Runaways in the Straits
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 - 1827; 1830), Saturday 10 June 1826, page 4
ON KANGAROO ISLAND,
And the Runaways in the Straits.
Nearly six months have elapsed since we first directed the attention of the Public to the characters hovering about the islands in the Straits. At that time Captain Welsh supplied us with some interesting materials the publication of which, it is not too much to say, has not a little paralysed the evil practices of these men ; it has also excited some remarks in the elder Colony, the propriety of which, we shall presently shew. The great importance of the subject has by this means been gradually developed ; and the Government, we are sensible, is fully impressed with the necessity of speedily adopting some measure which will arrest the ruin of a valuable Colonial export, and repress a dangerous and increasing band of pirates. We regret that our confined space obliges us, as usual, to abridge our ideas on this generally interesting subject ; we shall however endeavour to draw the brief outline so distinct as to enable the Reader to embody the picture, and to fill up the blanks.
These inlands are, with few exceptions, inhabited by runaways from this and the elder Colony. Their escape is effected partly in boats, previously filled with plunder, as was the case with Duncan and others. The necessity of a well regulated excise or guard boat is here apparent, which should night and day ply about the harbour and river, under the direction of persons of responsibility, with armed rowers worthy of that confidence. The attempts now made at concealment in every vessel about to sail would then cease. Others escape under false names in the clearances, sometimes it is to be feared at the connivance of their employers. Here again we see the necessity of an officer attached to the Police, whose sole duty it shall be to take cognizance of and to give passes containing full personal descriptions, to all prisoners leaving the point at which he is stationed, whether by land or water. But the question arises, if this officer, by reference to his record, can correctly fix the identity of the prisoner, how are others who may be authorised to examine passengers on the road to be so informed, and how are they to discover any deception that would be put upon them ? Above 400 prisoners annually become free by servitude or otherwise, and the difficulty is therefore every day becoming greater. If the wholesome measure of questioning every traveller not previously known, at the various stations, be continued, in order to render it effectual, every one, both bond and free throughout the Island, ought, as we have said on a former occasion, to be furnished with a passport. Added to these regulations, if boats and vessels, setting out on fishing expeditions, were restricted to the proper season, and obliged to return at an appointed time, and then to surrender an account of every one of the crew, the growing mischief among the islands would be powerfully checked. These runaway boats having evaded detection under the cloak of night, and having slipped down the river, creep along shore, stealing at every point. The flocks at Oyster Bay and Swan Port have at various times suffered in this way. Having reached Georges river, they there get a convenient supply of fresh water, and plentiful provision, as well as pastime among the wild swans. If they have dogs they effect frequent landings where the beach permits, and live on kangaroo and small quadrupeds. An inch of tobacco, however, or a pint of rum, are dangerous bones of contention among such men in an open boat, and the numerous individuals who can in no way be accounted for in Mr. Humphrey's list, are a proof that more than one-half of these unskilful mariners perish in the deep. Those who are more fortunate proceed to Clark's, and Preservation Islands, where the old man, Munro, who inhabits the latter, no doubt initiates them in their new career. The rocks and islets are so distributed along that channel, that they can easily proceed from one to the other, without once losing sight of land, and thus complete the tour of the Straits. The aquatic birds, the swans, the opossums, shell-fish and seal, though all at first of a revolting flavour, are yet so numerous, and so easily obtained, as to afford a sure defence against starvation. Preservation Island, which scarcely contains a square mile in extent, is mostly a bare rock, covered with birds, and Barren Island, equally sterile, with the exception of some few narrow valleys, is the same. Flinders' Island, about 40 miles in length, is less known, and is in general thickly covered with brushwood. King's Island, at the western extremity of the Strait, nearly equidistant from Western Port and Cape Grim, is described as thickly wooded, with a convenient harbour. Robertson, who lived on it for thirteen years, we learn is coming to Hobart Town, and will be able to give a more authentic account of its resources. Our runaways having reached the beautiful terrace banks of Western Port, will probably be induced to make some stay there, as well as in other desirable spots on the coast of New Holland.
It is however, a curse entailed upon the wicked, to be contented in no situation ; and these rovers having again set sail, usually follow the coast, which winds for 500 miles along a sandy beach, in a north westerly direction, skirting a fertile country until they reach Kangaroo Island, in latitude 35½. This Island, nearly 300 miles in circumference, is the Ultima Thule. It lies opposite Spencer's and St. Vincent's Gulphs, and at one part is separated from the main by a narrow channel of only 8 miles across. The hills though numerous are not lofty, and there is the appearance of much level good land, with a climate perhaps the most enviable in the world. A bay called the Bay of Shoals, on the north coast next the main, it resorted to by the fishermen on account of a salt lagoon, or sea pool, which when dried up after the rainy season, is filled with excellent salt to the depth of 5 or 6 inches. Near it is a lake of fresh water, both being situated about 3 miles from the beach, which dis-tance the productions are carried on the back to the boats. This, as well as every other labour, is performed by the native women, whom these unprincipled men carry off from the main, and compel to hunt, work, and fish, and do every other menial service, while they themselves sit on the beach, and smoke, drink, and sleep by turns, occasionally perhaps rousing to kill a young seal while basking on the sunny beach. This food, though far from palatable is all that their indolence will in general allow them to procure, and they sometimes salt it down for future store. It is much to be lamented that so debased a specimen of the Christian race as these men, should be the first to give an impression to the natives, who are there very numerous [sic], and of a superior cast to those here and at Sydney. They live in regular villages, are all clothed with a cloak made of skins stitched together and ornamented, and though like all other sayages, addicted to stealing, are nevertheless, friendly and hospitable.
The tide in this bay rises about 6 or 7 feet ; it is not however safe for any large vessels, and about first quarter ebb, numerous shoals are visible, ten miles to the east is a fine river called American River, with an excellent harbour. It is so named from an American who visited that neighbourhood about ten years ago, and built a very handsome schooner of the pine tree, peculiar to the island. This wood resembles red Swedish timber, and contains turpentine. Mr. Smith sailed 13 miles up this river, and by cutting one of these trees in halves, scooping it out with an adze, and afterwards uniting it with hoops, he constructed an admirable pump for his vessel. The trees common here also abound there, and the small species of kangaroo is very numerous. Among the animals which we have not seen here, is a large kind of edible guana, a species of bear, about the size of a fox, and a species of cockatoo, of a grey colour with a red crest. The fish are very superior, and well flavoured ; among them a kind of whiting is described as being excellent eating. When the fishing season for seals is over, these men, with the native women and their offspring amounting, in all to about 40, retire into a valley in the interior of the island, where they have a garden and huts. One man called Abyssinia, has led this life for fourteen years. Are then these men, thus strangers to religion, strangers to principle, among whom rapine of every kind, and even murder is not unfrequent, are they to be suffered thus to debase human nature ? They are at present supported and encouraged by the Colonial vessels that visit them for the purpose of bartering their skins for rum. Many of them are armed, and in a short time it will not be safe even for a large vessel to go amongst them.
A person, signing himself W. H. Skelton, published a letter in a Sydney newspaper, about three months ago, in which he says that he has traded for the last three seasons among these islands. We hope that that gentleman, whom the publisher of his letter calls a Captain, will also publish the names of the mercantile houses established in the Straits with whom he has carried on business for so long a period, and will say whether we have not to thank him, and such as him, for the enticement held out to these wretched men to embark in and to continue their abandoned course of life. By his account he assisted Mr. Whyte in capturing the various runaways. He suspected their haunts, and but for his co-operation, the plan would have failed ! Other accounts do not however corroborate this statement, and the plan, we believe, alluded to, if there was such a plan, must entirely have failed but for the exertions of Mr. Smith. By his means, chiefly, the runaways were discovered and apprehended. He had but just before saved from their hands his life and part of his property, with which he escaped as if by a miracle. This shews how injudicious it would be to permit any settlers on these islands, and other remote situations, except in number, and with property sufficient to induce Government to protect it by a detachment of military. We have heard conjectures respecting the eligibility of some one of these islands as a secondary penal settlement ; for ourselves we have doubts of the propriety of a distant establishment for the severer punishment of offenders. If such a place be chosen, it ought certainly to be secure from escape and not of too large dimensions ; and the employment of the prisioners ought not to be scattered over a large surface in the woods, but within safe limits. Hence, it resolves itself into an extensive House of Correction or Penitentiary. Of all means to punish and reclaim, solitary confinement is the best— a system which we must come to at last, or employ men at sufficient salaries to take out the worst characters, in small divisions, and reclaim them. The success of the chain gang under a military guard is such as will probably make the necessityof penal settlements less obvious. In the mean time, no boats ought to be permitted among the islands ; and we trust that Kangaroo island, being without the jurisdiction of this Colony, will not be any obstacle to speedy and efficient measures being adopted to check this serious and growing evil. The Governor in Chief of New South Wales is invested with the command of these seas ; and we doubt not, from the paternal interest which actuates General Darling in watching over and promoting the prosperity of this part of the British dominions, that a representation will be made to the Lords of the Admiralty, and a swift sailing armed cutter be stationed here, which, visiting the coast of New Holland, the Straits, sweeping round this Island, entering the Derwent and the Tamar unawares, and at unexpected times, will awe and annihilate these irregular characters, and add life and security to the exertions of the Colonists.
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 - 1827; 1830), Saturday 7 April 1827, page 3
... All the enormities recorded in our columns, for so many months back, are confirmed by Major Lockyer, and we remark, that the same means of removing them are recommended as by ourselves. He describes them as a regular set of pirates traversing from island to island in open boats along the coast from Rottnest island to Bass's strait, having their chief resort or den at Kangaroo island, making occasional descents on the mainland, and carrying off by force, the native women. They rob and murder each other. At Kangaroo Island a dreadful scene of villainy is going on, where to use their own words, " there are a great many graves." Their numbers consist in a great measure of runaway prisoners from Sydney and Van Diemen's land. These melancholy truths were fully corroborated by the above attack of the natives and other incidents which occurred during the time the Amity was at anchor in the harbour. [King George's Sound, Western Australia] ...
Pirates and Wreckers Of Kangaroo Island. XVII.' These gangs,' he said, in an account he wrote of the voyage. ' joined together after a time, and became the terror of ships going to the island for salt and sealskins, being little better than pirates. They are complete savages, living in bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines, and getting spirits and tobacco in barter for the skins which they lay up during the sealing season. They dress in kangaroo skins without linen, and wear sandals made of sealskins. They smell like foxes. They have carried their daring acts to an extreme, venturing on the mainland in their boats, seizing all the natives, particularly the women, and keeping them in a state of slavery, cruelly beating them on every trifling occasion ; and when at last some of these marauders were taken off the island by an expedition from New South Wales, the these women were landed on mainland with their children and dogs to procure a subsistence, not knowing how their own people might treat them after a long absence.'
1826 [Sydney] Some very useful discoveries have just been made relative to the haunts of runaways, who have escaped from this and the Sister Colony, particularly from the latter. The Islands in Bass's Straits are so well calculated to harbour and conceal these gentry, that little doubt can exist of most of those who have hitherto remained undiscovered being fallen in with if a diligent search were made. A regular communi cation, it would seem, had been carried on between the runaways on the Islands in the Straits, and the Bushrangers on Van Dieman's Land. Preservation Island being only about twelve miles distant from Swan Island, and this again being within a mile of the main land, it is not to be wondered a that such a man as Munro, of whom a description is given by our informant, Capt. Skelton, of the Governor Sorell, should have carried on a thriving trade; and, that the Bushrangers, on the other hand, should have kept up not only their concealment, but have been under no apprehension of being obliged to quit the Bush, either on account of the severity of the weather, or the danger of starvation.
Kangaroo Island, situate just through the Straits, it would seem, has got quite a population of its own; and, we suppose, is in a condition to select a King and enact laws. It is said that there are, at present, upwards of two hundred souls vegetating on this convenient spot. Thirty men and forty black women, independent of a numerous progeny, contrive to make themselves quite comfortable in their snug retreat.
Sending a small vessel from the Derwent to explore these places, was well enough for one purpose - the purpose of ascertaining the truth of conjectures, which seem to have been entertained respecting '-the haunts of runaway prisoners; but, such a preparation for laying hold of desperate characters, was quite inadequate, and but for the meeting, with the Governor Sorell, the plan must in a great degree have failed.
The recommendation of Capt. Skelton, who seems to have acted a very useful part, is one which, we think, should be attended to, both for the sake of the Government and the Public. It is his opinion that a vessel, well armed, might scour the Straits and visit every island, with every prospect of success in securing all the suspicious and dangerous characters who infest those parts ; but, that nothing short of a vessel so provided and prepared could meet the exigencies of the case.
Every sealing vessel suffers more or less from the hordes of men in and about the Strait's; and, the smaller description of them, by all accounts, may be considered particularly fortunate if they escape by being only plundered, and are not altogether seized and pirated. The injury done to the sealing trade is mentioned in the communication of Captain Skelton, ... ; and is, certainly, of a very serious nature to all the merchants and speculators in this species of fishery.
But, we cannot avoid thinking that a great deal of the mischief has been produced by the people themselves, who are concerned in this trade. The equipments for sealing have seldom been properly attended to; and, in many cases, the chance of meeting with hands and assistance in the Straits, has induced the others of small craft to send out only half a crew. They have thus encouraged the escape of persons from the two Colonies, and armed them against themselves, not only by giving them employment, teaching them the sealing trade, and enabling them afterwards to catch and subsist on seals, to the great loss and detriment of the trade, but, in facilitating their mustering in such numbers in unprotected parts of the Straits, as to be able to take a small vessel whenever they liked.Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 - 1848), Thursday 9 March 1826, page 2
1828 ... Kangaroo Island, on our southern coast, about four hundred miles to the west of Basss's Straits, a settlement of this kind has long existed, as I have before mentioned ; (by the latest accounts, this settlement contains a population of forty individuals, men, women, and children;) the men having reached that point by coasting along in boats, and having seized and carried off native women. During the seal season they live upon the coast, feasting on the seal-flesh which their wives procure for them ; and on the season being over, retire to their village, built in a valley in the interior, and subsist upon the produce of their gardens, and what game they can destroy.
They lead a most slothful, idle life, obliging their women to perform all the drudgery, but occasionally assisting vessels calling there to load with salt, which is found covering the bed of a lagoon six inches deep ; and bartering their seal-skins for rum, tea, sugar, and so forth, with the crews. The senior individual upon the settlement is named Abyssinia, and has lived there fourteen years and upwards.
Various islands in Bass's Straits are also peopled in like manner ; Flinders's Island, according to the latest accounts, containing twenty, including women and children.
A somewhat considerable number of convicts escape annually, likewise, by concealing themselves in vessels about to sail from the colony, the masters permitting them usually to walk ashore at the first port, no questions ever being asked of vessels returning home from New South Wales, whether convicts have escaped in them or not. Sometimes these people are concealed by the master to be useful to him on his voyage ; but occasionally they slip on board, stow themselves away there; and slip on shore in like manner at the end of the voyage, without a single individual ever knowing that they had been in the vessel. ...Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 - 1848), Wednesday 27 February 1828, page 4