Living on Cabbage Tree Island

On this web page, Aboriginal people from the Bundjalung community describe their ancestors' move to Cabbage Tree Island on Richmond River near Evans Head in the 1880s. They explain that their relatives farmed and lived in self-sufficient communities until the island was set up as an Aboriginal reserve and later a station. The people also share their memories of fishing camps at Boundary Creek, and of Uncle Rex Kapeen, an expert fisherman. Boundary Creek is still much visited, valued as a place where kinship ties are re-established and knowledge is passed to the younger generation.

map: cabbage tree island  Welcome to Cabbage Tree Island
Aerial view Cabbage Tree IslandWelcome sign Cabbage Tree Island

Living off the land on Cabbage Tree Island

According to Bundjalung oral tradition, during the 1890s a group of Aboriginal people in north-eastern New South Wales (NSW) walked from Wyrallah near Lismore and crossed to Cabbage Tree Island. They aimed to take possession of the land and clear the thick scrub to begin cane farming.

'... There's a real big fig tree there, that used to be there, when the boats used to come into the Ballina Harbour here, but the fig tree was their guide, way they'd see it from out at sea, the really huge fig tree on top of the hill. Well, the trees up there now, they used to camp around there and also at Wyrallah, they had a big bora ring at Wyrallah and Tuckean swamp. They used to live down at Tuckean swamp there, a lot of Aborigines, but then they came down this way, down near Cabbage Tree.'

Uncle Lewis Cook, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

The Aboriginal community on Cabbage Tree Island was self-sufficient. Kitchen gardens provided fresh vegetables; orchards and banana plantations provided fresh fruit and the rearing of cattle provided fresh meat and milk. The establishment of cane farms on the island gave the community a sense of independence.

The rivers, and the estuarine, wetland and sand dune environments on and around Cabbage Tree Island provided an abundance of wild food. There were always plenty of resources to share amongst the community:

Aunty Yvonne Del-Signore
Aunty Yvonne Del-Signore
'... In those days, it was nothing, you know, to go out there [and] get pipis and bring them home. There was plenty to eat ... when they'd go, the men used to go up the creeks and early in the morning in the boat, and come back with all these wild foods ... they'd have koala, kangaroo, water lily bulbs and swans' eggs and ducks' eggs ... but everything was shared, that was the beauty of everything.'

Aunty Yvonne Del-Signore, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

For more information on self-sufficient farming communities, see Living by the Macleay River.

Living on an Aboriginal reserve

The NSW Aborigines Protection Board was established in the late 1800s. The Board gazetted many areas across NSW as reserves, and in some cases forced Aboriginal families to move onto them.

In 1893, the Board gazetted Cabbage Tree Island as an Aboriginal reserve and families from surrounding areas began to move onto the island. Initially, the community could maintain a self-sufficient way of life, but in 1911 the reserve was redesignated as an Aboriginal station. This meant a white manager lived on the island and controlled the community and farmland:

Cane farms still form part of the Cabbage Tree Island landscape today
Cane farms on Cabbage Tree Island today

'The people on the island years ago, they were self-sufficient you know, they had their own cattle, own orchards, they'd their own cane farms, used to grow bananas and whatever. Beans and peas and things, I mean, they didn't want [for food] then, until the manager came in and then the manager brought his own cattle there, he had about fifty head and they just wiped the cane out, everything.'

Uncle Lewis Cook, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

During the 1920s, the Aboriginal community began to openly defy the manager and some families left the island (Weiner 2003). Although after 1920 movement on and off the island became less restricted, residents had to get the manager's permission to leave the island and report to the manager on their return:

The remains of the Manager's house and the rations depot on Cabbage Tree Island
Remains of manager's house and rations depot, Cabbage Tree Island

'We had a manager, there was a manager you see, you know he was like, like a jail sort of thing, like we couldn't go anywhere, you was on the island. You had to get permission to go, so you had to report when you came back but the manager used to allow us to go. We used to go chipping cane or cutting cane or whatever, and 'cause when the cane season was finished they never had social security or anything like that, they used to have Manpower. So they used to get the jobs up at Queensland.'

Uncle Lewis Cook, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

For more information on living on an Aboriginal reserve or station, see Living by the Macleay River.

Accessing facilities and Boundary Creek

The community built their own boats to access the rivers and coastal estuaries around the island. Fishing was often an all-day event, especially during the holiday season:

Uncle Fred Marlowe
Uncle Fred Marlowe
'They had boats [to] go out and fish, go out in the morning and come back home in the evening, take your lunch with you in the boat and have your lunch and keep fishing. We were gone once for two weeks [and] they come down and had two weeks' holiday, mum and them fished every day for two weeks.'

Uncle Fred Marlowe, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

Until about 1962, the Cabbage Tree Island community accessed outside facilities by boat before a small bridge was built on the western side of the island. The bridge provided a link to a road and the nearby town of Wardell (Long 1970).

The eastern side of the island remained accessible by boat. People used their boats regularly to visit seasonal fishing camps at Boundary Creek. These visits were eventually obstructed by the development of cane farming and the construction of fences and gates blocking off access routes.

Over time, some families developed a relationship with the cane farmers to gain access through private property to the seasonal fishing camps:

Aunty Hazel Rhodes & Aunty Bertha Kapeen
Aunty Hazel Rhodes and Aunty Bertha Kapeen

'What happened was, we used to all go across in a boat 'cause Cabbage Tree Island didn't have a bridge. We'd all go across in the boat, and the older people'd have their "swags" as we called them, blankets and stuff rolled up and we'd just tag along with them. We had to carry something but nothing very heavy, and we'd just walk out Walsh's Lane straight across from the Island on the front channel ... There was freedom, I guess, to go to the beach and then they grew sugar cane out there and they put up the gates and that sort of thing, so that stopped the freedom of entry to one area ... 'cause I haven't been the other way that we used to go as kids, I'm not sure that that's still there, but if you can get a key you can go out there. My family and I have access to a key to go out there, but I think you have to understand that it is that person's [the property owner's] livelihood, the sugar cane, so he has to look after it and make sure no-one would burn it, that sort of thing, but if you can show him that you take care of things ... like, my parents always had a key to go there.'

Aunty Bertha Kapeen, interview 24 January 2005, Ballina

Shaping Boundary Creek through tradition and education

Many Aboriginal families living on Cabbage Tree Island went almost every weekend to Boundary Creek, especially when the Elders told them it was a good time to fish:

Aunty Fanny Roberts and her great grandchild at Boundary Creek
Aunty Fanny Roberts and her great grandchild

'... Nearly every weekend [we used to go to Boundary]. And we used to walk in a line there and in the hot weather, you know, it was terrible, we used to have to tie rags on our feet and run across ... We used to stay there late, you know, and walk through that hot sand carrying our kids, and then walk to the corner there, at Boundary Creek there, where our boat was and row it back home up the plateau ... they used to know what days were good and what days weren't good, aye, for fishing, my word, the old people, they were clever.'

Aunty Fanny Roberts, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

Aboriginal families from other surrounding areas also used to visit Boundary Creek during the holidays. At Boundary Creek, extended family groups could spend time together, fish and gather wild food, and learn and pass on cultural ways:

The Bundjalung Aboriginal community at Boundary Creek

The Bundjalung Aboriginal community at Boundary Creek
The Bundjalung Aboriginal community at Boundary Creek

'We stayed there over the Christmas holidays and that, stayed two or three weeks, maybe more ... and then go back to where they come from, but it was more or less on the special occasions that they'd come out or when the fish was running or whatever ... There'd be a few up here, just there, they used to camp just there on top of the hill, there where we are now. And also down further ... And they used to walk out from the island, row a boat out and walk, and the old women, they used to carry a big bag on the back of their shoulder with a strap around their forehead ...

'That's where they'd carry all the weight, just there, around there with a strap. And we'd be walking around with 'em, coming behind them walking and with the old people. And they'd camp all along here, see that camp out there, that's where they'd go but mainly they'd go there. But it was really good. They'd look, if the sea was rough they'd fish in the lagoon up there ... They'd come fishing mainly summertime, nearly all the time, every weekend or whatever if you were allowed. There was all these Aborigines around the place, but mainly Christmas time a big mob used to come.'

Uncle Lewis Cook, interview 26 January 2005, Boundary Creek

At Boundary Creek, social relationships, kinship ties and spiritual obligations were reaffirmed in the Bundjalung Aboriginal community. The passing on of knowledge about Country to the younger generation remains an important tradition today:

The Boundary Creek Lagoon
Boundary Creek Lagoon
Aunty Bertha Kapeen & her grandchild on the beach at Boundary Creek
Aunty Bertha Kapeen and her grandchild

'Well, there used to be a lot of us kids with these older people 'cause they then told us all these stories sort of thing. And we ate, usually fish and pipis ... we might take a little bit of curry and some flour to make the dampers, and potato and onion, but apart from that we didn't take any other food with us 'cause we relied on catching the fish and cooking pipis, that sort of thing ...

'But in those days, in the early days, there was fish in the lagoon so you could catch fish from the lagoon, and so it was a whole day of surviving on what you could catch, I guess ... [Now] I go with my family and we often sit down and talk about things that I used to [do] and that's knowledge that we pass down. I'll talk about what I used to do when I went out there, and we don't go so much to the lagoon area, but when we get on the beach, I always talk to them about the lagoon and what we did there. Just things we did on the beach, and that's our passing down our culture to the kids. And we make fires and cook pipis and throw the fish on the fire, that sort of thing, and that's traditional for us gathering those pipis and things like that.'

Aunty Bertha Kapeen, interview 24 January 2005, Ballina

For more information on reaffirming kinship ties and connection to Country, see Living by the Macleay River and Living at Grassy Head camp.

Visiting Uncle Rex Kapeen's fishing hut

The traditional fishing camps at Boundary Creek were places where Aboriginal fishing skills were practised and developed. Uncle Rex Kapeen from Cabbage Tree Island built a permanent fishing camp there so he could access the beach daily and take advantage of when the fish were abundant:

Uncle Rex Kapeen's fishing hut
Uncle Rex Kapeen's caravan and fishing hut

' ... He wanted to go fishing and he stayed 'til all hours of the night, so he got permission to go out there and stay out there ... So quiet for him, he loved to be in the quiet and loved to go and fish when he wanted to fish. And there's certain times that the bream's on, and certain times of day when you've got to go, and if you want to fish for big fish you've got to be there ... We went and visited Rex everytime we went up the beach and all that, had a quick cup of tea and went down and done some fishing, or if you were down there fishing and you wanted a cup, you'd go up to Rexy's hut and he'd always have a pot of something on the open fire and you could have a cuppa, but see, I remember him, I think he might have started off in a hut, some sort of tin hut of some kind, then he had a caravan towed out there.'

Aunty Bertha Kapeen, interview 24 January 2005, Ballina

Uncle Rex Kapeen developed a reputation amongst the Aboriginal and the European communities for his fishing techniques. He could fish on the surf beach at Broadwater with a hand line without getting wet:


Uncle Rex Kapeen
Uncle Rex Kapeen

'And he was well known for all the fishing he did and the way he did, 'cause it's amazing the way he did it. Well, he'd never go, most people go in waist high in water to fish out the surf, but ... he always just followed the tide and come back, and his line was just thrown just there where he could be, and he always caught the best fish ... And do you remember the old people fishing, because the old people never got wet, and I sit down sometimes and I think about that, you know, how did they do it ... A lot of white people talk highly of Rexy because they were amazed at the way he fishes.'

Aunty Bertha Kapeen, interview 24 January 2005, Ballina

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Page last updated: 21 May 2013