Exploring Brisbane: Convicts, Culture and Conflicts

Exploring Brisbane: Convicts, Culture and Conflicts

The capital of Queensland, Brisbane seems to divide those that visit almost as much as vegemite.

Often seen as a lesser city in comparison to Sydney and Melbourne there is an understated pride that runs throughout.

Affectionately named the river city, the river Brisbane runs through the city and is crossed by 15 major bridges. As with many major cities, despite the progress and construction of new buildings, there are always traces of its past lives.

Traces that are easily explored.

The City of Brisbane on the East Coast of Australia has a fascinating past that is reflected throughout the cities buildings and people. Find out where in the city you can spot the traces of the past and the places to enjoy the best of the present

Aboriginal Heritage

Before Matthew Flinders first explored the Brisbane area it was a well-traversed spot of the aboriginal tribes of the area. The abundance of food, primarily supplied by the river and the geography of the land made it a natural rest point for tribes travelling to ceremonies and spectacles.

The Region was occupied by several tribes, most notably the Yuggera and Turrbal clans and are considered the traditional custodians of the land. Their lands covered over 1,300 square miles (3,400Km²) from Moreton Bay to Toowoomba.

The best fishing points along the river soon became camps with the largest holding 200-600 people. The largest and most important of these camps were located north and south of the current heart of Brisbane at Barambin or “york’s Hollow” (today’s Victoria Park) and Woolloon-cappem also known as Kurilpa(Today known as Woolloongabba/South Brisbane).

However, this was all to change when in 1799, Matthew Flinders set out on an expedition from Port Jackson which included the exploration of the Moreton Bay area. He landed at what is now Woody Point in Redcliffe and also at Coochiemudlo Island and Pumicestone Passage. However during his 15 days of exploring he did not find the Brisbane River.

It wasn’t until 1823 that the ‘whites’ returned to the area to make a permanent settlement.

Looking to learn more about the local Aboriginal history and culture?

Head to the Spirits of the Red Sand for an interactive evening of song, dance, and storytelling.

Alternatively jump on the Meenjin (Brisbane City) to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) Cultural Day Cruise where you can learn about the aboriginal language, have a go at playing the didgeridoo and listen to aboriginal stories.

The City of Brisbane on the East Coast of Australia has a fascinating past that is reflected throughout the cities buildings and people. Find out where in the city you can spot the traces of the past and the places to enjoy the best of the present

Life as a Penal Colony

In 1823 the then Governor of New South Wales, Thomas Brisbane, was petitioned by the free settlers of Sydney to send their worst convicts someplace else.

John Oxley, the Surveyor General was sent out aboard the cutter Mermaid to find a suitable area of land.

As the party approached Moreton Bay they noticed several aboriginal people approaching although one, in particular, stood out. Appearing far paler than the others, it turned out he was a shipwrecked lumberjack called Thomas Pamphlett who had been living with the aboriginal people for the last 7 months.

The knowledge from Thomas Pamphlett allowed them to find and explore what they later named the Brisbane river in honor of the governor.

The following year the first convict colony was established at Redcliffe Point under Lieutenant Henry Miller. It was Later moved to a more suitable spot called “Meen-jin” by its Turrbul inhabitants and is still the central business district of the city today.

The Convicts helped to build the settlement from the ground up and 2 such buildings still remain today. The Commissariat store, which today is where the museum of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland is located and the Old Windmill on Wickham Terrace.

The Old Windmill, Brisbane
The Old Windmill, the oldest building in Brisbane

The penal settlement soon established a reputation as one of the harshest in all of New South Wales.

A favourite punishment was a 12-hour stint on the windmill treadmill ensuring that it was fully operational even when there wasn’t much wind.

Over 20 years thousands of convicts passed through the penal colony although hundreds did manage to escape preferring to risk their lives in the bush to the harsh conditions within the settlement.

Other reminders of the original settlement can also be seen throughout the city. For example, Tank Street is so named as it was the street next to where the original water tank of the penal colony was located.

However, it wasn’t until 1838 that free settlers were allowed to settle in the Brisbane area as the number of convicts declined and the need to farm livestock increased.

Unfortunately, this led to many conflicts with the aboriginal people of the area and ultimately the rapid decrease in their numbers due to gunshot wounds or disease.

World War II and the Brisbane Line

Due to its proximity to the South West Pacific theatre of WW2, Brisbane found itself hosting a huge number of American troops.

Buildings and institutions were given over the housing of military personnel as required and at the highest point American forces outnumbered Australian civilians 3 to 1.

The city of Brisbane was used to mark the position known as the “Brisbane Line”.

It was a controversial defence proposal created by the Menzies government. It would see the whole of the north of Australia surrendered to enemy forces upon a land invasion. It was thought that defending any further north would be impractical.

The actual “line” was supposedly a latitude just north of the city and spanned the entire continent.

You can still find several gun forts and cement bunkers in the northern suburbs of the city and adjacent areas including the Sunshine Coast and Moreton Bay Islands.

Brisbane bomb shelter that is now a bus stop
An Old WW2 bomb shelter that has been repurposed into a bus shelter

Optimistically the guy who designed the bomb shelters designed them in a way so that after the war was over the walls could be peeled back.

The structures could then be used for various different amenities including shelters and bus stops. Just along the road from where the old windmill stands you will find an example of such a shelter being used a bus stop.

Other Things to See and Do in the City


Following the WW2 Brisbane has only gone from strength to strength.

It has hosted both the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and the World Expo in 1988. The result of the latter was the creation of the vibrant Southbank Parklands.

Complete with its own series of 3 open air, free, public swimming pools including one with its very own beach, Southbank is a must visit.

Southbank swimming pool and beach, Brisbane
The “beach” at Southbank. One of 3 free public swimming pools

My personal favourite is the Nepalese Peace Pagoda. Created specifically for the World Expo, it was hand carved by Nepalese families using 80 tonnes of indigenous Nepalese timber from the Terai Jungle forest.

It is a close copy of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu and is one of only 3 Nepalese temples that resides outside of Nepal.

A campaign following the end of the Expo saw funds raised both privately and in conjunction with the government saw the temple remain at Southbank. It is free to go and look round and admire the intricate carvings, although only the ground floor is open.

The Botanical Gardens

The City also has its own botanical gardens where you can go and get lost in the dense forest areas or take a stroll through its open garden areas. Just mere meters from the city centre you can feel a whole world away.

Brisbane Botanical Gardens
If it wasn’t for the Skyscrapers you wouldn’t think you are in the middle of a city

Take a Walking Tour – For FREE!

There are many more sights and sounds to explore within the city.

From its beloved rugby league team, the Brisbane Broncos, rock climbing at kangaroo point, exploring Roma Street Parklands, taking in the art gallery and museums at the cultural centre, to even adventuring up to Mt Coot-tha there is more to see and do than some people would have you believe.

To help you get your bearings when you first arrive I strongly recommend jumping on a Brisbane Greeters walking tour.

Brisbane Greeters walking tours
My little tour group and I

These tours run pretty much every day and free (although you do need to book online). Your guides are volunteers but super knowledgeable and can help you figure out where and what you want to see.

I joined a backpacker one that was run out of my hostel and besides working up an appetite felt like I knew so much more about the city, its past and generally where everything is!

Where the Locals Go

If you have read this far then you’re in for a little treat.

If you’re looking for a little hidden gem that not many tourists and travellers know about then come right this way.

For situated at Northshore just a stone’s throw away from the ferry terminal you will find Eat Street Markets.

Using upcycled shipping containers and food carts you will find an abundance of street food, shops and entertainment. There is everything from burgers, pizza, churros, noodles, ice cream, beer and everything in between.

The Catch?

It’s only open Fri-Sat-Sun.

So make sure you’re in town over a weekend, jump on the ferry (alternatively you can drive) and chill out to the live music while munching on some tasty street food.

As Cities go, Brisbane has a lot going for it and its laid-back vibe only appeals to me even more. Whatsmore is you could use it as a base to explore the surrounding region including the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast!

Until Next time

Keep Adventuring!

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