Thursday, July 1, 2010

Breaksea - Home to Slaves, Refugees, Convicts and Warriors

This year, and the next, and the one after that, I'm writing the story of the sealing gangs who lived on Breaksea Island, near Albany, in 1826.
Right now I'm at the stage of researching the Aboriginals, African Americans and Maoris who worked and travelled as part of the crew. It never ceases to blow me out that before 1826, when most think the only people around Kinjarling (or King George Sound) were the Menang Nyungar, there was a strange convergence here of refugees fleeing injustice from all over the world.

Breaksea islander Richard Simmons possibly had a personal history as a slave in the Massachusetts area and escaped to a little, grassy island offshore from New Bedford that was called Nantucket. (I say 'possibly' because I'm speculating given a lack of evidence but I'm willing to wager this one. It's good odds.) Here, the anti-slavery Quakers protected him and sent him to sea as a 'greenhorn' whaler. Many African Americans thrived in this community and set up their own boat building, caulking or chandler businesses. Others used this safe base to argue and promote the abolitionist cause. Nantucket and New Bedford were often a station platform on the Underground Railroad.

As the age-old story goes, men got better and better at whaling; the whales got fewer and fewer, and the whalers went further and further afield. So, just like the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research of today, the whalers of Nantucket ended up in our Australian waters hunting their prey. Somehow, Richard Simmons and another 'black man' who told d'Urville of the Astrolabe that he was from Canada and spoke French, arrived in King George Sound, to camp on Breaksea Island.

With them lived the men who'd felt the lash against the cold stone of Port Arthur, having been transported from their native Britain for some paltry crime. Inside that story is the emergence of a police department in Britain, combined with the return of masses of men after The Wars, desperate and destitute. The other residents on Breaksea were some Pallawah women of Van Diemen's Land, refugees from the excoriating war between black and white that became a crucible of violence and horror.

... and William Hook, the Maori. While he lived on Breaksea Island, Te Rauparaha and his Ngati Toa roared across  the South Island, leaving his family's Ngai Tahu heads on sticks, a nightmarish vision/reality. Hook was probably sent by his chief father on a sealing expedition to gather experience of the world, seeds, agricultural knowledge and guns, but while he was gone, his people were slaughtered. And he would have heard about it because sealing and whaling ships moved between New Zealand and Western Australia regularly.

In mid 1826, it began to dawn on the sealers of Breaksea Island that they'd been abandoned by their schooners. They'd been here with only small boats and few provisions for eighteen months. One of the schooners was in Timor, presumably pirated, and another was offered for sale in Mauritius by the owner who'd been scammed and gone broke.

It was at about this time that the sealers of Breaksea Island destroyed the trust and friendship of the local Menang people, with whom they had hung out and fished for a year or more, and begun to rape and kidnap and kill.


  1. Fascinating.

    There is so much history here to be brought to the light.

    Great project Sarah!

  2. This is great Sarah. I find it complex because I want ro remember but can't retain all the complexities here. But I will eventually, and this is really interesting from my perspective, working with Noongar people, because it really does shed light on the relationships and how much earlier and significantly their culture was influenced by other cultures. God, why didn't I become an anthropologist instead of a bloody artist!! Maybe it's not too late.

  3. Never too late Michelle. Anthrop and maybe archeology would be my next choice as well. One of my heroes, John Mulvaney co wrote The Prehistory of Australia amongst many other works, and used all three disciplines and actively studied all of them. His work is so rich because of this.
    The thing that fascinates me about this story is the confluence of all those people and cultures on one little island.
    thanks Sontag.

  4. I'm so glad you are ferreting out this remarkable piece of history - looking forward to the next installments :)

    Never too late =I=

  5. Gotta finish that damn doctorate first everyone and really spinning out about that at the moment :-/

  6. Damn the pressure to finish =I= is an art
    ...following the leads and weaving the threads together takes time...time to evolve into a meaningful picture...and this is as it should be - I hate the structure of the system...that forces us to charge full steam ahead to some much gets left undiscovered or unexplored as a result?

    I get the feel that you are really close =I= always darkest before dawn.

  7. Yes, WY, I expect to come out of a kind of 'fog' at some point. I have done a lot of work but it is like climbing a mountain - the hardest bit is just before you reach the top and get to go down the other side, so it means pushing harder just when you don't really want to.

  8. Hey ST, I originally wanted to be a palaentologist, and then an artist, and then a journalist/writer.... hmmmmm I wonder if I can still get all those together in one job before I go?

  9. Sealers and whalers used to operate from my home town back then as well and it amazes me how far they actually traveled , a great read Sara looking forward to more

    cheers , hope the mutt is ok geez wheel nut imprint between the eyes had to laugh !

  10. Yes, thanks Steve ( and =l= and WY). The history of those guys is amazing. I wonder at how they managed to get around so easily and I think, because they were ALWAYS at sea in boats, that was normality for them, whereas we would spend most of our time out there packing ourselves ... They must have been extremely skilled seafarers.

  11. Best of luck with the Phd Sarah. That story is fascinating and should help to break new ground in the way people think about the origins of the white presence along the south coast. So much about the soldiers and administrators, so little about the rest. Your blog is so illuminating, that unwritten history seems just touching distance away.