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Kitchener Bligh (1913–1998)

by Rosalind Kidd

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Kitchener Bligh (1913–1998), community leader and Aboriginal rights advocate, was born on 21 August 1913 at Mangala, south of Ingham, Queensland, son of Henry Mundy, a Noagi man linked through generations to the land around Halifax, and Tooya, a Nywaigi woman whose father had been kidnapped from the island of Tanna, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and put to work as an indentured labourer on the sugar plantations. A small child when his parents died, Kitchener, together with his two brothers and an older sister, was living with his grandmother when police took him and his brothers in 1923 and sent them to the new Palm Island (Bwgcolman) settlement, but refused to allow his grandmother and sister to go with them.

Bligh was confined in the boys’ dormitory where life was hard and cruel, with frequent floggings for the slightest misdemeanour. Given only a few hours’ daily schooling, the children were trained as workers, to clean and weave leaves for the palm thatch houses and undertake general maintenance. At fifteen, he was required to work as a timber mill hand for eighteen months, and then as a deckhand aboard a steamer ferrying supplies and people between the mainland and the islands. The crew were on call twenty-four hours a day, were exposed to foul weather on board, and paid only meagre rations. At nineteen he worked in an unpaid youth gang felling trees, clearing bush, and carving out the airstrip and the rocky road back to the settlement. During this period he also worked as a painter.

Like thousands of Aboriginal men during World War II, Bligh replaced absent servicemen in essential industries. As an Aboriginal cane cutter his Federal award wages were intercepted by the Queensland Department of Native Affairs, subjected to tax and settlement levies, and the remainder allocated as a credit at the Palm Island store. He was never shown a bank book to check dealings on his account, and was frequently told there was no money. On 19 October 1940, in the Aborigines Island Mission Church, Palm Island, he married Cooktown-born Mabel, née Arkey, a domestic servant.

Bligh worked as a painter on Palm Island after the war but could not support his growing family on the token wage. Desperate to earn better money, he joined a painting firm at Townsville in the mid-1950s and was promptly accredited as a painter and decorator on an award wage more than ten times the general pay on Palm Island, then £1 per fortnight. He wanted to be with his family who had remained on Palm Island, but refused a request in 1958 to work there as a painter for the pitiful wages on offer, when the superintendent dismissed his qualifications and experience as worthless.

When Mabel fell gravely ill in the late 1960s, Bligh returned to Palm Island. The recently introduced ‘community wage,’ which replaced rationing, was only one-third of the basic wage. With store prices often double those on the mainland, families struggled to survive. Bligh knew that unqualified white painters on the island were paid more than him. He frequently protested that his wages should be increased commensurate with his qualifications, rather than discounted because of his colour. After fifty years’ hard work—thirty as a painter and fifteen as an overseer—he and his family had only a little furniture and $1,000. It was only after he retired in 1979 and qualified for the aged pension that he could afford to buy a car.

In 1985 Bligh and six co-workers brought action against the Queensland government in the Australian Human Rights Commission, charging that the underpayment of Aboriginal employees on government reserves breached the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. When he gave evidence before the inquiry in 1995—long-delayed because of what the presiding commissioner described as ‘misunderstandings and a significant degree of both official and professional inertia’ (Bligh & Ors v. State of Queensland)—Bligh spoke of his distress that the trade ticket for which he worked so hard counted for nothing on Palm Island, where his years as a skilled overseer brought him less pay because he was not white. As an Aboriginal employee of the government he was denied both opportunities to advance and equal working conditions. He lamented the suffering and hardship endured by his wife and children under a humiliating regime which continued into the 1970s. With equal pay, he said, they would all have had a comfortable life.

In September 1996 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the Queensland government had ‘intentionally, deliberately and knowingly’ (Bligh & Ors v. State of Queensland) discriminated against the plaintiffs. It recommended a public apology and payment of $7,000 each in compensation. In response, in 1999 the Queensland government introduced the Compensation for Non-Payment of Award Wages (1975–1986) Scheme—the first of several measures designed to address past injustices endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. By the close of the scheme in 2003, compensation payments had reached 5,729 former workers and amounted to over $40 million.

In his retirement Bligh was an active and respected Elder of the community, a member of Palm Island council (1966–72), a board member of the Palm Island State School, and an untiring worker for the community corrections program. In 1994 he participated in the repatriation from Cleveland, Ohio, United States of America, of the mummified remains of Tambo, a north Queensland man who had been removed overseas in 1883 as a recruit for P.T. Barnum’s circus. In 2018 the Federal Court of Australia recognised Tooya—and through her Bligh, his siblings, and other descendants—among Nywaigi native title holders of country in the Townsville region. A dignified and gentle man, his unending struggle for equality and justice will long be remembered, and is testimony to the persistence and resilience of so many Indigenous people. He died on 17 February 1998, survived by two daughters and two sons, as well as a large extended family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Select Bibliography

  • Bligh & Ors v. State of Queensland. [1996] HREOCA 28 (24 September 1996)
  • Kidd, Ros. ‘Position Paper. Profiting from Poverty: State Policies and Aboriginal Deprivation.’ Queensland Review 4, no. 1 (April 1997): 83–85
  • Kidd, Rosalind. Trustees on Trial: Recovering the Stolen Wages. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006
  • Kidd, Ros. ‘Wage Slave Fought for Equal Pay.’ Australian, 3 March 1998, 16
  • Lightning on behalf of the Nywaigi People v. State of Queensland. [2018] FCA 493 (20 April 2018)
  • Poignant. Roslyn. ‘Looking for Tambo.’ The Olive Pink Society Bulletin: Anthropology, Race, Gender 9 (1997): 27–37

Citation details

Rosalind Kidd, 'Bligh, Kitchener (1913–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/bligh-kitchener-29921/text37041, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Birth

21 August, 1913
Mangala, Queensland, Australia

Death

17 February, 1998 (aged 84)
Palm Island, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation
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