50 Treasures: Percy Trezise's Diaries

Our thirty-eighth treasure records the hard work and perseverance of a man who was dedicated to the protection of indigenous rock art in north Queensland. From the Library Archives comes the Percy Trezise diaries, PT/1/1a, PT/1/1b and PT/1/2.

Patricia Fagan answers the question "why is this significant?"

For the Trezise family, the dry seasons of the 1960s and ‘70s were marked by Percy’s frequent absences on long bush trips in remote Cape York Peninsula searching for rock art. Three of these trips are documented in the notebook diaries chosen from among the manuscripts, published memoirs, children’s books and paintings that form Percy’s archives and reflect his contribution to the environment, his locating and documentation of the rock art of north Queensland, and his support for the aspirations of Aboriginal people.

The 1968-69 diaries of Percy Trezise from the Percy Trezise Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

Percy was a remarkable character: a conservationist, bushman, aviator, author, artist and advocate for Aboriginal art and culture. As a boy in rural Victoria, he won a high school prize of H.H. Finlayson’s The Red Centre, kindling an early interest in Aboriginal Australians. Then, as a young man, a work trip flying in the north of Western Australia introduced him to winter in the tropics. So, in 1956, when the opportunity arose, he accepted a transfer with Ansett airlines and moved to Cairns with his young family.

Captain Percy Trezise at the controls. Image courtesy of the Trezise family.

In 1960, when roadworkers accidentally came across the art at Split Rock near Laura, 250 kilometres north-west of Cairns, Percy recognised its significance. He began using his routine flights to conduct aerial surveys of the remote sandstone region around Laura (Quinkan Country) to identify further potential rock art sites. Then, he mounted bush expeditions to locate these seemingly inaccessible places on foot. 

(L to R) Matthew Trezise, Percy Trezise, Dr Andrew Martin and Stephen Trezise out bush. PT-2-29-31, Percy Trezise Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photographer Peter Martin.

Percy quickly confirmed that the Split Rock art belonged to a much wider body of work that represented a significant rock art heritage. At the same time, he realised it was in danger and would soon be lost with ‘development’ and the passing of the last Aboriginal generation with a lived connection to the cultural tradition and way of life that produced it. So, with the help of noted Mornington Island artist and close friend Goobalathaldin (Dick Roughsey), he befriended the few remaining initiated men in the region and together they went bush, again and again.

Percy Trezise and Eddie Oriban at Yam Camp. PT-2-29-31, Percy Trezise Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photographer unknown.

Recording rock art. PT-2-2, Percy Trezise Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photographer unknown.
Once a gallery was found, they explored the area to understand its purpose and context, and then painstakingly developed precise, scaled high quality tracings of the art. In the early years, Percy transferred some of these onto canvas creating spectacular painted reproductions. He lodged this work with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS) in Canberra for safe keeping. Over ensuing decades, Percy attracted significant academic interest and resources to the pursuit, documentation and dating of Quinkan Country rock art. Despite being self-taught, he generously facilitated the careers of young archaeologists and rock art specialists providing access, logistics, general support – and encouragement. 
Percy Trezise's diaries from the Percy Trezise Archive, JCU Library Special Collections. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

The diaries provide a vivid record of typical dry season bush expeditions. The Aboriginal men who camped with Percy and Goobalathaldin explained that the rock art are Stories that relate to ancestral beliefs, Storytime, and the beginning of time. In his bid to preserve these Stories for contemporary Australia, Percy produced a series of more than 25 children’s books, illustrated by himself and Goobalathaldin initially, and later, by Mary Haginikitas. He published three books describing the bush expeditions (Quinkan Country, 1969; Last Days of a Wilderness, 1973; Dream Road, 1993) as well as a 1971 academic work called Rock Art of South-East Cape York Peninsula described as a “seminal work in Australian rock-art studies”. 

Percy Trezise and Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey with a scaled rock art reproduction. Image courtesy of the Trezise family.
In addition to purchasing significant areas of Quinkan country, firstly with his conservationist friend Wally O’Grady (at Jowalbinna), and later at Deighton, he fought to protect the rock art from mining. They succeeded in getting large areas listed on the Register of the National Estate, but the Queensland Government resisted their effort to create a National Park. It was only in 2018 that an application for National Heritage listing of a significant proportion of Quinkan Country was finally successful, for the first time providing a measure of genuine protection.

Percy fought other conservation battles, too. He feared the consequences of unfettered development on the country and its people. With Wally O’Grady and others, he established the Cape York Conservation Council and hosted the second World Wilderness Congress, held in Cairns, in June 1980. He and Wally are considered primarily responsible for winning the critical battle to save the remaining hillsides of Cairns from logging and preventing the development of a wood-chip industry with Cairns as its centre.

Percy was a man of many talents who lived a full life and approached every project with a determined enthusiasm. He had vision ahead of his time and was not afraid of controversy. He respected Aboriginal people and culture, and loved the Queensland bush, his dog (called Dog) and his dingo, Laska. He was generous to a fault with his time and did not value material acquisition for itself. In 1996, he was awarded an Order of Australia for contributions to aviation, art, writing and Australian studies, and in 2004 James Cook University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Letters for his contributions to conservation, rock art research and north Queensland studies.

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. 

Author Biography
Patricia Fagan was a medical practitioner and public health physician working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in urban and remote NSW and Queensland for most of her professional life. She had a particular interest in women's health and sexual and reproductive health issues. She also worked as a policy adviser in Canberra for some years and more recently had a part time appointment with James Cook University's medical school. She is now retired, lives on the northern beaches of Cairns and does part time voluntary work for the Cairns Historical Society.


peterm_aus said…
"friend" as in photo of Percy with two sons is (Dr) Andrew Martin, my brother.

I took the photo and supplied it and a few others to Percy for use in the book.
I had earlier gone with a TV crew to film the Giant Horse gallery, when, on Percy's instructions, Xavier Herbert had explored the area and reported seeing the Quinkan shelters.

(Andrew and I went back to Quinkan gallery to help with recording of the site after the "Quinkan Country" program was shown.)

-Peter Martin (Producer/Reporter "Seven Days" ATN-7)
Sharon B said…
Thanks, Peter - We'll update the details for the photo in this post!