Aborigines, Australia, Brisbane, canoes, castaways, cedar cutters, colonial, convicts, dokkai, fire, history, John Finnegan, Moreton Bay, Moreton Island, Ngugi, Nunukul, Pamphlett, Reeders Point, Richard Parsons, South Passage, Stradbroke Island, Sydney, Thomas Pamphlett
Here’s another excerpt from my nonfiction book on Australian convict Thomas Pamphlett, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway. The three cedar fetchers, ex-convicts Richard Parsons and Pamphlett and convict John Finnegan, are trying to head north to get back to Sydney not realising that Sydney is over 500 miles to the south. They must get around Moreton Bay, the site of today’s city of Brisbane, before resuming their journey to the north. They are at the southern end of Moreton Island looking across to Stradbroke Island …
Early next morning the castaways built a large fire on the sand directly opposite the spot where they had seen fires the previous evening. They hoped the sight of smoke would attract the attention of someone. It did. Very soon they saw an Aborigine in a large canoe making his way through the fast-moving water towards them. As he drew closer the cedar fetchers decided to watch from behind the hill so as not to scare their potential benefactor. He dragged his canoe up from the waterline and headed straight for their fire. When the three whites came out of hiding he took one look at the dokkai [ghostly figures; white men] and, fearing for his life, scampered back to his boat, leapt in and paddled furiously away, shouting and screaming at the top of his voice. His reaction was the same as the family who fled into the bush near Cape Moreton.
Meanwhile they noticed another canoe being launched from the opposite shore by two men. The pair in this boat met with the frightened man in the middle of the channel. Both canoes then ventured in the direction of the ghosts. Pamphlett, Finnegan and Parsons remained by their fire, lest they should startle them further. Beaching their canoes they gazed up at the strangers from a safe distance, possibly looking for characteristics of dead relatives. Returning to their boats they semaphored with pieces of bark, which doubled as paddles, across the South Passage. The whites saw in the distance other members of the group pushing off from the beach in two more canoes, five or six men in each. Would one of these men recognise the three bloodless souls by the fire?
The convoy landed. The entire party of about 14 timid, unarmed men from Stradbroke’s Nunukul clan crept towards the castaways around the fire. They stopped short, huddling in a group. Finally, one man overcame his trepidation, venturing slowly up to the fire. Perhaps he saw a resemblance to a brother or other relative in one of the three. The cedar cutters beckoned the others to join them. The Aborigines responded by encircling the visitors, who were no doubt praying this multitude of local inhabitants would recognise them as deceased tribal members. A dokkai not recognised as one of the clan could be denounced as bad and subsequently killed. A quick-thinking Richard Parsons produced the scissors and commenced to snip the long beards of the Stradbroke Islanders. This appeared to amuse them immensely, each lining up for a trim.
An hour or so later the now short-bearded Nunukul suddenly got up and prepared to leave. Sensing an immediate departure the three hoisted their flourbags onto their shoulders and gathered up their few possessions, automatically assuming the Aborigines would take them across the channel. However, it seems the three ghosts had not proved to be relatives and, when the novelty of barber had worn off, they were most anxious to return to their home on the opposite shore. But the castaways were desperate to get to Illawarra and then back to their homes on the Hawkesbury. They raced the Nunukul down to the water hoping to secure one of the canoes. Laden with their flour and other items they were beaten by the nimble Aborigines who clambered into their boats and retreated hastily into the channel, leaving them behind.
Standing on the beach watching the Aborigines paddle madly over the water, they began to wonder whether they would ever get off the island. With their food supply rapidly diminishing, the forlorn trio shuffled back along the western side of the island a mile or two to some unoccupied huts they had seen on their way to its southern tip.
They spent a dismal night in these quarters before returning to Reeders Point the following morning, hoping to entice the Nunukul to take them across the passage. On reaching the point they saw an abandoned canoe lying on the sand. It was the same one which had been used by the first man to cross the channel the previous day. Next they sighted two Aborigines strolling up the beach on the ocean side of the island in the direction of the place they were shipwrecked 10 days beforehand. The pair may have been planning to visit friends and relatives in the Ngugi clan, although it is quite likely they were seeking the three white strangers, whose characteristics they may finally have remembered.
As the two Aboriginal men did not seem to notice them they hurried to the canoe, throwing their gear into it. They were about to push off when they realised the flimsy craft might not support the weight of three large men and their luggage. After some consultation Pamphlett agreed to stay behind, to be collected in a few hours either by Parsons or Finnegan. Pamphlett climbed the sandhill to watch as his colleagues struggled with crude bark paddles to keep the boat on course in the strong current. He could still see them as they approached land on the other side, numerous Aborigines wading out through the shallows towards them. He thought they might prove hostile and spear his friends to death. A great number of them surrounded the canoe. The whole party, Finnegan and Parsons somewhere in its midst, proceeded up the beach and soon disappeared into the bush behind the foreshore.
Pamphlett sat alone on the sand dune at Reeders Point, waiting, constantly expecting one or the other to return in a canoe to fetch him. He waited till dark, but could see no sign of life on the opposite bank. Dejectedly, he plodded back to the well they had found on their first day at the point and spent a restless night there, wondering the fate of his friends.
In the morning he set about restoking the fire on the beach in the hope someone would come for him. He was again disappointed at not seeing a single person on the opposite beach. By mid afternoon he resigned himself to the worst – that he might never see his companions again or find a way off the island he was stranded on. He had no flour, which had been his only supply of food. Soon he would die. He would perish in this lonely land. He possessed neither the skills nor the equipment to catch any of the wide variety of fish which swarmed in the subtropical sea. Nor did he know where to find the abundance of small animals and edible plant life on the island itself. He would starve in a land of plenty, unless the Aborigines killed him first.
(end of excerpt)
Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway is available at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iTunes and Kobo Books: