Bwgcolman is the name used by the Palm Island Indigenous Knowledge Centre to represent the diverse traditional groups now living in Palm Island.

Please note that the material presented has been viewed by council during the set-up stage for the 100 years bicentenary celebration of Palm Island, was placed in the Indigenous Knowledge Centre and was placed on open access at the State Library of Queensland during their “Palm Island” exhibition, with no complaints. 



Historical research indicates that the Manburra people (pronounced Mun burra) originally occupied this region prior to first contact with Europeans. 

The contemporary Aboriginal name for Palm Islanders is ‘Bwgcolman people’ (pronounced Bwook-a-mun), which means ‘many tribes – one people’ .  The term was devised by the Manbarra elder Dick Palm Island in order to give a collective identity to the 46 groups who found themselves frequently in conflict because of their disparate linguistic and cultural background.

Many of today’s community members are descendants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forcibly removed to Palm Island from throughout Queensland. 

Bwgcolman Wikipedia

Dreamers History

I don’t like using the term Aboriginal Australians, I would rather use the term “Dreamers” . The descendants from the Dreamtime. Mostly because the terminology used by Migaloo’s are not functional, as Dreamers existed long before this continent was named Australia.

This time line between Dreamers (Aboriginal Australians) and Immigrating groups is astonishing and usually one-sided in the Australian history books, because of a time-frame paradox between what is old and new in the world order of development.

There is a complexity toward the understanding of Dreamers because of the natural resources used to demonstrate our existence is embedded into the very fabric of this continent, which unfortunately is being destroyed by the European Immigrants (Australian’s) quickly in such a short time-frame, making it hard to grasp what existed prior to their arrival. View the Dreamer History to find out more about this and other topics

Palm Island History

Most of the information on this page has been reproduced by Community and Personal Histories for their online information on Palm Island history, but I have added online links and images to enhance this information.

Palm Island is one of 16 Islands in the Palm Island Group. Located 65 km north of Townsville in Cleveland Bay, the community comprises 2,446 people in 2016 (2016 Census).

Google Map

Historical research indicates that the Manburra people (pronounced Mun burra) originally occupied this region prior to first contact with Europeans. However, no determination has ever been made by the Federal Court.

The contemporary Aboriginal name for Palm Islanders is ‘Bwgcolman people’ (pronounced Bwook-a-mun), which means ‘many tribes – one people’. Many of today’s community members are descendants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forcibly removed to Palm Island from throughout Queensland.

The first recorded European visitors to the waters around Palm Island were British Royal Navy personnel. In 1770, Captain Cook named the Palm Island group during his exploration of the east coast of Australia.  

The Gutenberg EBook have placed the Captain Cook’s Journal During the First Voyage Round the World: James Cook online. Below is the text representing the naming of Palm Island, which is on page 254.

Thursday, 7th. Light Airs between the South and East, with which we
steer’d West-North-West, keeping the Main land on board, the outermost
part of which at sun set bore from us West by North; but without this lay
high land, which we took to be Islands. At daylight A.M. we were the
Length of the Eastern part of this Land, which we found to Consist of a
Group of Islands* (* Palm Islands.) laying about 5 Leagues from the Main.
We being at this time between the 2, we continued advancing Slowly to the
North-West until noon, at which time we were by observation in the
Latitude of 18 degrees 49 minutes, and about 5 Leagues from the Main
land, the North-West part of which bore from us North by West 1/2 West,
the Island extending from North to East; distance of the nearest 2 Miles.
Cape Cleveland bore South 50 degrees East, distant 18 Leagues. Our
Soundings in the Course of this day’s Sail were from 14 to 11 fathoms.

Captain Phillip Parker King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia Performed between the years 1818 and 1822, Vol I (John Murray, Australia: 1826), ch.5 at p 197

June 18. At eight o’clock the following morning we got under sail, but delayed by light winds we were, at noon, within half a league of the island, 2. As there was no immediate appearance of a breeze I landed on a steep beach, at the North-West end of the island, whence the latitude was observed to be 18 degrees 50 minutes 15 seconds, and from which I obtained a useful set of bearings. Near our landing-place were some natives’ huts and two canoes; the former appeared to have been recently occupied, and were very snug habitations. They were of a circular shape, and very ingeniously constructed by twigs stuck in the ground and arched over, the ends being artfully entwined so as to give support to each other; the whole was covered with a thatch of dried grass and reeds; they were not larger than two people could conveniently occupy. In one of the huts, which was of a more elliptical shape and of larger dimensions than the other, was a bunch of hair that had been recently clipped from either the head or beard. This proves that these operations are not done solely by fire, as Captain Cook supposed,* but by means of a sharp-edged shell, which must be both tedious and painful to endure; and we have often witnessed the delight shown by the natives at the speedy effect a pair of scissors has produced upon the beard or hair. The canoes were not longer than eight feet and would not safely carry more than two people; the ends were stitched together by strips of the stem of the Flagellaria indica. (*Footnote. Hawkesworth volume 3 page 229.)

Few palm-trees were seen, but at the large islands, according to Captain Cook’s account,* they are probably abundant. A considerable quantity of pumice-stone was found, as is usual in every place that we have landed at within the tropic, heaped up above the highwater mark. During the afternoon we had little wind; in the evening we passed a mile and a half to the eastward of a low and dangerous reef which escaped Captain Cook’s observation; the only part of it that was visible above the water were two low rocks, but as the tide ebbed the craggy heads of several smaller ones gradually uncovered, and at low water it is probably quite dry; we passed it in ten fathoms. It is not probable that its extent is greater than what is exposed at low water, but from its steepness it is very dangerous. (*Footnote. Hawkesworth volume 3 page 136.)

June 19. At daybreak we resumed our voyage and steered for Cape Sandwich after passing inside the Palm Island Group. We were now approaching Point Hillock, which is a point of land projecting for two miles into the sea, with a small hillock at its extremity; from which Captain Cook named it; the land rises precipitously behind it to the height of about two thousand feet and forms a mass of bare rocky hills of a singularly grand and imposing appearance. ……

In 1883, nine Palm Islanders were kidnapped by United States circus agent R A Cunningham and taken to the United States to become travelling exhibits in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Most died obscure deaths overseas.

The best book on this subject is the Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle by Roslyn Poignant (2004) , Yale University Press. Link to State Library of Queensland record.

One of the men kidnapped from Palm Island was known as Kukamunburra (or Tambo) and in 1993, his mummified body was found in the basement of a funeral parlour in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1994, Kukamunburra’s body was repatriated from the United States and laid to rest on Palm Island with full ceremonial rites.

In 1889, the Secretary of the Townsville Aboriginal Protection Association called for an Aboriginal reserve to be established on south Palm Island. No action was taken and Palm Island received only brief mentions in government reports in subsequent years.

In 1897, the Queensland Parliament passed the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (the ‘Protection Act’). Under section 9 of the Protection Act, the Home Secretary was granted the power ‘to cause Aboriginals within any district to be removed to and kept within the limits of any reserve situated in the same or any other district.

In 1912, the Chief Protector of Aboriginals visited Palm Island and noted that there was a small Aboriginal settlement.

Palm Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve in June 1914 and in 1918, a cyclone destroyed the Hull River Mission and its remaining inhabitants were sent to Palm Island. This was the first of many transfers which, over the next 5 decades, would see many Aboriginal people and some Torres Strait Islander people removed to Palm Island. There were 3,950 documented removals between the years 1918 and 1972 with some people removed from as far away as Brisbane and Cloncurry].

In the 1920s, 2 women from the Baptist church began missionary work with the Aboriginal population on the reserve. Between 1918 and 1924, Catholic priests visited the Palm Island Reserve. In 1930, Father Molony commenced missionary work on Palm Island and the Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians established a presence there after a Catholic convent was built in 1934. The Catholic Church built a school on the Island in 1937.

Established under the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act 1865 (Qld), the girls’ dormitory at Palm Island was constructed in 1923. 

Joanne Watson Becoming Bwgcolman – Palm Island, said (page 207) that:

Dormitories served contradictory functions on reserves, providing institutional care for orphaned or abandoned children, while also operating as detention centres for children and single mothers. Children under five years of age who were sent with parents under punishment to Palm Island were automatically placed in these institutions.

Unmarried women with children were immediately moved into the women’s dormitory, as were those whose husbands were sent to work on the mainland – a practice many of the women resented as treating them like children.’

Report of the Director of Aboriginal Affairs 1949
Negative Number 107459 from State Library of Queensland


The Palm Island women’s dormitory closed in 1967 and in 1969 it was demolished. The children’s dormitories were officially closed on 5 December 1975.

Penal Institution

Palm Island also has a long history of being used as a penal institution for Indigenous people who chose not to conform to the Protection Act, or who had committed criminal offences. A considerable number of men who had already served their sentences in jail were removed to Palm Island, effectively punishing them twice for the same offences. 

Since its inception, the Palm Island settlement has a history punctuated by unrest and violence. The first superintendent at Palm Island, Robert Curry, is reputed to have been a strict disciplinarian, who handed out lengthy imprisonments, public humiliations and floggings to those he perceived as threatening his control. His ultimate punishment was to exile individuals to nearby Eclipse Island with only bread and water.

In the early hours of 3 February 1930, Curry shot 2 people and burnt down the staff buildings including his own house, killing his son and stepdaughter. He was later fatally wounded by Peter Prior, an Aboriginal man who acted under instructions from Assistant Superintendent Thomas Hoffman. Three Stories of Palm Island by Leigh Dale

After an investigation into the shooting, Peter Prior and Thomas Hoffman were charged with Curry’s murder. PALM ISLAND SENSATION Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), Tuesday 4 February 1930, page 6 .

Straight from the Yudaman’s Mouth by Renarta Prior:

Text from part 7. Confusion and Anger pages 25-28.

This book is the reminiscence of Peter Prior. It’s been two weeks now and I had plenty of time to think, and it was at this stage of waiting that I suddenly realised, all what had happened to me in just a few days, and it was starting to get to me. I was feeling very angry with the whiteman’s law. Why was I sitting in jail, over this tragedy that’s happened? Mr Curry should never have been shot by a black man, it was the whiteman’s fight, not mine. Why didn’t one of those white blokes stand on the beach and face Mr Curry, instead of leaving all the Murries to do their dirty work as usual? I don’t know what I might have done if it wasn’t for my Mother waiting with me in that watchhouse? She was a tower of strength for me at that time.

… I have never held a gun up anyone before, let alone kill someone, but, as I said before, we were under orders from the doctor and Oversee to arm ourselves that day, and that’s what it used to be like; we only took orders from the whiteman, there was no asking questions like how or why? We just had to do as we were told or else? .. I was ready to go back to Palm Island with my mum and all the other witnesses that afternoon, but instead, I was told by three detectives that I was being sent to Stuart Prison and had to be kept under police protection, because they overheard one of the Robert Curry’s family saying after the hearing, that he was going to get me for what I had done.

Peter Prior spent three months in goal before the case was heard by the Townsville Supreme Court on 14 August 1930.  Where the Justice RJ Douglas concluded that the case should have never been brought to trial as the men’s actions were justified, given the danger Curry posed to the community. The prosecution then decided to drop proceedings against the 2 men.

Peter as an 82 year old man stated on page 28 from Straight from the Yudamans mouth. “I feel angry when I think about all these things that happened to me and to my people. Not only on Palm Island, but everywhere, our people have been pushed from pillar to post, that’s why I encourage all our young people to stand tall and to be counted and be proud of our Aboriginality. We mus unite as one people, not sparate one from the other, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as I also remember only to well, that our Island brothers had a lot to do with the making of Palm Island, what it is today. In the early days we never used to fight one another, we were too busy fighting the whitemans’ system for a better way of life for all our people. But let me remind you readers that both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers all paid a price for our struggle one way or another, so don’t think for one minute that is was easy as it is today. We never had the education or money or housing or Legal Service to turn to for help. We only had each other to lean on and we respected one another in that way, so those of you who have a good position in our Black Communities today, don’t abuse it, use it with respect towards better tomorrow for all our children… (page 28)

In 1932, Dr Thomas L Bancroft defined Palm Island as ‘the Black–fellows Graveyard’, reporting conditions of ‘filthiness and squalor’ and a ‘great mortality’ amongst residents].

Norman Tindale Visit

Norman Tindale , an anthropologist and entomologist who created the first Aboriginal Australian Map (1940 Version) a Catalogue of Aboriginal Australian Tribes, housed as AA 388 Dr Norman Tindale in the South Australian Museum

In the late 1980s the State Library of Queensland were permitted to hold the Queensland and relevant New South Wales genealogical and photographic components of the Norman Tindale Collection (State Library)

Palm Island in 1938 where he recorded 245 genealogies and took 304 portrait photographs.

Norman Tindale also collected information on where people from Palm Island had originated from and as you can see they were from a majority of locations in Queensland and Northern Territory.

Image showing the different dancing groups of Palm Island

The State Library of Queensland can provide access to this collection and you can check for family member surnames via the State Library of Queensland One Search Library catalogue.

World War 2 – Black Cat Squadron

Throughout World War II, ‘Palm Island became the site for the Black Cat Squadron which flew Catalina flying boats on long range missions’. In 1943], a maintenance facility had been constructed near Wallaby Point by the US Navy to allow the flying boats to be hauled up onto dry land for maintenance and repairs.

Images and more information is available at The Black Cat Pby’s and Palm Island Naval Air Station, Near Townsville Qld, During WW2

It is important to realise when researching this topic, that Palm Island is not a common search term as “Australia” and “Townville” by the American force.

The death rate on Palm Island was higher than the birth rate until well after World War II. The population only grew over time because of the large numbers of people removed to the Island.

Palm Island (Bwgcolman) Strike

In the 1950s the superintendent was Roy Bartlam. During his residency Palm Island people staged a strike against the harsh conditions imposed by Superintendent Bartlam  and demanded improvements to housing and rations as well as increased wages.

The residents also demanded that Bartlam leave the Island and he was forced to flee to his office and call for reinforcements from Townsville. Armed Police arrived by RAAF launch to put down the disturbance.  The ‘ringleaders’ and their families were rounded up and marched on board the launch at gun point before being deported in chains to other Aboriginal settlements.

Coakey Go has a Youtube interview with Mrs Magdalena Blackley and Dr Lynore Geia discuss the significance of the 1957 strike, the importance of knowing history, and the emotional healing ceremony of a symbolic burning of a bell, signifying release from forces of control and oppression.

Stolen Wages

One of the first video portraying this problem was “Lousy little Sixpence” (1983), which I am proud to say my Uncles Gerry and Lester were producers along with Alec Morgan. You can view Lousy little Sixpence at SBS on Demand, but if you prefer not login into a program, this film is divided into subsections 1-4; 2-4 ; 3-4 & 4-4 on YouTube.

Seven Palm Island Elders lodged complaints with the then Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) in 1985, alleging that the government had unlawfully discriminated against them by failing to pay them award wages between 1975 and 1984 in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

In 1996, Bligh and Ors v State of Queensland [1996] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act [HREOCA] (the  Palm Island wages case  ) found that six of the complainants had been discriminated against by the State of Queensland. An inquiry conducted by Commissioner Bill Carter found that the government had “intentionally, deliberately and knowingly discriminated against the complainants” through payment of wages at less than award rates.  As this discrimination was found to be based on the race of the complainants, they should be compensated for their loss.

The Queensland Government initially refused to abide by Commissioner Carter’s recommendations and the complainants, with the assistance of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA), took their case to the Federal Court. The Queensland Government reconsidered its position after Justice Drummond recommended the parties pursue further mediation.

The Queensland Government published an apology expressing its ‘regret for the personal hurt suffered by each of the complainants as a result of the discrimination’. The 7 Palm Island Elders were each paid $7,000 in compensation as awarded by HREOC.

This action by the Palm Island Elders was the catalyst for the subsequent Queensland Government Underpayment of Award Wages process that compensated over 5500 Indigenous Queen slanders who had also been paid under-award wages.

Financial control and confiscation talks more about this subject.

Palm Island Hospital

Black Lives GOVERNMENT Lies – A better life? by Rosalind Kidd (2000) [pages 36]. Palm Island in 1973 the new houses still commonly held three families of up to eighteen people because even the subsidies rental were beyond the reach of most people. Homes commonly lacked fridges, the store routinely had no fresh food – fruit, vegetable, milk and bread were delivered to the island only twice a week and sold out within hours, with many missing out. It was store policy not to wrap perishables except for white staff,, who were not required to wait in line for service. Increasing numbers of underfed mothers and babies where registering in the risk category, with malnutrition trebling hospital admission for gastroenteritis and salmonella poisoning. The hospital was described as dirty, grossly under-ventilated and without washing facilities.

In 1975, in yet another fatal gastroenteritis epidemic, 75 percent of children outpatients at the island clinic were registered as severely underweight; those who were critically ill and transferred to the Townsville Hospital were described by the registrar as looking like ‘starving Biafrans’. The community chairman flew to Canberra to seek urgent funding and nursing assistance; the State government refused to condone it characterising such aid as an ‘intrusion [which] could prejudice efficiency’, and blamed the outbreak of illness on parents and council being unwilling to accept responsibility.

In the Mid-1970s, under department guidelines,the Palm Island Hospital was still serviced by medical trainees from Townsville Hospital operating on nine-week rosters. Endemic gastroenteritis was traced to debilitatingly high levels of salmonella and worm infestations, yet the worming control program had been cancelled in 1972 because no funding was available for staff. In the late 1970s the Department of Aboriginal and Island Affairs was still refusing to hand over control of community hospitals to the Health Department, a move which would have regularised funding and staffing. The sticking point was the matter of wages. On legal grounds the Health department refused to underpay Aboriginal nursing staff, and underpaying was the premise upon which the Aboriginal department ran its communities. Not until 1986 were the hospitals transferred.

Deaths in custody

Indigenous Death in Custody: Report Summary by Australian Human Rights Commission

Two deaths in custody have occurred on Palm Island in the recent past. The first was in 1961, when Henry Pitt died after being allegedly assaulted by a Palm Island policeman while in custody.

The second death occurred on 19 November 2004, when Mulrunji was found dead in a cell at the police station on Palm Island. A post-mortem examination showed that he had died from severe internal injuries . Following the release of the post-mortem examination results, there was rioting on Palm Island. In the aftermath of the riot, several people were charged with offences.

Two coronial inquests were held into the death of Mulrunji, before a police officer was tried for manslaughter and acquitted on 20 June 2007 .

In 2007 the Queensland Government tasked the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) with examining police relations in Queensland as a result of the events on Palm Island, which resulted in the CMC conducting an inquiry into police handling of the investigation of Mulrunji’s death.

In its 2010 report, the CMC noted that while police relations had improved, more work was needed. It recommended 51 actions across seven areas of focus.

On 30 March 1985, the Palm Island community elected 5 councillors to constitute an autonomous Palm Island Aboriginal Council established under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 (Qld).

Local Government & DOGIT

The Act conferred local government type powers and responsibilities upon Aboriginal councils for the first time. The council area, previously an Aboriginal reserve held by the Queensland Government, was transferred on 27 October 1986 to the trusteeship of the council under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT).

On 1 January 2005, under the Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004 (Qld) (the ‘CGA’), the Palm Island Aboriginal Council became the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council.

Bwgcolman Links