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Somerset, Cape York, Queensland

Encounters

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Somerset, Cape York, Queensland

Gudang country

To be resilient

For me as a young generation coming through, I can feel our youth ... are very resilient to what our late ancestors have been through ... It’s a sort of skill that us as the next generation coming through have learnt over the years – to be resilient.

Nicholas Thompson, Gudang, 2014

A photo of a green grassy beach with trees on either side allowing a view of the water and a boat. The landmass behind the boat is covered in densely populated trees.
Gudang country, Somerset, Cape York, Queensland. National Archives of Australia A6135, K11-7-86-31.

Colonial authorities established Somerset on Gudang country in 1864. It was planned to be the administrative centre for the Torres Strait region, but this remote colony on the tip of Cape York became a violent place presided over by the infamous Jardine family. A missionary report noted that ‘Jardine ruled with a Terry rifle with 47 notches on its stock’.

Headband made from a dingo tail and twine
Dingo-tail headband, collected from Somerset or the Torres Strait by William Kennett in 1867–68, 30 cm (excluding ties). British Museum Oc.6944.

William Kennett, an Englishman who briefly worked at Somerset, attempted to mediate the violence between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the colonists. He took great interest in local culture, collecting objects, taking photographs and learning the languages.

Despite Kennett’s work, people today only remember the ‘Jardine time’. It’s always beautiful here. Can’t live here though, that history too recent. Every time we visit, that history right there.

Aunty Maryann Mayor, Gudang Elder, 2014

Old objects

William Kennett was one of two staff at the short-lived ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts’ mission at Somerset. In a letter to Augustus Wollaston Franks dated 29 January 1870, he claimed to have amassed what he believed to be a ‘complete’ collection, ‘comprising every weapon, article of dress, or ornament etc. used or manufactured by those natives’.

Upon his return to England, Kennett displayed these objects and photographs at the Manchester Missionary Exhibition of 1869–70. It was from here that Franks purchased the material, including this headband, for the British Museum.

A painting in acrylic and ochre on canvas, depicting an Australian Aboriginal woman wrapped in the Union Jack flag. The background is painted black, over painted with dotted lines in yellow and orange.
Eyes of Innocence, 2014, painting by Colina Wymarra, Gudang people, 110 x 85 cm. National Museum of Australia.

New objects

Artist Colina Wymarra provides this insight into her work, Eyes of Innocence:

The story that my dad told me is when [Lieutenant] Cook sailed through the Torres Strait he put a flag on Possession Island. The Gudang are seafaring people and they often travel to the island and saw the 'cloth on a stick' stuck in the sand on the beach.

In their innocence, my people's innocence, they grabbed that and used it as a blanket and covering. 'Flag' was not a concept they knew of.

I painted the traditional Gudang woman as she covered herself and her baby in that cloth because they didn't know what that cloth was or what it meant or [has] come to mean centuries later.

Colina Wymarra, Gudang, 2014

 Jennifer Wymarra, Gudang, Aunty Maryann Mayor, Gudang, a Gudang ranger, Nicholas Thompson, Gudang, Uncle Meun ‘Shorty’ Lifu, Gudang Elder.
From left: Jennifer Wymarra, Gudang, Aunty Maryann Mayor, Gudang Elder, a Gudang ranger, Nicholas Thompson, Gudang, Uncle Meun ‘Shorty’ Lifu, Gudang Elder. National Museum of Australia.
Nicholas Thompson
Nicholas Thompson, Gudang. National Museum of Australia.