marriage in November 1881, hinting at a convergence of fateful events[iii].


Tales of Starvation and Entry

As the year 1882 unfolded, Thornborough witnessed multiple groups of over a hundred starving First Peoples seeking sanctuary. Influential figures like the Byrnes brothers, cattle runners on the Mitchell River, advocated for bringing these desperate groups into the town. Reports cited their belief that these peoples were driven to hunt horses and cattle due to starvation in the ranges[iv].


A Legacy of Unanswered Questions

Was my maternal Grandfather, then a child of the First Peoples, among the suffering individuals? Was he entrusted to the Davies out of fear for his survival, a child rescued from the brink of starvation? Or was he a survivor of a massacre, silently carrying the weight of unspeakable tragedy? These queries propelled my relentless quest, forming the backbone of the research that lead to the book Foster Father and Son OR Slave Master and Slave.


A Personal Reflection

In the fabric of Australia’s history, Grandfather remains a dangling thread, awaiting to be sewn back into the main cloth. While answering these questions may be elusive, their spectre continues to haunt me. For Grandfather is not merely a subject of investigation but an inseparable part of my identity—we are eternally entwined.


[i] Bolton, G (1972) A Thousand Miles Away: A History of North Queensland to 1920, Canberra: Australian National University Press.

[ii] NA. (1877, 24 November) Northern Mail News-Famine Among the Blacks. Capricornian. p. 7.; NA. (1877, 1 December) Colonial News-Famine Among the Blacks. Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay, and Burnett Advertiser. p. 4 and NA. (1877 1 December) Famine Among the Blacks. Week. p .8.

[iii] NA. (1881, 4 November) Northern Mail News-Spearing Cattle. Morning Bulletin. p. 2.

[iv] NA. (1882, 30 September) Local News. Mackay Mercury and South Kennedy Advertiser. p. 2.

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