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Spanish Flu ‘wiped out’ Cherbourg indigenous community, now COVID-19 reawakens bitter history

Cherbourg: “There were about 130 tribes from all over the state brought here … You can imagine all the issues bringing all those people together back in those days.”

THERE are bitter memories passed down from early last century about how the Spanish flu pandemic wiped out hundreds of people living in Queensland’s Cherbourg indigenous community.

“It just about wiped the whole community out. There were roughly only a dozen people who survived it,” 64-year-old Waka Waka elder Bevan Costello said.

“That’s the history. At the moment we are in the process of trying to find where they buried all those bodies.

“Apparently there’s a mass grave. We have an idea where it is, but we have to get some people up (from Brisbane) with the right equipment to research it.”

During Reconciliation Week, Mr Costello, a devout Catholic, a member of the Cherbourg Community council and who played rugby league for Queensland, has recalled many of the tribulations that have beset Cherbourg over the years.

Founded in 1900 as a settlement known as Barambah, the town became the place where large numbers of Aboriginal people were brought from all over Queensland.

Thousands were forcibly removed from their traditional lands as part of the prevailing government policy.

A road sign on the way into Cherbourg tells the story: ” “One community, many tribes”.

“There were about 130 tribes from all over the state brought here,” Mr Costello said.

“You can imagine all the issues bringing all those people together back in those days.”

Mr Costello said he felt some of his childhood memories of government control re-emerging during the COVID-19 restrictions, with indigenous communities like Cherbourg under lockdown – a precautionary measure to stop the pandemic spreading amongst communities considered vulnerable.

“No church, we haven’t had Mass here for three months,” he said.

“We still have funerals here. We’ve had plenty of those lately.”

Mr Costello said a checkpoint was staffed 24/7 by the army, while police helped to monitor temperatures before anyone could pass into Cherbourg.

“Keep your fingers crossed we don’t get the virus coming in here,” he said.

Cherbourg residents are now allowed out for two hours to visit nearby Kingaroy, where they can shop, pay bills and conduct other business.

Several Cherbourg residents breached the two-hour restriction and were forced into a 14-day quarantine outside their community.

“To me it’s like me growing up again, when we had to get permission to go out,” Mr Costello said.

“It brings back those memories of being told what you can and can’t do. And we’re in the 21st century, aren’t we?”

Mr Costello, chair of the Barambah Justice Group, said the lockdown had also resulted in a rise in domestic violence.

Part of the problem, he said, was men bringing in cartons of full strength beer, when Cherbourg only allows light beer.

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