Museum of Brisbane

Life in Irons: Brisbane’s convict stories highlight role of Aboriginal people in penal colony

Museum exhibit with dark lighting

Photo: The exhibition features art works by Danie Mellor alongside almost 200-year-old documents. (Supplied: Museum of Brisbane/David Kelly)


“These seven long years I’ve been serving now and seven long more have to stay, all for bashing a block down our alley and taking his ticker away.”

The song may be about Botany Bay, but Brisbane did not escape the tide of convicts transported to Australia in the 19th century.

Moreton Bay penal colony was established by the British government to “reinstate transportation as an object of real terror to all classes of society”.

The brutally harsh settlement, an oppressive home to 3,000 male and female convicts, was focused around present-day Queen and William streets.

Some much smaller outstations existed at Dunwich, Eagle Farm, Limestone (Ipswich) and Coopers Plains.

Colony ‘an island in Aboriginal lands’

Now the colony’s history is being shared at the Museum of Brisbane’s exhibition Life In Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories.

Map with Aboriginal names written on it


Photo: Aboriginal settlements around Brisbane during the time of the penal colony. (Supplied: Museum of Brisbane)


With the arrival of Europeans to establish the penal colony in 1824, thousands of local Aboriginal people suddenly found themselves sharing their land with convicts and soldiers.

It was also essentially “an island in Aboriginal lands”, as historian and specialist on Aboriginal culture Ray Kerkhove said.

In conjunction with the museum he designed a map of the inner-city area of Brisbane as it would have been settled at that time.

British redcoat soldier's uniform and hat


Photo: This petite British soldier’s uniform gives an idea of how malnourished, and hence small, the troops were. (Supplied: Museum of Brisbane/Jono Searle)


“The purpose of it is to show that the convict settlement was existing within a pre-existent Indigenous landscape of several campsites, pathways, sacred areas, burial areas and so on,” Dr Kerkhove said.

“It’s included the naming of those areas to show that the convict settlement didn’t exist in isolation but functioned within an Indigenous world, and in fact at the time it was hugely outnumbered by the Indigenous world.”

Dr Kerkhove said initially the local people were amazed by the presence of Europeans and kept their distance, but that did not last.

“You had this immediate presence, like the Martians had landed, of a whole lot of new technologies and life patterns,” he said.

“They found ways of interacting and from 1825 until the end of 1842, really we know there was some trade which meant items like steel and glass got traded around the continent very quickly.

“There were accounts that almost daily, the [penal] settlement was given fish and oysters, honey, bark and firewood by the local people.

“We’ve got accounts of hunting trips together too.”

Photo: The original Book of Trials in which every prisoner’s crime was recorded between 1824 and 1839. (Supplied: Museum of Brisbane)


Hunger and misunderstandings

The isolated penal colony was the furthermost north European settlement at the time and was reliant on stores arriving by ship from Sydney.

And while the local Aboriginal people traded food with the colonists, it soon became problematic when the settlers began clearing land to grow crops.

“They cleared large areas of what had previously been rainforest and the resource areas of the Aboriginal people, particularly at South Bank and Kangaroo Point,” Dr Kerkhove said.

“South Bank had been a very complex area of rainforest, woodland and swampland which had basically been the bread basket for the local people.

“They were semi-gardens that the local people maintained, so it wasn’t a small thing if you decided to cut down a whole lot of forest and put your crops there.

“And that became a source of conflict because the settlers wanted their crops and the Indigenous people are thinking, ‘Well, OK, we don’t have our stretch of rainforest anymore but we have these crops so why can’t we take them?'”

Painting of Aboriginal people and white people beside river


Photo: South Brisbane from the North Shore of Moreton Bay was painted by Thomas Baines in 1868. (National Library of Australia: nla.cat-vn1865955)


Fear led to attacks on villages

It began with small, occasional raids on gardens and fields by the Aboriginal people, but the situation grew to become so worrying to the colony’s commander Patrick Logan that he sent soldiers to attack their villages.

“It started to become a big, organised thing by Aboriginal groups where 50 or 80 warriors would descend on the fields just as [they crops] were ripening or as it was getting dark,” Dr Kerkhove said.

“They planned it very well and the amount they took, it wasn’t for their food [because] they realised the colony needed this so let’s see if we can starve them out.

“I should point out it was only once free settlement began that it really became a huge problem because all the lands started to be opened up with settlers’ huts everywhere.

“That’s when you get really large conflict.”

Vintage pen and ink map of Brisbane


Photo: The layout of Brisbane Town in 1838 was drawn in pen and ink by convict George Browne. (Supplied: Museum of Brisbane)


Other first-hand accounts from Moreton Bay’s early Aboriginal people and convicts can be heard at the exhibition.

It features interactive storytelling, together with soundscapes and original documents from the penal colony such as a book of trials and a register of convicts, both of which are part of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

Along with the almost 200-year-old documents are works from Queensland Aboriginal artist Danie Mellor and sound artist Lawrence English which add ambience and mood to the display.

You can visit the free exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane until October 28.