Part Four: a tale of two boys

CHAPTER 16: Torres Strait island home

Duppa began to teach John Ireland how to collect shellfish and grow yams, bananas and coconuts. He also gave the lad a piece of land to cultivate and later, a 20-metre-long canoe from Papua New Guinea. These extraordinary acts of generosity towards a stranger does support the view that Ireland was accepted as the ghostly resurrection of a dead son and brother. Another man called Oby, who had his hut close by, adopted William D’Oyly and he, too, probably saw in the pale-haired child some resemblance to a young relative, now dead. Oby and William quickly formed a strong attachment and everyone assumed the boy had forgotten his parents.

In this watercolour sketch by Melville, Duppa is wearing a red wig and is seated with his with Panney. His oldest son, also Duppa is standing with his new wife, an Erub (Darnley Island) girl. Circa 1845.
In this sketch done at Erub, Duppa is wearing a red wig and is seated with his wife Panney. His oldest son, also Duppa, is standing with his new wife, an Erub girl, c 1842–1843. Pl. no. 18 of Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands by Harden S. Melville. Tinted lithograph with some hand colouring. London: printed and published by Dickinson & Co. c 1849.

In time, Ireland began to speak the Meriam language but not as well as William, who soon spoke it as his native tongue. The once miserable youngster ran free and naked around the beach and in the sea, until he was as brown as his playmates. Still, as Ireland observed, ‘Although William was in general more cheerful, he would now and again appear very uneasy. On these occasions, I used to ask Dupper [sic] to allow me to sleep along with the child.’2

Ireland soon mastered a variety of fishing skills and techniques. Large fish were caught from canoes with a spear or a hook and line, while small fish were driven into the shallows before being speared. To catch lobsters, he would go with a party to a sandbank at night and hold up bunches of burning coconut leaves. Attracted by the light, the lobsters would emerge from their holes and were instantly dispatched with a spear. Whenever someone spotted a turtle in the water, a canoe with seven or eight men would move quietly towards it, with half the party crouching in the bow. As soon as they were close enough, the men in the bow would leap out and tie a rope around each flipper, hauling the frightened creature into the canoe.

Weapons were difficult to master. The huge bamboo bows used by the Murray Islanders came from Papua New Guinea and were so taut that only the very strong could pull the twine. Their arrows had sharp tips made from stone or shell and, according to Ireland, were sometimes smeared with poison.3

Although the Murray Islanders had little direct contact with the Australian Aborigines they did, through trade with the central islanders, obtain and use their spears and spear throwers. Nothing terrified them quite so much, however, as the white man’s firearms, about which they were very curious. Duppa asked Ireland about them one day. ‘Some of our people have been killed by them but we couldn’t see or understand what had struck them,’ he said. Ireland was unable to give Duppa a satisfactory explanation. ‘I scarcely knew myself’, he later confessed. ‘All I could tell him I did, but this only made him more curious.’4

Everyone on the island was fascinated by iron and most had at least one piece hung up inside their hut, often of a peculiar shape and size and useless in its present form. Despite their insatiable desire for the metal, there were times when they could find no use for it. Ireland showed them what to do:

One morning, Dupper was trying to straighten a piece of iron bolt, and was beating it very hard with a large piece of stone, without being able to make an impression on it. I told him to make a large fire, and put the iron into it, which would soften it. He did so, and his astonishment was very great when he found it answered the purpose.5

Illustration from ‘The Shipwrecked Orphans‘. p. 50, depicting Ireland teaching Duppa to bend iron with fire. The artist played it safe with the modest clothing for a children’s book.

The two boys had been at Mer for a few months when a man who lived in a hut near Duppa’s compound died. Duppa warned Ireland that something ‘very dreadful’ was about to happen. The lad was immediately convinced that he would be harmed because of the man’s death. He was lying down in his hut to rest soon after sunset, still feeling very uneasy, when he heard two people outside, rattling shells and breathing very hard. Duppa cried out in a strange language and everyone in the hut hid their faces in the sand. When Ireland asked Duppa what the noise was, he replied, ‘The spirit of the dead man.’

These spirits were called lammoors (or lemurs), which also meant ‘white men’ in the language of the eastern islands. Not convinced they were genuine, Ireland hunted through all the huts near the recent haunting, looking for the costumes the two figures had been wearing, but failed to find them. In time he came to believe in spiritual and magical forces. They had a powerful influence on the lives of Duppa and his friends and they eventually dictated Ireland’s own actions as well.

Mer Island mask by W. E. Brockett. From ‘Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits . . .’ , p. 16.

The Murray Islanders were active participants in the hero cult. Of the four legendary brothers, they worshipped Malo (or Malu, secret name Bomai) and there was a lodge in his honour. According to a comment attributed to Captain Lewis, who visited the island in 1836, ‘The N. E. extremity of the island is held sacred by them, and only visited for the purpose of feasting or preserving the dead’.6 It is likely, then, that this was also the site of their lodge. A number of similar cult lodges were scattered around the central and eastern islands but Malo’s lodge was one of two chief lodges, the other being the lodge at Yam Island. Each shrine had officials, called the zogo-le,7 and at Mer they were drawn from the northern and eastern clans. They organised the ceremonies associated with Malo and practiced his magic, usually for the benefit of their community, but it made other islanders anxious when visiting Mer, for fear they would become victims of their magic.

The photographer who took the original image of a secret traditional ceremony at Mer (Murray Islands) was none other than A. C. Haddon, better known for his involvement with the 6-vol. ‘The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait‘. Black-and-white lithograph loosely based on a black-and-white photograph, property of the author.

Ireland made no mention of initiation into the hero cult; nor did he appear to be familiar with its rituals. He was a lammoor so that is not surprising but he feared the magic powers of the zogo-le. He knew about the islanders’ magic stones and later explained one of their uses to Captain Lewis, who recorded the following comment in his ship’s journal:

“. . . the Murray Islanders . . . when they wish the wind to blow hard, are in the habit of suspending a stone to the branch of a tree, by a string, and of vociferating loudly, and talking to it, and spitting on it, whilst they turn it about; which they suppose causes a gale. The stone is called by them Dowyumbe [doiom]”8

Mer had a number of clans and groupings, broadly divided into those who lived on the eastern side of the island and those who lived on the western side. The east-siders were excellent gardeners and owned most of the fertile land that made up the northern half of Mer.9 The Komets on the western side, on the other hand, excelled as traders. They had gardens but seemed to spend more of their time catching fish.10 According to this greatly simplified and probably inaccurate division, Duppa, Oby and their relatives, who lived on the western side, were either a part of – or were grouped with – the Komet clan and it is certainly true that they were great traders.

Trading canoe at Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait. Plate no. XIX of: Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands, by Harden S. Melville. Tinted lithograph with some hand colouring. London: Printed and published by Dickinson & Co. c 1849.

One day Duppa announced that a party was going on a trading voyage to the coast of Dowdai (Papua New Guinea) and that Ireland was to be part of it. It proved to be quite an expedition. There were 12 large canoes, each containing between 10 and 16 men, women and children. Before they left, everyone collected as many shells as their canoes could hold. They were popular with the Papuans and the Torres Strait Islanders exchanged them for canoes, bows, arrows and much-prized feathers. By the time the traders got to Erub, however, Duppa had changed his mind and left Ireland behind with his friend, Ag-ghe. He must have received updated news that alarmed him. He was, said Ireland, ‘afraid the New Guinea people would steal or murder me.’11

The following evening the canoes were back. They had stopped for the night at the island of Damuth (also Jarmuth, Dalrymple, Zamut) and a quarrel over a pipe of tobacco had developed into a bow-and-arrow fight and several people were hurt. The trading voyage was off and everyone returned to Erub. Later, the Damuth people sent a peace message to Duppa’s party but they rejected it and the ill feeling between the two islands remained for some time.

On another occasion, a trading party from Aureed came over and camped on the two small islands of Dauar and Waier, where they received a friendly welcome. Aureed traders were frequent visitors and they brought with them the usual ochre, spear-throwers and shells, plus the stones from Forbes Island prized as zogo stones by the zogo-le.

The central islanders traded with the Peibre clan of Dauar or the zogo-le of Mer but had less to do with the Komet people. Their visits were usually so commonplace they attracted little comment. This time, however, the arrival of the Aureed party greatly alarmed Duppa and Oby. They hid the two boys they had adopted among the trees until the party had gone.

The arrival of the Mangles in September 1835 and its departure without him left Ireland moping and depressed. He stopped eating for days and eventually became ill. ‘I think at times I was lightheaded,’ he said, ‘for I did not know what I was doing.’ He would later say that his body ‘had wasted to a mere skeleton’12 while William was also ill for a time.13 Their life on the island had been far from easy. They had many ulcers, but that was a common complaint in the Torres Strait and the islanders had no treatment for it.

The Mangles visit occurred at a time when cholera epidemics were ravaging the world. Australia was remarkably free of it due to its strict quarantine controls. Nevertheless, Ireland’s statement that both he and William D’Oyly fell ill after the departure of the convict ship suggests that they may have contracted an illness. When Matthew Flinders visited the Murray Islands in 1802 he estimated their population at 700. Commander Igglesden of the brig Tigris, who visited the islands in 1836, thought that their total population was no more than 200. Both estimates were rough but their great difference suggests that the Torres Strait islands were not isolated enough to be protected from the infectious diseases that were frequently transmitted by visiting traders. In 1879, the population of the Murray Islands was head-counted at 374.14

Ireland asked Duppa to make inquiries about George D’Oyly and John Sexton. ‘He could not learn any tidings for a long time; but at length he told me that he understood they were both dead,’ he later said. Then again Ireland also said, ‘When I got acquainted with their language I heard one of them tell another that George D’Oyley [sic] and Sexton had been killed by the natives of Boidang (Boydang) Island. They never told me anything about it, and I only understood it from the conversation between each other.’ A different version of the conversation appeared in his book, in which he claimed to have heard a man say George D’Oyly had ‘got sick and died’ and that Sexton had been ‘speared by one of the natives’. He made no further inquiries about their deaths, being in no doubt that both boys had ceased to exist.15

One evening Duppa and some of his family, including Ireland, the adopted son they now called Waki, went up the hill to look after the house belonging to Duppa’s brother, while he was away in his trading canoe. They were among the first to see the Isabella approach the following morning and they watched as it dropped anchor off the northern end of the island.

Notes to Chapter 16

  1. Phillip Parker King, Captain R.N. (with reference to the Log Book of the Isabella by Captain C. M. Lewis), ‘Voyage of the Colonial Schooner Isabella in search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton’, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, pp. 654–62 plus map; pp.753–60; pp.799–806. p. 754.
  2. John Ireland, The Shipwrecked Orphans, New Haven, Babcock, 2nd edn, 1845, p. 38.
  3. Ireland p. 46.
  4. Ibid p. 41.
  5. Ibid p. 52.
  6. King p. 754.
  7. A. C. Haddon, (comp.), Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, 6 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge at the University Press, 1901–1935, vol. I, p. 75.
  8. King p. 756.
  9. Wolfgang Laade, ‘Ethnographic Notes on the Murray Islanders, Torres Straits’, Zeitschrift fur Ethnolgie vol. 94, no. 1, 1969, p. 34. Laade later disclaimed his article because of the number of errors it contained in its printed form. However, his description of the basic division between the gardeners of the east and the fishermen and traders of the west, although obviously an over-simplified breakdown of the island’s economy, appears to be sound enough for the purpose of this book.
  10. Laade p. 34.
  11. Ireland p. 53.
  12. Ibid p. 54.
  13. Ibid p. 51.
  14. Captain Pennefather’s ‘report of a cruise among the islands lately annexed’, dated December 19, 1879. Queensland State Archives Item ID 847019 80/460. Commander Igglesden thought that the population of Darnley Island (Erub) was much greater than that of the Murray Islands. Pennefather head-counted 80 persons on Erub in 1879. Family migration, ‘blackbirding’ or kidnapping for work on the Queensland canefields, plus voluntary recruitment to other industries, would account for much of Erub’s dramatic drop in population.
  15. Ireland p. 56.
Portion of a painting by John Wilson Carmichael that its title tells us depicts the handing over of William D’Oyly to Captain Lewis, master of the ‘Isabella‘. A better title might be that it imagines the moment of John Ireland’s rescue. The lad in the white shirt is proportioned as a young adult and it makes sense that Carmichael painted two different events. Part of the Silent World Foundation art collection.


…. …. …….

Chapter 17: exploring the Murray Islands

Outrigger canoe with platform, making it ideal for trading voyages. Canoes like this one were traded from Papua New Guinea, with skulls of enemies and shipwrecked castaways sometimes offered in exchange. ‘Atlas Pittoresque’ plate 189, Wikimedia Commons. In: ‘Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l’Océanie sur les corvettes L’Astrolabe et La Zélée’, Jules Dumont d’Urville, Gide Paris, 1846. Exemplaire de la bibliothèque patrimoniale de Gray.70100 France.

At the time of his rescue, John Ireland was 17 years old and had been living in the Torres Strait for 22 months. He had forgotten English and mixed what little he did remember with the language of the eastern islands. It suggests that he had spent little time on the retentive process of learning how to read and write. English was an oral tool, easily discarded when no longer useful. Nevertheless, Captain Lewis soon extracted from him a few sparse sentences, and it quickly spread throughout the schooner.

Brockett, the sailor on board the Isabella who published an account of its voyage, concluded that Ireland’s incoherence was caused by his ‘long residence amongst the natives, and the dangers to which he was constantly exposed’.1 He thought that the lad appeared almost stupefied, ‘arising, I should imagine, either from fear of the natives, or from overjoy at his emancipation’.

The general opinion of the schooner’s crew was that the dazed lad had temporarily lost his intellect. Ireland, however, had enough sense about him in the first minutes of his rescue to point out that, contrary to Brockett’s conclusion, the Murray Islanders had treated him with great kindness. To Duppa in particular he owed his life.2 Duppa, meanwhile, was still waiting anxiously in his canoe. Lewis invited him aboard, covered his naked body with a linen outfit and loaded him with presents, so that Duppa was both pleased and satisfied.

The story that Ireland gave Lewis was much, much shorter than the version contained in the previous two chapters, which drew upon many sources. Captain Lewis’s journal, the log book of an unidentified Isabella sailor and Brockett’s published book are united in recording that all aboard the two rafts had been murdered at Boydang almost immediately, save for Ireland and William D’Oyly. At this stage, the ship’s boy said nothing to Lewis about George D’Oyly and John Sexton.3  

Later, after Ireland had eaten a small meal, Lewis assigned to him the role of interpreter and told him to ask for William. Fearing that the islanders might hide the boy to keep him, Lewis suspended all trading until the islanders handed the child over. The canoes returned to the beach but one of them quickly came back, reporting that the child was crying and refused to leave. He was on the other side of the island, said the men in the canoe.

At about seven o’clock the following morning, five canoes came out to the schooner to barter. Lewis continued to forbid any trade, stressing that bartering would resume only after he had the younger boy. For a time the islanders offered passive resistance, standing by the schooner in their canoes but not attempting to send for the boy. Lewis finally ended the impasse by opening the ports and running out the cannons. The men in the canoes instantly understood the threat. One canoe promptly went back to the island but returned with the proposal to give up the child for a payment of iron, made in advance.

Oil painting (1841) by John Wilson Carmichael, commissioned by William Bayley, the uncle who subsequently adopted and raised William D’Oyly. Portrays the moment when five canoe loads of Murray islanders escorted William out to the colonial schooner ‘Isabella‘. Held by the National Gallery of Australia. I have taken the liberty of reproducing it here in what I hope is its original, unvarnished colour tones.
A clearer close-up of William D’Oyly from the above oil painting by Carmichael (1841).

Lewis refused the offer, repeating his demands for William. The next day the captain got the result he wanted. A group of about 100 men assembled on a hill, in deep consultation. Among them was a naked white boy, playing with children of about his own size. It was several hours before the group on the hill reached a decision and a party moved down to the shore and boarded canoes. Oby was cradling William in his arms. When man and boy were assisted aboard the Isabella they descended into the cabin, where Lewis gave Oby presents and the usual clothing that such occasions seemed to demand.4 William was sitting on Oby’s shoulders and he made it clear by his screaming that he wanted to stay there. He clutched so tightly to Oby’s hair that Lewis and his men had to use force to break his hold. Lieut. G. B. Kempthorne of the Tigris gives us this description of the two boys when they boarded the Isabella:

These unfortunate boys were quite naked when found by Captain Lewis, and young D’Oyly had become, in manner and appearance, a perfect little savage, being quite brown and freckled, and his body covered with a thick whitish down. . . . his countenance was rather broad, but pleasing, and he was tall for his age. His hair, which had never felt a comb, was flaxen, and was long and shaggy, and his eyes were blue: these were characteristics plainly showing his Anglo-Saxon origin. Ireland was tall and thin, complexion and hair dark, and much sunburnt. They both spoke the native language fluently,— so much so, that the latter had almost forgotten his own tongue. He could hardly, when first discovered, put a sentence together, and seemed quite at a loss for words; but he soon got over this defect, and in a week or so after being on board of the Isabella, he spoke as well as any one in the vessel.

. . . Poor young D’Oyly, when given over to strangers, cried most bitterly, and wanted much to return to his old protectors: his grief at parting with those who had been so kind to him, lasted for several days, and none but Ireland could pacify him. He shunned the faces of all on board, and endeavoured to hide away in some dark corner of the vessel, quite dreading the approach of any one. At night his fears were beyond credence: he would not allow his companion in misfortune to be out of sight for one instant.”5

Kempthorne guessed that William was three and tall for his age, but the lad had his fifth birthday a short time after his rescue. Later, in Sydney, when he was almost seven, he attracted the comment from the author, Charlotte Barton, that for a five-year-old, he was remarkably tall for his age.6

The Isabella had no surgeon, and both boys needed treatment for their many ulcers. Brockett observed with some satisfaction that neither of them had tattoos, a circumstance he found surprising. To provide some cheer, Captain Lewis ordered the firing of guns and small arms, to amuse his hosts with a bit of light and a rocket. Judging by the shouts from the beach, the noise frightened some people.

Johns dramatic weight loss seems to have occurred in the nine months since the departure of the convict ship Mangles. Until then, both boys had been well cared for and fed. Post-Manglesvisit, the older lad was malnourished, with illness and attendant loss of appetite the likely cause. Several people also commented on the fact that thick white down covered William’s body. It could be a description of the fine down called ‘laguno’, which is supposed to appear in some of the worst cases of anorexia.7 More likely, his flaxen body hair was particularly noticeable on his sun-darkened limbs.

Within a few days of his rescue, William was happily running around the schooner’s deck. ‘One of the sailors made him a frock and trousers,’ explained Ireland, ‘and another gave him a cap; he looked very curious in them, but at first they made him uncomfortable.’8 William was expressive with his face and hands. He would sit beside the sailors and describe what appeared to be everything that happened after the shipwreck, using signs to demonstrate the murders. It is possible that he remembered some of it; more likely, he was repeating what Ireland had often told him. He adapted so quickly to his new surroundings that Brockett smugly concluded he had already forgotten his island family, becoming ‘more partial to us than he had ever been to them.’9

The schooner remained off Mer for nine days, with the crew going ashore almost every day to barter and, in the case of Brockett and Lewis, make observations and notes. Brockett also made a number of crude sketches of people, scenes and artefacts, scoring a good deal when he bartered some trifle for a curious bamboo instrument that had actually come from Papua New Guinea (as it is now called). Most of what the sailors traded for curios was rubbish. One sailor traded an old stocking. Another got several artefacts for the sleeve of an old blue flannel shirt, while Brockett boasted he got several items for an old steel pen, plus some large, attractive shells for an old brace. He had inherited his father’s passion for collecting.

Sketch by W. E. Brockett of Murray Islanders spearfishing off the beach and cooking their catches. One man is wearing European trousers presumably gifted by Captain Lewis. The landscape appears to be  fanciful. From ‘Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits . . .’ , p. 26.

The Murray Islanders, meanwhile, were trying to outwit their guests to much the same extent that the sailors were attempting to palm off rubbish. One of them tried to steal a knife, while Ireland later admitted that he saw Duppa steal a pair of compasses, but said nothing for fear of offending the man who had saved his life. Lewis thought them harmless, ‘but great thieves and also very much afraid of a gun or small arms.’10

The islanders were actually quite suspicious of the white men, who never ventured ashore without weapons. They would not permit any of their women to go out to the schooner, although Brockett did observe one curious exception. Two women came off in a canoe and waited patiently for a time but were not allowed on board, so they returned to Mer. Ireland then told Brockett that while he had been living on Mer he had been compelled to marry.11 He never spoke of it again and the women may not have been connected with his confession. On the other hand, one of them may have been his bride, anxious to speak to him but thwarted in her efforts.

On another occasion Ireland told Lewis that he ‘was offered a wife, and a plot of ground, if he would only remain amongst them,’12 but he refused, he said, hoping for rescue. How to explain, then, that Duppa did give him a plot of land, as well as a canoe? A possible explanation is that Ireland either married or was betrothed to a local woman but was later too shy to admit it.

Rainwater collecting in huge bi-valved shells, Torres Strait. ‘Atlas Pittoresque’ plate 188, Wikimedia Commons. In: ‘Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l’Océanie sur les corvettes L’Astrolabe et La Zélée’, Jules Dumont d’Urville, Gide Paris, 1846. Exemplaire de la bibliothèque patrimoniale de Gray. 70100 France.

One day a boatload of sailors from the Isabella went to a waterhole with eight casks they hoped to fill. There was only enough water left in the hole to fill one cask and it was so muddy it was unfit for use, but the sailors took it any way. As Lewis dryly commented with remarkable lack of concern, ‘It appears that the island is very deficient in water’.13 There was a stream in a valley on the southeastern corner of Mer but it flowed only briefly after each downpour of rain. Man-made waterholes or wells dug deeply into its bed, however, stored enough water to last for months. During the wet season, the islanders collected rainwater in huge bi-valved shells; in the dry season, coconut milk was the principal drink.

While the sailors were busy scooping out the dredges from the waterhole, one of the islanders, an unfortunate fellow disfigured by something like leprosy, clumsily tried to remove an empty cask. It was one white man’s artefact that the ship’s crew could doubtless spare – but Lewis and his crew were incensed by what they regarded as an act of unforgivable deceit. Trying to steal a large cask from under the noses of the watching sailors seems so unlikely that it is probable that the poor man, wishing to prove his usefulness, had merely intended to fill it from another source.

Many of the descriptions of the Torres Strait Islanders in the 1830s have come from men like those aboard the schooner. They are superficial observations but they are useful, even if they do reflect the white man’s prejudices at that time. The following extract from the logbook of an anonymous sailor aboard the Isabella is less widely known and may therefore be of interest:

Thursday 23rd.—Fine weather, the natives on board, offering their trifles for sale and viewing the different things about the decks, especially the small arms, which they did not appear to like after having seen one or two birds shot by the Captain; lowered the boats down and man’d them to go to a small Island divided from Murray’s by a narrow passage, called by the natives Dower [sic]; upon landing with one of the natives of Murray’s Island, the Captain and four men went to see if they could find any inhabitants, or any thing that might lead to any further discovery of the unfortunate ship; there were about ten or twelve small huts surrounded by a bamboo fence entirely forsaken by the inhabitants and nothing left but a very dismal spectacle of about 25 human skulls hung in a line at the foot of a large tree, and two or three in several of the huts surrounded by shells of different kinds, several things of very rough workmanship were obtained by the Captain, the principle of which were masks, and about six or eight wooden swords made of a very hard wood, and appeared to be very formidable weapons.”14

Captain Lewis, assuming that the island was uninhabited despite clear evidence to the contrary, simply helped himself to any masks, swords or shells he found there. The definition of theft did appear to depend upon the nationality of the offender. Ireland hastened to assure Lewis that the human skulls were those of relatives of the island’s inhabitants and not connected to any shipwreck.

At eight o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 28 June, the schooner left its anchorage off Mer. Before it sailed, Duppa collected coconuts, yams and tobacco from his garden and brought the produce out to the schooner as a gift for his adopted son. ‘He then asked who was to have the care of my canoe, bows and arrows, and other articles?’ reported Ireland. ‘I said, his son, Bowdoo; with which he seemed very well satisfied.’ On the previous night, Lewis had entrusted Duppa with a note for the captain of the next ship to call, in which he outlined the fate of those aboard the Charles Eaton and stated categorically that he had rescued ‘the only two living.’15

Figs. 1.-Flying Squid; a singular description of flying fish. 2,6,7,8,9-Marks cut in the natives’ shoulders. 3.-Hut. 4.-Shows the manner in which they bury their dead. ‘John Ireland informed me [i.e. Brockett] that there were a great number of people hanging up in different parts of the island, as represented in the figure.’ 5.-Wooden instrument, which they wear in their ears to extend them. From Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits . . . , p. 21.

Notes to Chapter 17

  1. W. E. Brockett, Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits: in Search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton, in His Majesty’s colonial schooner Isabella, C.M. Lewis, commander, Sydney: printed at the Colonist, 1836, p. 19.
  2. Phillip Parker King, Captain R.N. (with reference to the Log Book of the Isabella by Captain C. M. Lewis), ‘Voyage of the Colonial Schooner Isabella in search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton’, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 655.
  3. See Brockett and King/Lewis accounts. Also Anon., Australian, 21 Oct. 1836.
  4. King/Lewis, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 661. On 21 June, 1836, a white boy called William was taken from Mer. Coincidentally, exactly 100 years later, on 21 June 1936, a boy was born on Mer who would grow up to challenge the notion of terra nullius and mount the first successful claim in Australia for native title. It was, of course, the great Eddie Mabo.
  5. Commander G. B. Kempthorne, I. N., ‘A Narrative of a Voyage in Search of the Crew of the Ship “Charles Eaton,” performed in the year 1836’. Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, vol. VIII, 1844, pp. 336–351 but in particular p. 227.
  6. Charlotte Barton, (A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales), A Mother’s Offering to Her Children. Sydney: printed at the Gazette Office, 1840, p. 81.
  7. Commander G. B. Kempthorne, I. N., ‘A Narrative of a Voyage in search of the Crew of the Ship “Charles Eaton . . . ” ’ p. 227.
  8. John Ireland, The Shipwrecked Orphans, New Haven: S. Babcock, 2nd edn, 1845, p. 60.
  9. Brockett p. 15.
  10. King, Nautical Magazine, vol. VIII, 1839, p. 110. Written in the letter Lewis left behind with Duppa and collected by Captain Igglesden.
  11. William Bayley file, thought to be Brockett to Bayley, undated but probably August 1837. Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, A1074.
  12. Ditto.
  13. King, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 662.
  14. Australian, 21 Oct. 1836.
  15. King, Nautical Magazine, vol. VIII, 1839, p. 110. Also William Bayley file, Igglesden to Gledstanes, inclusion.
Nineteenth-century face mask from an island in the Torres Strait, Australia Rietberg Museum Accession number RME 1. Donation from Eduard von der Heydt, Oceanian section of the Museum. Source/Photographer Guérin Nicolas, Wikimedia Commons.

Chapter 18: return to Erub

John Ireland told Captain Lewis that the Erub islanders frequently visited Boydang and were on good terms with the men who had murdered his shipmates. However, said Ireland, there had been no contact between Erub and Mer for about 14 months. It was an unusual circumstance, given that intermarriage between these two neighbouring islands did occur and there were many individual ties of friendship. Lewis decided to pay Erub a visit. According to Duppa, the skulls of the white people were on a small island to the southwest, but the captain was unsure how to find the island and hoped the people at Erub would give him better directions.

On Tuesday, 5 July, the Isabella anchored off Erub’s Bikar Bay. In the usual manner of the Torres Strait, a large group of islanders assembled on the beach and began waving boughs and making signs of peace. A delegation in a single canoe approached the schooner soon after, while several other canoes launched at the same time held back and kept their distance. When the men in the vanguard canoe came close, they immediately showed signs of alarm, perhaps because of the two white boys standing on the deck, or perhaps from the sight of so many armed sailors. The moment of anxiety passed, and the canoeists began calling out ‘Waki!’ and ‘Uass!’ Ireland quickly identified two of the men as part of the group who had murdered his companions and thought they had been present at the time. Using the ship’s boy as an interpreter, Lewis made it clear there would be no barter until the islanders had given up any white men they were holding on the island. The men in the canoe vigorously denied the accusation.

On the following day, many canoes visited the schooner to barter their trifles. Included among their occupants were two or three women. The sailors took this to be ‘a token of wishing to be upon friendly terms,’1 but ‘no information to be got of any of our unfortunate countrymen, although they profess to give every information in their power’.2 That evening, Lewis proposed once again that they fire off the schooner’s cannons. There were several islanders on board at the time and the loud reports terrified them, while those still on the beach scampered for cover, convinced they were under attack. When told the rockets were entertainment, they were not amused.

As the days passed, the relationship between the villagers and the ship’s crew became guardedly friendly, though Brockett guessed that it was ‘occasioned principally by the fear of the fire arms which we had in our possession.’3 The schooner, meanwhile, was running seriously short of water. Having seen the reservoir at Bikar Bay, which seemed to hold an ample supply, Captain Lewis struck a bargain, promising one iron axe for every two full casks. To test the deal, the sailors took two empty casks ashore. A group of women rolled them to the reservoir and filled them, while the men sat on the grass and watched.

On a subsequent watering excursion, the Erub Islanders ‘immediately stuck a small green bough in the cutlass belt of each man’4 and the schooner’s crew took this as a ‘sure sign of friendship’.5 One man even insisted on sleeping aboard the schooner, and the crew initially took this as another sign of wanting to be friendly. However, he was ‘observed by many of the different watches to be watching them very narrowly as they were walking up and down with their side arms.’6 The warm and fuzzy feelings produced by the gesture with the green boughs soon wore off, and the sailors succumbed to paranoia, convinced that their water was poisoned. Their suspicion evaporated when the islanders collecting the water freely drank from it.7

The atmosphere during the time that the government schooner was at anchor off Erub was very tense. The schooner’s crew was suspicious and anxious. Even so, Lewis continued his inquiries and insisted on inspecting the interiors of all the dwellings, something that the Erub islanders deeply resented. Although assured by the Murray Islanders that he had rescued the only two survivors, inconsistencies in the boy’s story convinced Lewis of the need for a thorough search at Erub. Governor Bourke had also instructed him to look for survivors from other shipwrecks at every island where he made landfall.

Old Duppa (left), Mamoose (centre) and Seewai (right) at Erub. Duppa’s oldest son, also Duppa, married an Erub girl and went to live at Bikar Bay, where he established cordial relationships with visiting crews. His parents became regular visitors and were staying with their son and his new wife when this portrait was drawn. Melville spells Mamoose as Mammos – and he may be right. Harden S. Melville 1843. In J. B. Jukes, ‘Narrative of the Survey Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Fly’ ‘, vol. I. London: T. & W. Boone, 1847.
Sketched at Erub by Harden S. Meville, c.1842. In J. B. Jukes, ‘Narrative of the Survey Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Fly’ ‘, vol. II. London: T. & W. Boone, 1847. the group is named from left to right as: Doodegas, Manoo, Warti and Darras.

The Isabella remained at Erub for so long that it began to look as if the captain was reluctant to leave, despite ample signs that his hosts were becoming increasingly anxious to get rid of him. Duppa’s friends, Mamoose and Ag-ghe, were always courteous guides around the island and the sailors appreciated their efforts, showering the two men with presents. The rest of the islanders quickly began to ignore the visitors and resumed their daily chores. They were great anglers and had built a number of stone piers that they used to trap fish. During the visit by Captain Lewis’s expedition, many of them were hard at work building an exceptionally large one.

On 17 July, the schooner finally left Erub, although Lewis still had no additional information about where to find the skulls of the murdered castaways. It had gone only a short distance when visibility became so poor that Captain Lewis ordered the schooner back to Bicar Bay. This time the reception was far from friendly. The white men were like guests who refused to leave and the Erub islanders were bored with them. For Brockett, their lack of enthusiasm for the second coming was further proof that they were not to be trusted.

A native dance at Darnley Island [Erub]. Pl. no. XX of: Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands by Harden S. Melville. Tinted lithograph with some hand colouring. London: Printed and published by Dickinson & Co. c 1849.

The islanders, to their credit, wisely decided upon forbearance, and that evening they entertained the ship’s crew with a dance. The performers decorated themselves with leaves and headpieces, while about 50 squatting musicians supplied the beat, some by striking a piece of bamboo with a stick, others by slapping their rumps. At the end of the evening, every one of the entertainers insisted on shaking Captain Lewis by the hand with their characteristic scraping and clawing motion, accompanied by affectionate embraces.

While this spirit of goodwill prevailed, Lewis was able, the next day, to have a useful conversation with a large group of islanders. With Ireland acting as interpreter, they told him the heads of the lammoors murdered at Boydang were at the island of Aureed. A canoe loaded with Aureed islanders had left some days ago, they said, to prepare for the schooner’s visit. The plan was to collect piles of tortoiseshell as a gift of appeasement. For two weeks, Lewis had tried in vain to extract any useful information about Aureed’s location. Yet the Erub islanders had steadfastly denied that they had any information to give. Not even offers of iron had persuaded them to betray their friends. On this occasion, however, they flocked around Lewis in great numbers competing with each other to blab out precise directions on how to find Aureed. Could it be that word had reached Erub that Aureed was now safely deserted?

Lewis decided to sail directly to Aureed to collect the remains. The Erub islanders assured him that he would have no difficulty finding it, since it was the only one of the flat central islands with coconut palms. According to the King/Lewis account, the suddenly quite chatty group also told Ireland that a man called Cut-Cut killed Charlotte D’Oyly. George D’Oyly’s murderer came from Zamut (Dalrymple) and was called Maam, while Sexton had been killed by a man called Abuyu, who came from an unnamed island near Papua New Guinea.8 The ship’s boy further claimed that he easily recognised the latter two, although he had never met them and they were not among the group at Boydang. None of this information was passed on to Lewis, although it may be an example of Ireland being so obtuse and contradictory in his statements that people had trouble understanding him. He would claim in his own book (The Shipwrecked Orphans) that no islander had spoken to him directly about George D’Oyly and John Sexton.9

Before leaving, Lewis extracted a promise from the villagers that they would never harm any white person cast upon their island. They assured the captain that ‘all the people who had been hitherto murdered, had been destroyed by their fathers, and not by any now living’.10 It was probably a reference to the murder of the Hormuzeer’s boat crew. More than 40 years after the event, the consequences of that occurrence still weighed heavily on everyone’s minds.  The last thing the islanders wanted was to get caught up in another white man’s vengeance party. Better to send Lewis to Aureed where he could collect the skulls he was looking for and leave the Strait. By making that statement though, they were also assuring Lewis that no Erub islanders had killed any of the Charles Eaton shipwreck survivors.


Notes to Chapter 18

  1. Australian, 21 Oct. 1836.
  2. Ibid.
  3. William Edward Brockett, Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres’ Straits : in Search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton, in His Majesty’s colonial schooner Isabella, C.M. Lewis, commander, Sydney: printer Henry Bull, 1836, p. 29.
  4. Australian, 21 Oct., 1836.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Phillip Parker King, Captain R.N. (with reference to the Log Book of the Isabella by Captain C. M. Lewis), ‘Voyage of the Colonial Schooner Isabella in search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton’, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, pp. 759–60.
  9. Ireland’s London deposition, The Times, 31 Aug. 1837.
  10. King, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 800.



Chapter 19: looking for answers

Lewis was on the move again, and the schooner sailed past many small islands before finally dropping anchor for the night off Sirreb. When the crew went ashore, they predictably found it deserted. Knowing that the schooner would be coming their way, the inhabitants had stripped the islet before fleeing. Lewis and his men searched it thoroughly but found nothing, not even any huts to burn.

NASA satellite photo of the Yorke islands in the Torres Strait
NASA Satellite photo. Yorke Islands group. Yorke Island on the right is made up of two islands, with Massid the larger and Kudala the smaller. The other three islets are Rennel (L), Marsden (C) and Keats (R).

Lewis then set his course for Yorke Island. It was made up of two isles, the larger being Massid, the smaller he called Cuderal (Kudala). Ireland had told Lewis that when he had stopped at Massid for a few days with Duppa while en route to Mer, he had seen the skulls of some of his former shipmates there.

A small group of people appeared on Massid’s beach, waving the usual branches as a sign they wanted peace. They were very nervous and offered a few coconuts and tortoise shell but refused to take anything in return, although they eventually accepted a few empty bottles. They gave every sign of wanting to bolt for the bushes at the first sign of trouble. The ship’s boy was now bold in his role as the only interpreter and demanded they hand over the lammoors. They had none, the islanders anxiously assured him. Nor had they any white man’s skulls. The men that Ireland had previously seen on their island with the skulls had been visitors from Aureed, they said, who had brought them to show off. They had left Massid, ‘having heard that the schooner was on her way to punish them for the murder they had committed’. They also said that ‘all the white men had been murdered, and that some of the skulls had been sent to New Guinea.’1   Lewis finally accepted that they were telling the truth. He let them pass unharmed through the circle of bayonets and they scurried away to rejoin their friends. His party waded across to Kudala but its inhabitants saw him coming and raced to their canoes, paddling furiously away. Brockett and a few other sailors gave chase in a boat but were unable to overtake them. Nor did they find any skulls on the two islets.

These NASA satellite pictures are great and it’s no wonder that they are becoming so popular. This group of Islands is named the Bourke Islands after Governor Sir Richard Bourke. Lewis got lost for a time wandering around them because they all looked alike. Aureed can be seen in the lower centre. Sirreb was also part of this group and it, too, was a home to the Gam-le people of the central isles.

For the whole of the next day, the schooner wandered around a group of small islands that Lewis called the Six Sisters, but his lookouts could find none that matched the description of the one they were seeking. On the following day, however, the schooner anchored off a small, low island with coconut palms. It had to be Aureed.

Apart from three howling dogs, the beach was empty. On the northeastern extremity of the island a small village could be seen but it was forsaken and in ruins. That afternoon Lewis loaded several boats with armed sailors and they went to the deserted village, where they torched the huts. The small grass structures were standing close together upon an open, sandy point. The flames instantly consumed them and reduced them to ashes.

Aurid Island (now Aureed Island), Torres Strait.
NASA satellite photo. Aureed Island looking
very bare following a long dry spell.
The tortoiseshell mask found at Aureed, adorned with human skulls. Black-and-white etching from Brockett’s book Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits . . . , p. 34.

The men then walked to the coconut trees near the centre of the island, expecting to find either the inhabitants or more huts, but there was nothing except a scattering of debris from a wrecked ship, including a few deck planks and the bar from a hen’s coop. They kept moving but found it unpleasant because the island was thick with flies.2 Eventually they came upon an avenue, lined on both sides with ochre-painted shells. At one end, there was a tree-shaded clearing, apparently used for feasts and ceremonies. At the other end, there was a low, thatched shed in a dilapidated condition. Inside they found a huge mask, crudely resembling a man’s face. It was a single turtle shell, smeared with red ochre and decorated with cowry and other smaller shells. Attached to its rim were human skulls. Other skulls were carelessly stacked in a pyramid-shaped pile. Some bore marks of violence; some were tied to the rim with European rope. A few even had strands of hair, driven into indentations by blows apparently made with an axe. Upon two or three were tufts of light-coloured hair, while on others the hair was dark.3 One skull with long strands of brown-gold hair was clearly that of Charlotte D’Oyly. The sailors were looking at the crude skull house used by the Kulka fraternity of the Cult of the Brethren.

Lewis ordered his crew to remove the roof from the shed to prevent damage to the mask, and they carried it carefully back to the boat. The sailors then began to search the island thoroughly, for the sight of the skulls had put them in a vengeful mood. They found a plantation of tobacco and destroyed it. Then they found a pile of drinking cups made from coconut shells and smashed them to pieces. The following day they set fire to the whole island and burned everything on it, including the skull house and all the plantations. In the ashes of the island, they found two more European skulls, scorched now by the fires they had lit. They took them aboard the schooner and deposited them with the others in a case. The Isabella sailed soon after, but not before Captain Lewis had renamed the island Skull Island. The name, however, didn’t catch on.

The Gam-le from Aureed – and the Massilegas at Massid – subsequently had a reputation as ruthless, treacherous head-hunters who roamed the Torres Strait killing any person unlucky enough to fall into their hands, with shipwrecked sailors particular targets. The Kulka lodge at Aureed told a different story. As cult lodges go, it was a poor specimen. Until the fresh additions from the Charles Eaton, it had housed just 28 old skulls, presumably of Torres Strait Islanders, some possibly of relatives, collected over what must have been a very long time. As head-hunters go the Gam-le obviously were not that successful. If anything, they were classic victims, too weak to repel an enemy and too dependent to offend a friend. The only European skulls at Aureed, as far as we know, were those from the Charles Eaton. It suggests that the Gam-le had killed no other white people. After the Isabella crew ravaged their island, they chose not to reoccupy it for fear of further retribution.

After leaving Aureed, Lewis anchored his schooner for the evening off Halfway Island. Finding nothing there of interest, or any people, his crew rested for two days. From the number of initials carved into trees it was clear that many European ships had anchored there. On their last night at Halfway Island, Lewis put another letter in a bottle and buried it under a prominent tree, upon which he carved the words ‘Dig Under’:

This vessel was dispatched by the Government in search of the Survivors of the ‘Charles Eaton’ wrecked on the Barrier Reef 2 years ago.— I have also called at nearly the whole of the Islands to the Northward after finding two of them on Murray’s Island; William Doyley [sic] & John Ireland cabin boy of the Charles Eaton the former a Son of Captain D’Oyley [sic] of the Bengal Army. Ireland relates the awful Catastrophe having seen the whole of his mates on the 2nd Raft consisting of all the crew murdered in his presence. The Captain & Passengers shared the same fate by the 1st Raft about a week before on the same island called Boydang by the savages of Aureed.”4

That last conversation at Erub, or what little of it he was told, in no way changed Lewis’s conviction, that everyone else from the two rafts had been killed almost instantly at Boydang.

On 31 July, the Isabella arrived at Nalgi (Double Island then but now Twin Island). There was an outrigger canoe drawn up on the beach and six Torres Strait Islanders were moving around. They were visitors from another island, ‘trying to catch turtle’ John said. With nothing to trade, they began waving their arms and crying out ‘poud, poud’, (peace, peace). Along the beach, some of the men found teak deck planks and a mast, but since they appeared to be old and much weathered, they were cut up and used for firewood.

Shortly after this, the Tigris came to anchor nearby. It was a small brig but it still managed to dwarf the little schooner. Commander Igglesden was soon aboard the Isabella and sought permission to take William D’Oyly back to his grandfather in Calcutta. Said grandfather, Henry Williams, had actually died in January, 1834. There were, nevertheless, many more D’Oyly relatives still living in Bengal. Igglesden needed something to show for his long, costly and fruitless expedition. Returning triumphantly to Calcutta with the little boy would certainly have been better than nothing and taking the youngster straight back to his wealthy relatives in India made sense. Captain Lewis, however, refused to comply with his request.

EIC’s brig-of-war ‘Tigris‘ at anchor off Double Island in the Torres Strait, August 1836. Sketch by W. E. Brockett, ‘Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres Straits in Search of the Survivors of the ‘Charles Eaton’ ‘ , p.35.

The Tigris surgeon, Hughes, examined the Aureed skulls, pronouncing 14 of them to be European (revised at Sydney to 17). Two of the skulls were female, while another two were a bit smaller than the rest and Ireland concluded that they belonged to Ching and Perry. There was no skull of an eight-year-old child, so George’s skull was definitely not among them. There is no evidence that the Isabella and Tigris captains had a copy of the Batavia deposition, which included Sexton’s name. That being so, there is a very good chance that neither was aware that another ship’s boy had been part of the crew. Had they known that, they would doubtless have questioned whether one of the smaller skulls was his.

Igglesden, Kempthorne and other officers had a talk with Ireland, who was, by this time, sufficiently reacquainted with the English language to be coherent. Later, Igglesden sent an account of the conversation with him to the Messrs Gledstanes.5 In the following extract Igglesden refers to the second raft: ‘on their reaching an Island (Boydang) the natives came off and killed them all with their clubs with the exception of this boy’. Igglesden, however, may have been the first person to extract from the ship’s boy the information that at least one other boy (George D’Oyly) had also survived. ‘The eldest boy lived for about 3 months,’ wrote Igglesden in a letter to his friend, Dr Wilson, of Sydney, ‘Ireland supposes they had suspicions of the older boy for some reason & therefore killed him.’6

Of all the people aboard the Charles Eaton, Sexton was the one Ireland should have remembered most vividly. They shared a Christian name and as ship’s boys together for nine months, they must have shared many chores. According to the children’s book later published under Ireland’s name, the two spent at lot of chummy time together on Pullan, fishing and climbing trees. Yet initially Ireland could not/would not recall the other boy’s name. To say of him that he had a poor memory for names is putting it mildly. Until reminded of it, he had forgotten George’s name as well.

Brockett would later say of Ireland that it was wise to humour him ‘as his temper is rather testy!’ and that ‘He is also apt to be confused when questioned by anyone.’7 He added that the lad ‘seemed to me to dislike to disclose matters’ and concluded that Ireland wanted money for his story. Brockett was writing at the time with the petulance of a thwarted author, but there does seem to be an element of concealment in the Ireland’s behaviour.

Another explanation for his failure to mention Sexton is the initial difficulty people had in trying to understand him. In their attempts to fill in the many gaps in his story, they were too hasty in drawing their own conclusions. Even so, Ireland spent many hours on the homeward journey alone with Lewis in the captain’s cabin, helping him to compile a dictionary of the Meriam language for the benefit of other mariners. Yet it would appear that not once on the homeward journey did the lad tell Lewis any stories about the time he spent on Pullan with another ship’s boy.

The man-of-war with its large compliment of uniformed officers and soldiers was impressive. There is every indication that to the best of his ability Ireland was trying to cooperate fully, giving the Tigris commander and officers a lengthy account of what happened to the crew aboard the second raft, including details of the murders and subsequent cannibalism.8 The description he gave them was more graphic and horrific than his other more tempered accounts of what happened in the wake of the killings. Again though, he made no mention of Sexton at all. It was as if the lad had never existed.

One theory of mine is that the survivor later identified as Sexton was actually the Sydney resident William Hill. No age was ever given for Hill but there was a young lad of that name attending a private school in Sydney in 1826.9 Sailors in those days were often in their late teens. There were also several families at Sydney with the surname Hill. If the other survivor at Boydang had only been with the barque for a couple of weeks, it would certainly explain why Ireland forgot his name. This ‘other boy’ had survived because he had bitten his attacker on the arm, drawing blood. According to island custom, that made him a blood relative of his attacker and his life was initially spared. To say that the other survivor was Hill is a neat piece of theorising but there is no real evidence to support it, beyond the fact that Captain Moore had included Hill in his crew list ex-Sydney but may have omitted Sexton, while the sailors at Batavia had supplied a modified version of the ex-London crew list that included Sexton but omitted Hill.

In 1839, Captain Watson of the schooner Essington called at Mer with some gifts for Duppa that a Mrs Anne Slade (see later chapters) had given to him for that purpose. Unlike Captain Lewis, Watson was able to ask Duppa and many other Murray Islanders specific questions about the fate of George D’Oyly and John Sexton. Everyone he questioned, including Duppa, admitted that the two white boys he was enquiring about were taken to Erub and murdered, probably by Aureed islanders. When Captain Watson moved on to Erub and put the same question to the people there, they confirmed what the Mer islanders had told him.10 Watson had no interpreter but some of the islanders were beginning to understand English. The responses he got vindicated Captain Lewis’s belief about the fate of the other two boys.


Notes to Chapter 19

  1. Phillip Parker King, Captain R.N. (with reference to the Log Book of the Isabella by Captain C. M. Lewis), ‘Voyage of the Colonial Schooner Isabella in search of the Survivors of the Charles Eaton’, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 801.
  2. Sydney Monitor, 14 Oct. 1836.
  3. Australian, 21 Oct. 1836.
  4. William Bayley file, Igglesden to Gledstanes, enclosure, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, A1074.
  5. William Bayley file, Igglesden to Gledstanes.
  6. Igglesden to Wilson, letter dated 19 Aug. 1836, published in the Sydney Herald, 26 Oct. 1836.
  7. William Bayley file, thought to be William Brockett to William Bayley, undated but probably August 1837, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, A1074.
  8. Commander G. B. Kempthorne, I. N., ‘A Narrative of a Voyage in search of the Crew of the Ship “Charles Eaton,” performed in the year 1836’, Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, vol. 8, 1849, pp. 210–236.
  9. ‘The half-yearly examination of the Pupils of Mr. Bradley’s Seminary took place on Wednesday, the 21st instant, at his residence in O’Connell Street. Two silver medals and a silver pen had been provided by the master, as a stimulus to the juvenile competitors. The medals were awarded to Masters William Hill and Joseph Underwood.’–Sydney Monitor, 30 June 1826. Hill was a Sydney resident and more self-effacing than the other five clued-up and experienced sailors hired at Sydney.
  10. Watson, Thomas, ‘Logbook of the schooner Essington, on file at the National Library of Australia. .

Chapter 20: King and Bourke

If you climb Mount Macedon in the Australian state of Victoria, and take in the view from its summit, you will be retracing the steps of Governor Sir Richard Bourke and Captain (later Admiral) Phillip Parker King, who got there before you in March 1837. The two men were part of a small party that left Sydney in February on board H.M.S. Rattlesnake, commanded by Captain Hobson. Bourke and King stood together in dusty Collins Street while Bourke officially proclaimed Melbourne a town, then spent several weeks riding around Port Phillip District, living in tents and visiting western Victoria. King would also have enjoyed the voyages to and from Melbourne, aboard the notoriously uncomfortable HMS Rattlesnake. Although he was managing his family’s sheep farm near Parramatta, he was happy in the company of men who shared his navy background.

HMS ‘Rattlesnake’. ‘Illustrated London News‘, 12 Feb. 1853. It was broken up at Chatham in January 1860.

Australian readers remember him as the commander of the 1818–1820 expedition that surveyed that part of the eastern coastline left unfinished by Captain Matthew Flinders, working from a small cutter called Mermaid. From 1821–22 he carried out an extensive survey in H.M.S. Bathurst, concentrating on the north and northwestern coasts of Australia. His accurate survey of the inner passage from Sydney to Torres Strait (King’s Route) was familiar to most nineteenth-century mariners.1

Governor Sir Richard Bourke preferred to live at Government House, Parramatta. Painting by George Wiliam Evans, 1805.

A neighbour of King during the 1830s was Governor Sir Richard Bourke, who preferred to work in the more comfortable and rural surrounds of the Parramatta government house, rather than his official residency near Sydney Cove. In theory, King and Bourke should have been close friends and they did get on reasonably well, since each respected the other’s integrity and intellect. Ideologically, however, a political gulf between them prevented Bourke from accepting King into his small inner circle of close friends.

Bourke proudly proclaimed himself a ‘Whig’, and saw himself as the people’s Governor. He introduced many reforms, including checks on the ease and severity of punishment handed out to assigned convicts by district magistrates. King, by contrast, was a conservative free settler, opposed to any relaxation in the level of convict discipline. He shared this and many other right-wing views with his brother-in-law, Hannibal Macarthur, at that time a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and a vigorous opponent of many of Bourke’s reforms.

Bourke and King were most in harmony during the period of their involvement in this story – between mid-1836 and early 1837. Bourke was almost 60 years old and suffered from bouts of ill health and melancholy, the latter brought on by the death of his wife in 1831. King was 15 years younger than Bourke, with a small daughter and six active sons. He was also the leading authority on the seas around the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait. When, in early 1836, the Home Office instructed Governor Bourke to send a rescue mission to find any Charles Eaton survivors, King had been the obvious person to turn to for advice. The mission was one of great interest to mariners and King put his mind to the task willingly, freely and, it seemed, without any strings attached. He drew up the sailing and tactical instructions supplied to Captain Lewis before his departure and for King it was hardly an onerous task.

John Ireland and William D’Oyly sailed back into Sydney Cove aboard the government schooner on Wednesday, 12 October 1836, four months after they had been collected from Mer. The first people to hear of the Isabella’s return were the men aboard the custom’s launch who went out to meet it. They picked up a few rough details of what had transpired in the Torres Strait and quickly spread the word. The Sydney Monitor was just about to put the latest edition of its afternoon paper ‘to bed’ but it squeezed in the following announcement:

We stop the press to announce that the ‘Isabella’ has arrived from Murray’s Island, and brings up two of the crew of the ‘Charles Eaton’, and a child, the son of Captain D’Oyle [sic]; the rest of the crew were murdered by the blacks. These survivors were ransomed for tomahawks/&c. The ‘Isabella’ has also brought up some skulls of the unfortunate passengers who fell victims to the ferocity of the Islanders.”2

Thereafter, reporters from all four Sydney newspapers tried to out-scoop each other for the best interviews and coverage of what was clearly a sensational local story. The following report, published in the Colonist 13 October, is typical:

“. . . the whole of the crew & passengers . . . succeeded in reaching a small island … that within an hour from the time of landing, the whole of them had been barbarously murdered by the natives, with the exception of the cabin boy & a male child of Captain D’Oyly’s then about two years old.

The Colonist was actually lucky to get a brief version of events. Despite the furore caused by his return, Lewis was refusing to release any details of his recent mission, presumably because he wanted to save it for a forthcoming book. When reporters sought information, he gave them nothing but an impenetrable silence. They had to rely on hearsay and gossip, picked up in the inns and taverns where the sailors hung out. As a result, many of the stories published over the following week were inaccurate in their details.

The Sydney Herald, for example, stated that the boys had been rescued from Erub while the mask, said the reporter, had been painted with red and green paint. The same news item also reported that two other boys had initially survived as well, and had been allowed to exist for some months.3 This information had presumably been procured from one of the Isabella sailors. Someone among the crew, perhaps on the homeward journey, had concluded from Ireland’s garbled account that a fourth boy had survived for a time as well. Captain Lewis was so annoyed by some aspects of the report, he lodged a complaint at the newspaper’s office. A few days later, what was supposed to pass for an apology appeared in the Sydney Herald:

We have been requested by Captain Lewis to state that it was from Murray’s Island he obtained the two lads of the Charles Eaton, and not ‘Darnley’s Island’ as we had stated in our last edition. If Captain Lewis had given us, or any of the Sydney papers a rough report of his voyage (and he has not furnished them with one word on the subject), this mistake would not have occurred. We hope the Government will furnish the public with an official Statement of the expedition as soon as possible, to allay the excitement the melancholy affair of the Charles Eaton has created.”4

The newspapers, meanwhile, were being surprisingly inventive in finding their own sources for meatier stories. Some of their reports were so long, they ran to thousands of words and extended over four full columns. Their coverage was extraordinary. The Australian, for example, triumphantly announced that it had perused a letter from one of the officers aboard the Tigris.5 Later, it reproduced verbatim a log book kept by one of the sailors aboard the Isabella.6

The normally staid Sydney Herald stole the march on all of them by publishing a line drawing of the mask, the first editorial illustration to appear in an Australian newspaper. As well, the Sydney Herald managed to get hold of John Ireland for a first-person interview. The reporter was no less confused by Ireland’s muddled style of talking than everyone else had been. When Ireland referred to ‘another boy’ on the second raft, the reporter, having not heard Sexton’s name mentioned in any previous reports of survivors, assumed he was referring to George D’Oyly and wrote a story that placed George on the second raft.7

Again, it was the Sydney Herald (27 Oct.) who beat the Australian (28 Oct.) to a scoop account from Captain Igglesden, although this introduction to it is their own:

Notwithstanding the discreditable manner in which the public have been deprived of even a bare outline of the late expedition in search of the survivors of the ill-fated ship Charles Eaton, we are at length enabled to gratify our readers with the subjoined particulars, from the pen of Captain Igglesden, the Commander of the Hon. E. I. C.’s brig Tigris, and obligingly furnished us by an old friend of the Colony,”—Dr. Wilson, R.N.

The Australian also made an oblique reference to the difficulty in obtaining information about the voyage. By this time, the official silence surrounding the Isabella’s return was so pointed it was becoming embarrassing. The newspapers had gone to extraordinary lengths to praise the schooner’s commander and crew for the success of their mission, but were still unable to elicit any information from Lewis.

Finally, on 26 October, a fortnight after the schooner’s return, the Colonial Secretary’s office issued a very brief, five-paragraph press release based on Lewis’s journal. Beyond that, Lewis had nothing further to say. In choosing to give the Charles Eaton rescue mission such extensive coverage, however, Sydney’s media proprietors had merely read the public mood. The story had aroused enormous interest among the colonists and John Ireland and William D’Oyly were ‘objects of great curiosity’.8

Captain Lewis had initially been in a cheerful mood on his return from the Torres Strait, speaking openly of the book he would soon publish from his journals and logbook. For a master whose duties mainly consisted of ploughing back and forth between Sydney and Moreton Bay or Norfolk Island, he had just completed the highlight of his career. At about the same time, however, Ireland gave his statement on the shipwreck. Governor Bourke had a copy of the crew list supplied in the Batavia deposition that included Sexton’s name. For the first time Ireland began to speak with some degree of clarity about George D’Oyly and the ‘other’ boy, whose name, everyone agreed, was Sexton.

We can only guess what happened as the result of Ireland’s expanded version of his story. We know that the unexpected silence on the Charles Eaton rescue mission prompted indignation from the newspapers, followed by some ultimately valuable attempts to fill the void. We also know that both Bourke and King read the Lewis logbook and documents and the Governor decided to exclude the captain from further involvement. Bourke handed the material over to King with the request to prepare it for publication. There were relatives in other countries with considerable influence and the whole matter required great delicacy.

King promised to produce a book that would ‘procure for Mr. Lewis the same approbation in the eye of the public as the voyage it records has already deservedly obtained’.9 The image of Lewis that emerges from King’s account is that of a man who was always cool under pressure and behaved with impeccable judgement. In carrying out his mission, Lewis had merely been following Governor Bourke’s instructions. If he was, at times, heavy-handed in his dealings with the Torres Strait Islanders, it was because Bourke had told him that he would ‘do well, without betraying alarm, to be yet very suspicious and watchful, whenever they appear inclined to be most friendly.’10

Captain Lewis must have been nonplussed by John’s Sydney deposition but he steadfastly maintained that both Sexton and George D’Oyly were dead. Ireland had contradicted Lewis’s own claim that everyone else from the Charles Eaton had been killed and eaten soon after landing at Boydang. He was now vulnerable to claims that he had failed to conduct a proper interview with Ireland, had not established the deaths of the other two boys beyond all doubt and had made no proper search for them.

King was astute enough to know that with Ireland’s deposition he now had a much more interesting book on his hands and one to which he would be happy to attach his name. Governor Bourke was ‘easily induced’11 to finance its publication from the public coffers and it went to press in Sydney in mid-March 1837. On 6 June 1837, Bourke sent a letter to Lord Glenelg, in which he made a valiant attempt to justify the unusual expenditure on the book. He had decided to publish it, he wrote:

for the satisfaction of the friends of the deceased Persons, and also with a view to disseminate such additional knowledge of the passage of Torres Straits as was acquired during the voyage.”12

To increase its value for navigators, the book included the Flinders chart of Torres Strait, overlaid with the tracks of both the Isabella and the Tigris and pinpointing Aureed and several other small but previously unknown central islands. A guide to the language of the eastern islanders, compiled by Lewis from Ireland’s first-hand knowledge, was also included for the benefit of traders or whalers calling at Mer or Erub. The print run was 1022 and the publishing cost was £49/1/2.13 It was certainly unusual for Governor Bourke to authorise the expenditure of public funds on a project that could have been handled by private enterprise.

In his later letter to William Bayley, Brockett stated that he knew that Ireland had been ‘taken in’ at Sydney.14 Did Ireland seriously expected money for telling his story to Governor Bourke? It seems unlikely. The colony of New South Wales had already spent a great deal of money on his rescue and Governor Bourke had given him an allowance to live on for five or six months. Perhaps Ireland expected money or some sort of publishing deal from Captain Lewis for his help in compiling the dictionary. Brockett, however, did not elaborate.

Governor Bourke distributed copies of the book in high places. Fifty copies were sent to the Colonial Agent General, one to Lloyd’s, with an unspecified number to be passed on to Lord Glenelg’s department and the Admiralty. The rest of them went to bookshops. The book is, as all would agree, a gem, and certainly the fullest account of the shipwreck. All later versions of the story have drawn from it. It also, incidentally, reinforced the view that the Isabella mission was an outstanding success and a credit to the colony.

The first editorial correction occurs when it describes Lewis’s interview with Ireland aboard his schooner. King understandably inserts all the details contained in Ireland’s Sydney testimony, but what the lad had actually told Lewis was vague and inconsistent.

The next correction occurs when King states that Lewis decided to visit Erub ‘in the hope that the Aroob (Erub) people might know something more of the fate of Sexton and D’Oyly than the Murray Islanders’.15 This conflicts with the letter entrusted to Duppa just before Lewis sailed for Erub, in which the captain confidently announced to the next visiting ship that he had obtained ‘the only two living’.16

Then there is King’s own statement that on his arrival in Sydney, Ireland had deposed to ‘the information he received on the deaths of Sexton and the elder D’Oyly’. This comment suggests that Ireland was already in Sydney when he offered the details supposedly obtained at Erub as irrefutable proof that the other two boys were dead. My final quote from the book is a statement of King’s own belief and reflects what he was told:

The fate of George D’Oyley [sic] and Sexton is still in some remote degree uncertain. Every pains and trouble seem to have been taken to ascertain the certainty of their fate; and Mr. Lewis has no doubt of the fact. Had either been alive, the desire of possessing the valuable iron implements which were offered in exchange for them, would have insured their being brought forward by the Indians; and their not having done so, is a more than presumptive proof of their not being in existence. The same story of their having been murdered was told throughout the islands without prevarication, together with the names of the murderers, as well as the circumstance of the hair of young D’Oyley [sic] having been preserved as an ornamental trophy.”17

King’s compilation was commendable in that he hoped it would ensure that no false hopes were aroused in the Sexton and D’Oyly families. Yet despite his efforts there were many relatives in England, including George D’Oyly’s two older brothers and his uncle, William Bayley, who now began to entertain notions that one or both of the two boys might still be alive.18

Melbourne as it looked in 1837 when Governor Bourke officially declared it a town. Engraving property of author. Artist unknown.

Not long after Governor Bourke placed the book in the hands of the printers, Captain (later Admiral) Phillip King and Governor Sir Richard Bourke sailed on H.M.S. Rattlesnake for the new colony in the Port Phillip district. Bourke’s acceptance of King as part of his travelling party may be an indication of the friendship that had blossomed between two men on opposite sides of the political spectrum. King’s invaluable assistance with the Isabella mission, however, was not entirely without self-interest. There was a vacant member’s seat in the Legislative Council following the death of Mr Archibald Bell, and King confidently expected that it would be his. He was named as a member of the Council in 1829 but had been unable, at that time, to fill the seat. King nevertheless believed that he was entitled to the next vacant seat.19

Governor Bourke thought differently. King’s brother-in-law, Hannibal Macarthur, was already on the Council and Bourke objected to near relatives holding two of only seven open seats. When Bell’s seat became vacant, he recommended the appointment of Sir John Jamison, a man who supported his vision of what was best for the colony.

When, on their return to Sydney, King found out that Bourke had nominated someone else for the seat, he was outraged, claiming prior entitlement but also that the Governor had failed to acknowledge his services as promised. In a letter to Lord Glenelg, enclosed with King’s complaint to the Home Office about this perceived injustice, Bourke wrote:

I am happy at having this opportunity of acknowledging the professional services wh. Captn. King has at various times very willingly rendered to this Government, which, as he correctly states, I intimated it was my intention to bring under your Lordship’s notice. This fact might serve to convince him that, notwithstanding a wide difference in opinion upon general or Colonial Politics, Captn. King’s character does not stand low in my estimation. But this favorable opinion does not appear to me to offer any good reason for placing him in a position where I apprehend he would soon be arrayed against my administration, and according to the best of my judgment against the true interests of the Colony.”20

The professional services referred to by Bourke included the assistance King had supplied in drafting instructions for the Isabella’s mission and, later, his discreet editing of the captain’s journal and the compilation of the book.

In February 1839, King became a member of the Council on the recommendation of Governor George Gipps, Sir Richard Bourke’s successor. Despite his links through his family to the anti-emancipist party, Gipps found him liberal in his politics. Within two months, however, King had resigned from the Council to take up a position as resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company, although he retained his council seat until October 1839.21 His taste for politics was not, it seems, so very great after all.

King’s interest in the Charles Eaton story was always genuine, as also was his deep concern for the lives of those mariners who used the Torres Strait. He continued to promote the inner route as a much safer alternative to the outer route and distributed written instructions to accompany his charts. He prepared a map of the eastern entrances to Torres Strait for the proprietors of Nautical Magazine, published in their journal in 1837, and in 1843 published for private distribution sailing directions for a safe route to and through Torres Strait, from Breaksea Spit to Booby Island.



Notes to Chapter 20

  1. Dorothy Walsh (ed.), The Admiral’s Wife: Mrs Phillip Parker King: A selection of letters 1817–56, Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1967, p. 6.
  2. Sydney Monitor, 12 Oct. 1836.
  3. Sydney Herald, 13 Oct. 1836.
  4.  Ibid , 20 Oct. 1836.
  5.  Ibid,  14 Oct. 1836.
  6.  Ibid, 21 Oct. 1836.
  7. Ibid, 20 Oct. 1836.
  8. John Ireland, The Shipwrecked Orphans, New Haven: S. Babcock, 2nd edn, 1845, p. 62.
  9. P. P. King, letter to editor, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, (the Government’s own newspaper) reproduced in Phillip P. King, Capt. R. N., F. R. S. (ed.) ; A Voyage to Torres Strait in Search of the Survivors of the Ship Charles Eaton, which was Wrecked upon the Barrier Reef, in the Month of August, 1834, in His Majesty’s Colonial Schooner Isabella, C. M. Lewis, Commander, Arranged from the Journal and Log Book of the Commander, by authority of His Excellency Major-General Sir Richard Bourke, K. C. B., Governor of New South Wales, etc, etc, etc. Sydney: E. H. Statham, 1837, p. xvi.
  10. King  p. xi.
  11. HRA, Sir Richard Bourke to Lord Glenelg, 6 June 1837, Series I, vol. XIII, p. 775.
  12. HRA, 6 June 1837, p. 775.
  13. HRA 17 May 1837, pp. 755–56.
  14. William Bayley file, Brockett to Bayley.
  15. King, pp. 31–32.
  16. Ibid.
  17. King, Nautical Magazine, vol.VI, 1837, p. 806.
  18. Colonist, 1 Aug. 1838, published a copy of a letter that Mrs Anne Slade received from William Bayley, in which the latter expresses his belief that George D’Oyly and John Sexton might still be alive.
  19. Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1788–1850, Douglas Pike (gen. ed.), Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1967 pp. 61–63.
  20. HRA, Sir Richard Bourke to Lord Glenelg, 6 June 1837, Series I, vol. XIII, p. 775.
  21. Australian Dictionary of Biography, pp. 61–63. Online.




.t..Bing Translator

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