The image we have today of North Queensland being a tropical paradise belies the real story of struggle that surrounded its early development.
Old charts suggest the Chinese reached Cape York Peninsula 3000 years ago. Japanese came in the early 1400s, Dutch and Spanish in the 1600s and Sulawesi’s Macassans lived part of the year on the Gulf of Carpentaria 1000 years ago. So, when England's greatest navigator, James Cook, discovered Terra Australis in 1770 it wasn't lost, just forgotten.
The image we have today of Tropical North Queensland being a balmy paradise belies the real story of struggle that surrounded its early development.
Old charts suggest the Chinese reached Cape York Peninsula 3000 years ago. Japanese came in the early 1400s, Dutch and Spanish in the 1600s and Sulawesi’s Macassans lived part of the year on the Gulf of Carpentaria 1000 years ago. Yet Indigenous people have been living here for over 60,000 years.
So, when England's greatest navigator, James Cook, 'discovered' Terra Australis in 1770 it wasn't new or lost, just forgotten.
After noting Cleveland Bay where Townsville is now situated and Magnetical Isle where his "compass did not traverse it well" in his log book, whilst heading north up the Australian coast on his way back to England, he reached an area that was to become Cairns. Cook named Trinity Bay and Green Island and noted the giant melaleucas still growing at Palm Cove. Then, passing the headland he subsequently named Cape Tribulation, where the 100 million year old rainforest touches the coast, his ship, the Endeavour, struck the north's other World Heritage treasure - the 18 million year old Great Barrier Reef.
Cook and his crew of 87 spent 48 days in a tent village while repairs were made, giving the place later named Cooktown an 18-year start on Sydney as Australia's first British settlement. Aboriginals took the sailors fishing and hunting, but for another century they continued to live much as they had for 60,000 years. At the time of European settlement, Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait Islands consisted of 43 tribal nations, each with its own language and traditional practices.
The native people of the Torres Strait continued fighting their neighbours and meeting occasional beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishermen, unaware that Cook had claimed the whole eastern coast of Australia for his king by raising the flag on what is now Possession Island near the top of the Cape. Then their lives changed fast. The London Missionary Society arrived in the Torres Strait in 1871 and converted the fierce warriors into enthusiastic Christians who still celebrate their Coming of the Light at annual festivals in Cairns and their home islands on 1st July each year.
During the past century there has been a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to the larger cities of Cairns and Townsville from all over Queensland, some of which has been enforced by government. The most successful land rights campaign in Australia had its beginnings in North Queensland. Edward Koiki Mabo, a resident of Townsville, was at the centre of a long and finally successful campaign initiated at the James Cook University to pursue a native land title claim for the people of Murray Islands in the High Court of Australia.
Although the first European settlers came in search of good pastoral lands, it was the discovery of gold that was the major catalyst for development of North Queensland. Between 1867 and 1872, five major gold fields opened at Cape River, Gilbert, Ravenswood, Etheridge and Charters Towers. This was shortly followed further north with the discovery of gold in the Palmer River after George Dalrymple was given command of an expedition to explore all the bays and rivers between Cardwell and Cooktown. Cooktown became the port for the Palmer goldfields and the base for the beche-de-mer fisherman and timber-getters who were drawn by the rich stores of cedar.
Access to new goldfields due west of Trinity Bay was difficult from Cooktown, and it was evident a more direct route to the coast was needed. A site was chosen on the shores of Trinity Bay near the mouth of the inlet for a town originally named Thornton. On 6 October 1876 the commencing peg of the new town was placed at the corner of Abbott and Wharf Streets, following the first sandbank parallel to the beach.
This town of Cairns began as a collection of tents housing 300 citizens, until ships from Maryborough brought timber for building. The Post Office consisted of an empty brandy case in the tent of the customs official who was preparing for the port to be opened. The town was to suffer many setbacks. For a few years the future of Cairns was doubtful. Queensland Parliament records show at least one politician believed it was doomed and that money paid for land should be returned. Like many since him, that politician underestimated the people of the North.
With the rivalry between Cairns and Townsville to become the major port for North Queensland, Port Douglas's chance to become the north's major city ended. For almost a century it declined into a quiet fishing village with a population of only 250 in the early 1970s. But it was soon to have its day.
As coastal settlements grew from Townsville north, and more gold and other minerals were found inland, the region's modern history became a rich blend of fact and fable, equal parts comedy, tragedy and heroism. While Cairns never rivalled Burketown for lawlessness, the wharf end of Abbott Street, opposite the casino, became known as the Barbary Coast, a stretch of wicked watering holes for seamen.
The Chinese visit to north Queensland in 1000 BC may have been a myth but they played a big role around the region three millennia later. Of the thousands who came in the gold rush days, many stayed to share their skills and heritage. Last century they introduced many of the tropical fruits which became the basis for today's export industry. Their market gardens flourished where those of white settlers failed and traditional junks, built from local cedar and laden with vegetables, were a common sight. Their restaurants tempted European palates to try food more suitable to the climate and their cemetery plots and joss houses gave an enduring touch of the exotic to Cooktown, Innisfail and Atherton.
The Italians also played a major role in the character of the north. The strong Italian influence in the sugar cane fields is obvious today and during August, Ingham, with a huge population of Italian descent, celebrates the Australian Italian Festival.
Today the mix of nationalities and cultures makes North Queensland a pleasing blend of people with an easy attitude to life and a broad outlook. We welcome visitors from all corners of the globe to share in the natural treasures that, despite the trials of early development of a young country, have never been taken for granted.