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'Wealth of the reef': the entanglement of economic and environmental values in early twentieth century representations of the Great Barrier Reef.

In 1936 Theodore Roughley, the Superintendent of New South Wales Fisheries, published Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, a book he hoped would stimulate in the reader:

   A desire to visit this masterpiece of nature's craftsmanship; and
   if, when he goes there, he is helped to understand and to
   appreciate the wealth, the interest, and the beauty of the life he
   sees, then it will have abundantly served the purpose for which it
   was conceived and written. (2)

Roughley's proclamation presented an apt summation of early twentieth-century European perspectives on the Great Barrier Reef. (3) His statement, unremarkable among those of his contemporaries, identified the Reef as a place of not only immense scientific interest and surpassing beauty but also great commercial potential.

Histories of the Reef have characterised the period between 1900 and 1939 as a creative prelude to modern Reef conservationism. These histories tend to be informed by the memorialisation of the politics of the Bjelke-Petersen era and the 'Save the Reef' campaign of 1967-75. These histories, however, have not given sufficient consideration to how perceptions of the Reef were entangled with evaluations of its economic potential. James Bowen and Margarita Bowen asserted that early twentieth-century public conceptions of the Reef began to exhibit an ecological appreciation that leaned towards preservation. (4) They described the important global scientific problems concerning coral reefs, the associated benefits for Australian marine science and the impetus provided to the emergence of popular natural histories and tourism. Iain McCalman endorsed this narrative, and portrayed Ted 'Beachcomber' Banfield and the scientific expedition to Low Isles in 1927-8 as episodes that served to increase popular awareness of the Reef as a site for science and recreation. (5)

In each book Banfield is positioned as an early exponent of Reef conservation, although each addresses aspects of his life that complicate his romanticised self-image. Bowen and Bowen listed behaviours that contradicted his proclaimed ecocentrism and suggested that he failed to acknowledge 'that he too was a predator'. (6) McCalman commented that, since Banfield had authored 'two tourist guides extolling the scenic, climatic and economic attractions of the Reef, he could hardly complain' at the destruction brought on by invading tourists, collectors, sportsmen and fisherman. (7) Bowen and Bowen and McCalman glance only briefly at these complications. This paper pursues them further, highlighting the entanglement of environmental and economic evaluations not only in Banfield's but also in other early twentieth-century writings on the Reef.

While the early twentieth century was an important period in the development and articulation of an ecological perspective on the Reef, this paper suggests that greater consideration needs to be paid to utilitarian or 'wise-use' conservation, which were crucial factors in shaping those perspectives. Hutton and Connors emphasised the importance of nationalist progressivism as the intellectual framework on which the two strands of the early environmental movement--'wise resource use and nature protection'--both capitalised. The early environmentalists' utilitarian views were counterbalanced by their concerns about intergenerational equity and ecocentrism. (8) Libby Robin suggested that the rise of utilitarian or technocratic conservation in the early twentieth century paralleled the professionalisation of science, which emphasised experimentation and observation in order to seek rational solutions to economic problems. Robin adds that 'nature conservation' arose in parallel and sharp contrast to 'conservation as technology'; the former emphasised the 'reservation and interpretation of land and wildlife for recreation' and the preservation of a relationship with the environment in the tradition of the natural historian. (9) In Defending the Little Desert she elaborates on the tensions that arose between proponents of nature conservation and resource conservation with regards to access and use of Victoria's wildlife and forests. (10) Elsewhere historians have pointed to the tensions that arose between participants in nature clubs (such as birdwatching and field naturalist clubs) and between proponents of popular science and professional science on issues of collecting and observing and attitudes towards the natural world. (11)

Reef histories have acknowledged the rise of ecological thinking in the early twentieth century without adequately considering these broader tensions within environmental attitudes of the period. Ben Daley and Celmara Pocock for instance have demonstrated that love of the Reef, and the spread of tourism across it, has come at significant cost to the Reef itself. (12) Others, including McCalman and Bowen and Bowen, have highlighted the importance of various Reef-based industries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as pearling, beche-de-mer harvesting, oyster farming, turtle canning, limestone and guano mining, dugong hunting and big game fishing. (13) Absent from these histories is a consideration of how popular regard for the Reef encompassed a valuing of both its economic and environmental qualities. The inability to divorce economic from environmental considerations has had obvious and important implications for the way the Reef has been treated and discussed. By examining the writings of Edmund Banfield, the increases in tourism and scientific research, and a collection of popular texts, this paper argues that early twentieth-century perceptions of the Reef, held even by its most ardent enthusiasts, were entangled with a utilitarian ethos that leaned toward exploitation.


Edmund Banfield, the Thoreauvian recluse of Dunk Island, is a mighty figure in histories of the Reef. He moved from Townsville--where he had been a journalist for the Townsville Daily Bulletin--to Dunk Island in 1897 for health reasons. With assistance from a local Aboriginal man called Tom, he established a secluded and self-sufficient life for himself and his wife Bertha. He continued to write while there and adopted the pseudonym 'The Beachcomber', which identified him as a man without pretentions, free of the shackles of modern life.

His books were informed by a 'sentimental regard for the welfare of bird and plant life' and a curiosity about 'the destructive instinct which prevails in mankind'. (14) His expressive prose brought life and colour to the Reef in a flurry of romantic passion. For example, in Confessions of a Beachcomber he described drifting over a coral garden: 'Tiny fish, glowing like jewels, flash and dart among the intricate, interlacing branches, or quaveringly poise about some slender point--humming-birds of the sea, sipping their nectar.' (15) Banfield, however, did not restrict his descriptions of the underwater world to the picturesque. To him coral reefs were battlefields, where beauty lay in the 'perpetual conflict required by' their inhabitants to exist. (16) From his vantage point on Dunk Island his writings spoke to anxieties within Western societies about urban life's degenerative effects. He also reflected a growing trend within nature writing that emphasised observation, environmental knowledge, aesthetics and appreciation of the environment. (17)

An important aspect of Banfield's legacy was his criticism of the killing of Nutmeg Pigeons, which utilised Dunk Island as a mating and nesting site. He lamented that 'a single expedition during the breeding season to one of the islands may cause immense destruction and unprofitable loss of life'. (18) At a time when the underwater world was not easily accessible, the Reef's birds were its most identifiable and spectacular treasures. Banfield found solidarity with the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union (RAOU). In 1905 he announced the establishment of a bird sanctuary on Dunk Island, where shooting was prohibited. (19) Bird enthusiasts proved an influential lobby group and bird preservation was one of the earliest forms of government-enforced conservation on the Reef, with a large number of its islands proclaimed sanctuaries by 1920. (20)

The sanctification of Banfield's legacy to Reef conservation emerged immediately after his death on 2 June 1923. Nature writers Charles Barrett and Alec Chisholm, both of whom visited Banfield on Dunk Island, reflected on his passion for bird and wildlife protection. Barrett wrote in an obituary that had he 'been a mammal or bird collector, "The Beachcomber" would never have given me freedom of his isle'. (21) Chisholm paid homage to Banfield's selfless spirit and described him as 'jealous to passion of the rights and welfare of his friends in isolation-men, birds, dugongs, what-not--he would rush to the relief at even a whisper of need'. (22) To his contemporaries Banfield's virtues were undoubtedly connected with his zeal for nature protection.

The existing historiography has largely continued this trend. Bowen and Bowen suggested that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 was the realisation of Banfield's dream of the Reef becoming 'a great insular national park'. According to them, Banfield articulated this vision in a paper submitted to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Queensland Branch, in which he conceptualised:

   A great insular national park ... a park not to be improved by
   formal walks or set in order to straight lines or lopped and
   trimmed according to the principles of horticultural art, but just
   a wilderness-its primitive features preserved; its excesses
   unrestrained; its waywardness unapologised for. In such a
   wilderness the generations to come might wander, noting every
   detail--except in regard to original population--as it was in
   Cook's day and for centuries before. (23)

Bowen and Bowen's use of this quote is misleading and reflects a broader trend which understates those aspects of Banfield's written legacy that complicate his characterisation as a quintessential conservationist. Banfield's conception was not as vast as Bowen and Bowen suggested. He actually imagined 'a great insular national park, the area of which would embrace Hinchinbrook and all the intermediate isles', adding that: 'At least of Dunk Island it may be said, that as it is too small and too dainty a spot to be devoted to large practical purposes, its exceptional gift of beauty need not necessarily be fatal.'24 According to Banfield, Dunk's beauty was useful for people to enjoy and respect; other islands and the broader Reef, however, were better endowed for 'large practical purposes'. Bowen and Bowen conceded that Banfield held a 'selective view of nature' but they failed to address how this manifested in his identification of both the beautiful and useful qualities of nature. (25)

Others have noted Banfield's broader politics and his advocacy of North Queensland development and separation yet fail to reconcile this part of his life with his more well-known environmentalist persona. (26) Banfield's promotion of a more complex appreciation of the Reef is worth more consideration than the existing historiography has hitherto provided. By examining his conception of how the Reef fitted within Queensland's social, cultural and economic fabric, we can better understand the links between Banfield's, his contemporaries' and his successors' perceptions of the Reef.

For instance, in Banfield's description of the killing of Nutmeg Pigeons a clear preference for the birds not to be hunted emerges. However, he qualifies these statements by asserting the bird must have time between shooting 'jubilees' to repopulate. (27) Banfield did not seek to exclude humans from nature; rather, he asserted that it was incumbent upon people to form a more manageable relationship with it. His aspiration for white Australians to adopt a more steward-like relationship with the environment was most interestingly expressed in his comparison between white 'sportsmen' and Aboriginal hunters. Banfield upheld Aboriginal Australians as models; they hunted for food while white sportsmen engaged in reckless destruction. In My Tropic Isle Banfield noted:

   On the very island where this bag of 250 was obtained a little
   black boy, twelve years old, killed four pigeons with a single
   sweep of a long stick. He did not boast--to his father and mother
   and himself the four birds represented supper; but in the case of
   the sportsman it might be asked, how many of the butchered doves
   went into the all-redeeming pot? (28)

Undoubtedly he expressed a conservationist ethic that emanated from a sympathetic attitude towards the Reef. However, his spiritual and philosophical tributes to the Reef were intertwined with his economic appreciation.

Before Banfield permanently settled on Dunk Island he was intimately involved with the politics of northern Australia: specifically, around questions of decentralisation, development and North Queensland separatism. Banfield's participation in these matters was usually in a private capacity but on occasion he would play a more active role, principally because of relationships with more vocal proponents, like Robert Philp. Banfield wrote a number of pamphlets that promoted the North, and highlighted the Reef, as a place of vast economic opportunities. The first came in 1885 when he profiled the benefits of the Torres Strait route to London, which the Burns, Philp & Co. shipping company, as an agent for the British-India Steam Navigation Company, was seeking a government subsidy for a new mail route that would make use of the recently opened Suez Canal. Banfield referred to the entire cruise as 'an extended pleasure trip', but the pamphlet was essentially a promotional piece for Burns, Philp and northern development. (29)

In 1907 he wrote Within the Barrier: 'Tourists' Guide to the North Queensland Coast, which frequently referred to the Reef's exploitable resources and emphasised the islands' usefulness as tourist resorts or for agriculture. After describing the Whitsunday Islands' picturesque qualities, Banfield wrote:

   Many of these islands are not alone pleasant to look at--they are
   useful, and are becoming more and more important to the state. Some
   of the group are occupied by sheep farmers, and there is splendid
   timber to be obtained and marble, too. (30)

Similarly, Banfield celebrated Magnetic Island (off Townsville) as a place of both permanent and transient settlement and lauded the beauty of Green Island (off Cairns) and its virtues as a recreational park for the locals. (31) He increased public awareness of the Reef, promoted a sympathetic attitude to it and fostered a sense of 'nature conservation' towards the Reef. (32) However, he also saw the Reef as integral to the Queensland economy.


As Banfield's pamphlet indicates, contrary to inferences in other works, (33) Reef tourism existed well before the 1920s. As early as the 1870s Townsville and Cairns residents were utilising both Magnetic and Green Islands as holiday retreats. A correspondent to the Queenslander noted on Easter Monday 1879, 'four picnic parties left Ross Creek for Magnetic Island'. (34) In 1877 the Queenslander included correspondence from a Cairns contributor detailing the activities likely to occur during the festive season and predicted shell collecting, pigeon shooting, and picnics on Green Island. (35) Well before the twentieth century tourists to the Reef revelled in its natural scenery and utilised its exploitable characteristics as part of their recreation. In a period when rail links along the Queensland coast were not complete, transportation and shipping were conducted through the Reef. Unsurprisingly, people from towns along the Queensland coast utilised whatever vessels they had to visit the islands and to explore their surrounding waters.

By 1900 the popularity of both Magnetic and Green Island had expanded along with the infrastructure that enabled their access. In 1900 competing Magnetic Island hotel proprietors Richard Butler and Robert Hayles advertised in a Charters Towers newspaper their daily services, hotels and the merits of the railway link between Townsville and Charters Towers. (36) According to a 1906 booklet written by Banfield, the attractions of Magnetic Island included bathing, boating, fishing, 'scaling the pine-clad headlands', 'hunting wild goats' and deep-sea fishing. The latter, Banfield imagined, would someday constitute one of the great Reef industries, which would have its base at Magnetic Island. (37) The tourist appeal of this island relied on its characterisation as a place with splendid natural attributes useful for both leisure and commercial gain.

At the same time Cairns was coming to terms with Green Island's role as a community asset. In 1905 a dispute over the island's coconut plantation had resulted in the Queensland government ceding control of the island to the Cairns Town Council. The dispute centred on an agreement whereby the Queensland government allowed the Yarrabah Mission to manage the island's large and unused coconut plantation. However, fear within Cairns that the mission would permanently relocate to the island forced the State Government to cancel the agreement and cede control of the island to the council. (38) The council stipulated a number of clauses regarding the island's use, which were published in the Morning Post. Restrictions were introduced to manage camping on the island and prohibitions were placed on coral and shell collecting and on interfering with the coconut trees. (39)

The regulations prompted debate within Cairns. The Post published an editorial that categorically rejected the regulations and characterised them as 'stringent and restrictive'. It asserted that the ban on collecting coral and shells would hinder Green Island's future as 'the popular marine resort of the whole district'. (40) Conversely, a letter to the editor endorsed the entire suite of regulations and celebrated the inclusion of a clause protecting the surrounding reef. The letter also suggested an awareness of the Reef as a whole and that the protection of one section, unique and useful to the Cairns public, should be considered. The letter exclaimed:

   When it is considered that the Barrier reef is thousands of square
   miles in extent it is surely a small thing to ask to have a small
   portion of the reef undisturbed close to Green Island, Cairns' only
   marine pleasure reserve. (41)

Like the newspaper, the letter writer imagined a future in which tourism would play an important role as a place where people could go to hear a 'qualified lecturer explaining the lessons and the beauties of the Green Island reef'. (42)

Both the editorial and the letter writer acknowledged that Green Island's unique natural attributes contributed to its holiday appeal. However, preserving the Island's natural beauty intruded upon established uses of its resources, rendering its management politically difficult. On Magnetic Island, a larger forest-covered continental island, the conflict between economics and nature were less obvious. Both islands, however, became commodified environments, to be used by local industries and marketed for tourists.

The Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau (later the Queensland Government Tourist Bureau) was also alive to the possibilities the Reef offered as a tourist destination well before the 1920s. In 1915 the bureau began promoting the virtues of a Whitsunday Passage cruise. (43) In the absence of a completed Queensland coastal rail link before 1927, travel was still largely conducted by ship. Most travellers sailed through the Whitsunday Passage en route to other northern destinations, forgoing a 'close study of the idyllic places'. (44) Nonetheless, the Bureau maintained that the passage had become well known as Australia's 'grandest cruising ground'. (45) Like Banfield, the Bureau's promotion of the Reef linked the intangible beauty of the region with its prospective economic opportunities. The islands, in addition to bathing and camping in what were described as 'delightful tourist resort and beauty' spots, offered opportunities for those interested in pastoral, forestry or agricultural leases; had ample grounds for fishing and bird hunting; and possessed a rich supply of oysters. A 1923 Bureau pamphlet linked the environmental and economic allures of the Reef much more explicitly. It summarised a passenger's aesthetic response to seeing 'the wonderful shapes and colours reeled off beneath him' while sailing over a coral garden. (46) It then added that 'the Barrier Reef has other attractions; it is the scene of several important industries which may under good management attain to larger dimensions'. (47)

The bureau's promotion of the Reef as a tourist destination consistently referred to its economic promise, heightening its perceived value as a place for exploitation. Discussions of the Reef cannot be distinguished from the broader political discourse of the time. North Queensland politics in the early twentieth century were driven by a need to be connected to the wider world, and development and population growth were two of its major policy objectives. The Reef became entangled with contemporary politics, being described as a place that encouraged the populating and industrial development of the northern Australia. The Reef was publicised as much for its capacity for economic development as its natural beauty.


Scientists were, meanwhile, raising awareness of the Reef's fascinating environmental characteristics and exploring opportunities for economic development. Ornithologists were the most ubiquitous of the early naturalists on the Reef. Bird enthusiasts from Queensland, and interstate visitors, completed surveys of islands and sent them on to the Emu. E.M. Cornwall from Cairns inspected the 'marvellous bird colonies and coral reefs' of Oyster Cay, Upolu Reef and Green Island. He described the birds on Oyster Cay as like 'bees about the hive', and was amazed by the resulting rain of guano. (48) New South Welshman Thomas Austin visited the Reef in 1907 and cruised among the islands and cays off Mackay. His account portrayed the islands as a worthy destination for a bird-seeking holiday. (49)

Interest in the Reef's bird life was so prevalent among Australia's ornithologists that two expeditions in 1910 were organised by the RAOU. The first was a trip of twenty-four members to the islands of the Capricorn Group, which straddle the Tropic of Capricorn. Charles Barrett detailed the events of the expedition and described the opportunities for participants to pursue their scientific curiosities and enjoy the leisure activities of Reef travel. (50) The second expedition, undertaken at the same time by William MacGillivray and E.H. Dobbyn, was to the northern islands of the Reef. MacGillivray's account gave an impression that the Reef's northern reaches were teeming with birdlife. Nonetheless, as had become the convention of early twentieth-century ornithologists, he acknowledged the issues surrounding the killing of birds, particularly the Nutmeg Pigeon. He wrote: 'The birds are good eating, and many are shot for the table all along the coast, but with little appreciable effect on their numbers, so it is said.' (51) Despite examples in which their preservationist agenda lapsed, ornithologists generally maintained their advocacy of bird protection. This advocacy formed a principal part of their role in informing the Australian public of the nation's birds. (52)

In contrast, other scientific organisations elucidated and celebrated the Reef's exploitable products alongside its scientific mysteries. The Queensland Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia was particularly active in the promotion of the Reef as a place of immense wealth as well as beauty. The Queensland Geographical Journal published an article written by the politician and journalist Randolph Bedford in which he defined heaven as 'North-east Australia between May and September' and positioned the Reef as its most significant natural feature. (53) He encouraged southern Australians to make the trip along the coast to behold environments that had 'been stolen direct out of paradise'. (54) However, Bedford's essay also framed the Reef's value in economic terms, asserting that on this matter it had been poorly utilised:

   The Barrier itself is practically unknown; yet its value
   economically, apart from its value in beauty, makes it one of the
   great assets of Australia--neglected though it be at this moment.
   It produces a hundred thousand pounds a year or so to Queensland
   trade, and it has the potentialities of a million. The area inside
   the Reef in Queensland waters is 80,000 square miles; it is full of
   raw wealth: pearl-shell and corals, fish and beche-de-mer. (55)

Bedford's claim reflected principles that would become central to the Geographical Society's relationship with the Reef, simultaneously promoting its scientific mysteries, natural beauty and economic potential. Constrained by the paradigms of early reef science and driven by a desire for commercial and industrial relevancy in the Australian nation, early twentieth-century Reef scientists reinforced the notion that the Reef's dormant economic value was enormous.

The most significant contribution the Society made to the advancement of awareness of the Reef was the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Committee (GBRC). Until the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority the GBRC was Australia's peak Reef research body, consisting of marine biologists and geologists drawn largely from Australian universities. Henry Caselli Richards gave an address to the society on 15 April 1922 in which he outlined the necessity for a number of investigations into the Reef. Ambitiously, he suggested that the Reef be completely recharted every decade, with experiments be carried out to determine coral growth patterns and a marine biological station be established to survey Reef flora and fauna. (56) The final component of Richards's proposal was a 'general survey of the economic resources, especially in respect to trochus, beche-de-mer, pearl-shell, sponges, and turtle-shell'. (57) Richards's proposals were informed as much by national and economic imperatives as by scientific concerns. He affirmed:

   For defence purposes it is obvious that the fullest knowledge of
   the fearful complex of coral reefs should be available. It happens
   that these areas are rich in pearl-shell, beche-de-mer, trochus,
   sponges, turtleshell, and other valuable articles of commerce. ...
   Not only are we not using these sources of wealth, but we are
   allowing others to use them in an unlicensed and uncontrolled
   manner. (58)

Richards concluded his address with an alarmed declaration of the economic opportunities lost to Australia through a lack of scientific initiative and the Society's responsibility to counter this trend:

   The exploitation of the economic wealth of the Great Barrier Reef
   by foreigners has gone on and we stand idly by ... Surely this
   Royal Geographical Society is capable of making some definite move
   to point out our proper path! (59)

On 12 September 1922 the GBRC held its first meeting in Brisbane and elected the Royal Society's president, Sir Matthew Nathan, as their chairman.

Determining the economic products of the Reef seemingly became GBRC's primary goal. In his 1923 address Nathan further emphasised the committee's role in discovering the economic resources of the Reef, asserting that scientific and economic studies of the Reef's products, their associated industries and markets were imperative and formed an essential agenda of the society. (60) At the second Pan-Pacific Science Congress, held in Melbourne in August 1923, Richards brought attention to the paucity of research hitherto carried out on the Reef and voiced his disappointment that considering the Reef's size 'and its interest both scientific and economic, it is remarkable how little real scientific investigation has been carried out'. (61) He then outlined his ambition for the creation of a marine biological station, at which would be carried out zoological research, both 'economic' and 'pure'. (62) The pure research would fulfil the survey of the Reef's flora and fauna. The economic research would assist in the identification of Reef life of commercial interest, and methods of managing their populations. In his 1924 address Nathan was hopeful that 'some progress with regard to the study of the value of the reef' would be made. (63) The GBRC helped place the Reef at the forefront of the Queensland scientific agenda. Furthermore, their advocacy for the Reef fed into the appeal that the tourist market had established. Undoubtedly, however, the GBRC was a manifestation of an attitude prevalent within the scientific community that perceived the Reef's value to the nation in both scientific and economic terms.


Considering that Reef science found its first eponymous body at a time when Queensland's tourist body was actively promoting the Reef, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most well-documented tourist operations from the period were run ostensibly as scientific expeditions. In 1925 E.F Pollock, an active member of the RAOU and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, launched his first expedition to the Capricorn Group. Pollock's expeditions were advertised as 'Naturalists' Expeditions', where participants could complete their own nature surveys of the islands' wildlife. (64) Although the earliest of Pollock's expeditions were advertised as sincere naturalist excursions, by 1927 the scientific agenda was accompanied by the promise of 'excitement among big game fishes'. (65)

In 1928 two other Reef expeditions were launched--one for tourists and the other with a specific scientific agenda. The first was Monty Embury's Reef Expeditions. A teacher from New South Wales, Embury had embarked on Pollock's 1927 expedition and was inspired to organise his own, the first of which was to Lindeman Island (part of the Whitsunday Islands). (66) In 1929 the expeditions began to utilise the turtle canning facilities on North West Island (75km northeast of Gladstone). In 1932 Embury secured a lease on Hayman Island (part of the Whitsunday Islands) and established accommodation, dining and recreation-hall facilities. (67) On Hayman Embury also built research facilities and the expeditions themselves were accompanied by a number of scientists who provided participants with nightly lectures on marine life. Embury's quest to have scientists accompany his tours was aided by the concessions given to scientists on the Queensland Rail service. (68) Like Pollock's, Embury's expeditions were advertised as 'scientific'. The images, anecdotes and articles describing the expeditions suggest, however, that 'science' was a component of what was actually a sophisticated form of Reef recreation.

Participants were encouraged to continue the established recreational traditions of Reef tourism: bathing, fishing and collecting. However, new forms of entertainment formed part of Embury's tourist expeditions. Hilda Marks, who took part in the expedition in 1932-3, detailed the activities open to the tourists:

   A clearing at the back of the camp provided a rough golf course,
   and tennis courts had also been made where the young folk let off
   some of their surplus energy. With boating, fishing, reefing and
   picnic parties to the adjoining islands, there was no dearth of
   amusement and occupation, and it really took some resolution to
   stick to one's ideal of an idle, restful holiday. (69)

Hayman Island--along with other Whitsunday and Reef islands--had previously been populated with goats to provide food for shipwreck survivors fortunate enough to reach them. Luckily for the goats, few did, and the goats became part of the perceived natural attraction of the islands. Advertisements for Embury's tours positioned the goats, as well as Indian antelopes, as part of the rich environmental tapestry of the island. (70) Both Pollock's and Embury's tours gave continuity to, and intensified, the notion of the Reef as a tourist destination. (71) They helped foster a conception in which the Reef's usefulness was linked to its tourist appeal, and the Reef itself had to be managed and altered in order to accommodate tourist expectations.

The second expedition was the research expedition to the Low Isles (25km northeast of Port Douglas). This expedition, jointly funded by the British and Australian governments, scientific societies (primarily in Australia, the GBRC) and businesses, comprised ten British marine biologists along with some permanent and visiting Australian scientists. The agenda of the expedition was to settle a range of problems that dominated the paradigms of reef and marine science in the 1920s. (72) The entire expedition was an overwhelming success in terms of scientific output: a total of sixty-two reports were written and published as a result of its investigations.

The Queensland and Australian governments invested in the expedition, hopeful that commercial potential of some of the Reef's exploitable products, particularly oysters, would be realised. Prior to its departure, the economic research component of this expedition was expressly promoted by the Australian media. Charles Maurice Yonge, a marine biologist from the Plymouth Marine Biological Laboratory and the expedition's leader, in an interview with the Brisbane Courier, hoped to 'throw light on the many economic problems' and asserted that the Reef was 'a region of great potential wealth'. (73) In their assessment of the Low Isles Expedition, James and Margarita Bowen acknowledged that funding came largely in expectation of significant economic discoveries, and that Yonge had made frequent public statements on the economic importance of the Reef. Yet Bowen and Bowen then suggested:

   The lingering suspicion remains that there was never any real
   intention of investigating the economic potential of the
   Reef--apart from the work of Moorhouse--to honour the original
   commitment of funds, and that the frequent references to commercial
   possibilities were little more than genuflectory gestures to the
   main funding bodies. (74)

Yet Yonge continued to publicise the economic value of the Reef. In his book, published following the expedition, he suggested that the Reef offered 'a continuous supply of wealth'. (75) The promotion of the Reef's economic importance had been an important part of Reef science's agenda; the GBRC was established on this very principle. Yonge's promotion of the Reef in economic terms maintained this discourse, and as the leader of a celebrated expedition his input could only reinforce this perspective in the public consciousness.


Interest in the Reef had risen so significantly that, between 1928 and 1936, Yonge, Embury, Roughley and the journalist Sydney Elliott Napier all produced popular books and articles about it. These writers fused scientific appraisal with romanticism, offering descriptions that highlighted the Reef's unique environmental qualities. Napier asserted the work of the coral polyp was 'infinitely greater and more lasting' than the pyramid-builders of Egypt. (76) Roughley described the polyps as tiny architects 'responsible for the construction of these beautiful corals with a sculpture almost infinite in its variety'. (77) Embury placed dramatic importance upon the 'rampart against which the great blue combers of the Pacific beat in vain. Were it not for these reefs this east coast of Australia would be among the most dangerous in the world'. (78)

Despite the perceived awesomeness of the coral reefs, they were considered vulnerable. Yonge exclaimed:

   Coral reefs are the site of a continuous struggle between the
   processes of growth and consolidation and those of destruction ...
   The greatest cause of destruction is the sea itself, driven before
   the steady force of the trade winds or the occasional terrific fury
   of a cyclonic blow, to whose power the great boulders or 'nigger
   heads' which line the margins of the reefs bear striking testimony.

Other known destroyers of the coral reefs at the time were lowered water temperatures, increased exposure to the sun through tidal activity or rising of the land level, the contamination of water from natural silt, and fresh water. (80) Yet, despite the presence of a coral and guano mining industry in North Queensland at the time, (81) none of the authors made explicit a consideration of human damage to the coral of the reefs. Instead, like Banfield, they promoted the underwater organisms and their remarkable ability to survive the forces perpetually arrayed against them.

Birds continued to be perceived as both a wonder of the Reef and among its most vulnerable inhabitants. Echoing the calls of bird enthusiasts, Embury maintained that the 'sea-birds of the Great Barrier Reef are one of its greatest attractions, and therefore one of our assets. They are one of the wonders of the world of nature, and as such should be afforded the utmost protection'. (82) He demanded their protection from feral cats and sportsmen. Roughley, reprising Banfield, described the shooting of the Reef birds as abhorrent:

   The slaughter by the aborigines can be excused; amongst a people
   who knew not even the rudiments of tilling the soil, whose weapons
   were for food, for their very sustenance. What be said of the
   slaying by white people? Perhaps the less the better; but
   indignation cannot help being felt at the thought of such ruthless,
   such senseless, slaughter, for much of this wholesale shooting was
   indulged in out of a perverted sense of 'sport'--or rather, should
   we say, a primitive lust to kill? (83)

Napier's position on bird protection was less dogmatic. Recounting his frustration at being kept awake by mutton-birds while camping on Musgrave Island, he lamented that he was denied the 'small satisfaction' of a shotgun. (84) Despite Napier's one unpleasant evening, the birds of the Reef were generally regarded, including by Napier, as worthy of admiration and protection.

These Reef writers' commentaries on turtles demonstrated a complicated attitude towards their protection. They, like other tourists, were exposed to turtles when they visited the canning facilities on North West and Heron Islands, and became alarmed by the inhumane killings of the nesting females. While the writers affirmed the fine taste of turtle flesh and recognised the importance of viable commercial industries on the Reef, they considered the turtle too special to be threatened with extinction. Roughley asked:

   Is it desirable that the turtle be exploited at all? Certainly the
   products, both soup and meat, are very palatable, but the industry
   is accompanied by much unavoidable cruelty to the animals. If we
   must have a turtle industry, however, at least let us so regulate
   it that the animals are not reduced to the very extinction as has
   happened to so many creatures man has exploited for his personal
   gain. (85)

Yonge suggested that 'if some measures were taken to protect the young turtles in this early stage of their existence their numbers, and so the potentialities of the fishery, would be greatly increased'. (86)

However concerned the Reef writers were with the possible extinction of the turtles none raised objection to the sport of turtle riding. Napier, who lambasted the turtle-canning industry as inhumane, recalled the thrill of riding turtles like 'festive steeds', adding that 'I have not heard from the turtles; but, as they raised no verbal objection, it is to be presumed that they had none.' (87) Like birds, turtles were considered part of the rich environmental attributes of the Reef. Yet the turtle held an undeniable usefulness both as an important commercial product and as a tourist drawcard. Attitudes toward conservation of the turtle were indicative of broader perspectives that valued the commercial and practical aspects of the Reef.

Despite the campaigns to protect the Reef's more majestic creatures, writers overwhelmingly insisted that the Reef was thus commercially under-utilised and its value unrealised. In a chapter entitled 'Wealth of the Reef' Roughley expressed particular enthusiasm at the prospect of a shark-fishing industry, and believed the industry's likely commercial success would be compounded by the removal of a 'shy, repulsive, cowardly' animal whose suffering would not induce 'the slightest sympathy'. (88) Napier accused governments of wrapping the Reef 'in a napkin' and considered the reason the Reef had yet to be properly exploited was because the 'islands and reefs have no population, and therefore no votes; but surely there are things which, even to a politician, may be greater than votes'. (89)

Tourism advertisements accompanied the Reef writer's publications. The Australian National Travel Association (ANTA) and the QGTB advertised in popular magazines and ANTA's own organ Walkabout. (90) The Queensland Government also decided to distribute copies of Roughley's book to 'tourist publicity offices and public libraries in America and England'. (91) The increased awareness of and travel to the Reef was felt within local communities. In Cairns the North Queensland Naturalists Club made guided tours of Green Island one of its earliest activities, fearing the destruction crowds of tourists would bring if they were free to trample across the island's fringing reefs. (92) An increase in transportation infrastructure to Green Island had led to its transition away from a place utilised by transient fishermen and for day-picnics and the club considered it imperative to provide travellers with informed guidance about its environmental features. In the Townsville monthly magazine, Cummins and Campbell's, articles continued to celebrate the Reef as both a tourist pleasure ground and a commercial drawcard, praising the development of hotels, roads, and jetties on Magnetic Island. (93) By 1939 Reef tourism was increasingly popular but a lack of infrastructure prevented it from becoming widely accessible. However, signs that tourists were having a destructive effect on the Reef were evident. A request was made to the Queensland Government to provide travellers to Heron Island with iron hooks in order to protect their hands when they turned coral or picked up animals. The government sought advice and were told not to encourage the activity because it would 'expose the marine life, which consequently dies'. (94) In the same year Cummins and Campbell's published a poem which alluded to the loss that tourism to the Reef brought:

   Here tourists come from far away;
   With clacking tongues and prying eyes
   They stare through water-glasses on
   The seagods' private paradise.

   And on its flanks hang fishermen,
   A hardy, dour and weathered band
   That dangle hooks in opal lanes
   And, chewing, spit in fairyland. (95)


In a period when concerns about the Reef's future impel us to consider the conflict between economics and the environment it is important to recognise that these perspectives have a long and shared past. This article has shown that early twentieth-century perspectives on the Reef were complicated and informed as much by appreciation of its economic values as by its aesthetic and environmental attributes. As World War Two erupted the Reef was perceived as a place of yet unrealised economic potential, and it was becoming increasingly clear that tourism would form the greatest source of commercial wealth extracted from it.

This perception of the Reef was produced by popular natural histories and the expansion of Reef science and tourism in the early twentieth century. Nature and travel writers who frequented the Reef's coral pools and islands were as likely to draw the reader's attention to its commercial products as to describe a beautiful or awe-inspiring scene. Travellers to the Reef were encouraged to consider it a recreational park where, in beautiful and unique natural settings, opportunities for industry might be found. Scientists too celebrated the Reef's economic possibilities and considered it their duty to reveal its worth and to assist in its exploitation. The Reef was perceived as a crucial part of the Australian environment and an urge to protect its vulnerable and beautiful features was paired with the seemingly incompatible imperative to exploit its commercial prospects.

Despite occasional opposition to the Reef's exploitation and development emerging during the period, there was no sustained Reef conservation movement. However, widespread opposition to bird shooting and the slaughter of turtles along with more local concerns surrounding the consequences of the increasing presence of tourists on Reef islands were indicative of a nascent ecological awareness around the Reef. After World War II, this ecological awareness on the Reef coalesced as the consequences of development became increasingly perceptible.

(1) I would like to thank Claire Brennan and Russell McGregor for their help in shaping this article.

(2) T.C. Roughley, Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef (Sydney: Angus Robertson, 1936), vi.

(3) For brevity's sake the Great Barrier Reef will often be referred to simply as the 'Reef'. The term 'Reef' will be employed to refer to reefs in general.

(4) James Bowen and Margarita Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 214.

(5) Iain McCalman, The Reef: A Passionate History (Melbourne: Viking Press, 2013).

(6) Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef, 227.

(7) McCalman, The Reef, 219.

(8) Drew Hutton and Libby Connors, A History of the Australian Environment Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 21. For a discussion of utilitarian or technocratic conservation during the early twentieth century in the American context see Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(9) Libby Robin, Defending the Little Desert: The Rise of Ecological Consciousness in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998), 32-4.

(10) Ibid., 34.

(11) C.f., Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 121-49 and Libby Robin, The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901-2001 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press), 79-109.

(12) See: Ben Daley and Peter Griggs, 'Loved to Death: Coral Collecting in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, 1770-1970', Environment and History 14, no.1 (2008): 89-119; Celmara Pocock, 'Romancing the Reef: History, Heritage and the Hyper-Real' (PhD thesis, James Cook University, 2003).

(13) See: McCalman, The Reef: Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef: Ben Daley, The Great Barrier Reef: An Environmental History (Abingdon: Earthscan from Routledge, 2014); Regina Ganter, The Pearl-Shellers of Torres Strait: Resource Use, Development and Decline, 1860s-1960s (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1994); Alison Rieser, The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).

(14) Edmund Banfield, Confessions of a Beachcomber (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913), 92.

(15) Edmund James Banfield, Confessions of a Beachcomber (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1968), 137.

(16) Ibid., 131, 136.

(17) Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors, 121-49.

(18) Banfield, Confessions of a Beachcomber, 116.

(19) Edmund Banfield, 'A Queensland Bird Sanctuary', Emu 5 (1906): 204.

(20) Robin, The Flight of the Emu (Melbourne University Press, 2001)., 80.

(21) Charles Barrett, '"The Beachcomber" and His Tropic Isle,' Australian Museum Magazine 1, no.10 (1923): 304.

(22) Alec Chisholm, 'Introduction' in Last Leaves from Dunk Island (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1925), xviii.

(23) Edmund Banfield, quoted in Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef, 230. Ellipsis in original quotation.

(24) Edmund Banfield, 'Dunk Island: Its General Characteristics', Queensland Geographical Journal 23 (1908): 64.

(25) Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef, 227.

(26) Michael Noonan, A Different Drummer: The Story of E.J. Banfield, the Beachcomber of Dunk Island (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983).

(27) Edmund Banfield, My Tropic Isle (London: Fisher Unwin 1912), 215.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Edmund Banfield, The Torres Strait Route: From Queensland to England by the British Steam Navigation Company's Royal Mail Steamer 'Chyebassa' (Townsville: Willmett, 1885).

(30) Edmund Banfield, Within the Barrier: 'Tourists' Guide to the North Queensland Coast (Townsville: Willmett, 1907), 10.

(31) Ibid., 23, 55.

(32) Robin, Defending the Little Desert, 32.

(33) Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef; McCalman, The Reef; Pocock, 'Romancing the Reef'.

(34) 'Townsville', Queenslander, 3 May 1879, 551.

(35) 'Cairns', Queenslander, 29 December 1877, 8.

(36) 'Townsville Health Resort', Northern Miner, 19 October 1900; 'Notice to Holiday Makers,' Northern Miner, 5 October 1900.

(37) Edmund Banfield, Townsville Illustrated (Townsville: Willmett, 1906).

(38) See Alana Jarvis, 'Green Island and the Evolution of Ecotourism' (BA Hons thesis, James Cook University, 2012).

(39) 'Town Council and Green Island', Morning Post, 23 March 1906, 4.

(40) 'From our Point of View', Morning Post, 27 March 1906, 2.

(41) 'Green Island Regulations', Morning Post, 28 March 1906, 3.

(42) Ibid., 3.

(43) Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, Whitsunday Passage: Within and Without (Brisbane: Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, 1915).

(44) 'The Riviera of the Commonwealth', Australian Worker, 29 June 1916, 14.

(45) Ibid., 14.

(46) Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: A Popular Account of its General Nature (Brisbane: Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, 1923), 20-1.

(47) Ibid., 21.

(48) E.M. Cornwall, 'A Trip to Oyster Cay N. Queensland', Emu 3 (1903): 45-6.

(49) Thomas P. Austin, 'A Visit to the Great Barrier Reef', Emu 7 (1907): 178.

(50) Charles Barrett, 'Narrative of the Expedition to the Islands of the Capricorn Group', Emu 10 (1910): 186.

(51) William MacGillivray, 'Along the Great Barrier Reef', Emu 10 (1910): 217.

(52) Robin, The Flight of the Emu.

(53) Randolph Bedford, 'Wonders of the Nor'-East', Queensland Geographical Journal 21 (1905-6): 14.

(54) Ibid., 15.

(55) Ibid., 17.

(56) H.C. Richards, 'Problems of the Great Barrier Reef', Queensland Geographical Journal 36/37 (1922): 53-4.

(57) Ibid., 54.

(58) Ibid., 52.

(59) Ibid., 54.

(60) Matthew Nathan, 'Presidential Address', Queensland Geographical Magazine 38, no.24 (1923): 95.

(61) H.C. Richards, The Great Barrier Reef of Australia (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1923), 1.

(62) Ibid., 4-5.

(63) Matthew Nathan, 'Presidential Address', Queensland Geographical Magazine 39, no.25 (1924), 82.

(64) 'Naturalists' Expedition to the Capricorn Islands', Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1925, 10.

(65) 'Scientific Expedition', Brisbane Courier, 18 July 1927, 20.

(66) Mitchell Library, PXA 642, Embury Scientific and Holiday Expeditions on the Great Barrier Reef: Pictorial Material, The Embury Story, 2.

(67) Ibid., 4.

(68) This arrangement is borne out in letters between Embury, the Office of the Commissioner for Railways, and the Chief Secretary's Office between 1930 and 1937. Queensland State Archives (QSA), SRS1043, Premiers Batch Files, ID538150, Great Barrier Reef-General, 75, Part 1.

(69) Hilda Marks, A Christmas Holiday on the Great Barrier Reef, 1932-1933 (Sydney: Harris and Sons, 1933), 8-9.

(70) Mitchell Library, PXA 642, Embury Scientific and Holiday Expeditions on the Great Barrier Reef: Pictorial Material, advertisement material.

(71) Todd Barr, No Swank Here? The Development of the Whitsundays as a Tourist Destination to the Early 1970s (Townsville: Department of History and Politics/Department of Tourism, James Cook University, 1990), 9.

(72) C. M. Yonge, Origin, Organization and Scope of the Expedition, ed. Museum British and Expedition Great Barrier Reef, Scientific Reports (Great Barrier Reef Expedition (1928-1929)), Vol. 1, No. 1. (London: British Museum, 1930).

(73) 'Barrier Reef: British Expedition Objects Outlined', Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1928, 13.

(74) Bowen and Bowen, The Great Barrier Reef, 278. Frank Moorhouse had been sent on the expedition by the Queensland Government specifically to study beche-de-mer, trochus and sponges.

(75) C.M. Yonge, A Year on the Great Barrier Reef: The Story of Corals & of the Greatest of Their Creations (London: Putnam, 1930), 210.

(76) Ibid., 278.

(77) Roughley, Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, 29.

(78) E.M. Embury, The Great Barrier Reef (Sydney: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1933), 9.

(79) Yonge, A Year on the Great Barrier Reef, 75.

(80) E.H. Rainford, 'The Destruction of the Whitsunday Group Fringing Reefs', The Australian Museum Magazine 2, no.5 (1925): 175-7.

(81) See Daley, The Great Barrier Reef, 164-81.

(82) Embury, The Great Barrier Reef, 83.

(83) Roughley, Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, 209.

(84) S.E. Napier, On the Barrier Reef: Notes from a No-ologist's Pocket-book (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1928), 50.

(85) Roughley, Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, 225.

(86) Yonge, A Year on the Great Barrier Reef, 205.

(87) Napier, On the Barrier Reef, 126-7.

(88) Roughley, Wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, 194.

(89) Napier, On the Barrier Reef, 126-7; Roughley, Wonders of the Barrier Reef, 7.

(90) Pocock, 'Romancing the Reef', 25.

(91) QSA, SRS1043, Premiers Batch Files, ID538150 Great Barrier Reef-General, 75, Part 1, letter Grosvenor Francis to Premier W. Forgan Smith, 7 January 1939 and undated memorandum.

(92) North Queensland Naturalists Club, 'Tourist Guides', The North Queensland Naturalist 1 (1932): 2.

(93) See articles from Cummins and Campbell's: 'Barrier Reef Development', 4 (1930): 81; 'Reef Fishing in North Queensland--Continued,' 4 (1930): 13; 'Cruising Around Hinchinbrook', 4, (1930) 33; 'The Great Barrier Reef', January (1932): 76-77; 'Queensland's Coral Gems', July (1934) : 7; 'Whitsunday Islands', July (1935): 35-40; 'Dunk Island: New Developments', August (1935) : 35; 'The Great Barrier Reef: One of the World's Greatest Wonders', May (1936): 39-40; 'Islands of the Barrier: North Queensland Attractions', May (1937): 9-13; 'Magnetic Island: Health and Pleasure Resort', August (1939): 44-6.

(94) QSA, SRS1043, ID538150, 75, Part 1, letter Secretary of Queensland Railways Commissioners Office to Chief Secretary's Office, 19 October 1939, 3.

(95) 'The Great Barrier Reef', Cummins and Campbell's, August (1939): 53.
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Title Annotation:Graduate Articles
Author:Lloyd, Rohan
Publication:Melbourne Historical Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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