Somerset, Cape York

Somerset, Cape York

In 1864, the British and Queensland governments established the settlement of Somerset on the Cape York Peninsula. Named for Lord Somerset, first Lord of the Admiralty, Somerset was intended as a refuge and supply depot for passing ships, a base to establish a connection with Britain via the Torres Strait, and a counter to the presence of a French colony (including a naval station) on New Caledonia. John Jardine was appointed as its first Police Magistrate and Commissioner of Crown Lands. An early sketch of Somerset shows a government residence, a customs house, a police magistrate’s house, marines’ barracks, and a medical superintendent’s house.

Grave of Sana Solia, Wife of Frank Jardine, Somerset Beach, Cape York

In 1864 – 65, John’s sons Francis (Frank) Lascelles Jardine and Alexander (Alick) William Jardine mounted an expedition to drive cattle overland from Rockhampton to Cape York. Despite heavy losses, they were able to establish a cattle station close to Somerset. Cape York’s Jardine River was named in their honour and they were made fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1867, Frank succeeded John as magistrate. The actions of the Jardine brothers also had a darker legacy, as conflict between the expedition’s members and the region’s Indigenous population resulted in a significant Indigenous death toll. In the following thirty years, Cape York’s Indigenous population, which had numbered approximately 3000, was reduced to 300 by a combination of frontier violence, disease, and hunger.

Between 1864 and 1876, Somerset served as a regional centre. Afterwards, its importance rapidly faded, with government functions being transferred to a new settlement on Thursday Island, which also absorbed its role as a port. Nevertheless, Frank remained, and the Jardine family continued to aid seafarers. From the 1870s, Somerset was closely associated with the Torres Strait pearling industry. In addition to pearling, Frank kept beef cattle and founded a coconut planation. In 1873, he married a high-ranking Samoan woman named Sana Solia Sofala, with whom he had four children (Alice Maule Lascelles, Hew Cholmondeley, Bootle Arthur Lascelles, and Elizabeth Sana Hamilton). Succumbing to leprosy in 1919, Frank was buried at Somerset.

Today, only traces of Somerset remain. In 2018, the Somerset Graves Site (in use 1890 – 1962) was added to the Queensland Heritage Register. Its eight graves include those of Frank and three other members of the Jardine family.


  1. J. Farnfield. “Shipwrecks and Pearl Shells: Somerset, Cape York, 1864 – 1877.” In Lectures on North Queensland History: Second Series, edited by B. J. Dalton, 66 – 76. Townsville: James Cook University, 1975.
  2. Margaret Lawrie. “John Jardine and Somerset.” Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 14, no. 8 (1991): 318 – 336.
  3. Steve Mullins. “The Pioneer Legend of Frank Jardine.” PhD diss., Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education, 1982.
  4. Queensland Government. “Jardine River National Park, Heathlands Resources Reserve and Jardine River Resources Reserve: Nature, Culture and History.” 18th January 2019.
  5. Queensland Government. “Somerset Graves Site.” Queensland Heritage Register, 20th January 2016.
  6. Brian Randall. “Queensland Places – Cape York – Early Exploration.” SLQ Blogs, John Oxley Library. 19th June 2013.


From the Archives: Maroochy Air Crash

From the Archives: Maroochy Air Crash

On the morning of the 30th December 1950, a CAC Wirraway (a small Australian-made military aircraft) was conducting a shark patrol at Maroochydore. While this activity was routine, it was 27-year-old pilot Flight Lieutenant Hebert Thwaite’s first patrol. At 11:10 a.m., the plane banked severely before plummeting and crashing into the beach in front of the Maroochydore Surf Life Saving Club. Thwaite and his observer survived but, as it was the Christmas holidays, the beach was crowded with 800 people. Three of those people did not survive. The victims were all children – Graham Blair (6), Pauline Probert (6), and Liam O’Connor (11). Fourteen others suffered significant injuries, with one woman losing a foot. Following the crash, two inquiries determined that there had been no negligence on the part of the pilot. According to Thwaite’s account, he had seen a shark heading towards some swimmers and had flown lower to direct lifesavers. The findings of the first two inquiries were overturned in 2013, when the Queensland Coroner declared that there was sufficient evidence to establish ‘that the pilot committed an error of judgement’. It is likely that the plane was flying low over the crowd in contradiction of safety regulations. The crew had never been specifically trained for surf patrols. The statement about the shark is disputed, with lifesavers stating that they did not see a shark or any signals from the plane. The plane itself may have contributed, as the Wirraway was susceptible to stalling, if it made a steep turn at low speed. In 2013, a memorial was erected at the site of the crash.






From the Archives: Early Banana Growing in North Queensland

From the Archives: Early Banana Growing in North Queensland

Bananas are Australia’s largest horticultural industry and its bestselling supermarket item. Over ninety percent of Australia’s banana crop is produced in North Queensland. Banana plants were introduced to Australia in the early to mid-nineteenth century, with the first recorded cultivation taking place in Western Australia. At this point, Australia did not produce a commercial crop, with bananas intended for sale being imported from Fiji.

Banana plants were probably first introduced to North Queensland in the 1870s by Chinese immigrants and Polynesians employed in the sugar industry. During the 1880s, Chinese immigrants began to cultivate fruit crops (including bananas) in the areas around Port Douglas, Cooktown, Cairns, and Innisfail. They became not only a regional success but a national one, with the Chinese community remaining the dominant force in Australia’s banana trade (both cultivation and importation) until the 1930s.

‘Banana Junk’ – small boat laden with bananas, possibly in Johnstone River

The reasons for the Chinese community’s decline in influence after this point were multi-faceted, although discriminatory policies played a significant role. Shortly after federation, the Commonwealth Government passed the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), limiting ‘non-white’ immigration. Serving as the basis for the White Australia Policy, it particularly targeted Asian (especially Chinese) immigrants. Allowing immigration officers to administer a dictation test to prospective migrants in any European language (or, after 1905, any prescribed language), it facilitated indirect exclusion on racial grounds. The Queensland government also introduced legislation restricting the participation of non-European individuals in banana and sugarcane cultivation. In the tradition of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), Queensland’s Banana Industry Preservation Act (1921) required ‘coloured’ labourers to pass a dictation test.

Innisfail and Tully and District – Boats with Loads of Produce

North Queensland’s banana industry was also impacted by the return of older banana growers to China, a shift towards sugarcane cultivation among younger growers, and the difficulties posed by a combination of fruit fly contamination, cyclones, competition from Fijian imports, and transportation difficulties. The First World War had an especially devastating impact, with wartime shipping restrictions coinciding with disease outbreaks. The twentieth century was also defined by constant efforts to control the spread of bunchy top disease, an incurable viral infection, which prevents banana plants from producing fruit. (Thankfully, bunchy top has been prevented from gaining a foothold in North Queensland.) Nevertheless, banana growing only came back into its own in North Queensland following the Second World War.




  1. Andrea Crothers. “We’re Facing a Future Without Our Favourite Banana.” SBS, 7th April 2016.
  2. Australian Banana Grower’s Council. “History of Bananas.” 2019.
  3. Department of Health and Aging. “The Biology of Musa (banana): Version 1: January 2008.” 2008.$FILE/biologybanana.pdf.
  4. National Archives of Australia. “Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Commonly Known as the White Australia Policy).” 2019.
  5. Kevin Rains. “The Chinese Question.” Queensland Historical Atlas: Histories, Cultures, Landscapes, 29th September 2010.
  6. La Trobe University, “Asian Studies Program: Chinese Australia: Chinese and the Banana Industry.” 2004.
  7. Anne Vézina. “Australia’s Hundred Years War on Bunchy Top.” ProMusa, 9th April 2013.
From The Archives: Boulia

From The Archives: Boulia

The town of Boulia was founded in 1879 near a waterhole on the Burke River. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Boulia gradually acquired stores, hotels, blacksmiths, a sawmill, a cordial factory, a post office, and a telegraph link to Cloncurry. In 1887, the local government Division of Boulia was founded, with the Shire of Boulia following in 1902. After blocks from local pastoral stations were made available for selection in 1915, a significant number of settlers moved to the area, outlasting harsh weather and the predatory actions of large pastoral companies to establish an enduring presence. The former proved especially challenging. Boulia is prone to both droughts and floods, having only recently been affected by the widespread flooding across northern Queensland earlier this year. Today, Boulia is most famous for its annual camel races and for sightings of the Min Min light – a mysterious and controversial form of light phenomena reported in the Australian outback. It is described as a floating ball of light, which can take different colours, (generally blue, yellow, or white). According to witness accounts and local folklore, it hovers over the horizon and can stalk individuals, keep pace with cars, or cause travellers to become disorientated. There have been numerous explanations for the Min Min light. According to an Indigenous tradition from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, they are the spirits of ancestors. Proposed scientific explanations include that they are a mirage caused by natural gases or the collision of hot and cold air or that they are bioluminescent birds or insects. They have a long-standing association with the town of Boulia, taking their name from a settlement between Boulia and Winton where a mysterious light was apparently observed by a stockman in 1918. Boulia has made the most of this association.  The first Min Min light festival was held in 1976, establishing tourism as providing a potential future for Boulia. In 2000, the town opened The Min Min Encounter Centre, which includes an audio-visual experience in which visitors can learn about both the Min Min light and outback Queensland.



  1. Howard Pearce, Kay Cohen, and Margaret Cook, Heritage Trails of the Queensland Outback: An Illustrated Heritage Guide to Western Queensland (Brisbane: State of Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).
  2. Molly Hunt, “Min Min Lights: Is There a Scientific Explanation for the Mysterious Phenomenon?” ABC News 30th, 2018 (
From The Archives: Torres Strait Island Drummer

From The Archives: Torres Strait Island Drummer

Traditional Torres Strait Islander art and craftsmanship have been passed down from generation to generation, and remain a key part of today’s cultural practices. These skills continue to be taught, and processes and tools are adapting to suit the changing social  environment. The drum plays an important part in social, cultural and political events in Torres Strait Islander life.

There were two types of drums – one, like this, which could be played while being carried; the other which was placed and played on the ground. The wooden drum being carried and played by this Torres Strait Islander has an animal carving (of an eel or a barracuda) which is probably his totem. Each clan’s totem was protected and never hunted by its members – a way of ensuring survival of the species. Torres Strait Islander drums were decorated with shells which rattled when the drum was being beaten.