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Archibald Meston (1851–1924)

by Jonathan Richards and Paul Memmott

This article was published online in 2023

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Archibald Meston (1851–1924), journalist, showman, and administrator, was born on 26 March 1851 at his grandfather’s farm, Rappachie, Migvie parish, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, second son and youngest of six children of Alexander Meston and his wife Margaret, née Clark. He spent his early childhood on the farm and attended the nearby Towie school. The family migrated to New South Wales in 1859, and Alexander farmed and milled sugar at Ulmurra, in the Grafton district. Archie continued his education at Ulmarra Public School to age sixteen. He honed his marksmanship skills and developed his athletic prowess, excelling in shooting, running, swimming, rowing, weight lifting, boxing, and field events, and achieving the ‘phenomenal muscular development’ he would maintain in maturity (Daily Mail 1924, 9). Voraciously reading about European exploration and romance, and enjoying cultural and natural history, he began a lifelong love of writing and literature. His own literary production would feature extensive quotations from Byron and references to Milton, Carlyle, Shelley, Poe, and Dickens. Other family members had been writers. He was related to but not (as he claimed) descended from William Meston, a minor Scottish poet, and his uncle Robert Meston was the editor of the Moreton Bay Free Press (1852–54). Archibald’s first published work—a poem, ‘The Ocean’—appeared in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser, 19 April 1870. At Grafton he performed in a play alongside the photographer John William Lindt and he knew the naturalist James Fowler Wilcox.

After several years rambling through north-east New South Wales and south-east Queensland, Meston travelled to Sydney. On 22 August 1871 at the Presbyterian Church, Pitt Street South, he married Margaret Frances Shaw (1853–1940). They lived at Grafton, before moving to Queensland in 1874. Meston briefly managed the Pearlwell sugar plantation at Oxley, on the Brisbane River. He began producing newspaper articles on shooting, and writing soon became the family’s main source of income, especially after he was appointed as editor of the Ipswich Observer in December 1875. His success in journalism led to his election in November 1878 as the member for Rosewood in the Legislative Assembly, but in November 1881 he was adjudged bankrupt and, as a result, forfeited the seat in July 1882. Despite this reversal, his ambitions for a political comeback would continue, unsuccessfully, for decades. He acquired the nickname of ‘the Sacred Ibis’ during this time due to his persistent use of classical and historical quotes in his parliamentary speeches.

Moving to North Queensland in May 1881, Meston edited the Townsville Herald for some months. The next year he shifted to Cairns and took up a 160-acre (65 ha) selection on the Barron River.He briefly returned to New South Wales and persuaded others to select nearby land. With three partners, he intended to cultivate sugar, but legislation in 1885 prohibited the recruitment of Melanesian workers from 1891, and he later conceded that the plantation was abandoned because restrictions on non-European labour rendered the scheme unviable. Twice elected as chairman of the Cairns Divisional Board between February 1883 and July 1884, he had actively promoted Cairns as the coastal terminus for a hinterland railway to Herberton. The route eventually chosen passed close to his land, portions of which he leased for railway workshops, houses, shanties, tenant farms, a post office, a hotel, a police station, and a hall that served as a school during the day. In 1885 he settled with his creditors and his insolvency was annulled.Much of his time was spent shooting crocodiles and exploring the nearby rainforest. He climbed Mt Bellenden Ker in 1889 and would return to this peak in 1891 and 1904, lecturing and writing about his ascents for the rest of his life.

Like many Australian settler-colonists, Meston was initially violently prejudiced against Aboriginal people. In 1875 he had described them as ‘savages’ and expressed cynical views about whites who believed in what he called ‘fireside philanthropy’ towards them, claiming that ‘I live in the hope that a few idiots of that class may one day journey to the Palmer [River]—and amuse themselves in extracting six inches of myall inserted in their person by the innocent and playful native’ (Telegraph 1875, 5). He maintained his condemnation of Aboriginal resistance after he moved to North Queensland, writing in the Cairns Chronicle in 1885: ‘No man should travel anywhere in the North without effective firearms ready for immediate use, for no one knows the day nor the hour when the festive myall will waltz in on him with a carefully selected bundle of black palm spears’ (reproduced in Darling Downs Gazette 1885, Supp 3). That year he declared ‘the only sensible policy towards the blacks is to keep them carefully at a distance, and have nothing whatever to do with them under any circumstances whatsoever’ (reproduced in Telegraph 1885, 10). In the Legislative Assembly in 1889 Samuel Grimes, the member for Oxley, said of Meston: ‘the value that this individual sets upon the life of a blackfellow is well known. On more than one occasion he has boasted of the number of blackfellows who have fallen victims to his rifle’ (Qld LA 1889, 2251). At the end of his life, he admitted to shooting an elderly Aboriginal man on Cape York Peninsula in 1896, having recklessly assumed his quarry was a rock wallaby; others probably also died at his hands.

Despite these views, Meston had taken an interest in Indigenous affairs, languages, and customs, while living in the north. With his dream of becoming a sugar baron on the Barron abandoned, he moved back to Brisbane in 1889 and planned a new occupation. His self-proclaimed expertise in Aboriginal culture seemed a perfect way to combine his entrepreneurial and intellectual skills. He joined the Aborigines’ Protection Society of Queensland in 1890, producing his first articles on Aboriginal language and culture, while simultaneously praising attempts to persuade Indigenous people to abandon their culture and become `industrious’ members of colonial society. Newly enlightened as well as opportunistic, he abandoned the callous rhetoric he had used in referring to First Nations’ people and began describing them respectfully, within the bounds of the racist assumptions of the time. He expressed admiration for their intelligence and athleticism, and described the injustices and atrocities whites had perpetrated against them as ‘a reproach to our common humanity’ (Qld LA 1896, 727).

In 1891 and 1892 Meston gave public lectures and boomerang-throwing exhibitions in Brisbane. Also in 1892, he organised the disastrous travelling show, ‘Meston’s Wild Australia’, featuring a troupe of Queensland Aboriginal performers. He intended to take them to the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, United States of America, in 1893, but, after their Melbourne performance, his financial arrangements fell through and he left the troupe stranded there. On his return to Brisbane, he collected Aboriginal skeletons for the Queensland Museum, and he would continue using First Nations’ people in displays, including a guard of honour for the new governor, Lord Lamington, in 1896. By then, he was again bankrupt, and he was forced to sell his artefact collection to the museum; his creditors met in November and decided to liquidate his affairs by arrangement.

The colonial (later, home) secretary (Sir) Horace Tozer appointed Meston in 1896 as a special commissioner to inspect Aboriginal reserves and ration stations. He travelled to Cape York Peninsula and visited several mission stations in southern Queensland. His `Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland’ (1896) to Tozer, and his earlier pamphlet Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for Their Improvement and Preservation (1895) were instrumental in changing attitudes towards First Nations’ people in Queensland, and his recommendations led to the proclamation of the paternalistic and racist Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, which was designed to segregate and control them. In February that year, before the Act was passed, he had transported Aboriginal residents from the Maryborough district to what became the controversial Fraser Island Aboriginal Station at White Cliffs (later Bogimbah Creek), superintended by his son Harold. Appointed as the southern protector of Aborigines in 1898, Archibald oversaw the brutal forced removal of individuals and families from central and southern Queensland to missions and reserves. He was dismissed in 1904 as part of a ‘wholesale retrenchment’. That year he sold his ethnological collection of 1,100 items.

In 1890 Meston had published the commissioned Queensland Railway and Tourists’ Guide. The government was reported to have issued a thousand copies of his Geographic History of Queensland (1895) to schoolteachers. His `Queensland’s State Parliament: From the Beginning’ series of articles in the Brisbane Truth (April–October 1906) was a detailed political history to 1877.

Meston’s final expedition to North Queensland, in 1909, almost cost him his life because of a snake bite requiring urgent medical attention on Thursday Island. His last employment, as manager of the Sydney branch of the Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau between 1909 and 1915 ended with an acrimonious court case and his compulsory retirement. He spent periods in the last decade of his life on a 346-acre (140 ha) prickly pear infested block in which he had a half interest in the Dalma Scrub, west of Rockhampton, without developing the land. In 1923 he visited the Barambah (Cherbourg) and Taroom Aboriginal settlements with, among others, his friend William Gall, the under-secretary for home affairs, and John Bleakley, the chief protector of Aborigines. Meston died on 11 March 1924 in Brisbane and, following a Presbyterian service, was buried in South Brisbane cemetery; his wife survived him, as did their four sons and one of their three daughters. Although he had been recently awarded a Commonwealth writer’s pension, he died a pauper.

A man who never lacked confidence in his own knowledge and ability, Meston left an ambiguous legacy. The purported `Friend of the Blackfellow’ (Boomerang 1891, 10) had seen himself as an expert on Indigenous culture, despite admitting that he was only ‘familiar with several dialects’ (Meston 1895, 3). His lack of education and qualifications were, he thought, no impediment to his superior ‘knowledge [including] the whole existing literature on the subject, from [Lancelot] Threlkeld’s “Specimens of an Australian Language,” in 1827, to the present time, besides official and unofficial reports, despatches, and inquiries since 1805’ (Meston 1895,  3). He earnestly believed his understanding, not only of Aboriginal people, but also of Australian history was better than that of any other colonist, regularly engaging in public disputes and arguments about specific details of Aboriginal culture, exploration, colonial settlement, and European society. Other authorities, such as Tom Petrie, were probably better informed about Aboriginal languages, and Meston’s historical writing, often inaccurate and unsystematic, is of questionable value, but he was a compulsive and prolific writer. He had a major influence on the writing of Queensland history, and on attitudes towards and the development of so-called ‘Protection’ policies imposed on First Nations’ people in Queensland. Misinformation about his life—which he had contributed and which members of his family compounded in their efforts to promote his work after his death—distorted early biographical writing on him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5. [View Article]

Select Bibliography

  • Aird, Michael, and Paul Memmott, 2021. ‘Photographic Identification of the Troupe Members of the Wild Australia Show.’ Memoirs of the Queensland Museum—Culture 12 (June 2021): 7–26
  • Boomerang. ‘Men We Mark— No. 5: Archibald Meston: (Railway) Guide, Philosopher and Friend (of the Blackfellow).’ 23 May 1891, 10
  • Cryle, Mark. `Introduction.’ In Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, by Constance Campbell Petrie, xvi–xlvi. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1992
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), ‘Mr. A. Meston Dead. A Great Queenslander. Remarkable Career.’ 12 March 1924, 9
  • Meston, A. ‘Bellenden-Ker. The Meston Expedition.’ Telegraph, 21 October 1889, 3
  • Meston, A. ‘Bellenden-Ker. The Meston Expedition.’ Telegraph, 24 October 1889, 2
  • Meston, A. ‘Blacks in the North.’ Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld), 4 April 1885, Supplement 3
  • Meston, A. ‘Correspondence: “The Gentle Aboriginal”.’ Telegraph (Brisbane), 3 July 1875, 5
  • Meston, A. ‘The Myalls.’ Telegraph (Brisbane), 2 September 1885, 10
  • Meston, Archibald. Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation. Brisbane: Queensland Government, 1895
  • Meston, A. ‘Some Australian Expeditions.’ The Worlds News, 15 December 1923, 11
  • Meston, A. ‘Wild Men and Wild Scenes.’ The World’s News, 23 February 1924, 11
  • Queensland Museum. Donation and Purchase Register 1886–1896
  • Queensland Museum. Donation and Purchase Register 1887–1889
  • Queensland. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 4 July 1882, 1–2
  • Queensland. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 17 October 1889, 2251–3
  • Queensland. Legislative Assembly. Votes and Proceedings, Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland by Archibald Meston, Vol. IV, 1896, 723–40
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM37870
  • Queensland State Archives Item ID ITM862630
  • Queensland State Archives. ID ITM904506
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM997093, 1895/2063
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM997093, 1897/1652

Related Thematic Essay

  • Michael Aird, Lindy Allen, Chantal Knowles, Paul Memmott, Maria Nugent, Tim O'Rourke and Jonathan Richards, Wild Australia Show

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jonathan Richards and Paul Memmott, 'Meston, Archibald (1851–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meston-archibald-4191/text41317, published online 2023, accessed online 9 December 2023.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1851
Donside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Death

11 March, 1924 (aged ~ 73)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation