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Meston, Archibald (1851–1924)

by S. E. Stephens

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Archibald Meston (1851-1924), journalist, civil servant and explorer, was born at Donside, Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Alexander Meston and his wife Margaret, née Clark. In the Saldhana he went with his parents to Sydney in 1859 and lived at Ulmarra on the Clarence River where his father taught him the rudiments of farming. At 19 he spent six months in Queensland rambling through the country districts; he returned to New South Wales and at Sydney married Margaret Frances Prowse Shaw. They went to the Clarence River district and in 1874 to Queensland where he managed the Pearlwell plantation of Dr Waugh on the Brisbane River. From December 1875 he was editor of the Ipswich Observer until 1881 when its office was moved to Brisbane as the Daily Observer and East Moreton Advocate.

From November 1878 to July 1882 Meston represented Rosewood in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, serving for two years as party whip. The German settlers in his electorate supported him but he was censured by the Nord Australische Zeitung for defecting from his party in the 'steel rails' controversy. He contested the seat of Cook in 1907 without success.

From February to August 1881 Meston edited the Townsville Herald but became insolvent in November and was not discharged until 1885. By then he had moved to Cairns where he managed the sugar cane plantation of Horace Brinsmead & Co. on the Barron River until 1889. He also served on the Cairns Divisional Board and was its chairman from February 1883 to July 1884. Involved with the Cairns Railway League, he advocated that port as the coastal terminus of the proposed line to the western mines. Rival leagues claimed Port Douglas and Mourilyan but Cairns was chosen.

Early interested in exploration, Meston had climbed Mount Kosciusko in 1860. This pastime brought him into contact with the Aborigines whose customs, habits and languages he studied. An observer of natural history, he led a government party in January 1889 to the Bellenden Ker Range and explored its summit, finding a new plant of the mangosteen family; it was named Garcinia mestonii in his honour. The report on this exploration was published and his successful journey led to other official engagements. In 1894 he was commissioned by Horace Tozer, colonial secretary in the Nelson ministry, to prepare plans for improving the lot of Queensland Aboriginals. His proposals were embodied in the Aboriginals Protection Act of 1897. He was made a justice of the peace and from January 1898 to December 1903 was protector of Aboriginals for southern Queensland which later included the central division.

From the 1880s Meston had taken an interest in the culture, languages, and welfare of Aboriginal people, and by 1891 he was promoting himself as an expert in their ethnology. Although sharing many of the racist assumptions of his time, he challenged prevailing social Darwinist views and argued that Aboriginal people were physically superior and intellectually equal or superior to whites.  His reports to Tozer provided evidence of atrocities being committed against them in the State’s north, including murder, rape, kidnapping, and effective enslavement.  Meston’s humanitarianism, however, coexisted with exploitative and paternalistic conduct.  Having used Aboriginal people as live exhibits in ethnological lectures from 1891, he sought to profit from a travelling show, `Meston’s Wild Australia’ (1892–93), featuring a troupe of men, women, and a child; the group appeared in tableaux vivants and performances illustrating traditional life and frontier violence.  He later created similar spectacles.  From 1901 he engaged in a controversy with the authority on Aboriginal culture Tom Petrie and his family, in which he asserted that his knowledge was superior to Petrie’s.  Meanwhile, the reserves Meston had been influential in establishing as a sanctuary for Aboriginal people rapidly deteriorated under his control into repressive `correctional and custodial institutions’.

In 1910 Meston was appointed director of the Queensland Government Tourist Bureau in Sydney and continued free-lance journalism. A picturesque figure, he was caricatured by Will Donald in the Bulletin. On retiring from the public service he returned to Brisbane. His writings on early Queensland and on the Aboriginals and their lore were very readable although embellished with rhetoric. A student of Greek mythology, he was reputed to keep parliamentary reporters in turmoil with obscure legendary references. In 1895 his Geographic History of Queensland had been published in Brisbane.

Meston had some success in such sports as swimming, running, rowing, boxing, hammer-throwing and weight-lifting. He was also a good marksman and learned to throw the spear and boomerang from his Aboriginal acquaintances. Aged 73 he died at the Brisbane General Hospital on 11 March 1924, survived by his wife and by four sons and one daughter of their seven children.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • Griffith papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. McKay and P. Memmot, Aboriginal History (Vol 40, 2016)
  • A. Meston, ‘Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland (Brisbane, 1896)
  • private information

Related Thematic Essay

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

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Citation details

S. E. Stephens, 'Meston, Archibald (1851–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 7 February 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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