History Of Fitzroy Island

The first (legal) holiday home was erected in 1969 after years of debate regarding the future of tourism on Fitzroy Island.  Ten acres of land was removed from the National Park and the first groundskeeper moved over with his family to beautify the designated area.  This land was sold in 1977 and the first Resort was erected.  In the forty years since, four different Resorts have been built – each replacing the last.  The award-winning Fitzroy Island Resort opened in 2010, is the modern representation of the ever-changing face of Fitzroy Island.

Indigenous roots

Fitzroy Island is a continental island that was connected to the mainland over 10,000 years ago. The Island was originally called Koba (sometimes spelled Gabar- meaning ‘the fist’) by its original inhabitants; the Gunggandji people.

The Gunggandji did not maintain a permanent settlement on the island but visited for brief periods.

Their main territory was spread over the mountainous hillsides around Cairns and their dreamtime stories recount the time the water rose and the island became isolated approximately 8000 years ago.

Adventurers and explorers of the 1700s’

During Captain James Cook’s first expedition in 1770, the Endeavour passed between Fitzroy Island and the mainland.  Fitzroy Island was named by Captain Cook after the 3rd Duke of Grafton, Augustus FitzRoy.  Years later Captain Phillip Parker King explored Fitzroy Island with his crew. They located the main natural spring and named it King’s Waterhole.  King and his men were the first of a stream of explorers to periodically visit over the next few decades.  When King published the account of his journey he mentioned that Fitzroy Island was a good source of water, had an abundance of trees that could be utilised for firewood and a bay that provided a welcome relief from storms.

Ships began to regularly stop at Fitzroy Island to refill their water supply, chop wood and shelter in Welcome Bay.  Though relatively small, Fitzroy Island became a hot spot for naturalists and botanists as new species of flora and fauna were discovered.  These finds include the Spectacled Flying Fox (1848), eight new species of molluscs (1848 and 1863) as well as new species of nutmeg (1819), four new palms including the infamous Hairy Mary and its cousin Lawyer Vine (discovered 1819 and 1848), two species of olives (1819), various orchids (1819) and a new species of fern (1863).

Discovery of gold and quarantine stations

Gold was discovered on the Palmer River in 1873 sparking the largest and bloodiest gold rush in Australia’s history.  The miners were so numerous that by 1877 there were 5,900 European and 17,300 Chinese diggers working the river banks.  1877 also saw an outbreak of smallpox throughout China.  Quarantine stations were immediately prepared on various islands along the coast and all ships coming from infected ports were ordered to spend 16 days in quarantine before they could proceed to the goldfields.

Fitzroy Island was one of many quarantine stations hastily prepared for their arrival.  In the space of a few weeks, there were 2000 men languishing on the island without enough food or shelter.  Some attempted a mutiny.  This mutiny was quelled when the doctor threatened to shoot the ringleader.  Owing to its dreadful reputation as a quarantine station, the island was shut down after just eight weeks of service but in that time the Chinese diggers had laid the first stone steps to the Summit.

Bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling industries

In the years following the closure of the quarantine station Fitzroy Island became home to the bêche-de-mer and pearling industries.  The bêche-de-mer industry was so popular from 1880-1889 that in Cairns alone it made £15 000 – £25 000 annually.  The pearling industry made even more.  Both industries began to peter out with the turn of the century.

Yarrabah Mission

Yarrabah Mission, now known as Yarrabah Community, was founded by Reverend John Brown (JB) Gribble in 1892 to protect the Gunggandji’s from the ongoing rampant exploitation of these people.  JB fell ill shortly after he arrived so his eldest son Ernest inherited his legacy.  Ernest Gribble went on to become one of the most controversial Missionaries in Australia.  His career lasted for 64 years, making him the longest serving Anglican Missionary.

Gribble aspired for the Yarrabah population to take pride and control in their community. He implemented a government, formed from indigenous members, and a court (also staffed by indigenous members of the community) which monitored the behaviour of the residents.  Gribble also crowned a King, King Menmuny, who reigned over the Mission and looked after his people.

By 1904, another mission on Fraser Island was closed and 117 residents were forcibly relocated to Yarrabah Mission. A move which was naturally resented and resisted by those involved. Mass breakouts and instances of insubordination became common so the court decided to expel the ringleaders to Fitzroy Island. Gribble secured a lease on Fitzroy Island in 1905 and the first 30 people were moved out to the new outstation ‘Kobahra’.

The Kobahra residents were quick to build eight buildings including a coral church. They also planted coconuts, paw paws, mangoes, yams and other crops in an effort to become self-sufficient on the island. The settlement was closed in 1912 after residents petitioned the Protector of Aboriginals for their release. The island continued to be leased to the Yarrabah Mission for many years afterwards. While the Yarrabah Mission no longer maintained a permanent population on Fitzroy Island, it became a popular location for special occasions such as picnics and organised outings.

World War II

With the outbreak of war in the Pacific the Yarrabah Mission lost its’ lease.  The Imperial Japanese Navy had a series of submarines patrolling our coast and attacking shipping.  Cairns was the nearest main port for traffic bound to Papua New Guinea via Townsville.  Due to the constant threat of attack, the No. 28 Radar Station was established on Fitzroy Island in 1942.   No. 28 Radar Station monitored all shipping and air traffic approaching Cairns.  Welcome Bay also served as a transient mooring for destroyers and cruisers waiting to join shipping convoys heading to Port Moresby. Between 1942 and 1945 over 100 servicemen served with the No. 28 Radar Station.

In addition to the Radar Station, servicemen also manned a Wireless Signal Station and a Morse code-blinking Lighthouse.  Submarine Indicator Loops spread through Welcome Bay were constantly monitored.  The combination of these efforts uncovered a Japanese submarine lurking around the island in May 1943.  The station monitored its movements for nine days while it avoided multiple attempts by the Royal Australian Navy to destroy it with depth charges.  It finally slipped away on the 17th of May leaving the Investigating Officers at a loss as to its mission although it was theorised that it may have been dropping off or collecting spies.  The World War II military base camp was on the site of the current Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.  The dam constructed by the servicemen to store water can be seen at the start of the Summit track.

The Lightkeepers

After the military base was disbanded the buildings were divided between the Commonwealth Government and the Yarrabah Mission- those sold to Yarrabah were dismantled and their materials removed.  Lightkeepers moved into the remaining government structures with 90 Lightkeepers and their families living on the island across the 49 years that the light was active.

In 1950 the Head Lightkeeper M.V. Rooke was married in the first known wedding hosted on the island.  The responsibilities of a Lightkeeper on an island were not straightforward.  Rooke’s time on Fitzroy Island was challenging as he was plagued with difficulties from visitors destroying the trees, hunting the wildlife, dumping rubbish and in one case, erecting a string of illegal holiday homes.  He also had to deal with bushfires started by exploding WWII mines.

The Lightkeepers that followed Rooke found their time considerably more pleasant.  New weatherboard homes were built in 1960 to replace the old military units and the original Lighthouse was shut down in 1973 when the new Lighthouse was erected.  The new light was weaker than the old and several attempts were made to strengthen it; including installing solar panels.  Eventually, it was decided to close the light in favour of a small automated light on Little Fitzroy Island, still in use today.  The last Lightkeepers and their families left Fitzroy Island in 1992.

Fitzroy Island Resort

The first (legal) holiday home was erected in 1969 after years of debate regarding the future of tourism on Fitzroy Island.  Ten acres of land was removed from the National Park and the first groundskeeper moved over with his family to beautify the designated area.

This land was sold in 1977 and the first Resort was erected.  In the forty years since, four different Resorts have been built – each replacing the last.  The award-winning Fitzroy Island Resort opened in 2010, is the modern representation of the ever-changing face of Fitzroy Island.