Prior to European settlement, the traditional lands of the Western Cape York Peninsula region were occupied by Indigenous people who spoke a wide variety of languages. Some of the languages had close links with some shared vocabulary, such as the Anguthimri of the country between the Mission River and Mapoon. Members of each language group had a detailed understanding of their lands and waterways, the spiritual stories of the creation of sites and the subtle seasonal changes of their environment.
The first European mission station in the Western Cape region was established by Moravian missionaries on behalf of the Presbyterian Church at Mapoon on the Batavia (now Wenlock) River in 1891. The Church and the Queensland Government pursued a policy of expanding the influence of the mission southwards from Mapoon. By 1898, the Presbyterian Church was ready to establish a new mission at Spring Creek on the headwaters of the Embley River. The Queensland Government had gazetted a
mission reserve of 250 square miles on 8 August 1896 and it was surveyed by J.T. Embley in May-June 1897.
The eastern side of the reserve shared a common boundary with York Downs cattle station. York Downs was established in 1884 and it and other nearby stations such as Pioneer Downs (later renamed Merluna) and Pine Tree had been the cause of considerable bloodshed in the area following their establishment by European settlers. The natural environment upon which the traditional owners were dependent for their survival was damaged by cattle, consequently traditional owners speared cattle for food. Station owners and traditional owners fought with each other and sometimes the cattlemen called in the Queensland Native Police who attacked and murdered groups of traditional owners.
The Presbyterian Church and the government sought to stop this frontier warfare and similar issues with the bêche de mer and pearl-shelling industries by establishing protective reserves on land to the west of the cattle stations. Reverend Edwin Brown, a Moravian missionary who had been assistant at Mapoon since 1896, travelled by boat with a European carpenter named C. Nicol, a South Sea Islander assistant and seven traditional men from Mapoon to commence the mission.
They arrived on 10 June 1898 and for the first year the site was known as the Embley River mission.
Soon after the first building was constructed, the missionary’s wife Thekla Helena Clementina Brown (née Schick) and their daughter Janetta Zoe arrived to take up residence. The earliest known photographs of the site were taken during an official visit by a Queensland Government party in July 1899. On that occasion, Embley River mission was officially named Weipa by Mrs. Emily Foxton, the wife of the Queensland Home Secretary. The name Weipa was pronounced Waipa, Waypa or Waypanden and linguistic research with speakers of the Anhathangayth and Trotj languages suggests that it means fighting ground or is the name for the whole area near Spring Creek.
The Weipa Mission continued to operate at the Spring Creek site until 1932. Due to outbreaks of malaria and the difficult access to the mission by sailing vessels, a decision was made in 1931 by the Presbyterian Church of Queensland Committee on Missions to the
Aboriginals to move about 20 miles down the Embley River to Jessica Point. Buildings at the old site were dismantled and transported to Jessica Point during 1932-1933 to establish the new mission. The name Weipa Mission was carried down to Jessica Point. From the 1930s, the old site was usually referred to as “Old Station” and in later years as “Twenty Mile”.
During the Second World War, sixteen Weipa men enlisted in the Royal Australian Engineers Water Transport and served in the Torres Strait and coastal waters. Many of these men had worked in the fisheries of the Torres Strait or crewed mission sailing vessels and had excellent knowledge of northern waters. Some also served later in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion. In 1941-1942, an airfield was built by hand by everyone in the mission community and its two runways extended northwards and eastwards from where the Napranum farm is today. This was the Weipa airport until Comalco built the current airport in 1967.
Following the development of the mining town of Weipa North in the mid-1960s, the Presbyterian Church ceased its mission administration at Weipa. In 1966, the Queensland Government re-named the mission community Weipa South, however the community members did not agree with that change and began to use the name Napranum. Napranum is a combined word from two languages of the Weipa area. ‘Nap’, pronounced ‘naap’, means ‘meeting place’ in the Trotj language and ‘pranum’ is a Thaynakwith word meaning ‘meeting of people’, therefore ‘Napranum’ means ‘meeting place of the people’.
Until 1965, the Weipa Mission village was situated on the waterfront of the Embley River, above the beach between Jessica Point and the Choolathah Tavern, while the mission staff, school, dormitories and industrial buildings were in the area near Watyne Street and Leeding Street.
When the new village was built in 1965, the streets were built east of the old village, but parallel to the coast and were named after place-names of traditional country around Weipa. The Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Island Affairs established the Weipa Aboriginal Council comprising two elected representatives and two appointed by the Director. In reality, the Council had little power to manage the community and was subject to the control of the reserve manager and the Director of Aboriginal and Island Affairs.
In the 1980s, the Weipa South Council gradually assumed more control of the community from the government and in 1988 about a third of the former Weipa reserve lands, as well as some of the former Mapoon reserve lands, were converted to Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) lands covering about 2,000 square kilometres and granted to Council as trustees. The DOGIT lands bordering the south side of the Wenlock River form the cattle station Billy’s Lagoon which is managed by Council. Administration of Council’s trust lands is assisted by Rangers employed by Council through its land and sea management centre.
Napranum was officially gazetted as the place-name to replace Weipa South in September 1990 and the DOGIT lands became known as the Napranum DOGIT in 1991. Napranum has become an increasingly prosperous community with modern facilities such as the Yepenyi-Awumpun art gallery, Mary Ann Coconut library and Indigenous Knowledge Centre, new Council offices, a health centre, retirement home, supermarket, a war memorial, workshops and many new houses being built in the past ten years.
Prepared by Geoff Wharton, March 2017