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Palm Island
Palm Islands context map en.png
Palm Islands group, showing Townsville to the south
Population 2,455 (2016 census)(Great Palm)
Postcode(s) 4816
Time zone UTC+10 (UTC)
Location 65 km (40 mi) NW (approx.) of Townsville
  • Aboriginal Shire of Palm Island
  • Shire of Hinchinbrook
State electorate(s) Townsville
Federal Division(s) Herbert

Palm Island is a locality consisting of an island group of 16 islands, split between the Shire of Hinchinbrook and the Aboriginal Shire of Palm Island, in Queensland, Australia. The locality coincides with the geographical entity known as the Palm Island group, also known as the Greater Palm group, originally named the Palm Isles.

However, the term "Palm Island" is most often used to refer to the main island, Great Palm Island, the largest island in the group and the only one with a significant population of permanent residents, most of whom are Aboriginal. The island is also known by the name "Bwgcolman", meaning "one people from many groups", derived from an Aboriginal language of one of the earliest groups of Aboriginal people removed from the mainland and settled there from 1918 onwards, during its use as an Aboriginal reserve.

The term "Palm Island" is sometimes used to refer to the island group, sometimes the Aboriginal Shire, and sometimes Great Palm Island, but as most of the other islands are uninhabited, the majority of sources are actually referring to Great Palm only, or to the Aboriginal Shire Council.

Orpheus Island has a tourist resort and research facility, and is the only one with a well-developed tourist industry.


View of Palm Island from wallaby point
View of Palm Island from Wallaby Point


In Manbarra folklore the Palm Island group were formed in the Dreamtime from the broken up fragments of an ancestral spirit, Rainbow Serpent.

The island was named by explorer James Cook in 1770 as he sailed up the eastern coast of Australia on his first voyage. It is estimated that the population of the island at the time of Cook's visit was about 200 Manbarra people. Cook sent some of his men to Palm Island and 'they returned on board having met with nothing worth observing.'

From the 1850s locals were recruitment targets to leave the island to be involved with bêche-de-mer and pearling enterprises with Europeans and Japanese.

By the end of the 19th century the population had been reduced to about 50. In 1909 the Chief Protector of Aborigines visited the Island, apparently to check on the activities of Japanese pearling crews in the area, and reported the existence of a small camp of Aborigines.

In 1916 Queensland's Chief Protector of Aborigines found Palm Island to be "the ideal place for a delightful holiday' and that its remoteness also made it suitable for use as a penitentiary" for "individuals we desire to punish".

"Penal settlement" 1920s–60s

Palm Island, North-east bay
Palm Island, North-east bay

In 1914 the Government established an Aboriginal settlement on the Hull River near Mission Beach on the Australian mainland. On 10 March 1918, the structures were destroyed by a cyclone and were never rebuilt. Subsequently, the settlement relocated to Palm Island with the new population referred to as the Bwgcolman people. In the first two decades of its establishment the population of Indigenous inmates increased from 200 to 1,630. People from at least 57 different language speaking regions throughout Queensland were relocated to Palm.

By the early 1920s, Palm Island had become the largest of the Government Aboriginal settlements. Administrators found its location attractive as Aboriginal people could be isolated, but Palm Island quickly gained a reputation amongst Aborigines as a penal settlement. New arrivals came after being sentenced by a court, or released from prison, or were sent by administrators of other missions wishing to weed out their more ill-mannered or disruptive Aboriginals. These removals to the Palm Island Mission continued until the late 1960s.

On arrival, children were separated from their parents and then segregated by gender. Aborigines were forbidden to speak their language and from going into "white" zones. Every day activity was highly controlled by administrators including nightly curfews and the vetting of mail.

In the 1930s a local doctor highlighted malnutrition on the island, and demanded that the Government triple rations for the islanders and that children be provided with fruit juice, but the request was denied.

Locals playing cricket with the bell tower in the background (1996)

A bell tower was built to dictate the running of the mission. It would ring each morning at eight; a signal for everyone to line up for parade in the mission square. Those who failed to line up had their food allocation cut. At nine each evening the bell would ring again signalling the shutting down of the island's electricity. The bell tower still stands in the local square to this day, a relic of Palm's history.

In 1926 a hospital was built at nearby Fantome Island. In 1936 Fantome Island became a medical clearing station where people sent to Palm Island were examined and treated if necessary. A leprosarium was established on Fantome in 1939. After World War II the hospital was closed, and by 1965 only the leprosarium remained on Fantome, it was administered by a Roman Catholic nursing order until 1973 when the inhabitants were moved to Palm Island.

The administrators had complete and unaccountable control over the lives of residents, punishments included the shaving of the girls' heads. On a surprise inspection of the Palm Island Prison during an official visit in the late 1960s, Senator Jim Keeffe and academic Henry Reynolds discovered two 12- to 13‑year‑old schoolgirls incarcerated in the settlement's prison by the senior administrator on the island (the superintendent), because "they swore at the teacher".

Path to self governance 1986 – present

On 26 October 1986 ownership of the island was transferred to a newly formed Palm Island Community Council under a Deed of Grant in Trust from the Queensland government.

Self-appointed "president" of Palm Island, Jeremy Geia, symbolically declared independence from Australia in 2001. The "Peoples Democratic Republic of Palm Island" was an expression of grievances against the Australian and Queensland Governments for neglect of Palm Islanders.

In 2001 The Palm Island State Emergency Services Cadet Group was formed.

The Palm Island Community Council became the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council in 2004 under the Queensland Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act. Like the other Aboriginal Shire Councils that were created, this Act gave the Council full status as a Local Government on a par with other Councils in Queensland.

Notable events

World War 2 use as a Catalina airbase

In July 1943 the US Navy built a Naval Air Station at Palm Island, with facilities to operate and overhaul Catalina flying boats and patrol boats. The air station was built at Wallaby point, an isolated area of Palm Island, overlooking a large stretch of sheltered water in Challenger Bay, which was ideal for flying boat operations. The station was built by two officers and 122 enlisted men of Company C of the 55th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabee) that arrived 6 July 1943, and a similar detachment that left Brisbane later with 1,500 tons of construction material.

A 1,000 man camp was constructed at the point. Concrete flying boat ramps to the ocean were built with a tarmac parking area for up to 12 flying boats. Moorings for 18 flying boats were provided in Challenger Bay, and 3 nose hangars were also built. Coral aggregate from coral reefs at low tide was used to manufacture concrete.

A series of fuel tanks were constructed to hold 60,000 barrels of aviation fuel. Steel rail lines were installed to launch the PBY Catalinas back into the water.

By September 1943 the majority of the facilities were finished, and large numbers of operational and maintenance personnel began to arrive to commission the station. The Palm Island US Naval Air Station was fully operational from 25 October 1943, and could repair an average of four aircraft per day. The last personnel of the 55th Seabees left Palm Island on 8 November 1943.

US Navy Patrol Squadron 101, Patrol Wing 10, with 8 PBY Catalinas as briefly stationed at Palm Island in December 1943, before relocating to Perth.

US Navy Patrol Squadron VP-11 arrived at the station in late December 1943 where they were taken off combat duties. The squadron comprised 13 PBY-5 Catalinas, 46 officers and 99 enlisted men. They carried out training and routine flights between Port Moresby, Samarai and Brisbane. They were assigned to Fleet Air Wing 17 while at Palm Island, and left in February 1944.

The Naval Air Station closed in May 1944. On 18 June 1944 one hundred seventy seven men and four officers of Company B, 91st Naval Construction Battalion (Seabee), arrived from Milne Bay to dismantle station's buildings and facilities, removeing and crating over 5,000 tons of materials and equipment and loading it aboard ship before departing 31 August 1944 and their return to Brisbane.

The remains of the steel rails and submerged wrecks of a number of Catalinas can still be seen today. Live ammunition is occasionally found by locals.

1957 Strike

Veiw of nearby islands from mount bently, Palm Island
View of nearby islands from Mount Bently, Palm Island

All Islanders were required to work 30 hours each week, and up until the 1960s no wages were paid for this work. The catalyst for the strike was the attempted deportation of Indigenous inmate Albie Geia who committed the offence of disobeying the European overseer. The strike continued for five days and was broken with dawn raids to remove the families involved by boat to the mainland.

Seven families were banished from the Palm Island in 1957 for taking part in a strike organised to protest against the Dickensian working conditions imposed by the Queensland Government under the reserve system. Athlete Cathy Freeman's mother, Cecilia Barber, and the family of strike ringleader Frederick William Doolan including Billy Doolan Jnr. were among those banished from the island.

In a 2007 commemorative ceremony the Queensland Government apologised to the surviving wives of two of the strikers for the actions of the Government in the 1950s.

Kukamunburra remains returned

A burial site and headstone is located in the "Mission" area of Palm Island. It tells the story of a young Palm Island man of the 19th Century called Kukamunburra who was renamed "Tambo" by a circus agent for the "Barnum, Bailey and Hutchinson's Greatest show on earth". He was toured along with eight other Murris, three of whom were from Hinchinbrook Island and five from Palm.

In 1884 Kukamunburra died at 21 years old of pneumonia in Cleveland, United States of America. The rest of the circus group carried on to the European leg of the tour; by the end of 1885 only three of the Murris were still alive.

Kukamunburra's body was embalmed; 109 years later, in 1993, the body was discovered in a local funeral parlour. His remains were returned to his homeland and buried on Palm Island in February 1994.

Compensation by Queensland Government for underpaid wages

Palm Island Swimming hole - 'Palm Valley'
Palm Island Swimming hole – 'Palm Valley'

In 1999 the Queensland Government apologised and gave $7,000 compensation each to former Indigenous Palm Islander employees in recompense for underpaid wages between 1975 and 1986. The payment was ordered by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in a case first brought to the Commission by seven Palm Islanders in 1986.

Legal action in relation to pearl farming

Fantome and Orpheus Islands taken from Palm Island
Fantome Island and Orpheus Islands seen from Palm Island

Zen Pearls Pty Ltd and Indian Pacific Pearls Pty Ltd (both controlled by Michael Crimp) established pearl farms in 1998 with the permission of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (which controls the sea waters around the islands), despite the opposition of, at least some, of the people of Palm Island. On 24 September 1998 the Manbarra elders passed a resolution opposing the farms on the basis of;

"the historical and cultural significance of the Juno Bay site for both the Manbarra and Bwgcolman Peoples, the sense of trespass on traditional ownership rights, concerns that the cultural connection to the area would slip away and a strong feeling that the provision of a small number of employment opportunities offered by the pearling operations would not adequately compensate the damage to cultural values."

Subsequently, the Park Authority refused to extend the pearl farming permits and Crimp took action before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to have this decision reversed. On 15 March 2004 the Tribunal agreed that the permits should be terminated but allowed the existing pearling operations to continue to 1 December 2005. This decision was substantially upheld by the Federal Court on 21 October 2004.


At the 2016 census, "Palm Island (Urban Centres and Localities)" had 2,298 residents, 94.1% of whom are of Indigenous origin. Of these, 75.2% were Australian Aboriginal, 12.8% Torres Strait Islander.

The Indigenous population generally identify with either the Bwgcolman (descendants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people removed to Palm Island from throughout Queensland by the authorities, or Manbarra (original inhabitants) people. As of 2007, the community consisted of approximately 42 Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander clan or family groups.

Compared with other parts of Australia, the Palm Island community is young, with 32.1% under 15 and only 3.3% over 64, and more religious. The most common responses for religion were Catholic 50.7%, Anglican 19.4%, Other Protestant 8.6%, Baptist 5.0% (total 83.7% Christian) and No Religion 7.9% (compared with 29.2% for Queensland).

92.2% of respondents reported speaking only English at home (compared with 81.2% for Queensland), the next most common being Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole) at 0.1%.

In 2016, 690 people were in the available workforce: of these, 38.0% were employed full-time, 28.8% were employed part-time and 29.6% were unemployed. The median weekly personal income for people aged 15 years and over was A$303 (compared with A$660 in Queensland). 93.8% of occupied private dwellings were rented. Level of education achieved was much lower than Queensland as a whole, with only a tiny number having any higher or further education.


Today's population are descendants of people taken to the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement from 1914 up to 1971. Estimates vary, but the number of tribal groups represented by the descendants (known as the Bwgcolman people is at least 43 and has been said to represent 57 different language groups. At least 5000 people were forcibly removed to the reserve from all over Queensland, the Torres Strait and Melanesian islands. The majority of the current population descend from peoples occupying the region between Bowen and Tully, from north-western Queensland, and from the Cape York Peninsula.

Culture and sport

Many residents consider that the introduction of Western culture and the subsequent Mission policies of prohibiting the expression of traditional cultural has seriously eroded the cultural base of Palm Island.

Amongst sporting activities on Palm Island boxing features prominently (both men's and women's) in 2006 11 young Palm Islanders represented Queensland at national boxing championships for the first time. The Barracudas are the local rugby league team, with Vern Daisy as a notable ex-player. In June 2005 the inaugural 3 on 3 Basketball competition was held, attracting over 300 locals.

Many of the sporting activities are actively supported by or managed through the Queensland Police Citizens Youth Welfare Association facility; the Palm Island Community and Youth Centre (PICYC). The Centre is used for the purpose of youth and community engagement through sport and education. Adults and youth use the facility heavily, including a gym for boxing training, facilities for; women's aerobics, ballroom dancing, Indoor Volleyball, 5 on 5 Indoor Soccer, Old-time Dancing, and a mix of conventional and traditional games.

The Centre is mostly staffed by community members who teach the younger generation both traditional and life skills such as weaving and cooking in a safe and comfortable environment. The Centre has an atmosphere of respect and traditional culture which tries to build children's confidence and self-esteem. Additionally to the sporting activities, the Centre hosts community growth projects, services and facilities such as a radio service (Bwgcolman Radio), an Internet Café, TAFE cooking classes, after-school and vacation care, monthly discos, drumming groups ($8,000 worth of drums donated by the Queensland Police), Family Movie Nights, and Bingo. The PICYC employs a paid staff of nine locals and one volunteer.


Sealink Queensland runs a ferry every day from Townsville to Great Palm Island each day of the week except Tuesday, with the journey taking around an hour and 15 minutes. There is also a daily ferry and barge from Lucinda. Palm Island Airport is on Great Palm Island and is operated by the shire council. Hinterland Aviation operates several flights on each weekday between 7am and 4:30pm, and Townsville Helicopters operates on-demand helicopter flights to and from Palm Island, also from Townsville Airport.

There is a daily scheduled helicopter flight from Townsville to the luxury resort on Orpheus Island and back, and private helicopter charter flights are available from Townsville, Cairns or other nearby facilities.

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