The Aboriginal patients on Peel had long since been ‘Westernised’ in that they had all ceased to observe the tribal customs and traditions of their forebears. They dressed in white man’s clothes, spoke his language, and, on Peel at least, shared his diseases. Nevertheless, they did manage to retain a few of their indigenous skills, one of which was their interest in making ‘traditional’ Aboriginal weapons such as nulla nullas, spears, and boomerangs, which they used, not for hunting, but as rhythm sticks to accompany their dances at their many impromptu corroborees. Some of the men also made bows and arrows to shoot the many Lorikeets that frequented the trees around the lazaret. They prized the birds’ green feathers and used them as body ornamentation in their corroborees. The old tribal rituals and meaning had long since been lost in these dances, and the only purpose of the Corroborees on Peel was for entertainment.
They were held in the Aborigines’ mess hut and were usually of a spontaneous nature. A large pine table pushed close to the wall served as a stage on which the Aborigines danced and sang to the rhythmic accompaniment of wooden boomerangs being struck together. The noise would have been deafening inside the corrugated iron building.
The white men also had a recreation hut in their compound and among other items, it contained an old upright piano on which the more musical patients would amuse themselves and anyone else who cared to listen. One day, a Brisbane Radio station generously donated a new piano, which the whites quickly claimed for themselves. The old upright (previously donated by the Freemasons) was moved to the Aborigines’ mess hut where it quickly became an important part of their corroboree ceremonies.
However, it didn’t take the whites long to realise that the tone of their new piano was not a patch on the one they had given away to the Aborigines, so they took it upon themselves to arrange a swap. The Aborigines, however, were not fools and, realising that they had the better piano of the two, refused to come into the deal. To emphasise their determination, the Aborigines even produced spears, at which the whites backed off and let them keep their old upright.
Post Script 1:
On January 8th, 1940 an army landing barge arrived at Peel Island, and all the Aboriginal patients, along with their goods, chattels, and pet dogs were loaded aboard. They were then taken to Brisbane from where they were taken by rail to Cardwell, and then by another barge to Fantome Island. It was a sad leave-taking because, over the years, the members of the Peel Island community – both white and black – had grown to have much more in common than the mere disease which had originally brought them all together. One of the patient’s last memory of them is of their waving black arms, barking dogs, and a hotch potch of their belongings in the open barge, including their most prized possession – the old upright piano which they had managed to keep from the white patients’ grasp!
Post Script 2:
Later in the 1940s, a further indignity occurred to the whites when their own recreation hut mysteriously caught fire after some rowdy Christmas revelries. Their new piano was also consumed in the flames!
Post Script 3:
When a new recreation hall was built in 1947, another piano was procured (picture). After the lazaret was closed in 1959, the piano went missing. Its fate is still unknown.
(Extract from ‘Peel Island History, a Personal Quest‘ by Peter Ludlow)