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Why was Cullen Point on the western coast of Cape York chosen as the site for the Moravian mission in 1891?

The mission, named Mapoon, was the first of five church missions established on the western coast of Cape York.

Mapoon 1891, on the Batavia River, subsequently renamed the Wenlock (in 1939);Weipa 1898, on the Embley River;Aurukun 1904, on the Archer River;Topsy Creek 1905, on the Mitchell River, moved to Kowanyama 1916;Pormpuraaw 1936 on the Edward River.

A Presbyterian mission was established at Mornington Island in 1914 (one of the Wellesley group of islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.)


Dr John Harrison offers a narrative of interaction between Indigenous people and extractive industry on western Cape York (30 minutes).

Mariners Missionaries Miners

at WEIPA 1966-1969

Figure 2: Harry Evans: SOURCE: Alan Trengove "Discovery" 1979.bmp

Figure 1: Harry Evans: SOURCE: Alan Trengove "Discovery" 1979


The exploration and identification of the extensive reserves of bauxite on western Cape York Peninsula could not have been achieved without the assistance of both pastoralists, who provided equipment, the Mission, which provided supplies, and most importantly the Aboriginal man, named here only as “Old Matthew”. It remains for historians to recover from the mission records his full name and identity, and to accord him a proper place in the history of European-Indigenous interactions of western Cape York.

This account is taken from Harold Raggatt’s Mountains of Ore (Landsdowne Press, 1968) pp.86-89.


On 16 July, on the edge of high tableland overlooking the head waters of the Embley River, I found an outcrop of pisolitic (pea size) bauxite. The bauxite outcrop as boulders and blocks up to 3 feet thick. On further investigation, there appeared to be about half a square mile underline by bauxite. I collected three samples and returned to York Downs Station.

That night, the possibility of continuing west to the Weipa Mission was discussed with Mr Tomey, owner of the York Downs Station, who stated that her track was known to exist between his station and the Mission. He suggested that I should take one of his natives as a guide. Next day (17th July), the other members of the geological party remained at York Downs Station and I set off with a native guide. We reached the Weipa Mission station that night after having been bogged into tidal creeks on the way. En route, we passed over at least 6 miles pisolitic material which I sampled at approximately one mile intervals. By this time I was beginning to realise just how extensive the bauxite deposit was and its possible economic significance.

Next morning, standing in front of the Mission House, I realised that red cliffs extended across the Embley River south of the Mission. This indicated a possible extension south along the coast. As no boat was available at the Mission, I returned to Coen and then south to Melbourne. The samples collected on the trip were forwarded to Bell Bay for analysis and the results indicated that the Weipa deposit could be of commercial interest.

Arrangements within made with Frome-Broken Hill (with whom I was on loan from Consolidated Zinc) for my return to the staff of the Consolidated Zinc Corporation for a few months. It was decided that I should return to the area and try to cover as much of the coastal area as possible by whatever means of transport I could obtain in the area. I arrived at Coen by air on October 5th and after enquiries found that I could hire a Land Rover And a 9 foot fibreglass Dinky with outboard motor from Mr L Wessel, the owner of the “Silver Plains” cattle station.

Mr Wessel and I set off on 7th and arrived at Weipa on 9th October. I obtained the services of an old native named Matthew and we set off next day in the  dinghy to examine the cliffs across the Embley River and continued along the south bank of the estuary towards Urquhart Point on Albatross Bay. At 3 p.m. a westerly wind was blowing strongly in the choppy waves swamped the outboard motor. We rowed to the edge of the mangroves to tie up the dinghy and try to clear the motor of water. The heavy swell caused by the westerly wind made this job difficult in the cramped space of the dinghy. Halfway through the clearing operation the throttle of the motor dropped overboard in 12 feet of water; we tried unsuccessfully to salvage it by diving. The thick mud on the bottom made the task hopeless, so we abandoned the attempt and rowed back across the industry to the Mission.

That evening we checked the few available truck parts about the Mission but could not find a suitable part. The trip down the coast seems now to be out of the question. However, we had another look at the outboard carburettor and decided there was no reason why a circular wooden block could not serve as a throttle. The most easily found round piece of wood available was the end of a native spear handle. This was carefully carved down to the right size and inserted.

Next morning a trial run with the motor indicated that the piece of spear handle work perfectly. Because of the small size of the dinghy, it was decided that all available space would have to be used for fuel and our bedrolls. For food we decided we could mostly live off the land. The only food supplies we took from the Mission existed of tea, sugar and dried milk. On 11th, we set off down the estuary the mouth of the Embley River at Urquhart Point. We landed at the Point, and looking across Albatross Bay towards Duifken Point, which appeared to be relatively high ground and hence possibly bauxite- bearing. I decided to take a look at Duifken Point before setting up south along the coast. When we started across Albatross Bay, the Point looked quite close, and the waters of the Bay were relatively calm. By the time we were halfway across conditions changed from choppy seas to quite big waves and that last seven miles to the beach was certainly a long two hours. Old Matthew was so worried that his jet-black face appeared to be green. That evening we sheltered in a small co-just east of Duifken Point…


Figure 2: SOURCE: HG Raggatt "Mountains of Ore" 1968.

Figure 3: Matthew from Weipa Mission with the fibreglass dinghy used by Evans to survey the coast. SOURCE: Alan Trengove "Discovery" 1979.

Figure 3: Matthew from Weipa Mission with the fibreglass dinghy used by Evans to survey the coast. SOURCE: Alan Trengove "Discovery" 1979.

Next day, when the sea had calmed, we headed around Duifken Point and along the coast for 5 miles. As bauxite outcrops were scarce and the heavy breakers along the main coast made landing difficult I decided to head south. With our fingers crossed we headed across Albatross Bay once again and made the coast just south of Urquhart Point without too much trouble. That night we camped beneath the tree on the beach ten miles south of Urquhart Point.

From there we continued thirty miles south to Pera Head in the open sea, landing at intervals along the coast to sample the bauxite cliffs. The mornings were generally calm, but by 2 o’clock each day the westerly winds blew steadily and rough seas were quite troublesome. The main difficulty for us was that the improvised spear handle throttle could only be adjusted for a fixed speed, and the only way to stop the motor was to shut off the petrol; this meant that when approaching the beach to land the distance offshore at which to shut off the petrol had to be judged carefully. Needless to say, our judgement was not often correct, and most times the dinghy and its contents were swamped during the landing. Fortunately, the fibreglass dinghy was of the unsinkable type, and although we were sitting in water up to our waists, we made the beach safely.

As the journey down the coast revealed miles of bauxite cliffs, I kept thinking that, if all this is bauxite, then there must be something the matter with it; otherwise it would have been discovered and appreciated long ago. After reaching Pera Head, we decided to go another 10 miles down to Norman Creek, where we turned back to Weipa, as fuel supplies were running low. During the journey I examined 52 miles of coastline and travelled 180 miles 9 foot dinghy.

After sorting the samples I returned by Land Rover to Coen where I departed by air for Melbourne. In June 1956, I returned to the area and made an aerial reconnaissance of the coast from Mitchell River to Cape York.

During this flight I sketched the areas of potential bauxite that required further investigation by July 1956, the Company had commenced prospecting in the Weipa area and the launch was now available I set off to examine the coastline from Cape Keer-Weer to Vrilya Point thoroughly.  All sessions were sampled. In the rivers and streams which the launch could not navigate I again used a dinghy and outboard motor. This entailed travelling by dinghy a total of over 500 miles. Landings were made at regular intervals up the rivers and trips made inland for some hundreds of miles on foot. This coastal reconnaissance was completed at the end of August 1956.

During this period, a study of Matthew Flinders’ charts of the coast of Australia showed that he had noted red cliffs and a number of points along the western coast of Cape York Peninsula; all the red cliffs marked by Flinders had proved to be bauxite.

It was then considered desirable to take a look at the other red cliffs mentioned by Flinders, particularly those along the east coast of Cape York Peninsula. In November 1956, the coastal area from Iron Range to Cape York was examined using a helicopter. The red cliffs between Cape York and Pascoe River which were mentioned by Flinders proved to contain bauxite of a very low grade. Samples were collected and the reconnaissance continued along the western side of the Peninsula to Weipa. This work was completed in early December.


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