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50 Treasures: Under the Act

Our twenty-seventh treasure highlights the 63rd anniversary of the Palm Island Strike which took place on the 10th of June, 1957. From the North Queensland Collection comes Under the Act by Willie Thaiday.

Dr. Lynore Geia answers the question "why is this significant?"

Throughout the ages, history bears out evidence to men and women whose lives shaped the social fabric of their community and became change makers and history makers. While some deeds universally shaped the course of nations, other deeds on a smaller scale, yet no less significant, paved pathways for reformation.

Under the Act by Willie Thaiday
The small book you see here contains a story of history making, history makers and family. The author is Mr Willie Thaiday, whom I refer to as Athe, which means grandfather in the context of our shared cultural kinship. Athe Willie, along with Albie Geia, Bill Congoo, Eric Lymburner, Sonny Sibley, George Watson and Gordon Tapau, became activists for justice, in a time when Aboriginal lives were under total government control. Known on Palm Island as the Magnificent Seven, the men led a community strike for freedom 63 years ago in June 1957, leaving the footprints of their intellectual prowess and civil action in the dust of the community for us to read and follow.

Though it may appear to the reader’s eyes as insignificant, its pages hold a prominent part of the history of the Bwgcolman people of Palm Island, and recognised by government as an unprecedented landmark in Queensland’s Aboriginal history. Told from Athe Willie Thaiday’s lived experience, the book keeps true to his words in his description of an extraordinary few days when men felt ‘no fear’ and decided to ‘go for broke’ in their quest for justice.

Image from Under the Act, appears after Dedication page.
Athe Willie’s story ‘Under the Act’ (1) recounts the fight for fairness in the living conditions on Palm Island; it also tells the story of the cost of that fight to himself, his family, and the other seven men and their families. On a broader scale, this is the story of the Bwgcolman people of Palm Island and their collective resistance in the Strike of 1957 against government control. This story is also personal for me, as the niece of one of the Magnificent Seven: my uncle Albie Geia was my father’s eldest brother. The days of the strike and the following consequence saw a dramatic family turn for my father and his brothers, the bittersweet victory resulted in many years of physical separation for Uncle Albie and his brothers, Thomas and Esrom, and their respective families. Nevertheless, the tyranny of forced separation did not crush the love and connectedness we shared as a family then, or today. This was the same for the other six men and their families – though forcibly removed and transported to different communities, they remained resolute in family connectedness throughout the generations.

My favourite part of this story is Athe Willie’s recount of breaking out in a big island song in the boat. I have heard this story told many times, and just recently from Athe Willie’s children; Aunties Dulcie Issaro and Dallas Thaiday were teens in the boat with their father and mother. Now a grandmother, aunty Dulcie recalls her father standing tall, tethered to a pole in the boat, despite the rough waves spraying its salt water over all the men, women and children – Athe Willie’s strong stand cut a figure of strength and hope.

Image from Under the Act, appears opposite page 27.
 I can picture in my mind’s eye this imagery of the Magnificent Seven, riding the waves to freedom, though bound for punishment, their stand of dignity and resolve attest to their strength of the fight for what is right. Facing an unknown future, Bill Congoo is recorded as saying “I felt great … at least someone was taking notice, no fear” (Watson, 1993, p. 301). Nowadays, Palm Island commemorates Strike 57 annually, a pathway of freedom from the darkness of living under the ‘Act’ and government control of Aboriginal people. I commend the reader of this blog with the words of Athe Willie:

Soon as we pull out a bit I strike out a big song – island song about our home. The captain, fellow called Mr Whiting, hear us and say, “Who them boys? They can’t be going to prison in handcuffs. They seem so happy.” We sing like anything in the military patrol boat. It belong to air force in Townsville. The policemen are on top and machine gun is pointed down to us but while we are in front of machine gun we sing like anything. When we get on the boat it is nearly daylight. The walky talky is going all the time talking to people on shore, talking to people in Townsville. They ask him. “How them boys?” They say: “Nothing wrong. They singing like hell here” Mr Whiting can’t get over it. They wait to arrest us. They think we all wild fellows on boat but we happy fellows. (Thaiday, 1981, p. 36)  

Map of Palm Island, from Under the Act, appears before Contents page.
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

(1) Aborigines Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897, and its consecutive legislations.

Author Biography
Dr Lynore Geia is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman born and raised on Palm Island. A proud Bwgcolman, mother, grandmother, veteran nurse and midwife, Lynore’s personal and professional life is deep-rooted in faith, hope, love, fun and laughter in family and community. Encouraged at an early age by parents Tom and Betty Geia, Lynore developed an appreciation for reading, writing, thinking, and storytelling extending into a four decade health career encompassing practice, research, teaching in building ways forward in health and society. Lynore is the Academic Lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at James Cook University.

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