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Telling the Cairns story: Timothy Bottoms' magnum opus

Townsville may have celebrated the 150th anniversary of its establishment in 2016 but, when it comes to documenting the city’s history, it seems Cairns – still 7 years short of that milestone in 2026 – has stolen a march on its southern rival. Timothy Bottoms’ “Cairns: City of the South Pacific” is as impressive in its range and depth as in the weight of its 600 pages. Its ten chapters cover the story of a city which, in the author’s words, transformed itself “from a boisterous, hard-drinking frontier port … to an international tourist destination.”

Moreover, while Bottoms’ history concludes in 1995 (the book is based on his 2003 PhD research), he pays due reference and respect to a far older history: a time when the region was simply the Bulmba (or homeland) of the Bama rainforest people, and the emerging city was not even a tiny outpost on a remote shore. His opening chapter, with its title “Not a virgin land” (a clear challenge to the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’), employs an unusual device in a historical work: the blending of actual events and recorded observations with imagined, fictional scenes in which the Bama watch the passage of Cook’s mysterious vessel and have their earliest encounters with Europeans. This bold start is made all the more authentic by the author’s extensive research and earlier writings on the culture and history of the Djabugay-Yidiny peoples. It ensures readers will hold the images of that unwritten history in their minds as they follow the remarkable changes in land and people that are recounted in the following chapters.
Cairns harbour, early 1900s. James Cook University Library Special Collections, NQID 3880.

And it is a recounting which has won accolades from fellow historians and writers. “Impeccably researched and written with an appealing narrative verve” says Henry Reynolds. “A great piece of history – at once local and national,” writes Nicholas Rothwell. And for the former City Councillor and State MLA, Rob Pyne, who probably knows today’s Cairns better than most, the book is a “rare beast”, providing both high academic standards and “a bloody good read.” In the light of such praise, it is perhaps churlish to point out that 24 years have already passed since Timothy Bottoms’ history came to an end. We must hope that he, or others, will continue to tell the Cairns story as the city evolves during the 21st century.
The first train to reach Cairns from the south, crosses the North Johnstone River, 1924. James Cook University Library Special Collections, NQ ID 8985.

But the challenge remains for Cairns’ older sister. Parts of Townsville’s story have been well told over the years by a variety of writers. In particular, the decades of work by local historian Dorothy Gibson-Wilde deserve widespread recognition as does Helga Griffin’s coverage of our first 20 years in “Frontier Town” (2014) and the collage of people, places, events and development compiled by Trisha Fielding in “Queen City of the North” (2016).

Yet while we have histories of the port, the university, the chamber of commerce; of schools, churches, pubs; of community groups, football teams, suburbs and even individual streets, the city still waits for its first comprehensive biographer. Will someone step up to this task, preferably long before we reach the bicentennial?

Bottoms, Timothy. Cairns: city of the South Pacific: a history 1770-1995
Fielding, Trisha. Queen city of the north: a history of Townsville
Gibson-Wilde, Dorothy. Gateway to a golden land: Townsville to 1884
Griffin, Helga. Frontier town: a history of early Townsville and hinterland 1864-1884

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