Palm Island, the main inhabited island of the Palm Islands group, is 50 km east of Ingham, and 70 km north of Townsville. Its area is over 6000 ha. The group was named by Lieutenant James Cook in 1770, a reference to the indigenous cabbage tree palms. It is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and whales can be seen in Palm Passage. Palm Island, one of many offshore islands, was mentioned in early 20th century tourist brochures as worthy of viewing on a coral coast cruise.
In 1918 Palm Island was selected by the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, to replace the cyclone damaged Hull River Aboriginal reserve north of Tully. Over the next 20 years dispossessed Aboriginal people were removed to Palm Island, notorious for its conditions and harsh supervision. Employment opportunities were very restricted and most families were dependent on relief payments. Forty-two language groups were brought together on Palm Island. They called themselves Bwgcolman ('many tribes').
In 1957, angered by the treatment of women and a cut in wages, residents staged a 'strike'. Ringleaders were identified and they with their families were expelled. A community council was formed in 1966 but dismissed in 1974, leading to another strike. When Bill Rosser visited Palm Island in 1974 he found that it was still run like a 'penal settlement', with separate residential areas for the Aboriginals and the Europeans. The Aboriginal people were not allowed alcohol in their own homes, they were without hot water and they had to have written permission from the European Manager or Assistant Manager to visit another Aboriginal reserve. Departmental rule and supervision ended in 1986 when a new community council was given title to the island. Federal funds were provided in 1989 for road sealing, house repairs and gardening, a counter to crime and alcohol dependence. On returning to Palm Island in 1992, Bill Rosser later wrote that successive Queensland government administrations had 'forced as many as seven different tribes - all with different cultures and customs - to live together on this small island and expected them to co-exist ... Even now, white society fails to appreciate that Aborigines don't necessarily react to life's pressures in the way whites themselves would do. Frequently their solution is to resort to alcohol, and there can be no doubt that alcohol abuse has emerged as the greatest threat to Aboriginal society today.'
Between 2002 and 2004 Palm Island received massive media coverage over a succession of sex abuse allegations, sly-grogging reports, the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee and resultant riots in which a number of buildings were burnt down. In 2006 the State Coroner, Christine Clements, found Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was responsible for Mr Doomadgee's death in 2004. This finding was set aside by the Townsville District Court in 2008 but in July 2009 the Court of Appeal ordered a new coronial inquest. Good news was unreported, but was there to be found: literacy and attendance at the Bwgcolman school improved, restrictions on alcohol (a community initiative) had reduced alcohol-related crime, and equine skills were improved, managing a horse population that had been uncontrolled since the withdrawal of State government funding.
In addition to the main town there are three settlement areas, the latest being Reservoir Ridge (2003). Palm Island has a 1-12 school (1918, 1964), a Catholic primary school (1934), the Barracudas Football Club and a main town with a supermarket, three stores, a butcher, two small church buildings, a hospital and a youth club (2004) that also serves as the main place of assembly. The island has an airfield and a jetty. Prices for goods sold on Palm Island are often 50% higher than mainland prices.
In the 2001 census employed persons numbered 371, and 893 (15-65 years) were not in the labour force, while 35.8% under 14 years of age. The employed persons' main occupations were in government and administration (46%) and in health and community services (17%).
Palm Island's census populations have been:
Chloe Hooper, The tall man: death and life on Palm Island, Ringwood, Penguin, 2008
Bill Rosser, This is Palm Island, Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978
Bill Rosser, Return to Palm Island, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994
Dulcie Polowea Isaro, The day Palm Island fought back: the strike of 1957, Thuringowa, Black Ink Press, 2012