150 years of Daintree

Geraldine Mate – Principal Curator of History, Industry & Technology and Alessandra Schultz – Volunteer, Cultures & Histories Program 

When you snap that amazing photo of a mountain or waterfall, do you ever think about the early photographers of Queensland?  

This year marks 150 years since the London International Exhibition where Richard Daintree’s images of early colonial Queensland were first displayed. From May to August 1871, a collection of photographs of Queensland, overpainted to allow our landscapes to be viewed in colour, were presented at this annual international exhibition aimed at promoting colonial ‘progress’ and innovation. Prepared from glass plate negatives physically transported from Australia to Britain by sea, these images communicated a notion of Queensland as an untapped resource, a wide-open country that would be an ideal destination for colonial migrants from Britain that neglected the presence of Indigenous Australians. 

Queensland ‘Through the Lens’

The photographs created by Daintree capture a picture of what was regarded as the ‘quintessential’ Queensland at the time. For Daintree, who saw it first-hand, the colony was a place of abundance in natural resources and opportunity for development, and so his photographs focus on mineral formations, pastoral scenes, and depictions of white settlers. These scenes, in countless form – the mining of gold and copper, plantations of crops such as sugarcane, and early transport through bullock teams and river punts – showcase different elements of Queensland’s landscape. Many images show colonial settlers travelling or working in the landscape but few of the images feature First Nations people, the recognised custodians of the land, who were present and living on country when Daintree travelled across these parts of Queensland. Instead, Daintree’s profession as a geologist permeates through in his emphasis on geological formations of granite, basalt, and sandstone presented as natural vistas. Each image was brought to life through the over-painting of the photographs, infusing the earthy colours of Queensland. 

Travellers at the base of Mount Coonowrin, in the Glasshouse Mountains (overpainted albumen print), showing the landscape as viewed by Daintree, with European settlers traversing the bush. Queensland Museum collection.

A ‘Colonial’ exhibition 

Richard Daintree’s photographs were exhibited over the next several years to crowds in the city of London at the Queensland Annexe, shown alongside collections of rocks, minerals, and fossils – and considered an inspired addition to the agricultural produce shown in previous years. The annexe displays aimed to present a portfolio of attractions and opportunities to draw prospective emigrants to Queensland. Visitors were invited to imagine their life in the colony, and what’s more, their participation in the economic prospects offered by Queensland. Daintree saw the colony’s future as resting with its natural wealth, especially its geological resources. By taking part in these exhibitions, Queensland was advertising its resources to the world, offering the venture capitalist the prospect of gaining wealth, and, competing with its rival colonies Victoria and New South Wales, enticing people across the oceans to Queensland. 

Richard Daintree (1832-1878) was appointed as the first Government Geologist for North Queensland in 1868, a role where he could combine his passions of prospecting and photography. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland, negative number 194667.
This overpainted albumen print, depicts a group of men standing outside a woolshed with a loaded six horse wagon. Queensland Museum collection

Yet in the emphasis of colonial ambition, Daintree’s images did not offer a true representation of life in Queensland in the nineteenth century. The focus on the colony’s natural resources and the life of settlers conceals the more challenging circumstances: of First Nations peoples being progressively moved off their traditional country by land acquisition and prolific frontier violence; of non-European migrants such as the Chinese being subjected to increasingly unforgiving legislation; and the diminished quality of life of everyday Queenslanders in lower socio-economic situations.  

Photographs as Queensland History

Despite these deficiencies in representation, the views of Queensland captured by Daintree over 150 years ago somehow still resonate. The beautifully posed photographs bring people to life through the colouring process. The hats, shirts, beards and boots somehow make these men come in to focus, bringing with them some insights into settler life in the nineteenth century. And the vegetation and natural landscape formations like the Glasshouse Mountains, still around us today and just as recognisable, make the connection to place – to Queensland of the past – more real. In their depictions of settler life, these photographs present a portrait of our past; colourful, polished depictions that conceal as much as they reveal. 

This scene, photographed by geologist Richard Daintree, shows settlers (possibly miners) seated with a dog outside a slab hut around Gympie.

 A Rich Legacy 

The Richard Daintree collection of photographs gives us a glimpse into Queensland’s colonial past. Through the medium of photography this rich array of images connects us with people of the past and with landscapes and places that we still live in, visit and photograph today.  

Explore more of these amazing Daintree photographs through our online collections.

Learn more

You can find out more about Richard Daintree and the exhibition of his photographs in the international exhibitions of London with the following resources:  

Judith McKay (1998) ‘A good show’: Colonial Queensland at international exhibitions. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture 1(2): 175-343. 

Judith McKay (2004) Showing off: Queensland at world exhibitions, 1862-1988.  Rockhampton, Qld: Central Queensland University Press: Queensland Museum. 

Martyn Jolly (2019) Frontier and Metropole, Science and Colonisation: The Systematic Exhibitions of Richard Daintree. History of Photography, 43(4): 359-379, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2020.1788233.