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Joseph Daniel (Joe) McGinness (1914–2003)

PUBLICATION: Joe McGinness, Son of Alyandabu: My Fight for Aboriginal Rights, Queensland University Press, 1991, Brisbane

SEX: Male





  • Thirty-four Mile: The railway station where Stephen McGinness worked as fettler, and where he met Ullngundubbu. (p.2)
  • Lucy Claim: An area about ten miles from Thirty-four Mile, where Joe’s mother discovered tin while on a camping trip. (p.3) The McGinness family took a mining lease and named it Lucy after her (non-Aboriginal name). (p.3) Joe and his younger brother Val were born on Lucy Claim.
  • Darwin: Joe was sent to Darwin with his mother after his father died, to live at the Kahlin Aboriginal Compound. (p.8) He left when he was thirteen but returned years later to live at the Police Paddock: a camp of mostly coloured people about a mile and a half from the centre of the city. (p.20)
  • Alice Springs: Joe spent three months in Alice Springs at the end of his trip with the Garlands in 1929. (p.15) He made friends with many of the Aboriginal boys who lived at the Bungalow. (p.15)
  • Katherine: Joe moved from Darwin to Katherine in the hope of finding work with his brother Jack on the railways. (p.18)
  • Thursday Island: Joe’s wife Jaura Ah Mat was from Thursday Island. (p.28) In 1939, Jaura died of heart problems while at home visiting her family. (p.28) Joe was forced to quit his job in the Northern Territory and travel to Thursday Island, to check on his children. (p.28)


  • Papua New Guinea: Joe stopped in Port Moresby on the way from Darwin to Thursday Island. (p.29)
  • Borneo: Joe served with the Australian army in Borneo during the Second World War. (p.33)


  • Joe and his younger brother Val attended school irregularly at the Kahlin Compound. (p.8)
  • When Joe was nine, he and Val moved in with their older sister Margaret and started at Darwin Public School. (p.10)


  • Joe got his first paid job during the school holidays in 1926. (p.10) He erected oil stores for half an adult wage. (p.11) After Joe left school, the Northern Territory Protector Dr C.E Cook directed him to work as a handyman for a travelling salesman named Leonard Garland and his wife. (p.11)
  • Joe was paid five shillings a week: three shillings of which went into the Department of Native Affairs’ Aboriginal Trust Fund, and two shilling of which he was given as pocket money. (p.11) Joe travelled with the Garlands over the Queensland border to Mount Isa, Burketown, Dajarra, Birdsville, and then down through South Australia to Adelaide. After a short stay in Adelaide they travelled back up through Hamilton Bore, Bloods Creek and Horseshoe Bend to Alice Springs, where they spent three months. (pp.14-15)
  • When Joe’s twelve month term ended, he refused Mr Garland’s offer of further employment and collected his seven pounds and sixteen shillings from the Aboriginal Trust Fund. (p.17)
  • There was no work available in Darwin because of the Great Depression, so Joe moved to Katherine in the hope of finding a job on the railways with his brother Jack. (p.18) But by the time Joe arrived in Katherine construction on the railway had stopped and Jack had been made redundant. (p.18)
  • Joe eventually found work as a truck driver for Bob McLennan: delivering supplies and mail to far-flung cattle stations. (p.18)
  • During the wet season, from November to May, the roads became impassable and Joe was out of work again. (p.19) Joe returned to Darwin and joined the procession of the unemployed: getting at most a pound a week for a day’s work, and lived off the land. (p.20)
  • In 1932 Joe spent four months on board a boat collecting bêche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers. (p.21) His vessel travelled from Darwin to Caledon Bay, where there had recently been a massacre: the Aboriginal inhabitants had speared five Japanese sailors (p.22).
  • While Joe was unemployed in Darwin he took part in protests led by the Half-Cast Association of Darwin. (p.24) He and other mixed-race Aborigines camped on the verandah of the Government Office. Joe was part of the delegation that was subsequently invited to meet with a Parliamentary Committee to discuss their desire for citizenship (p.24). The negotiations led to a 1936 amendment of the Aboriginals Ordinance, to allow the exemption of selected mixed-race Aboriginal people from the Ordinance. (p.25)
  • When Joe left Darwin, the Half-Caste Association continued to campaign against the interference of the Protector in their lives. (p.25)
  • In 1935 Joe found regular work in a number of different roles: including erecting a hangar for Qantas Empire Airways and oil tanks for Evans Deakin, and transporting buffalo hides. (p.28)
  • In 1938 Joe found permanent work with the carrier H. Farrar and Company. After his wife Jaura died in 1939, Joe became responsible for their two children, who were staying with their mother’s relatives on Thursday Island. He resigned and took a position as a deck hand on the M. V Maroubra bound for Port Moresby, which took him to Thursday Island to visit his children. (pp.28-29)
  • After observing that his children were being well cared for, Joe continued with the M. V Maroubra to Port Moresby (p.28). From there he and the other crew were transferred to the Mac Dewie, which sailed south to Cairns. He then travelled by train to Townsville and to Darwin by plane. (p.29)
  • Back in Darwin in 1940, Joe began working as a truck driver for the Public Works Department. (p.29) Many of his friends had joined the army by this time, but the Second World War was too distant an affair to concern Joe. (p.31) That was until 1942, when the Japanese bombed Darwin while Joe was out repairing a road with his workmate Dick Butler. (p.32)
  • Joe served in the Australian Army in Borneo until 1945, when he was discharged and returned to Adelaide. (p.33) He travelled to Cairns via Darwin, and worked briefly as a mechanic. (p.33)
  • Joe then took a job as a driver-mechanic on Thursday Island. (p.33) He had to quit his job when he developed tuberculosis, and his only source of income for the next few years was from working as a nightwatchman at the wharf once or twice a month. (p.34)
  • When his condition improved, Joe worked on the pearling fleets, until he got a job on the wharf at Thursday Island. (p.34) Unlike in the pearling industries, which came under the Department of Native Affairs, all workers at the wharf were paid the same wage and provided the same protection by their union, regardless of whether they were members. (p.34)
  • In 1949 Joe became a member of the Thursday Island Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation. (p.34) After two years of service he was eligible to transfer anywhere in Australia. (p.34) He chose Cairns because his son John was doing an engineering apprenticeship there. (p.35)
  • After working on the Cairns wharves for sixteen years (1951-67), Joe transferred to the Cairns City Council. (p.35) In 1973 he left the Council to take up a position as a liaison officer with the Aboriginal Affairs Department. (p.35) From 1975 until his retirement in 1980 Joe was the regional manager for Aboriginal Hostels Ltd. (p.35)


  • Stephen McGinness was a strong Catholic, and was visited by priests while living at Lucy’s Claim. (p.5) Joe’s baptism was planned for one of these trips, but on the day the priest arrived he hid in his father’s workshop. (p.5) When he was discovered Joe resisted baptism, using a pick to defend himself. Eventually he was subdued, and followed his father by accepting Catholicism. (p.6)


  • Aboriginal Protection Authority: After her husband’s death, the Aboriginal Protector transferred Ullngundubbu and her youngest children, Val and Joe, to the Darwin Aboriginal Kahlin Compound. (p.8) Because Joe’s older brother was of working age and his sister was married to a European, they were not transferred. (p.8)
  • Waterside Workers Union: Joe joined the Thursday Island branch of the Waterside Workers Union in 1949. (p.34) He was later elected to Executive Committee of the Cairns Branch. (p.35)
  • Coloured Social Club: an organisation established in the 1940s to provide a safe environment for coloured people to socialise in Cairns. (p.37)
  • Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League: an organisation established in 1958, in response to complaints of discrimination made by the Indigenous and coloured residents of Cairns. (p.38) Joe was elected as the inaugural secretary of the organisation. (p.39)
  • North Australian Workers Union (NAWU): an organisation that investigated the working conditions of Aboriginal people in the 1950s. (p.58) The NAWU defended the Aboriginal strike leader, Fred Waters, who was exiled for his role in campaigns for equal wages. (p.59)
  • People’s Assembly for Human Rights: an organisation established in Melbourne in 1950 by the Democratic Rights Council. (p.58) It had a number of different assemblies, including a commission dedicated to Indigenous issues. The Commission on Aborigines was well attended by a raft of organisations, including trade unions, and passed a resolution that all tribal groups be given the right to their ancestral land. (p.58)
  • Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria) (CAR(V)) : An organisation established in Melbourne to promote equality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian. (p.65) The establishment of CAR was precipitated by a speech that Jack McGinness gave to the All-Australian Trade Union Congress in 1951. (p.62)
  • The executive committee of CAR (V), particularly Stan Davey and Bill and Eric Onus, where instrumental in the creation and expansion of FCAA. (pp.66-67)
  • Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders: In the late 1950s the CAR (V) executive committee started making networks with Aboriginal advancement organisations in other states, in the hope of creating a federal organisation.
  • The President of the South Australian Aboriginal Advancement League, Dr Charles Duguid, and Victorian executive were divided over the question of whether or not to invite all mission organisations to join the federal organisation. (p.67)
  • Eventually the state organisation reached a compromise, and the FCAA was established in 1958. (p.68)
  • The Commonwealth Office of Aboriginal Affairs: established in 1967, after the constitutional referendum. (p.82) Joe believes that the Office did not live up to the hopes of political activists like himself. (p.82)


  • After his father died, Joe and his brother Val were removed from their home to the Darwin Aboriginal Kahlin Compound. (p.8)
  • Joe’s first employers, the travelling salesman Mr Garland, had to leave a bond of one hundred pounds with the Protector of Aborigines in Darwin before taking him as their employee. (p.12)
  • While he was working for Mr Garland, two thirds of Joe’s wage was placed in the Aboriginal Trust Fund managed by the Protector of Aborigines. (p.11) When his twelve-month term finished, the pay clerk at the Trust Fund Office refused to give him a lump sum, until his brother-in-law Harry Edwards intervened on Joe’s behalf. (p.16)
  • Joe was involved in the protests that led to the 1936 amendment of the Aboriginals Ordinance. (p.25)
  • While residing in Queensland, Joe was under what was known simply as ‘the Act’


  • Joe developed tuberculosis while serving in Borneo, although his condition went undiagnosed until after the War. (p.34)


  • Ullngundubbu (Lucy): Joe’s mother was a member of the Kungarakan tribe. (p.1) She had two brothers, Miranda and Pumeri, who Joe never met. (p.1)
  • Ullngundubbu met Irishman Stephen McGinness while he was working at Thirty-four Mile railway station, and they had five children together. (p.2)
  • Joe recalls that his mother’s parenting style was very different from his father’s. (p.3) If her children misbehaved, Ullngundubbu would warn them that the kurducks (evil spirits) or chingarucks (Witch Doctors) would punish them. (p.3) Meanwhile, Stephen usually resorted to strapping the children. (p.3)
  • Joe often went with his mother and her relatives to collect and hunt for bush foods, such as yams, mussels, yabbies, goanna, bandicoots, possums and bush honey. (p.6)
  • Most weekends Ullngundubbu and Stephen went camping. (p.3) On one of their trips, Joe’s mother discovered a tin deposit to the west of Thirty-four Mile. (p.3)
  • Ullngundubbu was a part owner of Lucy’s claim. She forfeited the lease after her husband’s death, however, because she had insufficient knowledge of the machinery. (p.8)
  •  Ullngundubbu lived with her youngest children, Val and Joe, at the Darwin Aboriginal Kahlin Compound. (p.8)
  • While living in Darwin, Ullngundubba walked one mile every day to work as a laundress and housemaid for a local judge. (p.9) She earned five shillings a week and also brought leftover food home for the boys. (p.9)
  • Stephen Barnard McGinness: Joe’s father was an Irish man from a family of thirteen. (p.2) He and his brother migrated to Darwin in the late 19th century, and Stephen worked as a fettler on the railways. (p.2)
  • While stationed at the fettlers hut at Thirty-four Mile Stephen met Ullngundubbu, and they had five children together. (p.2)
  • Stephen was a devout member of the Catholic Church, and was sometimes visited by Priests at Thirty-four Mile. (p.5)
  • After his wife discovered tin at Lucy’s claim, Stephen and his son mined the area by hand, until a steam mobile traction engine was brought to the district. (p.4)


  • Jaura Ah Mat: Joe met Jaura, who was of Malayan and Torres Strait Islander descent, while she was visiting her brother in Darwin in 1935. (p.28) They married in the same year, and had two children together. (P.28) In 1939 Jaura developed a heart complaint while visiting her parents on Thursday Island, and died shortly after. (p.28)


  • Joe had two children with Jaura Ah Mat: a son and a daughter. (p.28) When Jaura died, the children were on Thursday Island. Joe visited Thursday Island to check on their welfare. (p.28)
  • When Joe returned from the War he moved to Cairns, where his children were now living with a relative. (p.34) His children followed when Joe returned to Thursday Island to take up a job as a driver-mechanic. (p.34)


  • Margaret Edwards (nee McGinness): Joe’s older sister. Margaret was not taken to the Kahlin Compound with her mother, because by that time she was married to a European blacksmith named Harry Edwards. (p.8) In the 1920s the Edwards took Joe and Val into their care when they moved to Darwin. (p.10)
  • Harry’s trade declined as motorised transport became increasing popular, and so he and Margaret moved to Melbourne in 1933. (p.19) Margaret became an active member of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria). (p.66)
  • The Gordons: publicans who owned a hotel at Pine Creek. (p.10) Joe and Val stayed with the Gordons in 1925, while Margaret and Harry travelled south by sea. (p.10)
  • The Garlands: Joe’s first full time job was working as a tradesman for the travelling salesman, Leonard Garland, and his wife. (p.12)
  • Tom Sullivan: Joe met Tom in the small town of Gregory Downs when he was travelling with the Garlands. (p.13) They became friends for the week, but after Joe left they didn’t meet again until adulthood. (p.13)
  •  When they reconnected in Townsville, Tom recounted how he had almost been taken to the penal colony on Palm Island, but managed to escape to Morestone in the Northern Territory. He worked as a drover in the Northern Territory and became an expert horseman. (p.13)
  • During the 1960s Tom became an active member of the Townsville Aboriginal Advancement League. (p.14)
  • Jack McGinness: Joe’s older brother. When Joe finished working for the Garlands he moved to Katherine in the hope of finding work with Jack on the railways. (p.18) But by this time he arrived work railways had stopped because of the Great Depression. (p.19) Joe found work as a truck driver, and Jack eventually got a permanent job on the railways. (p.19)
  • Jack later became an active member of the Half-Castes’ Association of Darwin and the North Australian Workers Union. The NAWU defended the Aboriginal strike leader, Fred Waters, who was exiled for his role in campaigns for equal wages. (p.59) Jack, as an ex-President of NAWU, travelled to southern cities to raise support for Fred. (p.1) He gave an important address to the All Australian Trade Union Congress in Melbourne in 1951, which inspired the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria). (p.65) In turn, the executive committee of CAR (V) were instrumental in the creation and expansion of FCAATSI. (p.66)
  • Val McGinness: Joe’s youngest brother Val was the only one of his siblings who was taken to Kahlin Compound with their mother. (p.8) He was later a star player for the Darwin Buffaloes, and also a multi-talented musician in the Darwin String Band. (p.19)
  • Val also moved to Katherine during the Great Depression, and became a peanut farmer. (p.19) Later in life he became a devout Jehovah’s Witness and dedicated his life to the church until his death in 1988. (p.20)
  • Bernard McGinness: Joe’s oldest brother. Bernard worked for the Chief Protector of the Aborigines Department at the Kahlin Compound. (p.20)
  • Xavier Herbert: a pharmacist turned writer, who worked with Val McGinness at the Darwin Hospital. (p.23) Joe and Xavier became close friends while living in Darwin, and both settled in Cairns after the Second World War. (p.23)
  • Xavier, Joe and Val attempted to establish a mining venture, with little luck. (p.23) Xavier also encouraged them to participate in political action for Aboriginal rights. (p.23)
  • Dick Butler: Joe’s workmate and friend while he worked for the Department of Public Works in Darwin. (p.30) Joe was working with Dick on the day that the Japanese bombed the city. (p.31) In response to the attack, both men joined the army and did their preliminary training together. (p.32)
  • Don McLeod: Joe does not say he met him, but he records his admiration for Don’s role in the Aboriginal pastoral worker’s campaign for wage equality in 1946. (p.56)
  • Tom Wright: another admired figure, the Federal President of the Sheetmetal Workers Union at the end of World War Two. (p.57) His pamphlet A New Deal for the Aborigines, drew attention to the Aboriginal cause and contributed to the creation of FCAATSI. (p.57)
  • Stan Davey: a Church of Christ minister, who was on the executive committee of CAR (V) and was later the General Secretary of FCAATSI. (p.52)
  • Pastor Doug Nicholls: An Aboriginal Pastor from Victoria, who was an active member of CAR(V) and later FCAATSI. (p.66) Pastor Doug was sent to Warburton Ranges of behalf of the CAR (V), and made a film capturing the dire conditions of Aboriginal people there. (p.67)
  • Dr Charles Duguid: a medical doctor who established the Ernabella mission and was the inaugural President of the South Australian Aboriginal Advancement League. In the late 1950s Dr Charles Duguid worked with the CAR(V) executive to establish FCAATSI. (p.68)


  • Kungarakan culture:  Joe’s mother Ullngundubbu was a member of the Kungarakan clan. Many members of this tribe died after accidently consuming herbicide, which they thought was baking powder and put in their damper. (p.8)
  • The Kungarakan people’s ancestral land, Kurinju, extended from the mouth of the Finnis River to the Adelaide River, and east to the Darwin River. (p.1) The early European settlers referred to the Kungarakan people as the “Paperbark People”, because of the forests of paperbark or ti-tree at Kurinju. (p.1)
  • Certain sites within this territory were designated for specific activities: such as executions, paying homage to the dead, and the naming of children. (p.1)
  • Because his father was an Irish man, Joe grew up with both Kungarakan and Europeans traditions. (p.2)
  • Joe laments the loss on many of these traditions since colonisation. (p.7)
  • Institutionalisation: After his father’s death, Joe and his brother Val were taken with their mother to the Darwin Aboriginal Kahlin Compound. (p.8) Because of the scarcity of food in the compound, Joe and Val often took the risk of stealing from the Chinese gardens and Botanical Gardens. (pp. 9-10) The residents sometimes had corroborees at night, but were not allowed to be out of the compound from 6pm to 6am. (pp.9-10)
  • Political activism for equal rights. Soon after he moved from Thursday Island to Cairns in 1951, Joe was elected to the Executive Committee of the Cairns Branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. (p.35)
  • Joe noted that many Aboriginal people lived as fringe dwellers around Cairns, and were excluded from the town except when employers sought needed labour. (p.36) Those who lived on missions where sent out to work for a wage below the award, set by the Department of Native Affairs. (p.38)
  • Aboriginal and Islander people in Cairns were also refused service in most hotels, and excluded from employment in many industries. (p.37)
  • In 1958 Joe became the inaugural secretary of the Cairns Aboriginal Advancement League. (p.39) The League represented Aboriginal people in Far North Queensland who had complaints against the authorities and their employers. (p.40)
  • The first major case of the Cairns Aboriginal Advancement League was known as the Hopevale case. (p.41) This case developed after a young man who was in Cairns on his way to Palm Island, having been exiled from the Lutheran mission Hope Vale for eloping, approached League members for assistance. (p.41) Before expelling him, the Hope Vale missionary, Pastor Kernich, had publicly beaten the man and cut off his girlfriend’s hair. (p.41)
  • League members helped the man escape from the Department of Native Affairs, and concealed his whereabouts in Cairns. (p.43) They then petitioned the Queensland Parliament to open an inquiry about his treatment in Hopevale. (p.43) The Minister for Indigenous affairs at the time claimed that Pastor Kernich’s actions were appropriate, and that the punishment was in accordance with the tribal system. (p.43)
  • The League garnered enough support to force a magisterial inquiry into the case, which was held in Hope Vale. (p.44) The inquiry found that Pastor Kernich had acted callously, and he was forced to resign as superintendent. (p.45)
  • After the success of the Hope Vale case, Joe and the Cairns Aboriginal Advancement League continued to represent Aboriginal people who had suffered injustices. (p.47) Most of the complaints were of police brutality. (p.48) Joe describes one incident when two intoxicated police officers broke into an Aboriginal family home in Mareeba. (p.49) They purportedly forced two of the male inhabitants to fight, and then proceeded to beat and harass the women. (p..49) The League demanded that the officers be dismissed, but they only received fines. (p.50)
  • Joe went on to become President of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA, founded 1958 later renamed Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, established (FCAATSI). (p.43) FCAA campaigned for nomadic Aboriginal people to have access to social security benefits. (P.71)
  • In 1962 Joe initiated a FCAATSI campaign for Aboriginal people to receive tuberculosis allowance, higher than their average wage, after learning that they were denied this benefit under the Tuberculosis Act of 1948. (p.75)
  • FCAATSI was successful in its campaign, and the Tuberculosis Act was changed in 1965. (P.77) As President Joe also campaign for equal wages for Aboriginal employees, the establishment of land trusts, increased training and employment opportunities, and an end to discrimination. (p.79)
  • Joe also campaigned for a change to the constitution, believing that the change was necessary if Aboriginal people were to be included in the census. He addressed trade unions and church groups across the country and circulated a petition. (p.80)
  • His comment on the resulting change to the constitution:
  • After the 1967 referendum, Joe directed his energies towards reforming the trust fund system. This system compelled employers to pay whole or parts of their Aboriginal workers wages into a fund administered by the Commonwealth Bank. (p.85)
  • Queensland eventually scrapped the trust system in 1974. However, Joe notes that some of the compulsory contributions made by Aboriginal people were not returned. (p.88)
  • Another concern of FCAATSI during Joe’s Presidency was guaranteeing repatriation benefits for veterans of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Brigade. (p.89) During the course of their campaign, it also became apparent to FCAATSI that the Torres Strait Islanders had been paid considerably less than their white counterparts. (p.89)
  • It was not until 1983 that the Government agreed to pay compensation to these servicemen and their families. (p.89)
  • FCAATSI was also successful in guaranteeing equal wages for Aboriginal people working the pastoral industries by 1968. (p.91)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Son of Alyandabu was written by Joe McGinness.

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This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

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Citation details

'McGinness, Joseph Daniel (Joe) (1914–2003)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


2 July, 1914
Batchelor, Northern Territory, Australia


11 July, 2003 (aged 89)
Cairns, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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