Australia, wigwams at Gould Island [Edwin Augustus Porcher], nla.obj-135133489
Recording date:

Perhaps the best-known Australian colonial castaway is Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked in 1836 on K’gari-Fraser Island, where she spent time with local Indigenous peoples.

Many early accounts present Fraser as the civilised captive of cruel and primitive savages. Less known are the many instances of castaways whose survival depended on the sustained assistance of Indigenous peoples, who treated them with care and kindness.

This presentation interweaves some extraordinary stories with artworks to provide fresh perspectives on these shared encounters.

Associate Professor Lisa Chandler is a curator, and Art and Design academic from the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Professor Chandler’s Fellowship for Curatorial Research is supported by the Patrons and Supporters of the Library’s Treasures Gallery Access Program. 

Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Lisa Chandler (L)

Audience: (A)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 5 April 2018

M:        Welcome to the National Library of Australia and I hope you’ve had a lovely chat outside. I can say we’ve never had this many people at a Fellowship lecture before so it’s fantastic.


M:        So I’m Marie -Louise Ayres and there’s a few unfamiliar faces out there so it’s my pleasure really to welcome you to the second Fellowship presentation for 2018 and to introduce our speaker, Associate Professor Lisa Chandler. I think it’s especially great that we’ve got this big audience and I feel very privileged to be Director General of the Library in a year in which we’re celebrating 50 years in this beautiful building which I believe makes better research happen so good to be here.


As we begin I acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and the [Ganbury] 1:03 people past and present.

Our guest tonight is Lisa Chandler, Associate Professor in Art and Design and Deputy Head, School of Communication and Creative Institutes at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She is no stranger to Canberra having completed her PhD in art history and curatorship at ANU just prior to her appointment as Foundation Director of the University of the Sunshine Coast Gallery, 1997 to 2004 or in fact I think those two things overlapped, didn’t they? You were a Gallery director and just doing a PhD in your spare time, really.

So you may be familiar with Lisa’s work through her co-curatorship of the award-winning travelling exhibition, East Coast Encounter, which reimagined James Cook’s 1770 voyage and impact from indigenous and nonindigenous perspectives. The exhibition toured regional east coast galleries in 2014 to 2017 reaching an audience of 80,000 while travelling from the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney to the Pinnacles Gallery in Townsville and back again.

We were really especially thrilled to welcome Lisa as she has the distinction of being our inaugural curatorial research fellow, a new award very generously supported by the patrons and supporters of the Library’s Treasures Gallery Access program. This new fellowship has been created for research projects with a curatorial, museological or archival practice focus and which aim to enhance discovery and interpretation of our collections. The opportunity intersected perfectly with Lisa’s vision for a potential exhibition and publication exploring how colonial castaways were dependent on the sustained assistance of indigenous peoples.

Lisa’s fellowship research has drawn widely from the Library’s manuscripts, pictures, maps, rare books and newspaper collections and indeed her oft repeated refrain has been help, I’m finding so much and I don’t have enough time. Now this is something we hear a lot from fellows and scholars but somehow they always make the very most of their time as I’m sure we’ll hear this evening. So please join me in welcoming Associate Professor Lisa Chandler as she explores the Interrupted Voyage. Thank you.


L:         Sorry team up there. We’ll try again. Yes, wonderful, thank you, excellent. Thank you, Marie-Louise, for your very generous acknowledgment and welcome. I’d like to also acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country that we’re gathered on today and to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I’d like to thank all the National Library staff who’ve been so extraordinary for their incredible dedication, expertise and assistance during my Fellowship. I’d also like to thank the patrons and supporters of the Library’s Treasures Gallery Access program for their generous support of this inaugural Fellowship and it’s really exciting to have such a huge and interested audience so thank you including the many Library Council members for your attendance and your interest today.

So before I start I just want to say that of course I’ll be quoting sometimes various 19th century texts and they’ll refer to things like natives and captors and blacks so rather than doing this all the time please understand that I'm quoting that language and I don’t mean to offend anybody, and also apologies for any mispronunciations.

Alright so let’s get going. So what do all these people have in common? They’re posed rather formally and somewhat stiffly and they appear to be respectable 19th century citizens. Three of them stare into the distance with deep intensity while the woman at the very end engages us directly with her gaze. You may know this second or this first woman here. She’s Eliza Fraser, probably Australia’s best known castaway. In fact each of these people were shipwrecked off the Queensland coast and all survived their difficult experiences because of the sustained assistance of indigenous peoples.

Now here's three of them again, James Morrill, Narcisse Pelletier and – that’s not really Barbara Thompson at the top but I’m going to ask you to imagine that it is ‘cause there’s no image of her. In a sense they had two lives. The first images that we saw pointed to their European lives within Australian or European society but in these larger images we can envisage them as [Kakinjib], [Anko] and [Gyom] 6:18, adoptees of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clans.

Now these images also highlight physical and symbolic differences between their European and indigenous lives. If you look in the middle we see [Pelletier’s] distended earlobes so he had body adornments and of course you can see the scars or cicatrices on his chest and on his shoulder that link him to his tribal life.

Another differentiating feature of course is their near nakedness and to colonial Europeans this absence of clothing was perceived as a sign of primitivism and savagery and a visual signifier of what they as civilised Christians were not.

So this polarisation of civilisation and savagery was a recurring theme in I guess the way that many of the castaway stories were told. But if you go beyond the rhetoric of some of the accounts and despite the fact that we hear very little, but we do hear some, of first nations’ voices what emerges are some extraordinary stories of care, kindness and shared humanity.

So we’ll look now briefly at six 19th century colonial castaways’ tales and I want to first acknowledge there’s been some incredible scholarship done in this field already. There’s a great book in the Library’s bookshop – I haven’t been asked to spruik this, okay –

Break in recording

L:         - excellent - by John Maynard and Vicky Haskins.

Alright so –

Break in recording

L:         There you go, you get a sense of who they are and where they were shipwrecked if you like [nats] 7:55 like I do.

Let’s start with Eliza Fraser but we’re actually only going to look at her briefly – well everyone briefly, really. Her experiences with Butchulla and [Cubby Cubby] 8:02 people on Gari or Fraser Island in the adjacent region following the wreck of The Stirling Castle in 1836 have been mythologised and reinterpreted in many forms, from early pamphlets and newspaper articles which sensationalised the story, to fiction, film, art and music. And indeed because of their enduring legacy many are surprised to learn that Fraser only spent six weeks with indigenous groups and I read in quite a scholarly book just during my Fellowship that she’d spent several years there. No. And although some of The Stirling Castle’s crew also survived their experiences it’s actually Eliza’s story that’s been perpetuated. So why is that the case?

Well one reason is that colonial Australian castaway experiences amplified fears of anxiety about encounters with first nations peoples and some episodes were retold as captivity narratives, influenced by North American frontier accounts. And they were laced with references to savagery and cannibalism. And these concerns of course were exacerbated when the captive was a white woman and the possibility of sexual violation engendered further fear and fascination.

This was the case with many early accounts of Fraser’s saga that presented her as the civilised captive of cruel and primitive savages. But such representations not only supported arguments for dispossession, they continued to feed into perceptions and prejudices about first nations peoples.

So Fraser’s tale centred on her so-called enslavement and cruel treatment by Aboriginal people. She recounted how after having their clothes taken – and you can see this image is quite a violent dynamic sort of image – the shipwreck survivors were divided amongst different groups who employed them in undertaking daily subsistence tasks – well it was a shared sort of society – and if they did not perform their – and they were punished if they did not perform their duties.

Now let’s have a look at these two images here, okay. They’re from an 1837 pamphlet about Fraser and they were written for an American audience. You might be able to see why and so these ideas about brutality and savagery have been reinforced and imagination has been given free reign.

So the first image is really a kind of tableau of various acts of violence including the death of Fraser’s husband while as you can see indigenous Australians are depicted as toga-wearing native Americans with bows and arrows. The wigwam dwellings are located amongst really European trees in a landscape most unlike Gari or Fraser Island. And this second image implies this idea of sexual violation as it sees the Indian chief in the act of forcibly conveying Mrs Fraser to his rather substantial wigwam.

Decorum appears to have been – appears to have presented the presentation of nudity in this account however we’ve got an image here – now I want you to – I’m not going to read this out. Do have a read of it because it kind of gives a sense of the language that’s associated with some of these tales so – so in this account, well-known account by British journalist, John Curtis, the state of savagery that he sought to emphasise is reinforced by the nudity of the Frasers and artists like Sydney Nolan perpetuated that. As I said have a look at the title, it gives you a sense of how both words and images were used to construct a particular idea of these sort of relations.

But of course there’s always counter-voices. This episode was understandably marked by cultural misunderstandings, for example Fraser complained of intense pain when local women threw wet sand over her whereas oral history suggests that the women may have been trying to relieve her extreme sunburn. There are so many inconsistencies in the various versions of the story that it’s actually hard to determine what happened. However Butchulla artist, Fiona Foley, has repeatedly employed her creative practice to speak back to these accounts and there’s actually – some of you might know there’s a great – it’s a short film online that Foley’s made with Larissa Behrendt which kind of eloquently speaks back to the way those original stories were constructed and kind of talks about Butchulla perspectives.

So Eliza Fraser’s story provides a kind of pivot point from which I’ll briefly present five other castaway stories that both conveyed but also countered some of the stereotypes and cultural assumptions that characterised the accounts of her experiences. So here’s first.

Some years earlier and prior to the establishment of the Moreton Bay penal colony Surveyor General John Oxley was on an exploratory mission in Moreton Bay looking for an extensive inlet that might render an apparently fine country of more utility and value. At the sight of Oxley’s ship anchored in the bay many Aboriginal people gathered on the shore. Now strangely one appeared to be a lighter copper colour and as the group came directly opposite the ship they began to show many signs of joy, dancing and embracing the lighter-coloured man who called out in English. Who was he? Okay so this man was Thomas Pamphlett who in March 1823 along with fellow ticket of leave convicts John Finnegan, Richard Parsons, John – and John Thompson left from Sydney in an open boat to obtain timber near Port Kembla.

Now the geographically astute amongst you will know that this was not anywhere near Queensland which didn’t exist as a colony there. However a fierce storm arose and raged for five days. Without a compass the men believed they were near Van Diemen’s Land and steered north for three weeks until they landed on Moreton Island or [Mugumpan] 14:24. John Thompson was delirious from seawater – ‘course it was a very difficult experience - and died. The remaining three destitute men swam ashore, salvaged some supplies and believing they were still south of Sydney – bad mistake – attempted to walk northwards. Actually they remind me a bit of the three stooges, these guys, ‘cause they were quite violent to each other but anyway that’s my perception. Anyway they were fearful of encountering Aboriginal people but those they briefly saw were just as afraid of the castaways.

Eventually they encountered some Quandamooka men who they felt the anxious castaways about the breast and shoulder and then rather than attacking offered food, shelter and even carried the castaways’ salvage bags of flour for them. They led them to huts where they danced and sang and Pamphlett recounts they made a fire and when I lay down to sleep one of the natives remained as if to take care of me and keep up the fire while his companions were shown every sort of attention.

Resuming their journey the castaways met some men with long beards. Now strangely Parsons had a pair of scissors so he trimmed their beards for them which appeared to delight them very much but despite this kind of positive experience Finnigan was in constant fear of Parsons who struck him with an axe and threatened to kill him because Finnegan let their fire stick go out so you see what I mean about the – so they had a kind of – they fluctuated between working together and a quite dangerous dysfunction. Anyway over the following months as they made their way around the islands and inlets of Moreton Bay they were consistently cared for, fed and protected by small groups of Aboriginal people. Finding a canoe the men travelled to Minjerribah or Stradbroke Island where local men gave them a hut and as much fish as they could eat. Finnegan in fact found the blacks were so friendly that he wished to remain with them.

However when Pamphlett and Finnegan spent three weeks making a canoe Finnegan wouldn’t help and so the local clan refused to feed him. The castaways paddled to the mainland and extensively explored a major river in their efforts to continue north. At one point Finnegan stole a canoe full of fish but according to Pamphlett the owners, who chased them and found them, seemed at once struck with our miserable condition and rather than punishing the half-starved men they went and obtained more fish for them.

Historians Maynard and Haskins note how different the reaction was to settler European responses to perceived wrongdoing by Aboriginal people. On reaching Yaariyan or Bribie Island the castaways lived for about a month, so that’s where they spent most time, with the Jinibara people who taught them some language and how to find food. They were distributed amongst different families with Finnegan residing with an old chief. The castaways continued northwards but eventually Pamphlett and Finnegan returned to the welcoming community at Yaariyan where Pamphlett was found by Oxley and his men.

Finnegan was absent with the old chief at a ceremonial fight but was picked up a few days later. He then – so it was actually Finnegan who guided Oxley in exploring the Brisbane River which of course became the site of Moreton Bay penal colony and then Brisbane and needless to say he was not acknowledged for that but Oxley was.

On boarding The Mermaid Pamphlett found it difficult to express his feelings but later spoke of the hospitable natives of Moreton Bay saying their behaviour to me and my companions had been so invariably kind and generous that notwithstanding the delight I found at once more returning to my home I did not leave them without sincere regret.

Oxley sailed for Sydney with Pamphlett and Finnegan but left a memorandum in a bottle for Parsons which was actually presented to him by the local people when he eventually came back there. It got too hot up north.

When Oxley returned in September 1824 he searched for and amazingly located Parsons. A newspaper article described how Parsons’ Aboriginal protectors came on board and gave him a fishing net in order to get his living in the country he was going to. The positive interactions were noted by that newspaper articles’ author who concluded that Parson’s account showed that by avoiding harsh treatment in the first instance many misunderstandings may be avoided between the whites and the blacks.

Now John Kerry – so he was the one that had that great long title about Eliza Fraser – his narrative included a second castaway story but one that’s much less known today and certainly it included some distressing violence which fed colonial fears of savagery and cannibalism. However various accounts including the testimony of one of the survivors, cabin boy, John Ireland, also revealed a tale of great compassion involving the adoption and care of two boys.

In August 1834 14-year-old John Ireland was working aboard the bark, Charles Eaton, on route to India and China when it was wrecked near the eastern tip of Cape York. Realising their dire plight six of the crew stole the only remaining life boat and eventually after quite some time ended up in Batavia where they then passed on news of the shipwreck. Meanwhile – this is the gruesome bit – the remaining survivors – or we’re getting to it – constructed a raft but it would not hold them all. Those who boarded the raft including the captain and passengers – Captain William Dawley of the Bengal Artillery, his wife, Charlotte, their sons, George, aged 8, and William, almost 3 and their Indian nursemaid. They all insisted on staying aboard overnight but by morning the rope was cut and the raft gone, suggesting, but no-one’s quite sure, they may have deserted the remaining crew who took a week to construct another raft.

So that second raft with Ireland was lured to [Boyden] 20:54 Island by Torres Strait Islanders who killed all the shipwreck survivors apart from Ireland and another cabin boy, John Sexton, also 14. And the boys then witnessed ritual cannibalism of the victims. Ireland and Sexton were then taken to Pullen Island where they found the young Dawley boys being cared for by local women although a similar fate had befallen the adults from the first raft.

Now some historians have suggested that the Europeans were killed because they and their weapons were considered extremely dangerous. Whatever the case the boys were eventually paired off so John Ireland and young William, so the two-and-a-half-year old were given the names [Waki] and [Nuas] 21:41 and they were subsequently traded for two bunches of bananas to a powerful man named [Dapa] 21:50 from a different area so way over more in the east of Torres Strait on Mir or Murray Island.

Now [Dapa] and his wife [Pain] adopted and cared for the boys along with their five other children while young William was also looked after by a neighbour called [Obi] 22:10 and a really strong bond grew up between them.

Over the next two years the boys learned the local language and integrated into the daily life of the Miriam people. William played with the other children and Ireland learned important skills. He explained my new master, I should have called him father for he behaved to me as kindly as he did to his sons. He gave me a canoe about 60 feet long – was quite substantial – which he purchased in New Guinea. He gave me a piece of ground on which he taught me to grow yams, bananas and coconuts. He taught me to shoot with a bow and arrow and to spear fish.

At one stage the ship, The [Mangols] 22:53, came to trade but due to fear and misunderstanding the ship sailed off without the boys leaving Ireland feeling deeply despondent. However following reports from The [Mangols] and the crew who had made it to Batavia The Isabella under the command of Captain Lewis was dispatched from Sydney to seek out any survivors of the Charles Eaton.

Now when The Isabella reached Mir or Murray Island in June 1836 [Dapa] was fearful that the visitors would kill the white boys or his adopted sons however Ireland eventually negotiated to go on board and for William to be brought a day later although the Islanders said he was crying and did not want to leave.

When he finally appeared he seemed frightened and did not like parting with his friends. So Ireland’s testimony differs from a painting we have in the National Gallery and this quite triumphal painting of the rescue of William Dawley. Ireland’s on board because he was not of kind of high birth so he’s kind of not in the story but it’s kind of – we’ve got this glowing golden atmosphere and I know it’s small but there’s a very sort of pudgy pink William down there being sort of held aloft and he looks quite emotionless whereas in the testimony he’s crying and he’s wanting to stay with his – what is effectively his family. He was actually blond and of course he was deeply tanned by then but he’s very sort of of course pink and pudgy here.

Ireland informed the captain of the great kindness of the Indians and indicated that he was indebted to [Dapa] for his life and protection. [Dapa] and [Obi] were distraught at the boys’ departure. [Obi] sobbed while Ireland wrote that [Dapa] seemed to feel pained at parting. He cried, hugged me and then cried again as he told me to come back soon. Ireland who was now 17 and William, now 4, were taken to Sydney and it appears they eventually returned to England.

There’s a postscript to the story and that is of course 150 years later in 1992 the High Court acknowledged the legal doctrine of native title within Australian law and the long struggle to achieve this landmark ruling was of course undertaken by a Miriam man, Eddie Koiki Mabo, and with four other plaintiffs.

Alright. So several years later partly because of fears emanating from that sort of Charles Eaton – those Charles Eaton killings, the HMS Rattlesnake captained by Owen Stanley was engaged to undertake a surveying mission and to determine a safe passage through the Torres Straits.

In 1849 the ship moored for several months at Evans Bay at the tip of Cape York. Now one day one – sailors were washing clothes at the shore when some local islanders came by. Initially none of the crew realised that one of them was a white woman until according to one report she called out I am a white woman, why do you leave me? Now the Library holds the diary of George Inskip, second master of The Rattlesnake – it was very exciting to handle this diary – and in it you can see him writing about this encounter, incredible. And – okay, you see that here – we were all very much surprised to find a white woman on the shore and she was – he underlined quite – she was perfectly naked, having a blah, blah, blah – oh perfectly naked, having only a small bit of seaweed which barely covered her modesty.

The ship’s naturalist, John MacGillivray, wrote with the exception of a narrow fringe of leaves in front she wore no clothing and her skin was tanned and blistered with the sun. Now that phrase, of course, many of you astute readers will know and will associate more readily with Patrick White’s novel which was loosely drawn from the story of Eliza Fraser.

Like Pamphlett and Ireland the young woman, Barbara Thompson, was overwhelmed when trying to explain her experiences and struggled to recall English although she was fluent in the local Kaurareg language. The Library also – this was another exciting thing to find – has a letter from the captain, Captain Owen Stanley, that he wrote on board describing the episode so it may be hard to read from there but just – okay, here it is up here. We became great friends with the natives – so they’d actually been there before and they had established quite good relations with the local people – and picked up a white woman who had been wrecked. Mrs Thompson was saved by some natives. Mrs T – they often refer to her as Mrs T in their journals – lived five years with the natives of Prince of Wales Island. She had been well treated all the time and no attempt made to force a husband upon her. She was of great use in explaining many of the manners and customs we could not make out before.

It was actually the ship’s artist, Oswald Brierly, who had both at times – he was kind of a gentleman accompanying Stanley on the ship and – but he was deeply interested in recording the languages and the customs and so on of the local people so he diligently took down Thompson’s stories and many details about the lives of Torres Strait Islanders. So in 1844 Thompson had accompanied her husband on the cutter, America, and was the sole survivor when it was wrecked off Cape Horn so near Cape York. Accounts vary but it is very likely she was only 13 years old at the time she was married.

The three local men, [Barota, Alkea and Tomagugu] 28:50, who had been out catching turtles rescued the young Scottish woman. She later referred to them – imagine a thick Scottish accent – as my brothers. They took her to Muralug or Prince of Wales Island where she was given turtle soup. An elder named [Pecky] 29:08 believed her to be a markai or the returned spirit of his dead daughter. She was adopted into his family, renamed Giom and treated with kindness. And because of her status as a markai she was relieved of some duties, excused for her lack of customary knowledge. She engaged in food gathering and preparation and looked after the children while the women were engaged in other tasks and that – sorry for the poor quality of these but these are some of Brierly’s sketches and that’s actually him so he’s drawn himself sketching some of the women on – that’s kind of detail of a raft. And here he’s sort of – he was writing down people’s names and who was the child of whom and so on.

As is the case with Ireland and [Dawley] her protectors were fearful of letting her go with the white people but were persuaded by [Tomagugu], one of her original rescuers. When Stanley asked if she wanted to remain or return with her – sorry, she responded I’m a Christian. She stayed on board The Rattlesnake but received many visits from her friends including older woman, [Gamima] 30:15, who showed the greatest joy at seeing Mrs T and kissed her hand with great affection while onshore Brierly learned from another friend or a woman, a birder, that she had been crying for Giom.

Barbara was returned to her family in Sydney but unlike Eliza Fraser her story became little known although newspaper reports at the time, while acknowledging her good treatment, also focused on the notion of captivity. Strangely there are no known images of her from The Rattlesnake although there’s actually a newspaper report suggesting that she was drawn and it’s hard to imagine that Brierly didn’t sketch her. She remarried twice and lived into her 80s. I think she must have been an extraordinarily resilient woman.

Many of The Rattlesnake’s men became as I said well acquainted with the locals and Brierly made a considerable effort to learn the languages and his account gives a really great account of different individuals and personalities rather than treating the group as this homogenous whole. But despite this – positive interactions and the caring treatment of Thompson once the settlement of Somerset was established at Cape York some years later the local people including Thompson’s Kaurareg hosts received violent treatment and profound disruption to their way of life.

So okay we’re hearing about sort of expansion. By the 1860s pastoralists were moving into North Queensland which also resulted in clashes with Aboriginal people. One day a wild-looking naked man appeared near a settler’s hut and called out what cheer, shipmates? He followed this with do not shoot me, I am a British object. A shipwrecked sailor.

The man was James Morrill. Seventeen years earlier at the age of 22 he was working as an able seaman on the bark, Peruvian, under Captain George [Pickpethly] 32:16, when the ship was wrecked on the reef in a storm. A raft was constructed and after 40 harrowing days finally beached at Cape Cleveland south of present day Townsville with only seven survivors. Two more died soon after and one took off in an Aboriginal canoe leaving Morrill, the captain and his wife and young apprentice, James Wilson, another boy.

They were found by local tribes who were fearful but curious about the strangers. Again they felt them all over from head to foot to determine their gender and they seemed to understand the captain and his wife’s marital relationship. The castaways were divided, so we’ve seen that before, amongst two different clans with the [Pickethlys] 33:01 going with the Cape Cleveland mob and Morrill and Wilson joining a group located around Mt Elliott which is about 30km from present day Townsville.

Their hosts took pity on the castaways’ emaciated state, gave them roots to eat and signed that they had plenty of food and water. They carried and assisted them to a large corroboree where news of their arrival was conveyed to other groups. When encouraged to participate the castaways sang hymns. The group were led to three senior men seated by a fire. Morrill was trembling thinking he would be slaughtered and eaten but the men warmed their hands on the fire and lay them on his face and body to reassure him and repeated this action on the others and Breslin who’s written extensively about this episode notes that this is a customary practice for protection from dangerous spirits.

Gradually the castaways became acculturated, learning language and how to find food although the captain fretted that his wife would gradually be dragged down so low as to have to move around naked. Within two years the [Pickethlys] and young Wilson had died from the difficult life but Morrill continued to live with the Mt Elliott group of the Birri-Gubba people as one of themselves for 17 years so again incredibly resilient. Increasingly though he began to hear stories of Aboriginal people being shot and killed by shore parties from passing ships or newly arrived pastoralists.

Morrill was conflicted and uneasy because such incursions resulted in the death of his friends but they also raised hopes of being res – his words – restored to civilisation. Eventually he moved away from his tribe to get closer to white settlement but had to deceive his friends who did not want him to go. They feared that he would be taken for a black fellow and shot because, said Morrill, certainly I had lost all likeness to a civilised being.

Seeing a white man’s hut he washed to make himself as white as possible, went down and uttered his famous remark which was again – some of you will know – was employed by David Malouf as the opening line in Remembering Babylon. The amazed men gave him damper and tea which he found difficult to consume. He refused the offer of clothes because he’d promised to return to the tribe that night. The settlers asked Morrill to tell his friends that if they did not interfere with us they would not be harmed but if he did not return in the morning, because they would assume it was a trap, that he, Morrill, and his colleagues would be shot.

Returning to the tribe Morrill exhorted them to stay away from the whites who were numerous, armed and had come to take possession of their land. According to Morrill they realised that might, not right, is the law of the world and so they asked for permission for particular land so they asked for access to their own land north of the Burdekin to fish the rivers and for swampy coastal land near the coast for food sources. They entreated him to stay saying you will forget us altogether. Departing from his friends was deeply moving. Morrill explained the man I was living with burst into tears, so did his gin and several other gins and men. The remembrance of their past kindness came full upon and quite overpowered me. There was a short struggle between the feeling of love I had for my old friends and companions and the desire to once more live a civilised life.

Morrill was subsequently – went back to white society and employed by the Department of Customs at Bowen and wanted to use his knowledge as an interpreter and conciliator between settlers and local tribes but he was actually only partly successful in this aim.

Some newspaper comments showed support like in the article about Pamphlett, Parsons and Finnegan. They showed support for better communication and understanding between settlers and Aboriginal people and saw value in Morrill undertaking such a role however locally some distrusted him and would not change their assumptions about him or Aboriginal people. And although he married and fathered a son he died only two years after his return to white society.

Like Morrill Frenchman Narcisse Pelletier spent 17 years with Aboriginal people before his return to France where his story was recorded by Constant Merland and translated into English in 2009 by Stephanie Anderson so this is our final castaway story and of course it’s also one of incredible resilience but also of incredible kindness.

Pelletier also took to the sea at an early age and in 1858 age 14 he joined The Saint-Paul in Marseilles as a cabin boy. The ship was travelling to Australia via Hong Kong where it took on 300 Chinese immigrants bound for the Australian goldfields but ran aground on a reef near Rossel Island in the Louisiade Archipelago off south-eastern New Guinea.

Finding the natives of Rossel Island inhospitable the castaways retreated to a tiny waterless island nearby. Leaving some supplies Captain Pinard and some of his men took off in a long boat in the night, again seemingly abandoning the Chinese and the remaining crew including Pelletier who nevertheless was able to jump on board. So you can see their journey there so –

Seeking a British settlement the survivors journeyed again an arduous journey for many days until they landed at Cape Direction in the kind of Lockhart River region in Cape York. Desperately seeking water and food the crew then abandoned Pelletier who was weakened by his injuries so it’s this young man, distraught and alone, he dropped to his knees and prayed.

Seeking food he came across a small group of Aboriginal people. Two men who were brothers-in-law approached him cautiously and the poor exhausted Pelletier, he offered them his tin cup and a handkerchief. And according to Merland an alliance was made then that was never to be broken. They gave him water, held out their hands to him to help him walk and tried to make him understand that they were going to give him something to eat.

They took him to meet their wives who were initially afraid of this strange white youth, fed him fruit and let him sleep by the fire. Awakening Pelletier was distraught when he found himself alone again and fearful of what might happen. Again he thought he would be slaughtered. However to his relief the men returned, making signs of friendship to him and bringing [Munkarl] 40:09 or Wongai plums for him to eat. Pelletier was renamed [Anko] 40:14 and adopted by Maademan, one of his rescuers. Once rested he was taken to meet the whole tribe. Because he had no beard the women suspected he might be female and set about making sure of this. Finding the truth they burst into laughter and took off.

Over time Pelletier learned the ways of the [Ootonganu] 40:33 people. His clothes were soon repurposed by his friends for forehead decorations. He became skilled at making spears and received ritual scarring although Anderson suggests it’s unlikely he became a fully initiated man. And he actually spoke little about ceremonial practices.

Of course at first he thought a lot of his family in France but eventually they faded from memory as he identified with his hosts. Pelletier told Merland that his father, Maademan, was devoted to him and he also developed a deep friendship with his adoptive cousin, [Sasi] 41:06, who saved him from a spearing on one occasion when Pelletier unknowingly caused offence.

Pelletier’s life changed again in April 1875 when the pearl lugger, John Bell, in search of bêche-de-mer 41:22 anchored near Night Island. At this point the pearling and bêche-de-mer industries were expanding so Pelletier had seen passing ships and his clan were not fearful of whites but rather of their guns.

Seeking water on the mainland some of the ships’ crews spotted a pale-skinned man among the natives. Some trading of goods took place and Pelletier was subsequently lured onto one of the boats and taken on board the main ship, The John Bell.

Now Merland writes that Pelletier then realised that his freedom was being given back to him however later accounts indicated that he did not wish to leave his tribe. He was given clothes which he found awkward to wear, like Morrill, while he could not make himself understood as he knew no English and had forgotten most of his French. I’ll just come back to this image in a second which of course doesn’t coincide with the description I just gave you.

The John Bell continued on – so went north first to Somerset at the tip of Cape York. Here Pelletier boarded the RMS Brisbane bound for Sydney and there was a passenger who spoke French that was Lieutenant John Otley and he was able to learn some of Pelletier’s experiences and Pelletier gradually began to recall his French. So it was Otley who affirmed that Pelletier wanted to remain with his clan but was fearful that if he attempted to escape the ship’s crew would shoot him. He believed that instead of being rescued he was kidnapped and just go back to that image again. So of course it’s sort of very different to this kind of romanticised or you know again that kind of language of sort of violence and struggle and captivity that was reported sort of verbally and visually in these accounts.

In Sydney Pelletier was given into the care of the French Consul, feted as a curiosity, photographed and then returned to France. He wrote several letters to his astonished parents during his return journey. His mother had been wearing mourning clothes for 17 years since he disappeared. So that’s the first letter he wrote and then there’s a second one that’s in this most beautiful handwriting, I don’t know if it’s handwriting or someone who wrote it but it’s – they’re extraordinary, the letters. Okay.

So while he was – they had a big celebration for him in France on his return. He later married but oral history from his town suggests that he became morose and Anderson indicates that he may eventually have died age 50 from nervous exhaustion or depression. Much later there were accounts in Australia that he’d returned to his tribe however there don’t appear to be kind of - any oral histories from Lockhart region that have been passed down today.

Alright. So we’ve heard some amazing stories. What can they tell us? Well certainly the castaways and their indigenous hosts had to negotiate considerable differences in culture, law and world view. The castaways demonstrated incredible resilience, I mean we’ve only touched on part of what they experienced including Fraser who by some accounts gave birth in the – after the shipwreck in the raft and her baby died so on – before they reached Gari or Fraser Island. To survive they needed to adapt their actions and assumptions and to embrace the cultural and societal practices of their hosts. Similarly there needed to be social and cultural factors operating within the various indigenous groups that allowed them to embrace strangers within their midst.

While these stories aren’t told in indigenous voices we at least get some sense of indigenous perspectives of settler incursions into their country from some of the castaway accounts. The narratives reveal human fears of violence on both sides, of the European guns and of the prospect of cannibalism on the other side.

Often fears emanated from a lack of understanding and so the castaway accounts assisted in some – or some of them assisted in some mutual knowledge-building. The newspaper comments that Morrill’s experiences might be used to establish more productive intercultural relations suggest that some at least saw a need to build understanding. And despite resistance though none of this prevented the increasing spread of white settlers into indigenous territory resulting in profound disruption to traditional ways of life and ongoing legacies of dispossession.

However in an interesting twist, and this was some sort of tangential research I did, I found that the accounts of Barbara Thompson’s and James Morrill’s experiences were cited within the judgements of recent successful native title claims for the Kaurareg and [Jura] 46:06 peoples as they of course provide really comprehensive information about traditional laws, customs and occupancy of the land.

So I’m going to finish with these three images, they’re extraordinary images. They’re by artist, Michael Cook, from his series, Civilised, a theme I’ve been touching on. I started by mentioning that some castaway stories and images were conveyed in a way that kind of accentuated a vast gulf between notions of the civilised and the savage so Michael Cook is challenging these ideas and these images, he’s tapped into a lot of what I’ve been talking about today. While we might expect to see European explorers or settlers in these images, or in these images, the roles have been reversed. Aboriginal people are adorned here with splendid clothing, immaculately coiffed hair and attributes of power. Collectively these signify various colonial nations and Euro-centric conceptions of civilization. However Cook’s reflecting on the emptiness of such outward signs as the basement for judgements about what it means to be civilised. He asks us to consider how Australian history might have been different if Europeans could have seen through the eyes of Aboriginal people and better understood their culture.

Looking more deeply at these castaway accounts also disrupts these assumptions. Rather than witnessing polarities of civilised and savage we see many examples of human nature. There was some violence and indeed we learned of some castaways who deserted their colleagues in a bid to save themselves but of course what would we do in such situations? However we also saw many instances of empathy, compassion, friendship and care that transcended cultural differences and enabled the destitute castaways to survive.

So these narratives raise questions about how histories are told, whose voices are heard, whose are silenced and what ideas have been perpetuated but I hope that illuminating these stories might help strengthen understandings of the past so that we might better negotiate a tolerant and more equitable present. Thank you.


M:        Thank you very much, Lisa, and it was actually fantastic to have those stories all together. I mean I think I’ve sort of experienced them one at a time and I’m not sure about others but I’m thinking that I came to to these stories first through high literature, through David Malouf and Patrick White and what does that do about my kind of perceptions too? So I think we’d also like to thank Lisa for her wonderful work as our inaugural curatorial research fellow.

Now I have to let you know that Lisa arrived in what has proved to be a particularly vibrant fellowship season. She was the second in a procession of eight fellows plus five summer scholars who commenced their residencies in the first three months of the year and in fact we couldn’t fit her in our fellows room to start with. The remaining four fellows in the 2018 program will join us in June and early spring. I think you’d agree that this hive of research activity going on in the Library and Lisa’s demonstration of the quality of the research effort and the engagement with our collections that’s going in our fellows room is all rich evidence that the Library’s fellowship program is really thriving.

Now we do have time for some questions and I’m going to give the usual requests about questions here in the theatre which is that if you have a question put your hand up, we’re going to bring a microphone to you and you do need to use it for two reasons, one is that we have a hearing loop here for those who are hard of hearing and the other is that we’re livestreaming this lecture and apparently there’s a little hive of activity on Facebook at the moment. So any questions? And we will bring a microphone to you so don’t be shy.

A:        Thank you for that excellent and informative presentation, I really enjoyed that. I wonder whether you could just say a word or two about whether language has any impact - I’d imagine it would - on the outcome of the interrelationship between the people shipwrecked and the indigenous people.

L:         Thank you. It’s a really interesting question, the notion of language and I started to think in reading these stories that in a number of them there’s only a couple where the names of people sort of came through so even though Morrill spent 17 years he doesn’t mention anybody’s name whereas Brierly was recording people’s names and of course Barbara Thompson, they were her friends and so they obviously learnt language. Seventeen years, she was there five years. If Pamphlett and Finnegan – they had to have learnt language but it’s only recorded in a small number of stories but similarly it struck me, that capacity to communicate on a deep level when you don’t have language when you need to show something and there’s very much a sense of they signed, we signed you know to give a sense of – and these basic – I guess that’s what struck me also – these kind of basic things of humanity, that I’m starving, I need food, I need water and understanding not just through language but visual signs as well. So it is a really interesting topic and I would kind of almost like to know more but I can’t you know there’s only so much you can do - is why you know some of those stories you know there isn’t so much evidence of language but others such as Barbara Thompson’s there’s long word lists and so on. Does that answer you? Is that what you’re after or –

A:        I was also interested in the – it’s the length of time that people were there obviously and on that initial meeting because that is where if French is your language or English is your language you’d imagine problems would arise straight away but I’m not sure if there’s any evidence of that.

L:         When they meet sort of white people again? Is that what you –

A:        That first meeting then afterwards.

L:         Yes, there is sort of kind of – there’s repeated examples of them sort of saying yes, the person – not only were they emotionally overwhelmed but they struggled to find words – they talk about James Morrill being quite sort of – he didn’t speak much when he returned to sort of white society and I think he got sick of people asking him about his story so he did this sort of pamphlet which tells of his encounter so he didn’t have to sort of say it over and over again but yes, that thing of – well anyone who speaks – who’s from another country who’s lived in Australia, you go home, you’ve been there for years, maybe there’s that thing, oh I’ve forgotten that word and – but they had it in quite a profound yeah way.

A:        The absence of personal names in the narratives is not surprising because that would be the way – Aboriginal people don’t use personal names to refer to each other, it’s generally kinship terms in those small communities and in you telling the narratives you seem to be saying this was that person’s brother’s older uncle, in-laws etc so it seems to me that they’ve mapped the kinship very closely rather than the personal names?

L:         Absolut – I mean obviously - yes, certainly and in – I mean those people, that’s how – given those names and being adopted, yes, they clearly understood that they were part of this sort of relationship and I wonder if they struggled to communicate that and it – as I understand it there’s kind of controversy – or not – there’s not controversy, there are different views as to whether Barbara Thompson had a husband and I think MacGillivray, the naturalist, misunderstood those sort of kinship relations and thought [Aroto] 54:35 was her husband so yeah, that’s a –

A:        There’s probably quite a lot in the narratives that you could figure out about what avoidance relationships there are in terms of who camps with whom because it seems they’re in fairly small communities and by dividing the castaways between the people from the north and the south they’re making clan distinctions so they’re distributing the resources in a very equitable way.

L:         Yes, absolutely, that was a co –

A:        Right and that’ll have to do with the kinship system also.

L:         Thank you and that was definitely a consistent feature, thank you.

A:        That was great, thank you very much.

A:        You also mentioned that the <inaudible> 55:30 you know that <inaudible> recorded is some encounter with <inaudible> [Macussins] 55:42. Did you find anything they recorded in any way?

L:         I wasn’t looking at that area at [Macussins] –

A:        It’d be nice if you find, you know?

L:         There’s so much to research and I was sort of keeping it to Queensland although you know there would have been sort of contact there. Look, there – as I say there’s so many incredible stories. I guess these are useful to research because there is quite a strong record of them. There’s actually two other stories my group’s researching that are more speculative but yeah, it’s such an interesting area.

A:        But <inaudible> 56:13 presented, the way the indigenous Australia <inaudible> shipwrecked white people, very much like Greek people with the shipwrecked people you know treated with hospitality according to their status, you know? Very much Greek.

L:         Yes. Thank you.

A:        Do we know anything from the narratives about how the castaways imagined the future of their lives in which they’d never returned to the world they’d come from? That drama of oh I’ll be here forever and how am I going to live being here forever?

L:         That’s an interesting question and the project that I’m doing – that’s about that lived and felt experience and we have certain clues to that. So the project that I’m doing is kind of part of larger historical research and literary research about how these were told but also about – and about using images to <inaudible> 57:25 but also some creative narratives but that deeply drawn research to kind of try and think through or reimagine those sorts of felt experience. So there are kind of threads that might suggest that, the sense of John Ireland being so despondent when The [Mangols] came and then left and he didn’t eat for a long time and so – so yes, he wanted to be back with his family or the you know the culture that he knew but at the same time there was this stuff that was sort of torn between the two. So it’s a really interesting question and perhaps it needs the creative writers to as I said do good research but to draw that out because that’s – I mean I only touched on things now but you know it strikes me there is so much. If you imagine what they were going through it must have been quite terrifying and also moving and all sorts of emotions they would have felt.

A:        Could you just tell us a little bit about the bigger project because I'm thinking back to Marie-Louise’s comment about being introduced through Patrick White, Sydney Nolan, through the music that I know and just thinking about the way in which the myths if you like have been handed down about these people and perhaps the fear like what is it about castaways that have caused such a response and both a visual and artistic response at the time but also afterwards as well as a literary response and a musical one?

L:         Yes and I – again it’s a good and broad sort of question so this part is part of a broader project and one of the people involved is my colleague, Anna Johnson, up the back but as I mentioned we’re hoping to put in – for those of you who know – an ARC Linkage grant and to develop I guess a study that goes back to the history. You mentioned about knowing individually about the stories but looking at them more collectively – not just the stories themselves but how they’ve kind of been perpetuated in literature, how they were told in word and image, how they drew on existing I suppose you know literature, this idea – the romantic idea of the castaways. And then as I’ve said with kind of using imagination through artistic practice, through writing practice to sort of speak back, to imagine that felt experience so kind of more a holistic history if you like because yes, there’s rich literary traditions so – around this idea and it’s certainly a topic that’s appealing to me but obviously it seems many people are interested as well.

M:        Alright well look, thank you very much then for that. Now we have got some time to go into the foyer so – and where people will just want you to know <inaudible> 00:41 anyway individually to have a little bit of a chat so I hope that you will stay with us afterwards and just have some more conversation, the Library’s not closing for a little while yet. Now do come again on the 26th of April to hear about crazy weather when Dr Rebecca Jones will share her insights into how settlers struggled with Australia’s climate extremes, another kind of struggle. And on 1 May when Associate Professor Ruth Barraclough will examine the lives of Korea’s glamorous early Communist women under the banner, Red Glamour, so you cannot say that there isn’t variety in our fellowships program here.

But for tonight please join me again in thanking Lisa for introducing us to these – not only to the castaways but to the people who looked after them, the people who thought they were rescuing them when maybe they were kidnapping them, there’s just so many different angles here that we could think about, thanks for prompting our thinking, Lisa. Thank you.


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