Griffith University and the Harry Gentle Resource Centre are proud to be hosting a two-day symposium to mark 200 years since the establishment of the Moreton Bay penal station in Meanjin/Brisbane in 1824. The symposium will take place at the Ship Inn, South Bank on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 September 2024.

To register or for further information regarding the program, speakers and venue, please visit the symposium website.

The program will unfold across two days with presentations addressing the following themes:

  • Representations of Meanjin
  • Metropole and Empire
  • Setting the Penal Station Scene
  • Convict Testimony and the Reconstruction of Penal Station Reputations
  • Indigenous Encounters with the Penal Station
  • The Limits of Authority and Convict Resistance
  • Aftermaths and Legacies

The Opening Address will be delivered by renowned historian Dr Raymond Evans and the Closing Address by esteemed Goorie (Aboriginal) author Melissa Lucashenko.

Confirmed speakers include Professor Clare Anderson, Professor Jane Lydon, Brett Leavy, Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Professor Deborah Oxley, Associate Professor David Roberts and Associate Professor Ben Wilson. Chairs include Professor Kay Saunders, Dr Jennifer Harrison, Dr Paula Jane Byrne and Professor Mark Finnane.

Please note that as this is a curated event, there will be no call for abstracts.

Why a Bicentennial Symposium?

It is well understood what Moreton Bay means geographically, but historically it denotes a good deal more. It was the site of an infamous penal station established in 1824 on the northern fringes of the vast territory the British had claimed as New South Wales. It occupied the traditional lands of the Yugarabul, Yuggera, Jagera, Turrbal and Quandamooka peoples, encompassing parts of North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) and stretching westwards via Cowper’s Plains and Redbank to the Limestone Hills of modern-day Ipswich (Tulmur). A small military outpost at Point Danger thwarted the progress of runaways and briefly marked the southernmost boundary. But the station’s administrative heart was based in the oldest streets of Brisbane’s CBD (Meanjin). Life in the settlement was defined by its founding principle: the need to ‘put the terror back into the system’. Despite its remote location, Moreton Bay did not operate in isolation. It was but one site in a network of draconian punishment centres established across New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in response to Commissioner Bigge’s recommendations for secondary transportation. Thus, when Moreton Bay finally closed in 1842, the remaining convicts under sentence were transferred to other stations and the region, apparently cleansed of the convict presence, was duly thrown open for free settlement. Earlier historians dismissed the history of Moreton Bay as an unfortunate and irrelevant precursor, but these penal beginnings cannot be elided, not least because the penal station was at the very vanguard in a protracted war of colonial dispossession. In the history of Queensland, Moreton Bay is emblematic of the colonial conundrum — a history that was as destructive as it was foundational — and it resonates in unexpected ways.

In 1924 the Brisbane Centenary Official Souvenir deliberately characterised these painful penal beginnings as a mere excrescence — a regrettable and forgettable irrelevance. Unsurprisingly it set a more heroic and celebratory tone with a sentimental ode extolling the growth of the river city and dedicated to the memory of the marine explorer Lieutenant John Oxley. It is no wonder then that the official historian, W.W. Craig buried the penal station past and the Indigenous presence in the more reassuring narratives of discovery, settlement and economic expansion. Craig was leading his readers inexorably to the historical moment one suspects he really wished to celebrate — separation from New South Wales and the establishment of constitutional government in the colony of Queensland. The parochial pride and predictable prejudices expressed in this volume tell us more about 1924 than it does about 1824.

From our vantage point in a new century, we see things differently. While we do not seek to diminish or erase the stories of exploration and settlement that Craig so reverently details, we do seek to complicate them by realigning that foundational story with histories of penal transportation, coerced labour, and colonial dispossession. Our symposium aims to reflect the depth and breadth of research that has changed the historiographical landscape and given voice to a chorus of silenced subaltern voices in the years since the national bicentenary of 1988. A succession of historical turns — cultural, transnational, digital, biographical and environmental — has transformed the practice and expanded the parameters of Australia’s colonial history, making a milestone such as 2024 an ideal opportunity for reflection and reassessment. We seek to better understand the significance of Moreton Bay and the network of secondary punishment centres established on the boundaries of white settlement. Despite their relative isolation and limited capacity, the penal stations were central to the colonial story. Their evolving penological purpose (and effect) reveals much about shifting colonial attitudes to law, liberty, labour and land. Their history offers insights, not merely into the nature and function of punishment, although that is crucial, but also issues of class, gender and race.

We have curated an exciting program of scholarly presentations on a range of themes coalescing around the history of Moreton Bay. In addition to a distinguished line up of Queensland, Australian and international historians, we are delighted to feature fresh perspectives and novel approaches from archaeology, architecture and heritage, education, the digital humanities, and literature. We have also deliberately bookended the symposium with First Nations perspectives in recognition of the enduring impacts and implications of this bicentennial moment. Following the Opening Address by Dr Raymond Evans, our first panel features First Nations scholars Ben Wilson and Brett Leavy, and the acclaimed Goorie novelist Melissa Lucashenko will give the closing address.

Symposium convenors

Tamsin O’Connor (University of New England) and Jan Richardson, Mark Finnane and Yorick Smaal (Griffith University).

Contact email: [email protected]

Image (above): Australian School /19th century / View from Main Range near Spicers Peak, Queensland, Australia c.1880s / Watercolour on paper / 28 x 48.2cm / Purchased 2005 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art