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Robert Arthur Johnstone (1843–1905)

by Dorothy Jones

This article was published:

Robert Arthur Johnstone (1843-1905), explorer and police officer, was born at Richmond, Van Diemen's Land, youngest of the six sons of John Johnstone, grazier, and his wife Annie Elizabeth, née Meed. His grandfather was George Johnston. The family moved to Victoria in 1851. Like his five brothers and a sister, Robert was sent to Scotland for education. He returned to work with stock in Queensland in 1865 and for a time managed Apis Downs. In April 1867 at Landsdowne, Mackay, he married Maria Ann Gibson, who was born on 30 November 1847 at Watson's Bay. A Presbyterian, Johnstone attended the Church of England after his marriage.

In 1868 Johnstone became manager of the first sugar plantation at Bellenden Plains, about twenty miles (32 km) north of Cardwell, for Trevillian & Co. It changed ownership in 1871 and Johnstone, who trained as a cadet at Fort Cooper, was appointed sub-inspector of native police to the Cardwell district. Cardwell was then Queensland's most northerly port. In the 1870s northern frontiers were rapidly expanded by gold discoveries and exploration, and the increased European activity on land and sea was accompanied by significant increases in Aboriginal hostilities.

Settlers, bushmen and shipping, disabled or not, were attacked while massacres, cannibalism and surreptitious murders were reported often. Johnstone's patrols, punitive or otherwise, took him beyond Trinity Bay and west of the ranges, and were interwoven with the accounts and reports of such hostile activities as the wreck of the brig Maria (1872), the Goold Island murders (1872), the Green Island massacres (1873), the attack on the Albert and Edward (1874), the Conn murders (1875), the Dunk Island murders (1877) and the Riser wreck and massacres (1878). Rather anonymous complaints of the extremity of measures taken by Johnstone against the Aboriginals who killed and ate the captain and crew of the Maria reached the Queensland parliament. Politicians were satisfied by Johnstone's denial and Cardwell people, more aware than suburban dwellers of the risks Johnstone faced for their protection, presented him with a testimonial of appreciation with particular reference to the wreck of the Maria: the original is now held by the Johnstone Shire Council.

In charge of native police Johnstone in 1873 accompanied George Elphinstone Dalrymple on the north-east coast expedition to explore the coastal lands as far as Cooktown. Mounts Annie and Arthur in the Seymour range were named after members of Johnstone's family and Dalrymple named the Johnstone River after him; he had first found it when investigating the Green Island massacres. On this expedition he climbed Mount Bellenden Ker, not Bartle Frere, a supposition which has led to controversy and counter claims. In 1876 he discovered and named the Barron River when searching for a route over the ranges behind Trinity Bay to serve the new goldfields. With this route found, Cairns was begun with his assistance. In 1879 he escorted James Tyson over the Tully River lands which led to their selection, and Thomas Fitzgerald to the Johnstone River lands which led to the beginnings of Innisfail. He briefly tried grazing on the Herbert at his property Molonga but soon rejoined the public service. In 1881 he took his family in a dray to Winton where he became the first police magistrate and conducted its first land sale. He was transferred to Bundaberg in 1882 and to Howard and Tiaro in 1887. He lived at Maryborough in 1890-1900 and then moved to Beenleigh. He was living at Toowong when he died on 16 January 1905. He was survived by three sons and four daughters of his nine children.

Sometimes known as 'Black' because of his tan, or 'Snake' because he often teased children by producing snakes from his shirt, Johnstone was a keen naturalist and observer of the flora and fauna in northern scrubs. His reminiscences of North Queensland appeared as 'Spinifex and Wattle' in the Queenslander, 1903-05. These articles emphasize the things of nature which delighted him on his patrols. A freshwater crocodile and species of freshwater turtle are named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Dalrymple, Narrative and Reports of the Queensland North-East Coast Expedition, 1873 (Brisb, 1874)
  • D. Jones, Cardwell Shire Story (Brisb, 1961)
  • private information.

Citation details

Dorothy Jones, 'Johnstone, Robert Arthur (1843–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Richmond, Tasmania, Australia


16 January, 1905 (aged ~ 62)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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