Palm Island: Through a long lens

By Joanne Watson Published by Aboriginal Studies Press , Canberra ACT 2601 2010 , 256pp , b/w illus , ISBN 9780855757038 , RRP $34.95

Reviewed by Judy Taylor

Spencer Gulf Rural Health School, Whyalla, South Australia

Palm Island is frequently in the news and most readers would be aware of the ongoing inquiries into the events surrounding the death of Mulrinji, a Palm Islander and a traditional Waanyi man. This book begins with a description of the situation on Palm Island in the summer of 2004/05 when the community exploded with the “spontaneous eruption of grief and anger over the shocking death in custody of the 36-year-old Mulrinji, less than one hour after his arrest on 19 November 2004 for a petty misdemeanour”. Immediately, the writing style captures readers. The events are portrayed with such intensity and clarity that the reader becomes immersed in them. This enables the book to be accessed by a wide audience – those who already have a background in Aboriginal affairs but also students, policy makers, and practitioners who have an interest in learning more about the ‘colonial determinants’ of Aboriginal health. This book provides a voice through which the full impact of the unbelievably shameful government ‘protection’ of Palm Islanders or the Bwgcolman (pronounced Bwook-a-mun and meaning Palm Island) can be understood over a 90-year period. This voice is now readily available in the public domain.

This very readable account presents the historical facts about time periods that align with the period in office of several superintendants of Palm Island. In so doing it makes use of historical records, court, and media reports and discussions with Palm Island people and their historical recollections. Palm Island superintendant Robert Curry, a returned serviceman, arrived at the new reserve of Palm Island in 1918 and exerted almost supreme control until he began a night of rampage in 1930. The atmosphere on Palm Island changed remarkably with the appointment of Roy Henry Bartlam as superintendant in 1953. His reign was marked by his obsession with control delivered largely by increasing the powers of the local police. Through these periods there is documentation of the tremendous commitment of Palm Islanders, against all odds, to self determination and to achieving their rights.

The book is based on the author's PhD thesis and was written with the support of a series of Palm Island Aboriginal Councils. The author's interest in the history of Palm Island dates back to her contact with Rachael Cummins when Rachael was at boarding school in Brisbane. Rachael, a Bwgcolman woman, and a former Deputy Chair of the Palm Island Aboriginal Council provided introductions to people willing to tell their story. These personal accounts provide an enlightening backdrop to the available historical records.

As Watson states –“Palm Island people have an extraordinary past. It is rich, staggeringly brave, stoic, humorous, tragic, and inspiring history to which these words can never do justice”. This history is a valuable addition to the literature about the colonial determinants of Aboriginal health. It makes the epidemiological information we have about Indigenous health ‘live’. More importantly, it demonstrates the strength of Aboriginal people's ‘fire in the belly’ to control their own future. We are left in no doubt that to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and to enable Palm Island to flourish and prosper we must provide health technical advice, resources, and funding in partnership with Bwgcolman. But more than that, we must do community health development in the Bwgcolman way.