In the seven years the Bogimbah Creek mission was open, more than 100 First Nations people perished from illness and malnutrition - the result of appalling living conditions.
Marissa Calligeros Brisbane Times/AAP 22 July 2014
High-tech radar equipment is being used to uncover a dark chapter in Fraser Island's history.
It has been more than a century since a mission on the picturesque Queensland island was abandoned, leaving behind an enduring secret.
In the seven years the Bogimbah Creek mission was open, more than 100 First Nations original people perished from illness and malnutrition - the result of appalling living conditions.
Their bodies were buried, but those who ran the mission did not mark the graves.
Now scientists from the University of the Sunshine Coast will try to return that knowledge to the island's K'Gari community, with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
USC soil scientist Peter Davies said his research team would work with elders from the Fraser Island World Heritage Area Indigenous Advisory Committee to find the century-old burial ground, using the radar to produce 3D images of what lies beneath the surface of the ground.
Mr Davies will also work with visiting coastal geologist and geophysicist Dr Allen Gontz from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, who has been involved in similar searches in New South Wales.
“The radar is the ideal instrument to locate disturbed ground, human remains and artefacts and has been previously used in locating indigenous burial sites up to 20,000 years old,” Mr Davies said.
Earlier this year, representatives from the Indigenous Advisory Committee approached Mr Davies to ask for his help.
He said the “microwave” radar pulses could detect large human bones, including skulls and femurs, metres beneath the surface.
“It produces full-colour, real-time images that will show us different structures beneath the ground’s surface. It’s quite an impressive piece of technology,” Mr Davies said.
Work will begin on Wednesday, with Mr Davies attaching the radar to a four-wheel-drive and dragging it across the areas surrounding Bogimbah Creek.
Now renowned as the world’s largest sand island and a tourist destination, Fraser Island is the ancestral home of the indigenous Butchulla people.
In 1897, members of Butchulla clans on the island and on the mainland were rounded up and forced to live in the notorious Bogimbah Creek mission, under government policy.
First Nations people from more than 20 different tribes, some as far north as Townsville, were living at the mission by the time the Australian Board of Missions took control of the station in February 1900.
Conditions were poor and food was scarce.
Malnutrition was common and diseases, including measles, mumps and tuberculosis, set in, with devastating consequences.
Bogimbah Creek was closed in 1904, by which time more than 100 First Nations people had perished.
Butchulla elder Aunty Marie Wilkinson said her grandmother and grandfather often spoke of the horrors of Bogimbah Creek.
“It was shocking what happened there,” the 82-year-old said.
She hopes the burial ground will be located, but warned researches against disturbing the graves.
“I’d like the graves to be left as they are, I’m very adamant about that,” she said.
“I want them, the lost ones, to be at peace in their own country. I know about the spirits of our people, you don’t disturb the spirits.
“We must let our spirits rest.”
Butchulla elder and co-chair of the Indigenous Advisory Committee, Sandra Page said the discovery of the burial ground would be “very significant”.
“It's important for the decedents of the Butchulla people that were in the Bogimbah Mission - to those people it would be very important to know some of their ancestors have been located,” she told 612 ABC Brisbane.
“The mission was put there after they rounded up the Butchulla people who lived on the island and also some of the people that lived on the mainland. They took them there to have them all in one place, like other missions in Queensland and Australia, but the Bogimbah Mission is known as one of the worse ones.
“There wasn't much food that the Butchulla people could find for themselves, they were use to hunting and fishing for themselves, but on the mission that stopped and it wasn't a very nice place; from what I've heard it was a pretty poor place to live and people perished.”
Ms Page said any discovery of a burial ground will be treated with respect.
“We would like to see the site put together in a proper sense and to give those people a respectful send-off,” she said.
“To go back and pay our respects to those people who are buried there.”