Fitzroy Island Indigenous History

Fitzroy Island is a beautiful, scenic Great Barrier Reef Island.   It isn’t just another tourist destination and harbours a colourful history full of rich and treasured knowledge.

The island is traditionally home to the indigenous Aborigines of the area called the Gunggandji people, who populated the Yarrabah mission a few kilometres south of the island.

The Gunggandji people called this area ‘Koba’ (also known as ‘Gabar‘). The island’s name translates to ‘The Fist‘. The Gunggandji used Fitzroy Island to exile ringleaders who became restless or tried to start trouble within their newly established community.

Captain Cook led the first colonisation expedition in 1770, whereby Cook and his crew sailed between Fitzroy Island and the mainland to discover the hidden gem. After his successful voyage, Cook named the island after the third Duke of Grafton, Augustus FitzRoy.

Palmer River Gold Rush (Quarantine Station)

In 1873, the Palmer River in Queensland’s far north witnessed its most significant gold rush. Gold miners from all corners of the world flocked to Palmer River, creating a historical surge in activity. By 1877, the area boasted over 23,000 miners in search of gold.

Fitzroy Island assumed a vital role as a ‘quarantine station during this critical era.’ To curb the potential spread of illnesses among incoming miners, authorities enforced a mandatory 16-day quarantine period. Most Chinese immigrants who arrived in Australia during the Palmer River gold rush were specifically directed to Welcome Bay. Here, preparations for the imminent gold rush commenced promptly to accommodate the influx of eager prospectors.

World War II – 28 Radar Station

After the Palmer River gold rush collapsed, a new, expensive industry boomed among seafarers globally. During 1880–1889, the boom of the Béche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling industries brought in more workers globally from countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Japan. The industry paid its workers quite well due to its dangerous nature.

By this time, the Yarrabah Mission had formed its community government, which the indigenous community members ran. After the collapse of the Béche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and Pearling Industries, the indigenous people used Fitzroy Island to exile or banish ringleaders that were to cause issues amongst their small community. In 1905, the Yarrabah Mission secured a lease and sent 30 community members to reside in. The community members did not waste any time settling into their new homes.

Australia had quickly conformed and prepared itself for a possible invasion. As part of the preparation, the Army had built a No. 28 radar station to assist with monitoring all the shipping and air traffic approaching Cairns. he island’s inhabitants had constructed a total of eight buildings, including a church crafted from the coral found in the vicinity.

After the war concluded, the authorities swiftly evacuated all military personnel from the island. However, some structures, including the Morse-code Blinking Lighthouse, remained remnants of this historical period.

In addition to the army personnel stationed on the island, recruits were assigned the responsibility of operating and managing the Wireless Signal Station and the Morse-code Blinking Lighthouse. Approximately 100 servicemen were dispatched to the island for these crucial roles between 1942 and 1945.

Nonetheless, this settlement experienced a short existence, and authorities disbanded it in 1912. The outbreak of World War II in the Pacific played a significant role in the decision to close the settlement.

Lighthouse Keepers

In 1950, a significant event occurred on the island when the Head Lighthouse Keeper, M.V. Rooke, celebrated the first recorded wedding ever held on Fitzroy Island. Mr. Rooke cared for the island, including overseeing the lighthouse operation.

Mr. Rooke often faced challenges during his tenure, including conflicts with visitors engaging in unauthorised activities. These issues ranged from the unauthorised felling of planted trees and illegal hunting to the construction of holiday homes without proper authorisation.

Over time, qualified and experienced lighthouse keepers moved to the island to assist with the lighthouse operations. The lighthouse operated for 49 years, with just over 90 lighthouse keepers maintaining it. Eventually, the Morse-code Blinking Lighthouse was torn down due to old age, and a new one was built on Little Fitzroy between 1973-1992. Due to issues with the lighting not being bright enough, the new lighthouse was replaced with a small automated light that does the job as efficiently today as it did back then.

Fitzroy Island Today

Fitzroy Island has evolved significantly, shaping its current landscape and tourism sector. In a pivotal move, ten acres of the National Park were allocated for discussions about the island’s future in tourism. This initiative led to the construction of the first resort in 1977.

For forty years, Fitzroy Island has seen the emergence of four distinct resorts, with each new establishment replacing the previous one. Among these developments, the Fitzroy Island Resort opened its doors in 2010, has garnered widespread popularity and has become a thriving hub of activity on the island.