Friday, June 29, 2012

Exiles and Island Wives

“ This half caste breed, reared under circumstances which must eventually render them the most lawless and worthless characters, stand a fair chance of inheriting in right of birth thereon, the various Archipelagos on the coast.”
Government Resident, 1839.

Finding the above quote was the beautiful makings for a paper that I wrote for a Tasmanian history conference last year. Seeing as it's probably not going to be published anywhere, I thought I'd put it up here and anyone who is interested in this kind of stuff can use it as a resource. A golden treasure hunt hint: the crux is straight after the pointing hand. There are references and notes at the end. The pictures are from my original powerpoints.

 Exiles and Island Wives: Southern Ocean Islands and their People

In this paper I describe the sealers and Aboriginal women who lived on south coast islands of Western Australia in the nineteenth century. I am interested in the colonial administration’s response to these islanders and their fears that the offspring of sealers and Aboriginal women could inherit the islands. The state’s desire to control visitations to great southern islands has continued, albeit in changed form, into the twenty-first century.

For at least twenty years before West Australian colonisation, sealers worked the southern waters. The Eastern states sealing industry was fattened upon an unrestrained slaughter, severely depleting the very source of the industry. Some crews moved west, seeking new grounds. The crews that I describe here are those of the Hunter and the Governor Brisbane who had previously worked Bass Strait and Kangaroo Island. These two sealing gangs were abandoned by their owners and living on islands between the Recherche Archipelago near Esperance and King George Sound, for nearly two years before colonisation there. They hailed from America, Ireland, Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand and included Indigenous Van Diemonian and South Australian men, women and children. In the latter half of 1825, they lived on Breaksea Island, one of two large islands that guard the entrance to King George Sound.  

De Sainson: The Astrolabe's skiff heading for Green Island, 1825.
In October of that year, according to the testimony of Maori sealer William Hook, the sealers took five Menang men to tiny Green Island in Oyster Harbour adjacent to King George Sound under the guise of a muttonbirding expedition.

The sealers and Menang Noongar had worked together before, muttonbirding on the islands and fishing. It is likely that they trusted one another. However all trust was destroyed when the sealers pushed off and rowed away, leaving the Menang men on the island without a boat.

Green Island, Oyster Harbour
With the majority of the local Menang band’s young men effectively imprisoned on Green Island, the sealers raided a local camp and kidnapped four women. Two of the women escaped overnight, their arms still roped together. The sealers took the other two women out to Breaksea Island. The marooned men on Green Island began to construct a raft but this was unfinished when the sealers returned the next day. The Aboriginal men rushed the boat and in the fracas, one of the sealers shot a Menang man dead. The next day, the sealers returned and took the remaining four men out to Michaelmas Island, which lies next to Breaksea. Sealer Samuel Bailey took one woman and a little girl of uncertain origin to Eclipse Island, a wild outcrop of granite beyond the protection of Bald Head and the Sound. The rest of the sealers returned to Breaksea Island.

Eight weeks later, the Amity arrived, laden with convicts, seeds, livestock and soldiers. Major Edmund Lockyer soon discovered the desiccated body of the man on Green Island. Having seen smoke on Michaelmas, he rightly judged that someone on the island required assistance. He sent a boat out to Michaelmas to pick up the marooned Aboriginal men. On their landing back at the settlement, the four men mounted a swift if misguided payback, putting three spears into the fledgling colony’s only blacksmith. Lockyer had been entrusted with establishing the settlement and instead had walked straight into a blood feud between sealers and Aborigines. He wrote in his report to the Colonial Secretary that there had been “some bad work done here.”

In 1839, the Government Resident Grey at King George Sound wrote to the Colonial Secretary ... listing his concerns about foreign whaling vessels working the coast ... and the sealing crews who lived on islands between King George Sound and the Recherche Archipelago. The colony was twelve years old by this time. Grey’s main concern was that the whalers and sealers were not yet obligated to pay the bond that domestic port visitors had to pay, that bound them to behave in accordance with the colonial port’s regulations.  The French and American whalers, he wrote, were enticing deserters away from the colony and creating opportunities for the resident sealers to smuggle in Yankee tobacco. He also complained that the sealers brought their Aboriginal wives and workers into the settlement where they mixed with the local Menang population and exercised a “most contaminating influence over their characters.”

Captain Grey backed up his bureaucratic grievances with allegations that some of the sealers were engaging in piracy and wrecking ... that old and bloody practice of misleading ships to crash into reefs and headlands in darkness so they could be plundered ... He warned the Colonial Secretary that the sealers were living with Aboriginal women who had been carried off from their families in the east of the continent. As a result, many of the children living on south coast islands had European fathers.
Grey wrote, “this half caste breed, reared under circumstances which must eventually render them the most lawless and worthless characters, stand a fair chance of inheriting in right of birth thereon, the various Archipelagos on this Coast.”

In the comforts of my living room and hindsight, Captain Grey’s fears of Aboriginal and sealer’s children claiming a birthright over islands read as a veiled but unsubstantiated threat to British sovereignty and colonial power. His sentiments also reflect the era’s deep discomfort with miscegenous relationships. The sealers had declined to participate in the settlement of land, instead choosing a furtive existence roaming between islands, subsisting from their vegetable gardens, muttonbird, kangaroo and summertime seal revenue. Captain Grey, Major Lockyer and other colonial players described them as escaped convicts and pirates. Sea wolves, the sealers were called. In modern language sealers would be described as feral, anarchic and godless. Surely though, stories of sealers deliberately wrecking ships or claiming a birth right over the islands, was a bit farfetched?

In 1842 a Perth Gazette journalist wrote: “Rather than be at the expense of living at the settlement and going to work, some of these men prefer leading an idle life on one of the islands with their black women and children, entirely excluded from human society and sleeping away their existence. They require only a little flour, all the rest ... supplied to them by the bounty of nature.”

De Sainson: Sealers at Westernport, 1825.

This account depicts the life of a sealer as almost Elysian, as opposed to Grey’s vision of wreckers, rapists and smugglers. The difference is in the vocation and viewpoint of the writer; one a journalist depicting a new romance of the Southern Ocean, the other a colonial administrator intent on controlling his jurisdiction and the people who lived on islands.

Boxer Island in the Recherche Archipelago near Esperance was named after an Aboriginal man who was imprisoned there. Using Recherche Archipelago islands as a gaol for “incorrigible sheep stealers and other native outlaws” was common practice in Esperance prior to 1876. However before the Recherche islands were used as prisons, they were home to sealers. Archaeologists and local historians recently examined a cave on Boxer Island and ‘rediscovered’ a nineteenth century abode of sealers. Unique for its preserved diorama of a single man’s domesticity, the cave was complete with what appeared to be a wooden bed, neatly rolled seal skins, tarpaulins or sails and a sailor’s chest. There is also a wooden shelf set into the limestone above the bed. 

Bob Gimble lived on Bald Island, forty kilometres to the east of Albany in the 1840s. Gimble had three Aboriginal wives and some children. The women were his companions and his crew. During the summer months, when the sea was swollen and chopped by the easterly winds, Gimble and the women killed seals, salted their skins and extracted the oil. I am unsure whether any of the three wives were Palawah but, given the regularity of Tasmanian women moving from east to west during that period, it is possible. Families like Bob Gimble’s were most likely the target of Grey’s concerns about resident islanders.

What Grey originally sought in his letter to the Colonial Secretary was to:
extract customs from all visitors to the port of King George Sound,
to curtail the nefarious activities of foreign whalers,
to control who entered the port
and licence and restrain those inhabitants of the islands. 

The colony, situated on the remotest edge of the Southern Ocean highway, lived a precarious existence and he knew it

In 1846 an ordinance by the colony of West Australia was extended to regulate the temporary occupation of crown lands and offshore islands. By the 1880s police regularly visited the Recherche Archipelago islands as part of their beat that covered hundreds of kilometres. It was a difficult job you can imagine to police all of the islands. Legislation compensated for that. Some islands around Albany were closed to unauthorised landings, and still are to this day. The act, which made it illegal for people to live without government authorisation on crown land, effectively circumvented the laws of proscription, or adverse possession. The regulating and removal of human inhabitants from south coast islands was (and still is) a state ownership issue.

One hundred and sixty years after Captain Grey wrote that letter to the Colonial Secretary, his fears of Aboriginal children inheriting the islands were realised in another state, Queensland, when Eddie Mabo demonstrated his family’s continuous working and living on the Mer Islands. My point here is not to compare the Mabo decision and its Native Title ramifications, with the (non-forthcoming) claims of nineteenth century south coast island communities, but to assert that Grey’s anxieties proved to be historically and legally justified. His letter shows that in the 1830s, individuals within the colonial administration of West Australia were already considering continued Aboriginal occupation as a legitimate legal obstacle to state ownership of the islands.

My impetus to write about the colonial anxieties regarding birthrights of south coast islander children developed from the day I asked the regional manager of the State’s environment department if I could camp on Breaksea Island to continue my research on the sealing gangs. He told me that I would have to write a letter requesting permission and that the department may or may not decide to let me camp there. Most offshore islands in Western Australia are registered nature reserves. He explained that some are set aside for the rehabilitation of endangered species and most islands have fragile eco systems, so camping on islands is prohibited without permission from the government.

It did not take me long on Breaksea Island to realise that the species really thriving there were rabbits and noxious weeds, with piles of asbestos and rubbish lying around in the bush. There were vague plans for an eco resort reported in the local newspapers. The state of this spoiled nature, and the fraught bureaucratic journey that it took me to see it, began my wondering about the limited access to West Australian offshore islands. Most islands around Albany have signs posted on the shore advising visitors that, as a registered nature reserve, human visitations are not advised or legal.

Breaksea is five nautical miles from the mainland and skirted by massive, barnacled granite rocks. The jetty is the only safe place to disembark. Due to the tides and rough swells, the jetty is about eight metres above sea level. As we edged the dinghy into the jetty, I grabbed the ladder and climbed, swinging, up to the landing. As I got level to the jetty timbers, I saw a sign tacked into the wood. Despite the age of the sign, the message was clear. “This jetty is hazardous. Do not climb on or around this jetty ......” 

The very nature of islands means that they are microcosms of worlds. The element of water constrains island inhabitants to a strongly delineated space. Cut off from the mainland by water, islands are only accessible or escapable to those who possess a mode of access. An island can offer safety from predators and an intensified state of environmental sensitivity, of social interaction and finite resources: ... or punishment, captivity and isolation.

South coast islands such as Breaksea and Michaelmas were such places of refuge and captivity for sealing gangs and Indigenous men and women. As Captain Grey’s letter reveals, south coast islands were also highly contested spaces, reflecting the state’s anxieties about sovereignty -  and they remain so to this day.

1. The date of the abductions is exact, according to the statement given by William Hook to Major Lockyer. The indigenous men were marooned the day after the French expedition ship Astrolabe departed King George Sound after a stay of several weeks. Rosenman Ed. D’urville, p. 51
2. Menang is the name for the Noongar people of Kinjarling, King George Sound, Albany.
3. Matthew Flinders reported that Green Island, which had been planted with vine cuttings, watercress and other seeds by Vancouver ten years previous, to his disappointment that “the vegetation now consisted of tufts of wiry grass, and a few stunted shrubs, supported by a thin layer of sandy soil, which was everywhere was perforated with rat holes” These ‘rat holes’ were most likely muttonbird burrows. Stephens, Robert, Green Island, Oyster Harbour, Albany History Collection, 59 M, Notes and Letters.
4. Amendment to the Occupation of Crown Land, State Law Publisher.
5. Rintoul, J :the Esperence police also visited the edge of the Nullabour to break up ‘large gatherings’.

Historical Records of Australia, Vol. 3, pp464 -
Colonial Secretary’s Records, Acc 36, Vol 73, Folio 75, Albany, Nov. 17th, 1839.
Helen Rosenman, Ed. Voyage to the South Seas, Astrolabe,  1826 – 1829.
Robert Stephens, Green Island, Oyster Harbour.
Tiffany Shellam, Making Sense of Law and Disorder. and
Shaking Hands on the Fringe.
State Law Publisher, Amendment to the Occupation of Crown Land.
John RintoulEsperance Yesterday and Today
Plomley, BJB Ed. Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of GA Robinson.
Rebe Taylor, Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island.
W.N. Clarke, Perth Gazette, October 7th, 1842.
Images: Louis de Sainson, Dan Cerchi, Me.


  1. Great insight Sarah. Many thanks..

  2. Thanks Ciaran. It's a different slant on native title ...

  3. Very interesting. And also interesting to hear your 'academic' voice. There is a thesis just in this topic as you would no doubt have figured.

  4. Yes, not quite as 'loose' as some of my other stuff!
    Apparently every island bar one or two exceptions are registered nature reserves, which is how they get around the adverse possession laws, in WA anyway.

  5. Fascinating stuff! Love how you've tied together the various threads of how the islands have been used and perceived, and the parallels you draw between the anxieties around them in the past and the legacy of that anxiety still alive and kicking today

    1. Thanks Ms PoW, if you are interested there is a whole discipline devoted to island studies that encompasses metaphysical aspects, environmental, political and geological, historical ... It's a fascinating universe to head into. Unfortunately I had to stay focussed, as you do, but I went on a few happy forays into island worlds. The International Journal of Island Studies is a good one.

    2. I'll look it up! Speaking of, have you read Greg Dening's Beach Crossings? It's one of my all-time favourites

    3. No! I'll look that up too.

  6. Would have loved to have been in the audience when you delivered this paper, Sarah, but so enjoyed reading it online. It's fascinating material. Thanks for sharing it with us. I'm looking forward to reading your thesis when it's completed.

    1. Hi Barbara, it was very strange delivering the paper because, it being in Tas, the audience focus was taken from the sovereignty of islands and more about the politics of my wording 'wives' re abductions of Tasmanian women. I felt that my whole point had been missed ... but strangely it led to a new and different angle in the thesis and was completely worthwhile after all.

  7. Love it. Much resonates with here.

  8. Governments seem to carry more than an adequate amount of fear in their dealings with big issues, in particular when Indigenous rights and soverignty are involved. I'm sure it's alive an well in Queensland despite Mabo's victory.

    As a Brisbanite I was surprised to see a boat named Amity in the text. We have Amity Point on Stradbroke Island and the adjacent Dunwich community, which are two very early settlements in the Brisbane area.I need to check on the origin of the Amity name.

    And speaking of Brisbane, I've just read 'The Commandant" by Jessica Anderson for our book club. It's a fictionalised account of Captain Patrick Logan and his regime as commandant of the early Brisbane penal colony. It's a great read and succeeds in creating believable and complex characters. It would have been easy to conjure up Logan as a monster. Anderson uses her female characters to provide balance and insight.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mr Hat. I'm not sure if the Amity was up around there, I believe she was wrecked over east somewhere. She was really one of those supply vessels that was used by the admin to move people and goods around the colony.
      Interesting the history fiction conversation, too. I find the subject fascinating and gnarly.