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Cooktown's Aboriginal History

Recorded history starts with Cook’s visit in June 1770 when Cooktown hosted the first extensive period of interaction between Europeans and Aboriginal Australians. Cook and his crew spent 7 weeks repairing the Endeavour and then waiting for fair winds to sail away. During that time there were a number of mainly friendly exchanges between Cook and his crew and the local Guugu Yimithirr people apart from the infamous turtle scuffle that then led to the first reconciliation between the different peoples. Cooktown is also the place where the local language was first written down with Joseph Banks recording and translating 130 of the local words including, most famously, ‘gungurru’ which became ‘kangaroo’.

In the local Guugu Yimithirr language the name for the region is Gangardie which means "Place of the Rock Crystals." Gungaar (rock crystals) were important to the local tribes as they were used to cut chest skin during initiation ceremonies. Because of its importance to the different tribes Gangardie was a neutral area where the Guugu Yimithirr and the neighbouring Kuku Yalanji tribes could have safe, unhindered access to collect the quartz stones. Gangardie stretched from Annan River (Yuku Baja) and the Endeavour River (Wahalumbaal Birri). The beaching of the Endeavour on the neutral territory of Gangardie land is regarded as extremely fortuitous for Cook and his crew as it seems that this removed the potential for any conflict with the local peoples. 


When Cook left on 5 August 1770 life returned to normal for the local peoples for just over 100 years. However, life changed significantly and for the worse when James Mulligan found gold on the Palmer River and Cooktown was established as a port to service the gold fields in 1873. While the gold rush brought riches for some it brought disruption, conflict and misery to many of the local Aboriginal people. There was early conflict in October 1873 when 93 miners led by Goldfields Commissioner set out from the Endeavour River to blaze a track to the Palmer River heading north across the Endeavour River and then west towards what is now Laura. There were several skirmishes along the way, culminating in a pitched battle between about 150 Aboriginal warriors and the expedition members at their camp near the Normanby River. The site of this encounter was subsequently named ‘Battle Camp’ and the road running west to Laura is known as Battle Camp Road. More and more miners poured into the goldfields and pastoral stations were established taking control of large tracts of land. Aboriginal peoples continued to resist and ‘frontier’ violence was frequent during the 1870s leading to many aboriginal casualties and a significant reduction in the Aboriginal population.


As mining activity slowly declined in the 1890s. Aboriginals were employed as stockmen and workers on the surrounding pastoral stations and Aboriginal fringe camps were established on the outskirts of Cooktown. John Davis, the then Mayor of Cooktown suggested establishing an Aboriginal reserve on the North shore of the Endeavour River to keep them from ‘any unnecessary intermingling’ with the European residents of Cooktown and provide a ready labour force for the beche-de-mer fishing industry’. In 1885, a Lutheran missionary travelling to New Guinea was unexpectedly delayed in Cooktown. On witnessing the poor conditions suffered by local Aboriginals, he negotiated with the Queensland Government to establish one mission close to Cooktown at Cape Bedford and another at the Bloomfield River. The original mission at Cape Bedford moved and eventually ending up at Hope Value while the Bloomfield mission became Wujal Wujal. In 1887 the legendry George Schwartz (known as Muni) arrived to take over the Cape Bedford mission. His commitment and empathy over the 50 years he ran the Mission are one of the major reasons we can still experience Guugu Yimithirr people and culture today,

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Aboriginal art & culture in Cooktown

Today Cooktown is a very racially harmonious town – it is after all the place of the first act of reconciliation in 1770. The local communities have worked hard to make Cooktown a place where colour and race are largely irrelevant and there are good opportunities to experience the aboriginal people and their art and culture. 

One of the best ways to do this is through a tour led by local aboriginal experts such as:​


You can also learn more about aboriginal art and culture by visiting:

  • The Cooktown Museum where the story of Cook’s Landing is told from the Aboriginal perspective, and stories from the days of the Cape Bedford Mission to recent times. There are also some wonderful Aboriginal tools, artifacts and artworks on display.

  • The Milbi Wall at the Wharf which tells the story of the Guugu Yimithirr people in hand-painted tiles

  • The Kuku Bulkaway Indigenous Art Gallery is also definitely worth a visit for its vibrant art and beautiful jewelry and an opportunity to meet the local Cape York artists whose inspiration comes from the land and sea country that surrounds them. Many of the paintings come from stories that the artists were taught as children or of local bush food and animals in our region..


Drive out to HopeVale to see today’s community and on to the stunning beach at Elim, home to the famous Coloured Sands (Silica) and a popular recreational spot for Hope Vale and Cooktown people Visit the Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre is located on the banks of the Bloomfield River just below the Wujal Wujal Waterfall one hours drive south of Cook town. Enjoy the vibrant art and crafts of local artists from the local clan group.

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Aboriginal art & culture in the Region

Cooktown is a great base to visit Laura only 1.5 hrs away and famous for its Aboriginal Art and Culture. The Laura rock art is unique for its quantity, quality, variety and age. The galleries have hosted artists over hundreds of generations. Some creating new works over old, others beginning new galleries in separate overhangs and shelters. The local ‘Quinkan’ Country takes its name from the spirit figures which are featured in an array of rock art galleries, located across the belt of sandstone which dominates this landscape. The Quinkan galleries are believed to be between 15,000 and 40,000 years. They are listed by UNESCO as being among the top 10 rock art sites in the world. See


The famous Laura Rock Art Galleries are located just off the Peninsula Development Road and contain numerous Aboriginal paintings, engravings and hand stencils. Split Rock Gallery is accessible on a 30-minute self-guided walk for $30 (honesty box system). The other sites require a guided tour. There are also public toilets available in the car park for the use of paying customers only.

Jarramali Rock Art Tours has a range of great tour experiences around Laura including the Magnificent Gallery.  

Every other July Laura hosts its famous Aboriginal Dance Festival where people from about 20 different communities located across the Cape come together to celebrate with music, dance, singing and cultural performances. The next festival is 2023

Quinkans at Laura Rock Art Galleries
Hopevale home of Guugu Yimithirr people
Laura Dance Festival
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