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Cumeragunja Walk-Off (1939)

January 1939
January 1939


In 1937 the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board appointed a new manager at the Cumeragunja Aboriginal reserve on the Murray River. He was called A.J. McQuiggan, and had been transferred from the APB's Kinchela Boy's Home near Kempsey, where he had been Superintendent. He was removed from Kinchea after a Police investigation had found that he was an indebted drunkard and had been sadistic in his treatment of Aboriginal boys in the Home, beating them with hosepipes and stock whips. The NSW Commissioner of Police, who was ex-officio Chairman of the APB had strongly argued for McQuiggan's sacking, but the Chief Secretary's Department chose instead to transfer McQuiggan to Cumeragunja .

In 1938 William Cooper and Australian Aborigines League petition NSW Premier on behalf of Cumeragunja residents gravely concerned at deteriorating conditions and dictatorial behaviour and "arrogant and abusive" demeanor of new manager A.J. McQuiggan. Cooper equates Cumeragunja with 'Nazi concentration camps'. McQuiggan's response was to victimise and intimidate those Cumeragunja residents who had signed Cooper's petition and this resulted in significant disillusionment in Cooper and the AAL. The resident's response was to call in Jack Patton toward the end of 1938.

Jack Patten goes to Cumeragunja Aboriginal Reserve in late January 1939 to talk to the residents about their failed campaign to remove manager A.J. McQuiggan. As a result of Patten's advice 200 Cumeragunja residents decide to 'walk-off' the reserve in protest at APB policies. Patten goes to Barmah to telegram an urgent message to NSW Premier demanding an immediate inquiry into McQuiggan's 'intimidation, starvation and victimisation' which, he said, was the cause of the protest. McQuiggan's response was to call in police and have Patten and his brother George arrested for 'incitement'. 200 of Cumeragunja's residents cross the Murray River into Victoria and set up camp at Barmah.

[Gary Foley]