The town of Surat is a small, close-knit community, on the Balonne River. The river connects past and present: it is an important part of life in Surat today, it was the site of segregated Aboriginal camps during much of the twentieth century, and, long before European colonization, it was home to many Aboriginal people. The Combarngo, Manns and Hazzard families, part of the Mandandanji people who are the Traditional Owners of the land all around Surat, lived on the north side of the river. Other families, including the Mundy and Cleven families, lived on the south side. Their camps consisted of humpies and tents, and here the families raised their children, sent them to school in town, and went out to work on rural properties, in industrial jobs or as domestics in non-Aboriginal households. After the 1967 national referendum which allowed the Commonwealth to legislate for Aboriginal people, Queensland’s oppressive laws and controls over Aboriginal people ended and the families on both sides of the river were eventually relocated to town. However the families have ensured that the memory of their life in the camps will survive, through artefacts and storyboards accessible by visitors (Combarngo Camp, Mundy / Cleven Camp).
A number of landmarks in the town of Surat mark spaces where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have shared joyous memories. The Shire Hall is one of a few grand timber buildings in the town. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people enjoyed an almost never-ending schedule of balls through the year, with a ball marking almost every seasonal event. There were balls for the agricultural show, the end of football season, harvests, shearers’ ball, and many others; there barely had to be an excuse for people to buy a new outfit and go dancing. Just around the corner from the Hall is the Astor picture theatre. Built as an open air theatre in 1925, it was roofed in 1950s and is recognised as a significant intact example of early picture theatres in Australia. For the people of Surat it was a social highlight and a place where Aboriginal people were welcome and included. Friendships were also forged between black and white at social and sporting events and in the small local school that everyone attended.
While these are remarkable stories of a shared community, the heritage sites of Surat point to past divisions under severe government policies of segregation and assimilation. Excluded from living in town, Aboriginal people lived in improvised housing, tents and tin shacks and humpies. Without running water or power Aboriginal people carted water and firewood for basic necessities. Despite these impoverished conditions, Aboriginal women and men worked as labourers and domestics on stations, in homes and businesses, and raised their children in strong families. Many local Aboriginal people were integral to the local sporting teams and achieve recognition for their sporting prowess.
Following the 1967 Referendum Aboriginal families were able to move into the town. The remains of the camps were eventually left to decay or bulldozed to erase this shameful history of discrimination. But for local Aboriginal people these sites are an important testament to what they have endured and survived. The camps are a source of pride in family and shared memories. On the northeastern edge of town are the restored remains of the Combarngo Camp. This outdoor display provides some history of the four Combarngo brothers, descendants of the local Traditional Owners, who remained living together at this site right up until 1990.
On the opposite side of the River, to the east of the town centre, is an interpretive display and a replica of a humpy. This marks the site of the main camp where many other Aboriginal people lived. It includes information panels that pay tribute to some of the people who lived there, including the Mundy and Cleven families who today remain central to the vibrant social heart of Surat.
The history of exclusion and controls imposed on every aspect of Aboriginal lives is glimpsed through the interpretive panels at both campsites. And while much of the physical evidence has been removed, a sharp eye can pick out broken fragments of the past in the long grass, indicating the homes where Aboriginal people once lived. Intermingled with these recent historical remains, is older evidence of the Aboriginal people who lived and camped along the river. At the free public camping area near the bridge is a memorial plaque to Nellie Dungli Edwards, a larger than life character who served as midwife to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. Her memorial is fittingly placed at the site of a former Aboriginal birthing tree.
Visiting the former camp sites, the birthing tree site and the other interpretive signage along the river gives us insight into the significance of Aboriginal history, and survival, for the town of Surat as it is today.
Balonne River, Surat
Restored remains of the Combarngo Camp, Surat