Cherbourg is an Aboriginal community in South East Queensland. It was established by Salvation Army member William Thompson in 1899. Barambah/Cherbourg was taken over as a Government Settlement in 1904. Under the “Aboriginal Protection Act” tribes from all over Queensland and New South Wales were moved here.
On the settlement, the government administration controlled almost every aspect of Aboriginal peoples’ lives; the language they spoke, what they ate, what they wore, where they went, for whom they worked and, in some cases, whom they would marry. Aboriginal people, removed to Cherbourg were either placed in dormitories or lived in camps. Large numbers of boys and girls, men and women were brought up away from families in the dormitories. Anyone breaking the strict laws were severely punished – locked up in jail or sent away to other reserves like Palm Island and Woorabinda.
Traditionally, Aboriginal people ate food they hunted and gathered from the land. They ate food like kangaroo, wallaby, porci (echidna) goanna, snake and fish as well as fruits from native trees, plant roots, seeds, berries and leaves. The government controlled every part of their lives even the food people ate. Small amounts of food were handed out from a shed. Tea, sugar, rice, salt, sago, tapioca, split peas, porridge, flour and meat, were given out in small amounts as rations. Today that same shed has been restored and is called the Ration Shed Museum and is a standing memorial to those days.
In 1968 Aboriginal people started to gain more freedom and rations ended in Cherbourg. In 1988 Cherbourg became a Deed of Grant in Trust Community (DOGIT) and in 1991 the first independent Cherbourg Council was elected. Today Cherbourg is a vibrant community with its own culture and identity. There are approximately 2000 Aboriginal people living there.
Cherbourg Historial Precinct
The idea for establishing a historic precinct grew out of the celebration of Cherbourg’s centenary in 2004. Sandra Morgan and her sister Lesley Williams were collecting items for an historic display when they discovered that the old ration shed at the bottom of the footy oval – still entact. They decided the building should be preserved and relocated back to the centre of the settlement and adapted as a museum.
The success of the project prompted several members of the community to consider the conservation of other historic buildings, specifically the office, boys dormitory and domestic science building. The group wanted to create a space where they could tell their stories, share their painful past and celebrate their survival.
- The Office (constructed 1926) was an important building used in the administration of the Settlement. This is where the superintendent worked. The office was where residents applied for permits to leave the settlement, obtain money from their savings account, post and received letters. The office was also a place most people were afraid to visit – it was a place where they were summoned and interviewed by the Superintendent. Punishments were given out regularly and could range from a few days in jail to being sent far away to other Aboriginal settlements. A daily roll call was conducted in front of the office where the Superintendent issued instructions and sent people out to work.
- The Boys’ Dormitory (constructed 1928) the dormitory system was an integral part of Cherbourg soon after it was established in 1901. The Barambah/Cherbourg reserve was regarded as more than just a dumping ground for displaced Aboriginal people but as a place for caring and ‘reforming’ Aboriginal children. Under the Reformatory Schools Act, ‘any child born of an Aboriginal or half caste mother’ was deemed to be a ‘neglected child’ and as such was liable to be sent to a reformatory or industrial school. (dormitory) Many boys and girls in Cherbourg were housed in dormitories. This contributed to the social deconstruction of Indigenous groups in Cherbourg. Today, there are a few remaining Elders in Cherbourg who survived those times and have stories to tell of those painful times.
- In the former Domestic Science Building (constructed 1940), Indigenous women were trained in domestic skills such as cooking and sewing. While demand existed, young women were used as a source of domestic labour in the outside community. Men and boys were contracted out for work. In this regard the Settlement served as a de facto labour depot.
- It was from the Ration Shed that those on the Settlement received rations, primarily flour, sugar and meat and at times rice, oatmeal and sago, in exchange for work undertaken within the Settlement.
The Ration Shed Museum is a not-for-profit venture controlled by The Cherbourg Historical Precinct Group. It is governed by a board of Cherbourg community members and its aim is to tell the story of the community’s history to the youth of Cherbourg and the world at large. It is also to create local employment and provide economic benefits to the community. All profits are re-invested in the growth of the Precinct Project and future community projects
The Cherbourg Cultural Heritage Precinct consists of the Ration Shed, old Superintendent’s office and the old boys’ dormitory. It is a multi faceted complex that engages both the past and the present. It is about understanding what happened in the past and understanding how the past has shaped the present.