Cherbourg Elder Uncle Eric Law reached out to the University of Queensland to locate the mass graves. Photo/Holly Cormack.
Cherbourg Elder Uncle Eric Law reached out to the University of Queensland to locate the mass graves. Photo/Holly Cormack.

Cherbourg to commemorate Spanish Flu victims 100 years on

THE Burnett region has a proud history with Indigenous culture, from Olympic gold medallists to renowned artists and respected elders, the region is rich with stories, talent and history from First Australians.

For NAIDOC week, the South Burnett Times will shine a light on the Indigenous people, culture and traditions that make this region special.

The South Burnett Times team respects and honours Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past, present, and future.

We acknowledge the stories, traditions, and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this land, the traditional land of the Wakka Wakka people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this story contains images and names of people who have passed away.

 

MORE than 100 years after the Spanish Flu devastated 15 per cent of the Cherbourg population, the 80 plus people who lost their life to the infamous pandemic will finally be commemorated.

During the second wave in 1919, the Cherbourg community - formerly known as Barambah - was disproportionately impacted by the dangerous disease, with dozens dying in a matter of days.

"This small community here, with the pandemic, had a real difficult time. The first week of June, 1919, we lost about 83 people," Cherbourg Elder Uncle Eric Law said.

"We've got a cassette tape of two Aboriginal women who worked at the hospital at the time. And they tell us what they had to do with their daily routines. Their daily routine was that they'd go around with an old Aboriginal man with a horse and a cart, and they would just pick up the dead. And the dead were in groups of about 15 to 20."

In an article published in The Queenslander on June 14, 1919, the Visiting Medical Officer for Barambah Aboriginal Settlement to the Home Department, Dr David Junk, wrote "the report states that 596 natives were affected and only 10 remained unaffected".

"Many died of simple 'funk', while some through grief and panic, made little resistance and courted death."

With only ten healthy people, the community had no choice but to bury their dead in two large trenches, which to this day have remained undisturbed.

The Barambah Hospital in the early 1900s. Photo/State Library of Queensland.
The Barambah Hospital in the early 1900s. Photo/State Library of Queensland.

 

Looking to provide these forgotten souls with a proper goodbye, Uncle Eric and the Ration Shed Museum reached out to Kerry Kilner at the University of Queensland.

Ms Kilner, who is the director of Australian literature and storytelling database AusLite, reached out to archaeologist Kelsey Lowe, who was tasked with finding the burial sites.

"We found old maps that showed a previous geophysical survey with a ground penetrating radar had been conducted," Dr Lowe said.

"And so we used those maps to go back out to the site and relocate them, and we were able to find the two locations for the mass graves."

In addition to using these maps, created in a previous attempt at locating the graves, Dr Lowe said the location of the sites were still alive in the memory of several Cherbourg elders.

Upon arriving at Cherbourg, Dr Lowe spoke with Aunty Sandra Morgan, who's grandmother had witnessed a girl in red socks being placed into a mass grave under an Ironbark tree more than 100 years ago.

"She remembered her grandmother had seen this and the story had been relayed to her," she said.

"She had recalled seeing the mass grave near an Ironbark tree, which is where we found all of the anomalies."

Using magnetic gradiometry and ground penetrating radar, which basically acts like an "X-ray" to see below the ground without disturbing the remains, Dr Lowe was able to confirm the exact location of the burial sites.

Uncle Eric said, amazingly, the Ration Shed were able to decipher all the names of the people buried in these mass graves and are planning to establish a memorial dedicated to them.

"We're gonna leave them there - that's been their home for the last 101 years - and in our culture we don't like disturbing them. So, we will put up a memorial," he said.

"This is part of our history that's not real good, but it's still part of our history."

"I try to say to our young people, about the history, we can't change that. We can pull down statues and we cannot stand for anthems, but history is going to stay there. The only thing we can change is today and tomorrow. Anything else is gone."

While the memorial was intended to be erected at the end of last year, the museums plan was ironically foiled by another global pandemic.

Once the safety of the community has been established from COVID-19, Uncle Eric said the trauma of the 1919 Spanish Influenza can finally be laid to rest.

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