“ 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.
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
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
|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
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
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
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
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
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.
Shaking Hands on the Fringe.
State Law Publisher, Amendment to the Occupation of Crown
John Rintoul, Esperance
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,
Louis de Sainson, Dan Cerchi, Me.