Pompo and Christie Palmerston: tearing down statues

pompo christie palmerston

At Milla Milla on the Atherton Tablelands, a statue commemorates two people, one white and the other Aboriginal. The white man is Christie Palmerston, a noted explorer, and the Aboriginal is his ‘companion’ Pompo.

Milla Milla sits at the top of the Palmerston Highway which links Innisfail with the Atherton Tablelands. As a plaque on the statue notes, it depicts Christie Palmerston, ‘Prince of Pathfinders’, and his ‘close companion for over five years… an Aboriginal boy in his teens called Pompo’. Palmerston was notorious as a bushranger during the 1870s gold rushes. He robbed whites, killed Chinese for their gold, and Aboriginal people for any reason. Or none.

After he ‘discovered’ a route from the Tablelands to Port Douglas in 1877 (actually a traditional Aboriginal pathway), mining exports boomed. Grateful locals immediately forgave his crimes against the whites. Few cared about the fate of Chinese or Aboriginal people. Palmerston became a hero. Newspapers chronicled his exploits and serialised his diary.

Servants, companions and/or sex slaves

The next year, Palmerston slaughtered an Aboriginal family near the Daintree River. He spared one — a boy named Pompo (meaning Rainbow in language) who he kept as a prisoner and companion, not unusual behaviour at the time. Men who lived away from towns sometimes kidnapped Aboriginal boys as servants, companions and/or for sexual servitude. Probably seeing a white man for the first time, young Pompo proved intelligent and resourceful. He quickly learned English and adapted to the alien lifestyle. Meanwhile, Palmerston learned from Pompo about traditional foods, medicines, language, and native tracks. Undoubtedly much of the credit given Palmerston as the ‘Prince of Pathfinders’ belonged to his uncredited companion, usually dismissed as ‘Palmerston’s black boy’.

Taken into areas forbidden to him by tribal law, places where trespass incurred death, the boy, like involuntary child soldiers the world over, faced a choice of kill or be killed during Palmerston’s skirmishes with different tribes. Despite everything he endured, he retained his humanity and his devotion to his abuser. When Palmerston became blinded by poisonous sap, Pompo guided him for days through hostile tribal territory and back to town. They went by ship to Sydney. There, doctors restored Palmerston’s sight, and Pompo, described as an ‘adopted son’, became a media sensation.

pompo christie palmerston atherton tablelands
The actual Pompo and Palmerston

Pompo’s death

In 1882, Pompo died of pneumonia at Herberton on the Atherton Tablelands, by this time known as Palmerston’s godson and Palmerston’s strong affection for him much commented on. Palmerston wrote in his diary, “This irreparable loss plunged me into great misery. Even now, it is with an overwhelming sense of grief and swimming eyes I write these lines.”

Well might he cry. Perhaps guilt in part inspired those tears. It seems unusual that a healthy young lad should die of pneumonia in the tropics. However, Pompo may not have fully recovered from having his throat cut the year before. That happened after he helped a young Aboriginal girl Palmerston kidnapped escape during the night. Palmerston claimed to have ‘accidentally’ slit the boy’s throat when tapping him on the shoulder with a scrub knife. But coming so soon after the incident with the girl and keeping in mind Palmerston’s violent nature, it seems reasonable to suspect Palmerston cut his throat intentionally. Pompo lingered at death’s door for over a week before recovering.

Strangely, the statue at Milla Milla portrays Pompo as a tall strapping warrior. In fact, all indications are that the boy was a child, no older than early to late teens when he died. Perhaps those who commissioned the statue felt some concern about the much-commented-on character of the relationship between Palmerston and the child and thought it better to portray Palmerston’s companion as an adult.

Christie Palmerston

People referred to Palmerston during his lifetime as a man of mystery. Even today, no one knows who he was. For many years people believed him the bastard son of a British Prime Minister — a story Palmerston invented himself. Both Wikipedia and the Australian Dictionary of Biography make the easily disproven claim that he was the child of a famous opera singer and her Italian nobleman husband. The name Palmerston is also an invention — no such surname existed at the time. The surname of Viscount Palmerston, who Christie falsely claimed as his father, was Temple. Palmerston was his title.

Palmerston first shows up in documented history in 1869 aged about 17. He borrowed a horse and saddle from a property he was working on in central Queensland and left. During the night he met a lost man in the bush who offered to pay his room and board if Palmerston guided him to the nearest town. After that, the man offered to put the lad up at his stables in Rockhampton. Arrested a couple of months later for stealing the horse and saddle, Palmerston gave his name as Christopher. The ‘beardless youth’ was sentenced to two years’ jail in Brisbane. The description of him as a ‘beardless youth’ is noteworthy because at that time beards were taken as an indicator of masculinity. To be unbearded was to be thought effeminate.

By 1873, Palmerston joined the Palmer River gold rush inland from Cooktown. He provoked an Aboriginal attack on his fellow miners when he stole fish from the local First Nations people and copped a spear through the foot. Not long after he went bush and lived as a bushranger for a few years. North Queensland mythology describes him riding into towns attended by a Praetorian guard of muscular butt-naked Aboriginal warriors.

Christie Palmerston marriage

After Pompo died, he took other young Aboriginal men as companions before eventually marrying a woman in Townsville. His wife came from a wealthy local family and he stayed with her long enough to father a daughter. Not long enough to provide for the daughter, however.

Palmerston ended up in Malaysia where he died of fever in 1897.

His own inclination to spin tall tales meant he left behind a mainly mythological legacy on his departure from North Queensland. But then, the legend grew. With so little known about him, people felt free to turn him into a superhero of the North Queensland rainforest.

But Palmerston was no hero. He was a thief,  conman, armed robber, murderer, rapist, child abuser and possibly child sex abuser.

Yet the highway from Innisfail to Milla Milla bears his name.

And the statue in Milla Milla depicts a noble Aussie explorer standing alongside a proud Aboriginal warrior with a defiant fist raised in the air. It seems sad that Pompo, trapped in a partnership with Palmerston for the last years of his short life, should also after his death remain linked to the man who murdered his family and blighted his youth.

But fibreglass statues don’t last much more than two or three decades outdoors without maintenance and this one is almost 20 years old.

In the harsh tropical climate, it may well crumble before anyone tries to pull it down.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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