Tracks of McKinlay and party across Australia/Chapter 11

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James Morrill, Narrative of Seventeen Years' Residence with Natives; Shipwrecked; Sole Survivor; Aboriginal Manners and Customs—Account of Port Denison, and Town of Bowen—Strathmore Station—Squatting Hospitalities—Embark in the "Ben Bolt," of 20 tons, for Rockhampton—Many Islands—Broad Sound—Rockhampton, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide.

While the expeditionary party are enjoying their short respite at the station of Messrs. Harvey and Somers, and doing ample justice to the roast-beef they had so often consumed in imagination, when in reality only a tough old camel was between their hungry teeth, we shall make a digression to relate an interesting occurrence connected with the time and the place. About six months after the party's arrival, and a little to the north of their present quarters, a man suddenly presented himself to two shepherds at the outpost of a sheep-station. Quite naked, and of a reddish yellow hue, he was seen to be no aboriginal native. On the shepherds seizing their fire-arms, under a sense of possible danger, he called out in English, although speaking with difficulty, that he was their countryman. He then informed them that he had lived for seventeen years with the Aborigines in the neighbourhood,, being the sole survivor of the crew and passengers of a ship that had been wrecked, so far back as the year 1846, upon a reef off the adjacent coast. He had been wandering over the country about Mount Elliott, a lofty hill, above 4000 feet in height, near the mouth of the Burdekin, and he must have been but a short way to the east of McKinlay's party, as they passed down the river. His name was James Morrill, and he was born near Maldon, in Essex, England, and had been a seaman of the wrecked vessel the "Peruvian." He was supplied with clothes by his new friends, and after a short interval taken to Port Denison, where a subscription was made on his behalf, and where both himself and his narrative were the subject of very general interest.

The captain of the "Peruvian" had warned the watch against "broken water," that dangerous symptom of this coral reef coast. The vessel was wrecked during the night, after the watch had indeed detected the fatal symptom ahead, but too late to be of any avail. There was a considerable gale blowing; the two boats were lost, and with them the first and second officers. The construction of a raft was the next resource. It was promptly made, launched, and loaded with its living freight, but it broke away from the wreck before any adequate supplies of either provisions or water had been secured. There had been fourteen of a crew and seven passengers, and for forty-two days these miserable creatures were drifted to and fro, until at length the raft, with a small remnant of survivors, was cast ashore on the north side of Cape Cleveland. They had prolonged their lives mainly by catching three sharks, part of a legion that followed the raft for the sake of the dead bodies that were at intervals committed to the waters.[1]

Ashore at last, they were for a time undisturbed, and subsisted on shellfish; but after a fortnight they were discovered by the Aborigines. They were by this time reduced to four—the captain and his wife, Morrill, and a boy. The natives, after gratifying an intense curiosity by examining all of them, from head to foot, behaved kindly after their rough fashion, and took them to the great tribal camp in the neighbourhood, where they again underwent a thorough inspection, their white skins causing a general astonishment, and inspiring some with such terror that they at first ran away. For some time the neighbouring blacks were arriving in streams to gratify the common curiosity, but there was no violence used, nor was insult ever offered to the female. Meanwhile the poor outcasts were at first supplied with food, and afterwards were shown how and where they could find roots and other edibles for themselves.

Exposure and privation caused much suffering, especially when their clothing, gradually falling to pieces, had disappeared, and left them entirely naked. The poor wife, the only female of the party, contrived to retain to the last a few scraps of covering. Severe rheumatism attacked them all, and in a little more than two years Morrill found himself sole survivor. The captain had died before his wife, and she, thus desolate and forsaken, survived him but four days. Morrill had a strong frame and a good constitution, and survived the trying ordeal of his new mode of life.

His narrative of his life among the natives is interesting in its account of native manners and habits. He forms a very low estimate of their qualities, as they are cruel and treacherous, even to each other of the same tribe. "There is," he says, "a sort of partizanship of private friends and private foes in each tribe. Some individuals are occasionally the victims of these enmities, but many more are preserved by the watchfulness of friends. He himself had both friends and enemies, and would have fallen on many an occasion by the hands of the latter, but for the vigilance of the former, who threatened the direst vengeance in case any injury happened to him. As already mentioned in our Introduction, he confirms the now perfectly authenticated cannibalism of the Australian natives. He brightens the dark picture a little by stating that they will not kill their fellow men merely for the sake of eating them. In eating their friends or chiefs, after death, there seems some vague notion of appropriating yet something of the virtues of the deceased; all at least that the grasping appropriator death has left them.

It is remarkable that he scarcely ever heard reports of his countrymen, many of whom must have traversed the country at no very great distance from the scene of his protracted wanderings, not a few having from time to time been murdered, or killed in hostile attacks. This circumstance is to be accounted for, perhaps, partly from the desire of the natives to withhold information of his countrymen from him, as they seem really to have valued his presence amongst them; and partly from the mutual hostility, or at least the alien feeling generally prevalent between the various tribes, which greatly restricted any intercourse, and prevented the spread of news, however wonderful. At length, however, reports meet his ear, which he cannot misunderstand. The new settlement of Bowen, about two years before his deliverance, had attracted the natives' attention, and Morrill was certain his countrymen must be somewhere near him, and that the continually advancing wave of colonization had at last rolled up to his neighbourhood. There was a twofold difficulty in reaching the settlers, however; for not only were the tribes he lived with unwilling that he should leave, but he could hardly venture any distance away without falling among natives unfriendly to the tribe he was identified with, and thus endangering his life. After some time he transferred his residence to a friendly tribe, living between Cape Bowling-green and the Burdekin. He seems to have been on the outlook nearly a year with this tribe, when he hears of cattle being seen feeding and drinking at the Burdekin, and a white man with a whip attending them. Soon afterwards two females describe some sheep as among the long grass, a short distance to the south. One of them he induces to accompany him; but at sight of the sheep, she will go no further, fearing to be murdered by the whites; and earnestly advising Morrill too, by all means, to avoid the wicked intruders. She returns therefore, and Morrill goes on, presenting himself to the shepherds, as already related.

Morrill describes the natives as in great dread of the whites, from an incurable notion of their cruelty and murderous intentions towards them. He greatly regrets this feeling, and alludes to a recent massacre of a number of blacks by the colonists, in order to show that it has too good a foundation. He returned to the tribe after the interview with the shepherds, and advised the natives to keep out of harm's way, stating, for the sake of peace, that the power of the whites was something far beyond what the natives could resist. The poor creatures seem to have had some sorrows at leave-taking, looking on Morrill as a kind of protector, and begging him to arrange for them with his powerful countrymen that the poor natives should be left in possession of the swamps and salt water creeks at least, if they gave up the rest of the country. Morrill's views for the future seemed to be to spend the remainder of his life in the country so long familiar to him, acting under sanction of the Colonial Government as a protector and interpreter for the Aborigines.

From these adventures of Morrill's let us return to those of our travellers, who now, with freshened energies, direct their steps to Port Denison, to enjoy the hospitalities of Bowen, the young capital of this tropical part of Australia. Port Denison is an inner harbour on the west side of Edgecumbe Bay, and is well protected seawards by islands, with excellent anchorage for the largest fleet of ordinarily sized shipping, and a depth of twenty-seven feet of water. The port was discovered only in 1860, during a coasting search for the mouth of the River Burdekin. This fine stream was found debouching near Cape Cleveland, but with a branch, previously known as the Wickham, entering the sea near Cape Upstart. As these outlets proved to be subject to the mischance common to so many Australian rivers, of having bars that impede navigation, the discovery of Port Denison a little to the southward was all the more important to the settlers, who have already begun a rush with their flocks into the vacant neighbourhood. Bowen was commenced about a year before our travellers arrived, and has already a presentable array of buildings, including of course public houses, blacksmiths' forges, and general stores. Whether that very early necessary of a colonial town, a daily local newspaper, had yet appeared we are not told, but "our own correspondent" for somewhere else was already on the ground some months before the expedition's arrival, and in writing, on 27th May, 1862, to a Rockhampton paper, this universal and aimable inconnu describes the little township as having been first settled about ten months previously, and as possessing already a population of 120, of all ages, whose numbers are steadily increasing by arrivals from Rockhampton and Sydney.

Let us now follow Mr. Davis for the last time. He is still as far as ever from Adelaide, his starting point, having more than 2,000 miles of sea to traverse; and although his patience is occasionally tried by the slow coach system of the "Ben Bolt" and other impedimental tubs that "express" the traveller in these out of the way latitudes, yet the last of the journey is perhaps quite as pleasant as the first, with a substitute of hospitable colonists for natives, and the varieties of a good dinner table for old Siva and his jerked brethren.

We remained at this station for one day quite enjoying ourselves. Mr. Somers has our warmest thanks for the kindness shown to us, and may the station flourish! No one could have been more kind than he. He gave us everything we wanted—more power to him. We then changed our camp some five miles to another station owned by Germans, called "Strathmore," Mr. Selleim being the chief of the firm, and a Mr. Trussaint the other partner. Here we remained for a week eating and drinking, etc., only the beef was as tough as old leather. The other things were good, and we are beginning to pick up, and are looking quite different men already. The same fine country between the two runs past through by us. At this station, "Strathmore," there is a station of "native police," under the command of a European sergeant. Here we got some police horses and men, and a native trooper went for the things we buried two stages back.

During the week past here we were eagerly ready for the news from papers lent us by Mr. Selleim, for all the latest English news, Yankee war, etc. It was here we first heard of the death of Prince Albert. Mr. McKinlay, after remaining here for two days, started with Poole and one packhorse and a spare nag for Mr. McKinlay, to push into Port Denison. This place is some eighty miles from the port, the most northern settlement of Australia; it will be a pretty little town by and by.

The climate, they tell me is magnificent, for all the summer months. Whilst it is piercing hot in the interior here, this little spot is blessed with the most magnificent sea-breezes. Port Denison is situated on Edgcumbe Bay; the bay is very shallow, having to wade out a long way to get to a boat to take me off to a vessel.

The squatters soon came in to welcome Mr. McKinlay, many of them knowing him personally, and many more by report. They gave us a dinner to welcome us back to the land of the living. Lots of speeches, songs, etc., and we passed a jolly and happy evening; and we did not break up till 4 a.m. Some thirty gentlemen sat down to table to do honour to our worthy commander. The squatters here looked quite fierce with their long knives stuck in their belts, and revolvers at their sides. We passed two pleasant days here at the Port Denison Hotel.

The "Ben Bolt" a small coasting "ketch," of some twenty tons, was the only vessel in the harbour. She trades regularly between this place and Rockhampton, a town lower down the coast, and sprung up since the great Port Curtis rush to the Canoona goldfield. She also carries the mails. This is the vessel that is to bear Cæsar and his fortunes. We embark to-morrow, 17th August, for Rockhampton. Nineteen of us in all to be in this small boat. How we shall stow I don't know. How Mr. McKinlay will stow is a puzzler. He is 6ft. 4in., and the berth about 5 by 6, and very narrow. He will have to take to the deck, or else put a knot in his legs. We had a Mr. Bierly, a gentleman who had been up taking out rims (tracts for pasture) in the district, and now returning to Rockhampton on business, Mr. Ham, a young squatter up here, and Mr. Finlay, who was going down for cattle to stock a run. The anchor up, and with three cheers for Port Denison and its inhabitants, we sail from the harbour with a flowing sheet.

Our little vessel sailed well for the first two days, but there came headwinds and baffling gales, and the little craft could not do anything against them. We sighted many islands, too numerous to mention, even had I known the names. It was interesting now and then to hear a sailor spin a yarn that on that island poor Jack so-and-so got killed by the d——d blacks. It gave a kind of interest to the island. Mr. Bierly had a friend murdered on one of them not very long since. We passed close to one island, and were pointed out by the captain, Tom McEwin by name, the remains of a steamer and a quantity of coals lying high and dry on the beach. What steamer it was no one up to the present time has ever been able to discover. She was of iron, at least all that remains of her ribs are of iron. We were knocking about this part of the world for some ten days.

Our provisions getting short, our water nearly done, so the skipper put into an island called L Island. There we went on shore, for at low tide the gallant barkie was quite dry, as the tide recedes a very long way here. Put in a supply of water, which one or two of us found out, for be it known we went and explored the island. It was pretty well grassed and seemingly tolerably watered, for there was plenty of water in a creek, and in several large holes in the rocks. We had to take the puncheon up some three hundred feet to fill it, for the water was high up the mountain. We soon filled it, and we had a job to get it down again; however, it was got down safely and put on board, where we embarked some dampers for use on board.

The captain had laid in enough provisions for some twelve days, consequently we were now beginning to look short in the locker. The beer and porter, however, were holding out well, and other liquors. It was now determined to make for a place called "BroadSound," where there was a bush public store of all kind of "omnium gatherum," where was sold everything, from a bottle of "Lea and Perrin's" sauce to paper collars. To this spot the skipper determined to make, and lay in a fresh supply of the good things of this life.

I forgot to mention that McEwen had put on board a sheep, but had forgotten to put any grub for it; and thereby one poor fellow, who was sleeping in the hold on the ballast, lost his blanket, and could not make out where it was till it was discovered the sheep had nearly eaten it, so we had him killed and eaten.

Very shortly after this sad catastrophe of the blanket, we landed at another island—Middleton, Harding, Finlay, and myself, with two sailors,—to get some more water if we could find any, but alas we only found a little in a hole, about half a gallon, which was no use to us. On this pretty spot, for it was a pretty island, well grassed but not well timbered, we discovered a large beam of white pine timber squared off. It was about eighty feet long, and fifteen inches square. Evidently some ship had been lost coming through Torres Straits. Covered with timber there was also on the same island a piece of a large built ship's mast, which must have belonged to a large ship, perhaps to the very one that got wrecked loaded with timber. Who can tell?

Started for Broad Sound, where we arrived two days after. Broad Sound is the lower part of a river. Here we found a Sydney brig lying, the "Fortuna," having taken up stores to Port Denison, Broad Sound, and Rockhampton. There was also the wreck of a topsail schooner, the "Comet" lying up the river. We all went on shore, of course, and played quoits for bottles of rum, for that was the only drink they had. We start at the making of the tide to-night. The "Fortuna" also starts to-night for Sydney. We drop down the river.

We are all right at last. We are now going up the Fitzroy River, on which is the town of Rockhampton. This is at present rather a straggling town, but will soon be a fine prosperous place. There are already some one or two brick houses in it, and others being built.

None knew anything of our advent at Fort Denison, for we were the first to bring the news; and to the astonishment of the population (for we landed some way below the town), who wondered who the devil such a ragged lot could be. We entered the town and put up at the Royal Fitzroy Hotel, and glad were we to get a good breakfast and some beer. The hotel is kept by Mr, and Mrs. Gardner, and a nicer house or more civil people you could not well meet. They were very kind and attentive to us all, and did the best to make us comfortable.

We stopped in this town some week or so, waiting for a steamer to take us to Sydney. Up to this time no one knew where we were, never dreaming in Adelaide that we should come out at Fort Denison. They will indeed be surprised to hear of our advent at this part of Australia. Two steamers came in, the old "Balcutha" and the "Bomerang." We go in the "Balcutha," at least some of us, as McKinlay stops for a dinner to be given to him, and the steamer can't wait. I take on the telegram to send to Adelaide, leaving him with one or two more, for some of the men remain behind here, and, as I forgot to mention, two had remained at Port Denison. We are reduced now to six, McKinlay, Middleton, Kirby, Wylde, Poole, and myself, the others being left, as I said before, at Port Denison. Messrs. Bell and Hodgkinson remain here.

We start from the wharf at 4 a.m., after having a bout of champaign and songs till that hour in the hotel, when we wish good night to all. We start down the river on board the "Balcutha," but we strike on the bar; so, early, say 8 a.m., a boat containing Captain Trouton, as jolly a tar as ever walked a deck, starts for town again, as to-day is the Rockhampton races; and we go with Middleton and others off for the races. The dinner to McKinlay takes place to-night, and of coarse Trouton and I stop.

We arrived in Sydney harbour early in the morning, and the sight of it is well worth a voyage from the old country. It has been so often described that it would be superfluous to try even to do it, but of all the harbours I have ever seen, this is the most beautiful. Glad were we on arrival at the wharf to hear that the "Calcutta" was going on the next day to Melbourne. So we shall start for Melbourne to-morrow afternoon with Trouton.

We arrived in a couple of days at Melbourne, Captain Trouton making us as happy as possible, more power to him! We found the "Hannibal" steamer just leaving for Adelaide, but we are just too late to go by her, and have consequently to stop here for a fortnight. Oh! won't our time fly? Melbourne's the place to make it go well. Went up to the Criterion Hotel, and I should advise any one going to Melbourne to go there. Everything first-rate there, no two ways about it. We stopped here a fortnight, and enjoyed ourselves much.

Here we are now on board the "Havilah" steamer, bound for Adelaide. Four days of it, the sea as smooth as glass, lots of passengers. We arrived all safe and sound at Port Adelaide very early in the morning. No one to be seen hardly, but we have to wait till eight for the train to take us to town. We go and have a nobb or two with friends, who are glad to see us all. Here we are back again.

My chapter concluded, good reader, farewell.


  1. The editor may here state that he perfectly recollects the circumstance of the "Peruvian" being missed in 1846, while he was residing in Melbourne. The passengers were all from the Port Phillip district (now Victoria), and were supposed to have all perished by shipwreck in Torres Straits.