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Gida (c. 1849–1899)

by Paul Memmott

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gida (centre), photograph by Charles Kerry

Gida (centre), photograph by Charles Kerry

Tyrrell Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Gida (c. 1849–1899), also known as Gida of the Kaurareg, mamus (chief) and Wild Australia Show performer, was born in the late 1840s in the Torres Strait Islands. Kaurareg Country lies to the immediate north of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, comprising Muralag (Prince of Wales Island), where Gida resided; Tuined, also known as Thunadha, Bedanug, and Bedhan (Possession Island); Nurapai (Horn Island); Keriri (Hammond Island); and Waiben (Thursday Island). The Kaurareg occupy a vital linking position in the maritime trading network between Cape York and Papua New Guinea and are closely related to the adjacent mainland Aboriginal people, the Gudang, through intermarriage.

Colonisation of Kaurareg Country began in the 1860s with the establishment of Somerset, a government outpost, on the tip of Cape York. A pivotal event for Gida and the Kaurareg occurred in April 1869 when Captain J. Gascoigne and the fourteen-member crew of the brig Sperwer (Speerweer) were massacred at Muralag by a group of Torres Strait Island men from the western and central islands including some Kaurareg. This was followed by retaliatory massacres of the mostly innocent Kaurareg population on Muralag, including a significant number of Gida’s relatives, by a force of native police and mercenaries from the Somerset outpost led by Police Magistrate Frank Jardine. A witness to the slaughter, Gida recounted the killings to the European journalist Archibald Meston who would write an embellished account some thirty years later.

The government administration centre was moved to Waiben in May 1875 to better facilitate the export of pearl-shell and other resources from the Torres Strait. In 1879 the Torres Strait Islands became crown land and Anglo-European pearling masters began taking up leases as base camps for their operations, bringing diseases that further decimated Gida’s people. As they gathered in increasing numbers near sites of colonial habitation, the remaining able-bodied Kaurareg became a labour pool for the pearlers. Gida grew up in this industry; his nickname ‘Tarbucket’ probably derived from his role as a deck crewman. Working among boatmen and divers of multiple ethnicities exposed him to a range of South-East Asian languages and, as a result, he was able to converse with people from Bengal, Singapore, and the Philippines, and was also fluent in several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Gida entered the written record in 1888 after the Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait identified him as an authority on Kaurareg law, history, totems, and kinship. A recognised mamus of the Kaurareg, he recounted significant sacred histories including that of the Kaurareg ancestor Kwoiam and the various sacred sites he created. In explaining the principles of adoption—a common but highly complex Islander customary practice—to the expedition, Gida described himself as kursi (hammerhead shark) totem, and his adopted son Kawara (b. c. 1885) as umai (dingo) totem. Gida also explained appropriate and inappropriate behaviours according to Kaurareg kinship principles: ‘tati [father] take thing, me growl; apu [mother] take thing, me growl; wadwam [mother’s brother or father’s brother] take thing, me no speak; ngaibat [father’s sister] take thing, me no speak’ (Haddon 1904, 147).

By mid-1891 Gida had been given the title of ‘king’ by the colonists and had been trained on Waiben as a government liaison for Muralag. On Waiben he met and befriended John Douglas, government resident and police magistrate. In 1892 Douglas helped to select and brief five Kaurareg to participate in Meston’s Wild Australia Show. He presumably did this in consultation with Gida who would become the leader of the Muralag contingent. The other four members were Gida’s wife Kemaliya (also rendered as Camaleea, Camilay, Camulla, and Domali), his adopted son Kawara (also spelled Cowra, Cowaro, Kawur, and Kaur) and two men, Dugum and Bula.

The Wild Australia Show was the brainchild of Meston and Brabazon Harry Purcell, a stock and station agent. Their idea was to showcase a troupe of ‘wild’ Aboriginal people from northern Queensland who had ‘not been contaminated by civilisation’ to help ‘dispel prevailing ideas’ (Brisbane Courier 1893, 6) about Aboriginal inferiority. The travelling show would feature the use of weapons, the making of fire, and ceremonial and linguistic displays, and would climax as the Queensland exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The twenty-seven-member troupe performed in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne but did not travel overseas as originally planned. The three Kaurareg men were conspicuous for their ‘fine physique’ (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 1893, 133). Gida, ‘a fine powerful man, weighing about 15 st. [90 kg],’ was singled out as ‘a true gentleman of nature’ (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 1893, 133).

When Gida returned to the Torres Strait his government allegiance strengthened and he was given a cutter by Douglas to transport supplies between Kaurareg island villages. Douglas valued Gida’s role as a civic leader. In June 1897 Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was celebrated on Waiben and Douglas conscripted the assistance of Gida and his Kaurareg people, who lit bonfires on the islands surrounding Waiben and performed ceremonial dances. Gida was probably one of the lead organisers, songmen, and drummers. A photograph from the event features his canoe and beach camp.

During this time Gida responded to the ‘Coming of the Light’ religious movement in the Torres Strait that had been initiated by the London Missionary Society, a Congregationalist mission active throughout the islands from 1871. The process of this engagement reveals something of his alliances in the western island communities. After a new LMS church was consecrated at Mabuiag (Jervis Island) in October 1897, Rev. Chalmers baptised a large group including Gida and his family. Christianity was not incompatible with Torres Strait Islander spirituality and Gida had been requesting a missionary teacher for his people for many years. The chiefs of Muralag, Mabuiag, Moa, and other islands had lobbied Chalmers to commit funds: they said ‘no good leave Prince of Wales all dark, no got lamp’ (quoted in Shnukal 2008, 71), clearly referring to the need for the ‘Coming of the Light’ to Muralag.

Gida’s close, if unequal, relationship with Douglas was remarked upon in the press in 1899: the latter was described as an ‘indulgent suzerain’ who occasionally gave his cast-off clothing to Gida in ‘consideration of good behavior and unshaken allegiance’ (Evening News 1899, 1). Newspapers reported that Gida ‘proudly [donned] these upon State occasions’ and sought to adopt the ‘walk and attitude of his respected patron’ (Evening News 1899, 1), probably considering imitation a form of flattery. He died in December that year. A leader during a time of violence, disease, decimation, and cultural change, he gave his people hope by forging an alliance with the government resident and seeking adaptive ways for economic viability without sacrificing cultural identity.

 

Paul Memmott is of Anglo-Celtic descent (fourth generation). As team leader of the Wild Australia Show research project, he engaged with Kaurareg leaders Milton Savage and Seriat Young, took a photographic exhibition of the show to Waiben, and conducted workshops with Gida’s descendants, assisted by Charles Passi.

Select Bibliography

  • Brisbane Courier. ‘“Wild Australia”: Aboriginals in Queensland—A Dying Race.’ 11 January 1893, 6
  • Evening News (Sydney). ‘White and Brown.’ 9 September 1899, 1
  • Haddon, Alfred C. Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. Vol. 2, Physiology and Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1901–03)
  • Haddon, Alfred C. Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. Vol. 5, Sociology, Magic and Religion of the Western Islanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904)
  • Shnukal, Anna. ‘Historical Mua.’ Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series 4, no. 2 (2008): 61–205
  • State Library of Queensland. OM64-17, Archibald Meston Papers 1867–1970
  • State Library of Queensland. OM89-03, John Douglas Papers 1848–1904
  • Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. ‘Meston’s Wild Aboriginals.’ 21 January 1893, 133–34, 140

Citation details

Paul Memmott, 'Gida (c. 1849–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/gida-31121/text38497, accessed 28 May 2022.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Gida (centre), photograph by Charles Kerry

Gida (centre), photograph by Charles Kerry

Tyrrell Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gida of the Kaurareg
  • Gidda
  • Tarbucket
Birth

c. 1849
Torres Strait Islands, Australia

Death

December, 1899 (aged ~ 50)
Torres Strait Islands, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation
Key Organisations