Old Tales of a Young Country

The First Queensland Explorer

Marcus Clarke

ON FRIDAY, the 27th of February, 1846, the barque “Peruvian,” bound for China with a cargo of hardwood, left Sydney Harbour.

The “Peruvian” was commanded by George Pitkethly, and had a full complement of passengers and crew. The captain’s brother was first mate, and the captain’s wife was also on board. The names of the other passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Wilmot, child and nurse, and Mr. J. P. Quarry and his little daughter. The breeze was fresh, and all had hopes of a successful passage. On Sunday night, however, the wind increased to a gale, and on Tuesday the “fineweather” sails were blown out of the bolt-ropes. On Friday every stitch of canvas was taken off, and the vessel drove under bare poles. On Saturday, however, the weather moderated a little, and that night, during the first watch, the mate made more sail. The captain held consultation with his brother, and calmed the fears of his wife and the lady passengers by telling them the worst of the danger was now over. It seemed, however, that during the gale the ship had been driven out of her course, for Pitkethly said that she was in the neighbourhood of the Horseshue Reef, and desired the hands to keep a look-out for broken water. Thus, having got all things snug, Sunday night passed over. Between three and four o’clock on Monday morning, however, an unexpected calamity happened. A man named James Murrell had been at the helm from twelve to two, and had been relieved by the eldest apprentice. The second mate was officer of the watch, and the brothers Pitkethly were below asleep in their bunks. The night was cloudy, and from out of the dusk ahead of them the second mate saw suddenly rise something that was “either land or a dark cloud.” He ran down to the captain and returned as quickly as possible. Just as he reached the deck the vessel struck upon a rock, and a terrific sea sweeping over her stern, carried him overboard, and “he was never seen again.” The shock awakened all on board, and the captain and crew ran up in great confusion, many still in their night-clothes. A glance explained the position of the ship. The “Peruvian” was fast on the rock; and the sea running high, nothing could be done but wait for morning. This the shivering wretches, crouched under the lee of the cuddy, resolved to do.

When day broke, the full danger of their position became apparent. No land was in view, but as far as the eye could reach, the points of the rocks pierced the white surf. The “Peruvian” had run upon the very centre of an impassable reef. The captain ordered the boats to be got over the side, and the jolly-boat was hung in the tackles and lowered. The moment she touched the broken water she went to pieces. The long-boat was old and shaky, but she was their only chance. They launched her over the side, intending to keep her there until they could get the women and provisions into her, but the sea ran so high that she was filled as she hung in the tackle. The situation was now indeed desperate, and when the captain, who seemed beside himself with anxiety, ordered some hands to jump in and bale out the water, they refused. The condition of the old and battered boat was such that none would risk their lives in her, except one man—the captain’s brother. The younger Pitkethly commenced to bale, but as he lifted the second bucket to the gunwale, the heaving of the sea jerked the stern-post out of the boat, and the fore-tackle getting adrift, she was carried away from the wreek on the next wave. Lines were thrown to the unfortunate man, but none reached him. He saw that his case was hopeless, and bidding goodbye to his brother and his brother’s wife, sat down in the bows beside a live sheep that had been penned there, and calmly waited for his death. It was not long. In a few minutes the long-boat sank, and he went down in her without a cry.

Upon this—the last chance being gone—the captain called all hands into the cabin and prayed. This course of conduct was productive of good. The spectacle of women and children who needed their aid calmed and sobered into self-reliance the excited sailors, and the women and children were encouraged by the sight of so many sturdy and brave men ready and willing to help them. Going on deck again, the propriety of making a raft was discussed, and though it was gloomily admitted that the chance of being picked up was an extremely remote one, it was resolved to try this last expedient. They cut away the spars, and bound together first the mizen, then the mainmast—a difficult task, for, says Murrell, “they came down with the sails all flying.” Working in imminent peril of his life from every sea that washed over the wreck, Pitkethly at length gave the last blow to the last nail. The masts and spars lashed together, and braced with a sort of platform in the middle, formed a rude raft, and with infinite toil they got the unwieldy thing afloat by middle-day Sunday. All this time the sea was pouring over the torn and mangled bulwarks, and the ship was literally bursting with the water she had swallowed. Each instant it was thought that she would go to pieces.

Provisions had been previously collected for the boats, but when search was now made for them, it was found that the bread had been spoiled by the salt water, and nearly all the preserved meat washed overboard. All that the poor wretches could muster were nine tins of preserved meat, a small keg of water, and a little brandy. This scanty store being stowed in the safest portion of the raft, with the captain’s instruments and charts, blankets were spread for the women and children, and the vessel abandoned. There were then on the raft three women—Mrs. Pitkethly (the captain’s wife), Mrs. Wilmot, and the nurse-girl. The rest of the crew were Wilmot and Quarry, the captain, the carpenter, the sailmaker, the cook, four able seamen, four apprentices, and two negroes—stowaways who had been detected the night after leaving Sydney Heads. It was intended to hold by the ship for a day or so, and if possible build a boat out of the boat-planks aboard; but in the middle of the first night the strength of the current swept the raft from her moorings, and carried her out to sea. When morning broke, the deadly reef was just visible on their lee, with the wreck sticking on its back like a slug on a black bough.

Left thus face to face with the ocean and their fate, the little company made a compact among themselves. The stores should be divided equally, and there should be no drawing of lots “to take each other’s lives.” At first matters seemed rather cheerful. The captain directed the course of the raft, and by the aid of their sail they made forty miles a-day. They were in high hopes of reaching land. Three tablespoonfuls of preserved meat a-day were served out to each person, and the water was measured in the neck of a glass bottle—four such drams—one in the morning, two in the middle of the day, and the other in the evening— being allowed to each. Occasionally a few birds came on board, and the raw flesh and hot blood were looked upon as delicacies. This lasted for twenty-two days.

Then the usual agony began. On the twenty-third day they saw a sail, which kept in sight for four hours, but finally disappeared. “This,” says Murrell, “greatly disappointed us.” The preserved meat began to run short. The allowance of water was decreased day by day. The poor women, crouched under the lee of the platform, were told that in a few days there would be no meat and no water. These days became hours. One morning the last morsel was devoured, and still no land appeared.

Mr. Quarry, who had been a long time ailing, told the man next him that he would die now, and did die the next morning. His little daughter was yet alive, and cried over the corpse. Fearfully mindful of their “compact,” the survivors stripped the body instantly, and threw it overboard; the sharks tore it to pieces before their eyes, and the captain, who seems to have been a God-fearing man, read the burial service over the great graveyard on which they floated. That evening they caught a rock cod-fish with a line and hook baited with white rag, and cut it up into equal parts. Two more days passed, and they caught a fish each day. Then it rained, but the exhausted creatures seem to have neglected to secure as large a supply of water as they might have done. The two children now died. Mrs. Wilmot’s baby went first, then little Miss Quarry, and lastly Mrs. Wilmot herself. Her husband “took off what clothing she had on, which was only a nightdress, and threw her into the sea; but he told us if we were men we would not look at her.” The body of this poor lady floated near the raft for more than twenty minutes. During the next day two more men died, and “then,” says Murrell, “they dropped off one after the other very rapidly, but I was so exhausted myself that I forget the order of their names.”

The condition of the survivors was terrible, yet, true to their promise, they abstained from cannibalism. The captain, however, suggested a method of procuring food that seems to well-dined folks sitting beside cheerful home fires almost as repulsive. The sharks swarmed around the raft; if they had but a bait they could catch them. There was really bait enough. They cut off the leg of a man who had died, and tied it to the end of an oar. Half-way up the oar was a running bowline, through which the fish must put its head to take the bait. One man held out this hideous fishing-rod, while the other held the bowline. A shark came, and was caught. The carpenter killed him with his axe, and cutting the monster into strips they made a hearty meal of him. This plan was pursued with success for some days. At last they espied shore, and were driven down the coast. Twice they attempted to land, and twice did an adverse breeze drive their unhappy craft out to sea. At last at midnight on the forty-second day since they abandoned the wreck of the “Peruvian,” they landed on what is now known as the southern point of Cape Cleveland. Of the twenty-two souls who had left the wreck, only seven remained—Mr. Wilmot, James Gooley, John Millar (the sailmaker), one of the boys, James Murrell (the narrator), the captain and Mrs. Pitkethly.

An attempt was made to get water, but it was not successful, and wearied out, the seven lay down on the sand and fell asleep. That astonishing run of good fortune which had followed them during their terrible passage across the sea, and had supplied them with birds and fish, did not yet desert them. It came on to rain in the night, and in the morning the holes of the rocks were full of fresh water. When the sun got up, the captain took a glass out of a telescope which he had preserved, and lighting by its means a piece of rag, kindled a fire, at which lumps of shark were boiled and greedily devoured. In the course of the day oysters were found by the captain, who appears to have divided them between himself and his wife, for Murrell says that “the others” were compelled to crawl and get some for themselves. On this desolate rock might was right, and the captain had the axe. In a few days Mr. Wilmot and Gooley gave up the fight. They were too sore and sick to crawl to the oyster-bed, “so they lay down by a waterhole and died, nobody being equal to provide for more than themselves.”

For five days more this torment continued, and then the captain, “in his rambles,” came across a native canoe containing lines and spears. Millar, the sailmaker, determined to go away in this canoe, and try to reach civilisation. In vain did his comrades attempt to dissuade him. He was determined. A quick death in the breakers was preferable to a long torture on the barren reef. He started and the sea he had defied so long swallowed him up. His body was afterwards found on the shores of the next bay.

The little company, now diminished by three, received a still further shock. As Murrell and the captain were crawling over a hill into the adjoining bay, they saw a fullrigged ship running down the inside channel. They had no means of signalising her, and sitting down on the rocks watched her slowly disappear—with what bitterness of spirit one can easily guess. They then came upon the tracks of natives, and followed them as far as they could, but the rain had rendered the footprints illegible to their inexperienced eyes, and after dragging themselves a little further they returned wearily to camp.

Two days after this, poor Mrs. Pitkethly said that she heard the blacks “whistling and jabbering round about her;” but she was in a very low state of health, and her assertion was treated as the hysterical fancy of a nervous woman. She was right, however. It appears that the natives believe that falling stars indicate the presence of an hostile tribe, and that over the place where the poor shipwrecked creatures had been fighting with death many stars had appeared to fall. The natives, observing this circumstance—the wandering shepherds of old would have called it a “miracle”—came down to the rocks, and one of the boys, who was lamed by boils on his legs, was seen by them crawling through the shingle. Mrs. Pitkethly persisted in her statement, and at last went out on the rocks to see for herself. On the cliff above them were a number of natives. “Oh. George,” cried the poor soul to her husband, “we have come to our last now; here are the wild blacks!”

But the intentions of the natives were friendly. They came down holding out their hands in token of amity, and snuffing curiously round the strangers, felt them all over from head to foot. So affectionate did they become indeed, that ten old men insisted on sleeping in the cave with them. In the morning a further discussion arose. Murrell and the lad were claimed as “jumped up whitefellows” belonging to a tribe at Mount Elliot, while poor Pitkethly and his wife were similarly claimed by a tribe living at Cape Cleveland. This dispute seemed likely to end in an awkward quarrel, but was ultimately adjusted by a division of the spoil of the raft. The natives—as usual—dressed themselves in the coats, trousers, and other garments saved from the wreck, and some even tore the leaves out of the few books and fastened them in their hair. Having thus seized everything of value, they commenced to strip the prisoners, but the boy begging to be permitted to keep his shirt, and endeavouring to impress them by pointing to the sun, that unless he was so allowed he would infallibly be roasted, they graciously gave him back the garment. The captain was, however, stripped completely naked, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that poor Mrs. Pitkethly was allowed to retain her scanty garments.

Some roots, seemingly of the truffle order, were now brought, and the natives signified their desire for the strangers to join with them in a corrobboree. This was impossible, but Murrell, by way of compromise, as gentlemen at evening parties transmute the “singing a song” into the “telling a story,” sang them a hymn—

“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform”—

at which they were much pleased. The sight of the grinning savages surrounding the four poor shipwrecked creatures singing a hymn about the providence of God must have been a strange one.

Received into the camp, they gradually recovered their strength and learned the language. Immense corrobborees were held over them, and natives crowded from all parts to see them. Murrell expressed a wish to go back to his white friends, and it was agreed that the natives should let him know whenever a ship was seen near the coast. Yet their kindness was rough at times. They seemed to regard their captives as pretty and curious toys to be shown to the best advantage, and the attendance of the “white men” was demanded at every corrobbioree. Murrell gives an interesting description of the ceremony of the Boree, or making the lads men, which is too long to quote here. It consists principally in undergoing various torments designed to test courage. Cane rings are put on the arms of the youths, and tightened so as to impede the circulation of the blood. “Their arms swell very much, which puts them in great agony. They are then left in that torture all night. Their cries are terrible to hear. To keep their fingers from contraction and thus deforming them, they sit with their hands and fingers spread out on the ground, with the heels of their feet pressed closely on them. In the morning they are brought out in the presence of their mothers, sisters, and relatives, and just above and below the mark of the cane ring on their arms they make small incisions to let the blood flow”—a curious way of celebrating a coming of age, and, if possible, more unpleasant than the many unpleasant ceremonies practised by all savage tribes. In happy Europe the “heir” only gets drunk.

The Queensland blacks appear to differ but little in their customs from others of like race. They burn their dead, and carry the ashes about in a sheet of bark for twelve months, when they throw them into a waterhole. Their religious belief is of the most negative character. They say that their forefathers witnessed a great flood, and all the people in the world were drowned except some half-dozen, who went up into a high mountain—Bibbiringda (inland to the north bay of Cape Cleveland). Murrell thinks that this is some dim recollection of the Noachian deluge. It is strange that aboriginals who have no tradition of their many wars, and whose memory is so slight as to tell them nothing about their father’s father, should invariably hold the most orthodox recollections of the Noachian deluge. They live on roots, fish, fruits, and birds. The men have several wives, and imitate the example of the sententions Cato in their treatment of them.

For seventeen years Murrell lived among these fellows. His companions died. The boy went first, and then the captain. Unhappy Pitkethly could endure his position no longer. He and his wife were there in the midst of savages, almost without clothes, and compelled to conform to the barbarous practices of the country. He seems to have felt more for his unhappy wife than for himself. “Up to this time,” says Murrell, speaking of two years from the date of the landing, “she managed, by dint of great difficulty, to keep herself partially covered, but he knew it could not last much longer; and the thought of her having to come so low, and her utter helpless condition, was too much for him—he sank under it.” Four days afterwards poor Mrs. Pitkethly followed her husband, and both bodies were buried, by Murrell’s request, in the sand together. Unhappy creatures! It is difficult to imagine a more dreadful death for a carefully-nurtured woman.

The slow years rolled on with Murrell, until, like Buckley, he had all but forgotten his own language, his own name—all save the memory of his native land. At last ships began to appear. A vessel came to the shore while Murrell was absent, and the sailors gave shirts to the natives. Then another ship was seen, and the natives, remembering their companion’s wish, attempted to attract the attention of the crew; but the Englishmen, not understanding their wild shoutings and yellings, fired at them, and drove them away.

Not long after this a white man with two horses came upon some natives lamenting the death of an old man, and raising his gun shot the old man’s son, who was lying on his father’s body. For this act of treachery he was, not unjustly, massacred by the tribe. Murrell says that this man was a Mr. Humphreys, of Port Denison, who was out looking for a “new track.” After this several white men were seen, and also tracks of cattle, and Murrell determined to make an effort for liberty. He told the tribe that his countrymen fired at them because they did not understand their language, but that he would go and explain to them. After some demur they consented, and the man who lived with Murrell sent his gin with him to approach a white man’s hut, which they had discovered some miles down the coast. Getting clear of the scrub, the exile saw the smoke of the chimney, and the sheep feeding on the grass. The sight of these strange animals so terrified the gin, that she ran back alone. Murrell went into a waterhole, where he washed himself as white as he could, and then, “standing on the fence to keep the dogs from biting him,” he hailed the hut. There were three men living there, but one, the shepherd, was looking after the sheep. Another one came out, and one cried, “Bill, here’s a yellow man standing on the rails, naked. He’s not a black man—bring the gun.” Poor Murrell, in terror, cries, “Don’t shoot! I am a British object, a ship-wrecked sailor.” “Of course,” he adds, “I meant subject, but in the excitement of the moment I did not know what I said.” The two men, whose names were Hatch and Wilson, received him kindly, and heard his story. They asked him if he knew what day and date it was? He said he did not. “Sunday, the 25th January, 1863. You have been lost seventeen years.” He tried to eat bread, but it choked him, and he had lost relish for tea and sugar. By-and-by the shepherd Creek came home, and Murrell unfolded his plans. He would go back to the blacks as a sort of ambassador of peace and goodwill. The three white men accepted this conclusion, adding, as a sort of rider to Murrell’s original proposition, that if he did not come back in the morning, they would put the black trackers on his trail, and shoot him.

Arrived at the camp, Murrell did his best for his countrymen, and by exaggerating their numbers and strength, induced his protectors to promise an “equitable division” of the country. The natives implored him to remain with them, but he reminded them of the threat of the “trackers,” and was firm. The parting, as Murrell describes it, was affecting. “When I was coming away, the man I was living with burst out crying; so did his ‘gin’ and several of the other ‘gins’ and men. It was a wild, touching scene. The remembrance of their past kindness came full upon me, 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 once more to live a civilised life, which can be better imagined than described.” He returned to the hut, was fed and clothed, and returned to his right mind. At the end of a fortnight he was taken into the newly-made town of Bowen, where a subscription was raised for him. Thus snatched from barbarism, he ran the usual little round of tea-parties. People were eager to hear this newly-caught lion roar. From Port Denison he was passed to Rockhampton, and from Rockhampton to Brisbane. At Brisbane a pious Baptist got hold of him, and “publicly baptised him on a profession of faith in Christ.” He was received as a “lion” at Government House, and eventually accepted an official crumb in the shape of a keepership of bonded stores. Upon the strength of this appointment he married, and lived comfortably, becoming possessed of freehold property. He was a general favourite with the inhabitants, and was popularly known as “Jemmy.” In appearance he was short and thick set, with sunken eyes, and a wide mouth. His teeth were worn down to the gums, “for,” says his biographer, Mr. Gregory, “they were his only knife for years.” His hardships had told upon his health, and he suffered greatly from rheumatism. Nevertheless, he was active and cheerful, and not without a hankering after his old life. He offered his services to the Leichhardt party, but they were not accepted—the Port Denison Times thinks to the injury of the expedition. He was born at Heybridge, near Maldon, and was bred to the sea, and his first voyage to the colonies was made in the “Ramales” to Hobart Town. He died at Port Denison on the 30th October, 1865, at the age of 41, leaving a wife and one child. His death was considered almost a public calamity, and was thus spoken of by the local press:—

“It is our mournful duty,” says the Port Denison Times, “to record the death of the pioneer white man in the north—James Murrell—which took place on Monday, 30th October. For some time he had been suffering from a wound received in the knee during his sojourn among the aboriginals, which had been attacked with rheumatism, and ultimately brought on inflammation and fever, which resulted in his death. . . . Jemmy was devotedly attached to his wife and child, and during his late illness, when his mind passed, as in a dream, through the scenes of misery and care of his exile, he always returned to his wife and child, and his only care seemed to be that they should in future be provided for. He was a general favourite throughout the district, and when his death became known in the town on Monday, the whole of the flags at the ships in harbour, and at the various stores throughout the town, were lowered to half-mast. The funeral took place yesterday, and was attended by a large number of mourners, including many of our influential citizens. The men belonging to the pilot station had asked and obtained permission to act as bearers to their old comrade’s remains. The police also attended, and moved in the procession next the hearse; then came the mayor and the police magistrate, followed by a long string of vehicles, horsemen, and pedestrians.”

Such is the strange story of the first Queensland explorer, and it is given—with details necessarily omitted here—in a pamphlet, edited by Mr. Gregory, and published at the Courier Office, Brisbane, in 1865.

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