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Robert Henry (Bob) Curry (1885–1930)

by Joanne Watson

This article was published:

Robert Henry (Bob) Curry (1885-1930), superintendent of Palm Island Aboriginal reserve, was born on 7 August 1885 in South Brisbane, second son of Queensland-born parents George Adam Curry, compositor, and his wife Alice Amelia, née Willson. Then a stockman at Malanda, Bob enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 October 1915. He served in the Middle East with the 2nd Australian Remounts Unit from April to October 1916, and was discharged in Brisbane on 13 December with a 'mildly crushed foot' and a wasted left forearm.

Joining the Department of Native Affairs, Curry was appointed assistant superintendent at Barambah in June 1917 and on 5 July, at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, married a widow Agnes Mathers, née Dries. When a cyclone demolished Hull River settlement in March 1918, Curry was given the task of establishing a reserve on nearby Palm Island. Agnes was to follow as matron.

Curry slept in a tent on the beach while supervising the construction of the settlement. In response to challenges to white authority on the mainland, Palm Island soon became a punitive reception centre for those sentenced by courts or banished by mainland institutions. By the 1920s Curry had a reputation as a 'benevolent dictator' and a diligent worker. His efforts to establish a football team, movie theatre, brass band and weekly corroborees were widely appreciated by inmates. Yet others felt the force of his domination, with lengthy imprisonments, public humiliations and floggings of those he perceived as threatening his control. His ultimate punishment was to exile individuals to nearby Eclipse Island with only bread and water.

At 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm), Curry had a lean and suntanned figure, blue eyes and light brown hair; his constant patrols of the island were usually accompanied by Native Police. A crack shot, he would fire his revolver at wildlife, including whales, and at midnight each New Year's Eve. By the close of his twelve-year reign he had become driven and ill-tempered, with an unhealthy attachment to the reserve. Despite chronic shortage of funds and widespread ill health, the population of the island had reached 1000 by 1930. Feuds among the staff became the subject of official inquiries; relations between the reserve's doctor C. M. Pattison and the superintendent were bitter and Curry was found to have twice assaulted colleagues. The home secretary's office report concluded that the consumption of alcohol 'was at the bottom of the trouble'.

In April 1929 Curry was officially reprimanded for breaching regulations by severely flogging a female inmate. In November his wife died in childbirth. By December Curry was grief-stricken, fearful of losing his position, drinking heavily and withdrawing from novocaine--Pattison's treatment for 'neuralgia of the cranial nerve'. The doctor and his patient had ceased to communicate. In this context the home secretary's office began investigations into accusations by inmates that Curry had interfered with Aboriginal girls on the island. The subsequent report found that there was no truth to the allegations, that the reserve functioned in 'a high state of efficiency' and that the management reflected the 'greatest credit on all concerned'.

In the early hours of 3 February 1930, however, the superintendent had run amok, clad in a bathing suit and armed with dynamite, petrol and revolvers. He drugged his 11-year-old son Robbie and 19-year-old stepdaughter Edna and dynamited the family home in which they slept, shot and injured the doctor and his wife, set fire to the homes of other staff and blew up the reserve's main buildings. Drinking from a bottle, and with bouts of 'maniacal laughter', he took the launch Rita to nearby islands. Returning to Palm Island in the afternoon, Curry marched up the beach—as if to 'frame his own execution'. He was ambushed by a group of inmates, on the instruction of white officials, and died from bullet wounds at 6.15 p.m. Curry, his son and his stepdaughter were buried in the new cemetery, Townsville. The tragedy provided the basis for Thea Astley's novel The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996).

Select Bibliography

  • Report on the Operations of Certain Sub-departments for 1930, in Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), vol 1, 1931
  • North Queensland Register, 8 April 1918, p 34, 18 Mar 1918, p 20, 15 Feb 1930, p 21, 22 Feb 1930, p 44
  • Truth (Brisbane), 16 Feb 1930, p 15
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 17 Feb 1930, p 1
  • J. Watson, Becoming Bwgcolman (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1993)
  • POL/J21, 413m and JUS/N 907, 260, 413m and HOM/J712 and R. v. Pryor, A/18421, 1930, 65 a, b, c (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joanne Watson, 'Curry, Robert Henry (Bob) (1885–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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