Ingham Daily Press

Keeping People Connected

History through art: Revealing the story behind the Mercer Lane mosaic

IT is well known that First Nations Australians record history through art and dance.

But how many people know the story behind the stunning mosaic that runs along the wall of iconic Ingham deli JK’s in Mercer Lane?

Today Dr Bianka Vidonja Balanzatagui begins a series of articles exploring meaning in each of Mercer Lane’s mosaic artworks.

Mercer Lane, by Dr Bianka Vidonja Balanzatagu.

THE first mosaic panel in Mercer Lane transports us to a time of frontier North Queensland, where daring, optimistic and often foolhardy Europeans were attempting to establish plantations and pastoral runs, while the Aboriginal peoples, the traditional land owners, were warily watching and waiting to see what this would mean for them.

Mercer Lane houses a Tardis – a brilliant mosaic which takes the voyager on a journey back in time.

The journey – 42 metres of mosaic art panels depicting the history of the sugar cane industry of the Herbert River district – begins as you step into the shadow of the laneway and ends as you emerge into the sunshine at the other end.

As you enter Mercer Lane, the mosaic stretches on your left into the distance.

It is divided into panels, each telling a story.

John and Rebecca Mercer, who the lane is named after, were two of numerous immigrants of many nationalities arriving in Australia escaping war, poverty or persecution.

Some found their way to the Herbert.

In time, some of them would become sugar farmers.

At first, sugar was grown by planters, and that first attempt is pictured in the first panel.

A man pushes a mouldboard plough pulled by horses.

He has selected good land on the banks of the Herbert River.

The ground is furrowed, and some cane has been planted.

But who was this man?

Photo credit: Christopher Parry
Mosaic artwork credit: Kate Carr

Now there’s an intriguing story.

It involves three men and an ‘Italian housekeeper’.

The man is licenced surveyor, Maurice Geoffrey O’Connell, who together with his brother, John Geoffrey, also a licenced surveyor, and William McDowall (McDowell) took up land on the Herbert in 1868 in what is now the Gairloch area.

They cleared some land and planted both cotton and sugar, but by 1869 all three had forfeited their land and left the region.

In retrospect, they seem rather foolhardy, as clearly, they had not given much thought to what they were going to do with their cane once it grew.

With no labour to work their fields, no mill, nor money to establish one, and the nearest port being Cardwell, their hopes of becoming sugar planters were doomed to failure.

By mid-January 1869 Maurice was dead, having lost his life on an exploratory venture when his group ran out of water.

John moved south and was left to sort out his dead brother’s affairs.

William McDowall, who had actually come to the Herbert looking for pastoral land, worked as a stockman for the Scott brothers at the Valley of Lagoons and later took up several properties west of Ingham.

But what of the Italian housekeeper?

Well she is a bit of a mystery.

Her name was Caterina Cordelia, though the spelling of her Christian name is disputed. It is not even known whether Cordelia was her surname or a second Christian name.

According to local lore she arrived on the Herbert as the housekeeper for Maurice.

How Maurice inveigled Caterina to accompany him will forever remain a mystery.

Housekeeper could be a euphemism for a more intimate relationship and some infatuation on the part of O’Connell is indicated by several landscape features being named after her: Mount Cordelia, Mount Catherina, Cordelia Creek and Catherina/Catterina Creek.

What happened to the O’Connells and McDowall can be tracked through newspaper reports and documents, but Caterina Cordelia disappears completely.

The first mosaic panel in Mercer Lane transports us to a time of frontier north Queensland, where daring, optmistic and often foolhardy Europeans were attempting to establish plantations and pastoral runs, while the Indigenous peoples, the traditional land owners, were warily watching and waiting to see what this would mean for them.

Look for the next instalment: Panel 2.

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