Runaways in the Straits

Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 - 1827; 1830), Saturday 10 June 1826, page 4


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.

[Extract from Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), Saturday 28 September 1895, page 11]

To reach some of the islands in the Strait, or New Zealand, or the tropical regions, became the day-dream of every convict for whom the sea had no terror ; plots were constantly formed for the purpose, and one party after another succeeded in breaking away. They were rarely brought back. Those who went to the Straits in later years made their headquarters on Kangaroo Island, where they revelled in freedom and fresh animal food ; and from American Harbor, as they called it (Nepean Bay), they sailed out on piratical or sailing expeditions along the whole of the south coast, touching at the islands on their way as far as Rottnest, off Swan River. King George's Sound was one of their favorite haunts. They brought back cargoes of seal oil and skins, and as many lubras as they cared to have. To obtain the women they did not hesitate to shoot any of the men who dared to resist them. Many conflicts of that kind took place, which had the effect in a few years of creating a spirit of determined hostility among the blacks towards the white men. Captain Sutherland, of the Sydney brig Governor Macquarie, saw a good deal of these men during his eight months' stay on Kangaroo Island in the year 1819. At that time there was a considerable number of runaway sailors and escaped convicts there, living much the same sort of life as the buccaneers in the West Indies.

' 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.'

These men had not improved their manners and customs when Major Lockyer, the first commandant at Albany, came across them in 1827. He reported that they were no better than pirates, and that their settlement was ' a dreadful scene of villainy,' a great many sudden deaths occurring there without any questions being asked about them. His description of the place reminds one of a similar settlement at the Bay of Islands, in New Zealand, which flourished about the same time. Speaking of certain outrages committed by the blacks at King George's Sound, he said : ' It is but too certain that they were driven to it by acts of cruelty committed on them by some gang or gangs of sealers who have lately visited this place. The fact of these miscreants having left four natives on Michaelmas Island, who must have inevitably perished if they had not been taken off by the boat sent by the Amity, that brought them to this harbor. When one of them exhibited three deep scars on his neck and back that had been inflicted by some sharp instrument, it sufficiently proves that they have suffered injuries from white men ; and it is not to be wondered at that they should, as people in a state of nature, seek revenge.'

When they were first met with the natives at the Sound had undoubtedly shown themselves well disposed towards white men. Flinders had frequent interviews with them when he was there in 1802, and nothing occurred to disturb the good relations between them. He amused them immensely by parading the marines on shore. ' The red coats and white crossed belts were greatly admired, having some, resemblance to their own manner of ornamenting themselves ; the drum and fife excited their astonishment ; but when they saw these beautiful red and white men, with their bright muskets, drawn up in a line, they absolutely screamed with delight; nor were their wild gestures and vociferations to be silenced but by commencing the exercise, to which they paid the most earnest and silent attention.'

One or the Kangaroo Island gangs, led by a man named John Williams, became particularly notorious from the daring character of their exploits along the south coast. In one of their expeditions their vessel was driven by a sudden squall on Thistle Island, near the entrance of Spencer's Gulf, and completely wrecked. They made their escape in a whaleboat to the St. Peter's Island, off Denial Bay, where they expected to find plenty of ship timber, left from the wrecks of whaling ships, with which they could build a schooner. On reaching the island, they found two lubras, Charlotte and Sally, with two of their little boys, living in a comfortable hut on a small farm, which they cultivated. They were the widows of a sealer named Bryant, who had settled and died there some years previously, and who, in his life time, had done a good business with American whalers, supplying them with fruit and vegetables. After his death, the lubras carried on the business until they were suddenly carried off by Williams and his crew, who, as soon as they had built their schooner, sailed away to King George's Sound, returning after after a time to St. Peters, where they left the women. The sort of life these men led may be judged from the fate which befel one of them — a mulatto named Antonio — as related by Charlotte in after years. He had made himself a nuisance to his companions by the indiscreet manner in which he was wont to talk, when tipsy, of their exploits in the character of wreckers—particularly of the unfortunate sailors they had murdered when escaping from the wreck. At one of the islands which, they visited when sealing the seals could not be got at from the shore in the usual manner, because they herded together at the foot of the cliffs, and the only means of attacking them was by lowering a man down from above by a rope round his waist. This part of the work was performed by Antonio, the stronger and most courageous man in the crew. After he had killed all the seals he could get at, skinned them, and sent up their skins, he began the return journey ; but when he was about half-way up, the men aloft suddenly stopped hauling on the rope, and then Williams told him that, as he did not know how to keep his tongue quiet, they were going to do it for him. They kept him dangling in the air while he pleaded hard for his life ; but the only mercy they showed him was to cut his prayer short by cutting the rope, and leaving him to his fate. When the schooner left St. Peters and Charlotte was left behind she lived for some time with one of the two sealers then on the island named Manson. While on a sealing voyage to another island with them, the boat was struck by a squall, filled, and went down, carrying them all with it. Her mate never came up, neither did her two children, who were with them. Expecting them to rise every minute, she swam about for some time and observing that the other man (Jackson) was not an expert in swimming, she offered to help him, but, having an oar, he declined her assistance. She then struck out for the shore by herself ; and looking round after a time to see how he was getting on, she could not see any sign of him; he had gone down. The nearest part of the land was at a great distance, and when she reached it, after being in the water nearly all day, she had the most dangerous part of the work before her, the surf breaking on the rocks with tremendous force. As roller after roller came on she had to dive repeatedly to prevent herself from being swept upon the rocks ; and had it not been for her strength, and skill, nothing could have saved her from that fate. At last she managed to get ashore, but in such an exhausted state that she could not walk up the beach for some time. Dreading a meeting with the blacks on that part of the coast, she remained in the scrub all night, and starting early on the following morning she travelled through the bush until she came across a cattle track, which led her to a cattle station belonging to one of the Port Lincoln settlers. On reaching the hut she was kindly treated by the man in charge, to whom she related her adventures and being supplied with food and clothing, she continued her journey until she reached the little settlement at Port Lincoln, where she met with all the good treatment she deserved.

XVIII. The outrages committed by sealers of the Williams type upon the blacks led to many terrible acts of retaliation upon the white men who were unfortunate enough to get within their reach. One of many similar instances occurred in connection with the wreck of a whaling ship on the South Australian coast. Part of the crew sailed away in the boats to Hobart Town to procure a vessel in which they could take away six of their companions, left behind in charge of the property saved from the wreck, which included many barrels of oil. The six men having gone one day for a trip in their boat to another part of the coast, they fell in with a small party of natives, and after a friendly parley, in the course of which the whalers made inquiries about the lubras, the blacks offered to take them to their camp a little way off in the bush, where they could see the ladies. Four of the men accepted the invitation while the other two remained in the boat, which they kept at anchor a short distance off the shore. After an hour or two some of the blacks came down to the beach, and by signs invited them to come ashore; but being uneasy about their mates they would not do so, whereupon several spears were hurled at them, and both were hit. They lost no time in slipping their anchor, hoisting sail, and making off for one of the nearest islands which they succeeded in reaching, but one of them died soon after. Not long after this affair occurred, some South Australian settlers landed on an island about ten miles off the coast, where they were surprised to find a boat on the beach and a hut near it. Supposing that it was occupied by a solitary sealer, they entered it, when the first thing they saw was the remains of a man. Near it there was a small cask of salted mutton birds, which, showed that he had not died from want of food ; a dog, too, that was running about looked as if he had been well fed. A further search brought to light a rough kind of diary, which had evidently been written by the late occupier of the hut from day to day as long as he had strength to write. He had died from his wounds and his loneliness.

Perhaps the most painful case of the kind was the murder of Captain Barker on the shores of Encounter Bay, in South Australia, in 1831, while he was engaged in exploring the country thereabouts, at the instance of Captain Sturt. On reaching the channel through which the sea flows into Lake Alexandria, accompanied by a friend, two soldiers, and his servant, he stripped and went into the water, in order to take bearings from a sand hill on the opposite shore with his compass, which he had fastened on his head. Twenty minutes swimming took him across the channel, which was about a quarter of a mile wide, with a strong current. His friends saw him ascend the hill, take several bearings, and descend on the other side. They waited till night for his return, lighted a large fire, and soon afterwards saw a chain of small fires between the hill and the other side of the channel, around which they heard the native women chanting their melancholy songs through the long night. They felt, then, that their friend was dead. Being unable to help him, even if he were alive, they returned to their vessel, which was lying at anchor in a bay behind Cape Jervis, and reported the facts. The country not having been settled at that time, they could do nothing more than seek assistance from the sealers on Kangaroo Island, and one of them was induced, by a certain reward, to go to the mainland with his lubra, and ascertain what had become of Captain Barker. The woman went inland to meet the blacks, and on her return gave their account of the matter. Those natives, they said, were going to the shore where they crossed his track on the sand, followed it, and met him returning. They closed upon him at once ; he tried to soothe them, and finding it useless he made a rush for the water. He got among the breakers, when he received three spears and fell on his back. They dragged him out, stabbed him repeatedly, and threw his body into deep water, where the sea-tide washed it away. In relating this event, Sturt gave it as his opinion that the cruelties exercised by the sealers towards the blacks along the south coast had instigated them to this act of vengeance.

When his Majesty's brig Emu put in at King George's Sound, on her voyage from Sydney to England in 1816, the gentlemen on board (among whom was William Charles Wentworth) made frequent visits to the shore, and were received in the most friendly manner by the natives, who came forward to meet them unarmed. They returned the visit by going on board day after day without any hesitation. This was considered strange, seeing that when Flinders was there he had vainly endeavored to get two of them to go on board his ship, although he was on very good terms with them. On the last day of the Emu's stay an unexpected event took place, which was related by Wentworth in one of his letters : 'Just as the people were getting into the last boat, the natives, who had been sitting close to the party on shore during the whole day in the most peaceable manner, suddenly with drew, and a few moments after wards there was a general discharge of spears from the direction in which they had retired, although, from the thick brush which covers every part of the bay, none of the natives could be distinguished. Several of these spears passed very close to many of the boat's crew, and one in particular just grazed Mrs. Napper's bonnet. Our people immediately fired in the direction from which the spears had been thrown, but as it was nearly dark it is not known whether their muskets did any execution.' This attack had not been provoked in any way, and was consequently accounted for on the theory of innate treachery. Comparing the conduct of the natives on the two occasions (1802 and 1816), it is reasonable to suppose that something had occurred in the interval to bring about such a change ; and nothing was more likely to bring it about than a visit from the sealers of Kangaroo Island.

Pirates and Wreckers (1895, September 28). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), p. 11.