Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cornelius O'Leary (1897–1971)

by Les Malezer

This article was published:

Cornelius O'Leary (1897-1971), director of native affairs, was born on 19 June 1897 at Murwillumbah, New South Wales, fifth child of John O'Leary, a farmer from Ireland, and his Queensland-born wife Ellen, née Dooner. Educated at the Christian Brothers' College, Ipswich, 'Con' entered the Queensland Public Service on 1 September 1913. He worked as a clerk—in Brisbane with the Agricultural Bank of Queensland and the Department of Public Lands, at Ipswich in the office of the labour agent and inspector of factories and shops, and back in Brisbane with the Marine Department. In November 1922 he was appointed a 'protector of Aboriginals' and assigned to the district of Somerset, which encompassed the Torres Strait Islands and the northern half of Cape York Peninsula. He was based on Thursday Island where he also held the post of shipping master.

Keenly aware of the responsibilities of his joint positions, O'Leary wrote in 1923 to J. W. Bleakley, chief protector of Aboriginals, seeking a special allowance. Bleakley supported O'Leary's request and described him as an officer who displayed 'zeal and ability' in performing 'important and responsible' duties. When the application was not approved, O'Leary thought that he was unfairly treated and persisted with his representations. At the Catholic Church, Thursday Island, on 20 April 1927 he married Frances Catherine Josephine Bowers.

In March 1930 O'Leary was sent as acting-superintendent to Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement. His predecessor had 'run amok'—firing a weapon, burning buildings and terrorizing the inhabitants. By 'tactful management' O'Leary restored confidence in the administration. In October he was transferred to Brisbane as inspector and deputy chief protector of Aboriginals. He toured Queensland in 1935 to familiarize himself with the indigenous communities. The passing of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Acts Amendment Act (1934) had aroused fear among Aborigines working on pastoral stations and elsewhere that they were to be rounded up and sent to missions and reserves. O'Leary reassured them that, provided they were well behaved, they would be allowed to remain in their jobs.

After investigating the causes of a strike by Torres Strait Islander seamen, O'Leary was seconded in 1936 to Thursday Island as local protector, shipping master and chairman of the Aboriginal (Island from 1939) Industries Board; he retained his status as deputy chief protector. Under his leadership the industries board maintained throughout the islands the existing system of chain-stores through which people could buy essential goods at fair prices, draw their pensions and child-endowment payments, and operate savings bank accounts.

O'Leary returned to Brisbane in March 1940. One year earlier the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act and the Torres Strait Islanders Act had been passed, widening the chief protector's powers and changing his title to director of native affairs. On 8 October 1942 O'Leary succeeded Bleakley as director. He moved his office to Thursday Island in July 1948 to be closer to the majority of those for whom he was responsible. When Saibai Island began to subside, he arranged for its residents to be relocated at Bamaga on Cape York Peninsula. He envisaged 'that Bamaga, when developed, could produce a virile race of islanders to be moulded into a defence force'. His wife became a leader of Thursday Island society; she supported the Catholic Church, and the local branches of the Australian Red Cross Society and the Queensland Country Women's Association. From 1957 O'Leary was again stationed in Brisbane.

Described by some as boisterous, bombastic, dogmatic and authoritarian, O'Leary held attitudes towards Aborigines that were common among Whites at the time, but which have come to be regarded as paternalistic. He saw himself as a father-figure, duty-bound to intervene in Aborigines' private lives to settle domestic disputes. In his view, Aborigines and Islanders needed strict discipline. While they remained obedient, he governed them benignly; yet he also acted swiftly to remove those who opposed the wishes of their White supervisors. He administered the Aborigines Welfare Fund which, though intended to benefit Aborigines, deprived them of access to their wages. Controversy still surrounds the fund, with claims that moneys due have not been paid.

On the other hand, O'Leary's régime has been seen as dynamic and benevolent. He had a genuine interest in the welfare of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and formulated a number of schemes to improve their lot. Education, he argued, was central to their advancement. His efforts to help both Aborigines and Islanders to become independent members of Australian society led to claims that he was jeopardizing the safety of the Whites in North Queensland. He retired in 1963 and was appointed O.B.E. in 1964. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 6 November 1971 in his home at Holland Park, Brisbane, and was buried in Mount Gravatt cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Wearne, A Clash of Cultures (Brisb, 1980)
  • Annual Report of Director of Native Affairs, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1961-62, 1963-64
  • People (Sydney), 4 June 1952
  • Goondiwindi Argus, 18 Oct 1935
  • World's News, 3 May 1952
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 31 May 1952
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 June 1964
  • Daily Telegraph Mirror (Sydney), 2 Oct 1992
  • private information.

Citation details

Les Malezer, 'O'Leary, Cornelius (1897–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 June, 1897
Murwillumbah, New South Wales, Australia


6 November, 1971 (aged 74)
Holland Park, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.