In the 1880s, moves were afoot near the then young settlement of Cairns to establish an Aboriginal mission station on land across Trinity Inlet, at what became known as Mission Bay. The proposal generated some controversy in Cairns, but it did go ahead, under the leadership of Reverend John Brown Gribble, and later, his son – Reverend Ernest Gribble.
By the early 1890s, Yarrabah was occupied by local indigenous people who had been encouraged, and some forced, to go there. Ernest Gribble spent a decade there, and went on to become the Anglican Church’s longest serving missionary to the Aboriginal people of Australia. And Yarrabah still exists – as a largely self-governing indigenous community.
A week or so ago, a direct descendant of John and Ernest Gribble made his first visit to Yarrabah. Len Harris was on a trip to Cape York Peninsula, and decided to have a look at the community his ancestors founded more than 120 years ago.
Len wasn’t sure how he’d be received. After all, Ernest Gribble had been an authoritarian figure, and none too gentle in his spreading of the word. The role missionaries played, even inadvertently, in bringing indigenous people under white control is still much debated and highly divisive. And there’s some suggestion the removal of indigenous children from their families and communities may have taken place in those times. But Len found traces of his ancestors are still there in Yarrabah, and he went there with an open mind, and an open heart.