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On this day in 1823, explorer John Oxley found castaways Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan at the southern end of Bribie Island, half way up the east coast of Australia. Had this encounter not taken place, the whole history of this part of the continent may have panned out differently. Brisbane may never have existed and state boundaries may have been put somewhere else.

Ex-convict Pamphlett and convict Finnegan, along with ex-convicts Richard Parsons and John Thompson, had set out from Sydney on 21 March 1823 in a 30 foot open boat to fetch cedar wood at the Illawarra district, 50 miles south. They were nearly at their destination when strong wind blew them out to sea. After more than three weeks of being tossed about by the waves and running out of drinking water, they were able to beach themselves, but not before Thompson had succumbed to the elements.

With their boat having broken up in the waves and thinking they were south of Sydney, the castaways walked north along the beach. They spent the next seven months island hopping and trying to get around rivers in their quest to get back to civilisation. Various Aboriginal groups looked after them and fed them during their journey.

In the late afternoon of 29 November, Pamphlett was on the beach with his Aboriginal friends as they cooked the day’s catch when he spotted a cutter offshore. On it were Oxley and his crew exploring the east coast for a place for a convict colony, but they had not yet found a suitable spot.

Pamphlett's rescue

They told an astonished Pamphlett that Sydney was over 500 miles south, not somewhere to the north. Finnegan was rescued next day and showed Oxley the Brisbane River, a watercourse that was hidden from the bay by islands and had been missed by several previous explorers. Oxley was impressed and recommended it to the governor as a site for a new settlement.

A year later, in September 1824, Oxley found Parsons at Bribie Island before helping set up the Moreton Bay penal colony at Redcliffe. The outpost moved to the Brisbane River in May 1825. Back in Sydney, Pamphlett committed another crime and was sentenced to seven years at the new settlement, which may never have been established had he not met Oxley. The convict colony became Brisbane, a city of two million people and capital of the state of Queensland, Australia.

Pamphlett’s life, from growing up in the slums of Manchester, UK to his death at Penrith outside Sydney, is followed in detail in my non-fiction book, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK) and elsewhere.

Thomas Pamphlett book cover

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