Hobsons Bay and Yarrabah – sisters by the sea

Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website

In July 2016,  members of Get Up Out West visited Yarrabah to meet, interview, film and photograph a handful of  residents, with a view to increasing awareness in Hobsons Bay about Yarrabah, and the friendship alliance between the two municipalities.

The trip was funded by Hobsons Bay City Council, following a funding application from Get Up Out West that was auspiced by the Spotswood RSL.

The following extracts and articles are a work-in-progress and will perhaps accompany an exhibition that features photography and video-interviews by Bruce Davis.

The visit to Yarrabah was co-ordinated by Ian Carpenter of Get Up Out West.

Yarrabah Shire is an independent Aboriginal community situated in north Queensland approximately an hour’s drive from Cairns. The area has a population of around 4,000 people, with an average age (according to 2011 Census) of 22 years. Yarrabah is located on a peninsula and is known as Paradise By The Sea.

In contrast, Hobsons Bay is situated ten kilometres from Melbourne in the inner western metro region. The city covers an area of 66 kilometres with a population of over 84,000. A range of major industrial complexes in the city contribute significantly to the economy of Victoria.

Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire

Nathan Schreiber, Yarrabah school teacher:

“Our mob always lived in this area, going back to before colonisation. There are cave paintings in some places here. Very special for us. Not anyone can visit. There are paintings and drawings on our cave walls going back to the time of the Endeavour, to prove that our mob’s always been here. My dad’s family’s always lived in this area, going back to since time started. That’s the beautiful thing about me working here, on country, in the position that I am in. I feel so blessed and so honoured to have this role.”

Elverina Johnson, musician and arts shop owner:

“The relationship between Hobsons Bay and Yarrabah speaks for itself, speaks volumes in terms of an ongoing commitment to reconciliation, between an external community such as Hobsons Bay and an Aboriginal community.”

 Ross Andrews, mayor:

” I feel very much honoured to be Mayor of Yarrabah, after working in administration here for 20 years or more. Yarrabah is like other parts of the country, where we all have our challenges. We’re no different. We need to work together with shared contributions. We need to be enthusiastic about bringing about change. We’ve got to look outside the community, to relationships and partnerships with other local governments, external providers. It must not be an inward focus.”

Glennis Noble, co-ordinator Yarrabah Indigenous Knowledge Centre:

“I’m from the Gunggandji tribe, traditional owners of Yarrabah. I would like to see tourists come to Yarrabah, because we need to think about economic development, to bring money into the community.”

David Mundraby, teacher aide:

“The land is like Mother Earth. We don’t own the land. The land owns us. It provides everything for us. It’s a living thing – the trees, the animals, the birds. Everything is connected. Without that, we got nothing. It’s very important that we teach our children that everything’s connected to the land and the sea.”

Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website.
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website.


In 2003 the Hobsons Bay-based Towards Reconciliation Working Group initiated a friendship with Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council with the aim of enhancing learning and understanding of each others cultures. The project included:

  • establishing an internet chat room between secondary schools
  • business mentoring
  • planning tourism strategies that can be shared between the two communities

In December 2006 the two councils formally established this friendship and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote understanding and links between the two communities.

The alliance has a specific focus on education, arts and culture, infrastructure, environment, business and reconciliation.

In March 2010, Hobsons Bay City Council hosted a delegation from Yarrabah Shire Council to further strengthen its friendship alliance.

The delegation visited the Williamstown High School, Laverton P-12 College and Williamstown Festival.

In 2014, musicians and dancers from Yarrabah performed at the award-winning River to Recognition concert in Hobsons Bay.

In July 2016, a small delegation from Get Up Out West visited Yarrabah to meet, interview, film and photograph a handful of Yarrabah residents, with a view to increasing awareness in Hobsons Bay about Yarrabah, and the friendship alliance.


The Yarrabah RSL sub-branch is the first RSL to be established in an Aboriginal community. The sub-branch is one of the newest RSLs in Australia but already has a deep and rich history.

Membership is quite small (just 12 financial members so far) and the building itself quite modest. A former canteen, it would appear to be an empty building, save for some photos, a couch and a commemorative plaque.

But the sparseness, in a way, tells its own story – Yarrabah residents fought for Australia even before being recognised as citizens. And upon their return they found their fighting to have been in vain.

RSL member Bevan Walsh, a councillor with Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council when it campaigned vigorously for the RSL, tells the story of his great-grandfather, a World War 1 veteran.

“My great grandfather was William Yeatman. He was from Dorset, England, travelled to Australia with a brother and a cousin in the early 1900s. He worked in Cooktown as a miner, where he met a full-blooded Aboriginal woman, the daughter of tribal elder. Together they had four children.

“He went to war in France in 1916 and was injured. When he came back to Australia, to Cooktown, he found that his four children had been taken from his wife’s custody. It was part of the Australian Government policy of the time of removing three-quarter and half-caste kids from their parents.

“William rode a horse from Cooktown to Cairns get back his children. It took seven days. He was told he was not allowed to have his children back. He asked that they keep his surname. Now, in Yarrabah, there are 200 to 300 children by the name of Yeatman.

“It’s sad that someone who served his country and was injured then came back to found out his children had been taken away. It broke his heart. He never saw those children again. Documents show that three children were brought to Yarrabah and one taken to Palm Island.

“But what can you do?  The past is past. We just got to move on.”

Mr Walsh also tells the story of his grandfather, who fought along the Kokoda Trail in World War 2.

‘”Fighting in Papua New Guinea traumatised my grandfather for a number of years. But he came back and fought for his family and his people. He represented them during the 1957 strike in Yarrabah about rations.”

In December 1957, long-smouldering dissent between Aboriginal workers and the Yarrabah missionaries, erupted into a strike, leading to many people being expelled from their own community.

“My grandfather and his family were shown the door for standing up for the rights of their people. They were expelled for 10 years, booted out of Yarrabah. Grandad and his wife opened a little store, a shop at a place called Gindara, about 15 kilometres out of Yarrabah.

“They stayed there for 10 years, until they could come back again. Men like my grandfather, who actually went away to fight for their country , like many Australian men – no matter what colour you are, black or white –  they were treated badly by the government.”

Outside the Yarrabah RSL is a tank, an armoured vehicle that was part of the Battle of Long Tan in Vietnam in August 1966. The armoured vehicle was driven by Yarrabah soldier James Canuto.

At Long Tan Australian soldiers were outnumbered 20 to 1, but fought against enormous odds to defeat the Viet Cong in one of the most well-known Australian engagements of the war.

Mr Canuto, who completed two tours of Vietnam and achieved the rank of Warrant Officer, is one of the Yarrabah RSL’s founding members.

“When we left Yarrabah to join the army, because we were classed as assisted Aborigines and we lived on a reserve, we had to get a permit to actually leave Yarrabah,” Mr Canuto told ABC News in April 2015.

He said he hoped the new club house, would not only be a hub for welfare support to veterans but a way to encourage the community’s younger residents to sign up for careers in the Australian Defence Force.


The connection between Yarrabah, in far north Queensland, and Hobsons Bay, in Melbourne’s west, stretches back to at least the early 1990s.

Jacqui Geia, an arts manager with a formidable social conscience, was living in Williamstown, a suburb of Hobsons Bay. Her partner, musician Joe Geia, was from Palm Island in far north Queensland. And not far from Yarrabah.

In 1993 Ian Carpenter was booking bands for the Williamstown Festival. Like fellow festival board members Jacqui Geia and Paddy Garrity, Ian was keen for the line-up of musicians to reflect 1993’s International Year Of Indigenous Peoples.   Yarrabah performers were amongs the line-up of entertainers that year.

In his eulogy for Jacqui in 2007, musician Shane Howard said: “Through her partner Joe, Jacqui was welcomed into the world of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and traditional values and the ever extending family. There was always a new cousin or Uncle or Aunt for her boys to meet and she steadily became enveloped in the music world.

“She loved music. She loved dancing. Jacqui soon realised that both the visual and performing arts were a vehicle for social change. She embraced the social justice framework because it embodied the powerful values that taught “ to make sure that what you are living for, is worth dying for”.

“She had a deep respect for the historical sovereignty of Aboriginal people.

“She organised innumerable concerts, benefit concerts, connected artists, managers, Arts bodies, Government departments and NGOs. She assisted hundreds of artists get from far distances to Melbourne and from Melbourne to far distances, in Australia and overseas. More often than not, they were Aboriginal artists and more often than not they would be camping at her place.

“Nothing was impossible to Jacqui.”

Speaking to Get Up Out West in 2016, Yarrabah resident Neemah Neal said: “Auntie Jacqui was a great mother and auntie to us. She took us in, under her wing, when I used to travel to Williamstown with my Dad and our family to sing and perform.  It was great being with her, getting taught by her, seeing how she interacted with all Indigenous people when they walked through her door at Williamstown.

“She’d feed us, let us camp out at her place, she respected us. We even had kupmurrie in her backyard in Williamstown, a feast you cook under the ground, in the earth.

“We cried, cried for days when she passed on. We thought about what she’d done for our country.

“She helped us share our culture out there to all Australians. She was a great woman. She was just straight at it – what she set out to do, she did it.”

Paddy Garrity, of Get Up Out West, was a friend of Jacqui’s and a collaborator on numerous projects.  He said, at the time of her passing:  “It was rare to go to Jacqui’s house and not find someone from the Ethnic or Aboriginal communities discussing the support they needed or the arts submission they wanted written. I personally know of times when Jacqui was working on six separate unpaid submissions at a time.”

Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website
Image sourced from Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire website

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