Unmarked graves may contain remains of early settlers
A James Cook University archaeologist says dozens of European settlers may lie in unmarked graves on the Queensland coast, with records from Townsville’s Magnetic Island suggesting it is ‘dotted’ with burial sites.
JCU’s Associate Professor Mike Rowland said after reading journals of early explorers, along with reports in newspapers of the day, it appears there are a significant number of Europeans buried in unmarked graves on Queensland’s coast and offshore islands.
He believes the majority of the graves would be from the mid 19th century, but it is possible bodies were buried in unmarked sites up to the 1930s.
“For example the anthropologist John Taylor has noted that unmarked and unofficial graves dot certain parts of Magnetic Island, but the records have been lost in council archives,” he said.
Associate Professor Rowland said in addition to a significant mortality among the European population from various causes, more than 400 ships were wrecked or run aground on the Great Barrier Reef route between 1891 and 1919, with more than 160 fatalities. Some of these were buried on the coast and on offshore islands.
“The graves might have originally been marked with stones or crosses or coral, but those markings are now long gone,” he said.
Associate Professor Rowland said the study was of particular concern because he helped police develop policy on the handling of human remains back in the early 1980s.
“This focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains, and that focus established an expectation that human remains exposed by erosion in coastal dunes and on islands would be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“The indications are that this cannot be assumed in all cases, and that further investigation might be needed to ensure that the appropriate community is liaised with when remains are found.”
Associate Professor Rowland said some ancestors of early settlers are still curious about what happened to their relatives and the ‘lonely grave’ filled an important space in the Australian ethos.
He suggested a live, crowd-sourced database of European burials on the coast and islands of Queensland be established, to which new evidence could be added.