Sunday, 24 June 2012

Corpse candles, Will-o'-the-wisps & Min-Min lights: Who said Boulia had exclusivity in Australia??

Min Min Hotel ruins, c. 1967 (National Library of Australia)
Many years ago, I was asked to write an article for inclusion in the Insight Magazine Annual, & had free reign on choice of topic.  Obviously, being a stickler for stories of the paranormal with an historic basis, I chose a well-known Australian oddity that most would have heard of but few knew much about - the Min Min light.   For those who are a little unsure of the tale of the Min Min light, it is likely best summed up in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on the 25th of January 1947:

One of Australia's most remarkable ghostly manifestations is the strange wandering light that appears at indefinite periods at Min Min, near Boulia, in western Queensland. Known locally as the "ghost light," it is a moon of light suspended in space, darting hither and thither, vanishing ghost-like in the dark recesses of the trees.

The locality in which it appears happens to have been the site of a notorious shanty which was known as the Min Min Hotel.  No spots on earth were lower than some of these western shanties of the Queensland of 70 odd years ago. The Min Min Hotel was regarded as the worst of these vicious dens. It stood beside the road to Warenda, and other outlying stations, towards the border of Central Australia.  Dispensing adulterated liquor and drugs, the Min Min Hotel derived its profits from the process known as "lambing down" unwary shearers and station-hands, who arrived there with large cheques and still larger thirsts.  Many of these men remained there. The fierce, doped spirits caused their deaths. Others were killed in wild brawls, or were murdered for their money, and at the rear of the hotel site there is still to be seen the Min Min graveyard, where these victims were buried. It is nearly 70 years since the hotel was destroyed by fire.

Shortly after the fire a stockman rode wildly one night to the police station. He was greatly agitated, and it was some minutes before he could pull himself together. After the sergeant had given him a glass of water, he told his story:

"You won't believe me, but it's true - I swear it's the gospel truth! About 10 o'clock this evening I was riding not far from the Min Min graveyard when all of a sudden I saw a strange glow appear right in the middle of the cemetery. I looked at it amazed. The glow got bigger, till it was about the size of a watermelon. I couldn't believe my eyes as I saw it hovering over the ground. And then I broke into a cold sweat, for it started to come towards me.  It was too much for my nerves. I was terror-stricken. I dug the spurs into the horse and headed towards Boulia as fast as I could. But every time I looked back over my shoulder I could see the light following me! It only disappeared when I got to the outskirts of the town.  Dont smile, sergeant! Can't you see it's the truth I'm telling you?'

But the police made light of the stockman's story, and the whole town ragged the unfortunate man about the spook he had seen.  Then came report after report that substantiated the story. Today the phenomenon is an established fact.  Thousands of people have seen the Min Min light. Many scientists have gone to Boulia in the hope of solving the mystery but have been completely baffled by it.  

True, it has some features in common with the will-o'-the-wisp, that curious light seen in marshland and church graveyards in northern Europe. But there are vital points of difference between the will-o'-the-wisp and the Min Min light. The former is produced from decaying animal matter in churchyards or marshes, whereas the Australian light not only shines above a graveyard but moves about over hard, rocky plain country totally unlike European marshlands.

The riddle remains unsolved.

For the sceptics out there, the Min Min light over the years has been attributed to a range of naturally occurring phenomena...some very simplistic, & some wildly outlandish.  Bioluminescence seems to be the main suspect, with explanations covering a wide spectrum from simple bioluminescent fungi, through to fire-flies, through to owls inexplicably coated in bioluminescent pollen.  Another explanation put forward is that of the phenomenon of Fata Morgana - an atmospheric anomaly that creates mirages right on the horizon, usually of far-away objects that are out of sight.  It's postulated that this refraction of light could possibly show the glow from a camp fire or lantern, even though the light source might be beyond the view of the distant observer.  Never the less, not one of the above explanations go any way towards rationalising the Min Min light - especially given the sprite's playful nature, racing towards & then away from the observer, & regularly changing speed & direction.  Many motorists who have come in contact with the Min Min light claim that the light has followed them whilst driving, keeping pace with their cars...yet, if the car is turned around & driven back towards the light, the anomaly will retreat at the same speed, never allowing itself to be caught.  Countless men, from the days of droving in the late 1800's through to present-day truck drivers, have chased the light in the hopes of catching it - not one has been successful.

 The Min Min light, published on the 1st of  January 1944 in The Argus (Melbourne)

According to the "highly reliable" Wikipedia entry for the Min Min light, the mysterious oddity has apparently been sighted from Boulia in central Queensland, to areas as far south as Brewarrina in western New South Wales...needless to say, this clearly doesn't account for the myriad of reports of "phantom lights," usually termed Min Min lights, seen on the Nullarbor Plain anywhere between Norseman in Western Australia to Ceduna in South Australia.  During the week, we posted an historic newspaper article also dealing with "phantom lights" spotted in various locations around Australia, published in The Queenslander on the 30th of August 1934 - one set of mystery lights, spotted in the vicinity of Tinonee which lies just inland of Forster on the central coast of New South Wales, was known locally as "the ghost."  Another set of mystery lights, spotted on the Old Man Plain near Hay in south-western New South Wales, was referred to locally as the "ghostly coach," or "Phantom Mail."  I have many other historic records of similar light phenomena occurring in various locations throughout Queensland & New South Wales over the past 120 years, however one occurrence near Brisbane deserves our examination, as I have found no recent sources written on the, taking that into account, it seems worthy that we publicly document the phenomena right here for posterity!

Our story centres around the small township of Cooloolabin, just outside of Yandina in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.  These days, Cooloolabin is renowned for the Cooloolabin Dam, which supplies the Sunshine Coast with water, however back in the 1920's Cooloolabin was nothing more than a scattered assemblage of farming families & transient employees.  And in that decade, in the fading months of 1925, an unexplained phenomenon shared by numerous townships around Australia, entrenched itself.  According to the Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, published on the the 22nd of January 1926, "For some months past Cooloolabin residents have been greatly purturbed at the frequent appearance after night-fall of a mysterious-looking light on the top of a rise in an unfrequented spot about 300 yards from the School of Arts. The illumination, which is not visible every night, when it does show out, is early in the evening and steadily moving to and fro not unlike someone walking about with a hurricane lantern; it is visible in this fashion until towards morning, when it disappears. Residents on several occasions have visited the place when the light has been visible in an endeavour to probe the mystery, but without success, as it disappears at their approach, to shine out again when they retire from the scene. The theory that the variation in the darkness of the evenings may have something to do with the phenomenon is advanced by several residents, but this idea is discounted by the fact that it is in any sort of night, whether it be cloudy, raining or lit up by the rays of the moon. A big party is now being organised in an endeavour to probe the affair, which has caused the loss of more than one night's sleep to more timid residents."

Six weeks later, after the local residents of Cooloolabin had done all in their power to explain the phenomenon, including scouring the hill on which the "phantom light" appeared, a further article appeared in the Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, on the 19th of February 1926 - for all accounts, the residents felt that the paranormal light just beyond town had been solved:  "The origin of the mysterious light, which has been appearing at intervals at Cooloolabin was solved in a peculiar and rather amusing way recently.  It appears the illumination shown as usual on the night in question, when a resident armed with a military rifle aimed at it with very satisfactory results to the lamp, but not to the owner who was engaged in feeding the pigs on his farm, which is situated on another elevation beyond the rise where the light appeared.  It is not known yet who got the biggest fright - the wielder of the rifle, the owner of the lamp, or the pigs."  For a very short time, the mysterious Cooloolabin light was laid to rest at the muzzle of a sharp-shooter...but miraculously reappeared again soon after!  Had the pig farmer failed to learn his lesson on having a lantern explode, via bullet, in his hand?  Was a prankster to blame this time round, knowing a sharp-shooter lay in wait in the township capable of firing a round through any upheld light source?  Or was the Cooloolabin light back in all its glory, puzzling the farmers residing below the ridge??

Despite the risk of a sharp-shooter's bullet, the mystery light on the ridge above Coolloolabin continued...those brave enough to venture onto the ridge in the dark organised search parties, yet none managed to approach the light closely enough to identify its source.  This to-&-fro continued for some time, until the residents of Cooloolabin simply accepted the fact that something unexplained lived beyond their town border...& in that acceptance, they finally found comfort.  Three years later, in 1929, the township's acceptance of the anomaly was clear - on the 16th of March 1929, the Cooloolabin Tennis Club hosted a dance in the School of Arts building, which was well attended by local residents as well as those who had travelled from the nearby township of Yandina.  Numerous competitions were held during the night, & the subsequent prize-winners were rewarded...however, all attendees present were rewarded with a special prize - "During the proceedings the mysterious light that has been in evidence on various nights on a lonely ridge several hundred yards from the hall made its appearance, causing much interest to visitors, who naturally asked had any efforts been made to find out as to the cause of its existence.  Information was given by the residents in the affirmative.  After several hours of visibility the light faded out."  The Cooloolabin light was again at play in full view of neighbouring residents...& would continue agian into the late 1930's.

Further newspaper articles document the Cooloolabin light past 1938...however, the trail grows cold soon after.  With the advent of the Second World War in the early 1940's, numerous American Military contingents settled around Yandina, Ninderry & surrounds...on the eastern slopes of Mt Ninderry, trenches still exist as a part of the U.S. army's training...on the western side of Mt Ninderry, armoured divisions trained in "bush bashing," with live-fire exercises.  Much of the area was off-limits during the war years, as the surrounding bushland rang out with the sound of machine gun fire and tank shell bursts...& when the war was over and the troops had left, the Cooloolabin light had vanished from the spotlight all together.

So...was the Cooloolabin light a cleverly constructed hoax, perpetrated by the townsfolk, spread diligently over the space of a decade for no real reason??  Or was it a true-to-life anomaly, similar to that of the Min Min light, which puzzled a town for over a decade before being scared into the crevices of the hillside at the hands of the U.S. Forces during World War II...I'll leave it up to you to decide, but if you ever find yourself staying in Cooloolabin & notice an unexplainable light dancing on a nearby hillside - contact me!   

Monday, 18 June 2012

Convicts, Absconders & "Wild White Men" of Moreton Bay - Part III

James Duramboi Davis in his later years

Jumping off from our Part II article, whereby James Duramboi Davis found himself back in Brisbane Town & became involved in a number of amazing historic events with amazing historic figures, we finally follow into Part III of the story & our conclusion...

By the early 1850's, Davis had sold his blacksmith's shop at Kangaroo point, & had relocated to a new location in George Street in what is now Brisbane's CBD.  For the first decade, he again worked as a farrier (blacksmith), however by the 1860's had undergone a marked change in trade - to a china & glassware merchant!  Throughout this time, he was also employed by the Crown as an interpreter during court cases involving indigenous men...&, as a result, was involved in a number of sensational cases that rocked early Brisbane Town...although, at times his aid as interpreter was more of a demand than a paid occupation.  In 1851, Jemmy Parsons, alias Paddy, alias Mickaloi, an aboriginal man from the Wide Bay Region, was brought before the Courts for playing a part in the the murder of Mr Gregor & Mrs Shannon on the Pine River.  On asking to see Duramboi in his defence, whom he had known in the Wide Bay area, Davis was sought from his Blacksmith's shop to attend the case.  On arriving at the Court, when Mickaloi recognised Duramboi & began to converse with him, the Magistrate demanded that Davis provide interpreted evidence...Davis, in turn, demanded "expenses for attendance" - when this was not forthcoming from the Magistrate, Davis refused to interpret, for which he earned "twenty-four hours imprisonment, for contempt of Court."  Ultimately, Jemmy Parsons would get his reprieve & subsequent release, & James Duramboi Davis would go on to interpret again...this case was more the exception than the rule...

In June 1874, Davis was called to interpret during the case of aborigine "Johnny Brisbane," who was accused of murdering fellow aborigine "Captain King" at Yandina.  Over the course of the trial, Davis would withdraw his aid as interpreter, as "Johnny Brisbane" proved to be proficient in English. In 1879, Davis was called to interpret for aborigine "Captain Piper," for the murder of William Stevens at Mooloolah 13 years previously...the evidence put forward in the case was damning, however, the verdict was reserved from the public.  Davis stood in on a number of other major cases, however likely the most harrowing & disgusting was that of "The Fraser Island Girls" in 1859.  During that year, rumours spread through Brisbane Town that after the shipwreck of the Sea Belle off Fraser Island in 1857, a white woman had been spied living with an aboriginal tribe on the Island...furthermore, it was rumoured that she had mothered two fair-skinned girls whilst there.  The New South Wales Government immediately put up a reward of £100 to anyone who could find the girls, & £300 to anyone how could return them to Sydney.  A search party was immediately put together, commanded by a Captain Sawyer, & two young girls were snatched from the local tribe & returned to Sydney.  Duramboi Davis was immediately requested to travel to Sydney, for which he was paid £20, to give a report on their was discovered that the two kidnapped children were both wholly aboriginal & had nothing to do with the wreck of the Sea Belle...yet, no record exists of either child having been repatriated to their family on Fraser Island - they literally vanished into Sydney obscurity, & the whole affair was literally "swept under the carpet."

James Davis fronting his China & Glassware Store, c. 1872 (John Oxley Library) 

Sadly, by April 1889, it was quietly clear that James Duramboi Davis was suffering from terminal heart & lung disease.  Throughout the month, Dr Grant Furley had been attending to Davis at his cottage in Burnett Lane...Davis had been reduced to a weak, thin & feeble man confined to his bed.  Davis' condition remained somewhat stable until the 30th of April, when events spiralled further out of control.  At 5am, Potter Batson, who collected rents for Davis, called into the address at Burnett Lane to discuss matters - Davis was laying in bed, and, "appeared to be greatly agitated - he had had a bad night, and [Bridget, his wife] had been continually worrying him.  She was continually upbraiding him with not having given her more money."  Later in the day, Batson would again visit the house...however, this time around it would be for different reasons - on hearing some boys shouting up Burnett Lane, he ran to the Davis's cottage, where he saw James Davis laying on the floor beneath his wife.  Bridget Davis, quite drunk, had her husband's head in her hands, & was driving it repeatedly into the his feeble state, Davis was shouting, "For God's sake leave me alone; you will kill me."  Batson immediately dragged the intoxicated Bridget off her husband, amidst cries that, "he had no business to interfere between man & wife."  On being rescued, James asked Batson to, "carry me out, or get someone to carry me out, as I am afraid of my life."  Batson laid Davis in his bed & ran for further help, locating Henry Ogelthie nearby - the two returned to Davis' cottage to remove him to a safer location, only to find Bridget in the bedroom punching her husband repeatedly in the face.

All the while, whilst Davis was being removed, Bridget was protesting, "I want him to stay in his own house to die."  In consequence, he was hurriedly carried next door to the residence of tailor Gustav Faultz. The next day, on the 1st of May 1889, Constable Bailey visited Davis at Faultz's residence to take a statement...Davis was in a very weakened state, & had great difficulty in speaking, however managed to provide a statement.  Bruising was visible on Davis' arms & abdomen, & he had been coughing up fresh blood which had stained the bed sheets.  Dr Furley continued to visit daily, & recorded that Davis' injuries were due to direct violence...he continued to attend Davis as his condition deteriorated over the next seven days, until James Duramboi Davis finally slipped away on the 7th of May...having slipped into a comatose state during the night, the great man had perished early in the morning before his ever attentive Doctor had been able to visit.  The subsequent autopsy, conducted by Dr Furley, with the assistance of Dr Binden & in the presence of Constable Bailey, found that James Duramboi Davis suffered from extensive heart, lung, liver & kidney disease...however, the injuries Davis had received at the hands of his wife on the 30th of April, had strongly aided in the acceleration of his death.  As a result, Bridget Davis was brought to trial, on the charge of manslaughter....however, the trial would see its fair share of drama...

On the first day of the trial on the 6th of June 1889, after some evidence was given, Bridget Davis, "appeared to be in a very weak state and Mr. Pinnock [the Police Magistrate] said he did not care to go on with the case while she was in that state.  When spoken to she waved her hands about and muttered incoherently, and generally appeared to be in a half-conscious state."  As a result, the case was adjourned until Bridget was medically examined.  When it again proceeded on the 21st of June, further damning evidence was submitted, closing the case for the prosecution -  in light of the evidence put forth, Bridget claimed, "I am as innocent of that crime as you are."  Committed for trial before the Supreme Court, Bridget again appeared on the 26th of August...the evidence against her was again gone through, to which Bridget's defence chose not to call witnesses.  Instead, a statement was made directly to the jury that the evidence that had been put forward was insufficient to convict on the grounds of manslaughter - despite the repeated assaults witnessed by Batson & Ogelthie, & the damning testimony put forward by Dr Furley, Bridget's defence was of the opinion that Davis was nearing the end of his life anyway, & it was somewhat of a mute point to suggest that his wife had accelerated the process.   After an almost three hour deliberation, the jury returned with the stunning verdict of "not guilty!"

As the record stands, James Duramboi Davis was laid to rest on the 8th of May 1889, alongside his first wife Ann who had predeceased him 6 years previously almost to the day...both rest not far behind what is known as "The Grove" alongside 12th Avenue at Toowong Cemetery.  So, if ever you find yourself walking through Toowong, especially down 12th Avenue, think not of the ridiculously hair-brained stories of the "Angel of Death" or the "13th Avenue Vampire" peddled by Brisbane's "Muppet of the Macabre - Jack Sim"...ponder a while about the life & times of James Duramboi Davis, who played active witness to both the best & worst that Brisbane Town had to offer from 1828 to 1889...and single-handedly aided in created the amazing city in which we now live!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Convicts, Absconders & "Wild White Men" of Moreton Bay - Part II

The Haunts of Brisbane wishes to advise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors that this article contains images and names of deceased people.

 Wolston House at Wacol, c.1890 (State Library of Qld)

Jumping off from last night's Part I, whereby Duramboi was finally located by Andrew Petrie's exploratory party, we follow into Part II of the story...

After being allowed to briefly return to his tribe in order to say goodbye & promise his return, Davis also ensured that the amassing aboriginal warriors would not attack Petrie's party during the night - a single act that would stand him in exceptional stead upon his arrival back in Brisbane Town.  Andrew Petrie, however, still felt an attack during the night quite likely, & ordered his men to sleep in the whaleboat on the river...a precaution that was not necessary, "for not a native was seen or heard during the night."  On their return to Brisbane Town, Davis was granted his pardon by the Government, based on the likelihood that he had saved Andrew Petrie's (& extended party's) lives as a result of his final request to his tribe discouraging a revenge attack.  Both Bracewell & Davis were placed with Stephen Simpson, the recently acting Colonial Surgeon to the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement & current Crown Lands Commissioner for Moreton Bay, at Woogaroo (near Goodna)...early the next year, in 1843, Simpson would be replaced by John Clements Wickham, freeing up time for exploratory expeditions into the Bunya Mountains.  A few years later again, Simpson would purchase land at Woogaroo for a horse stud, to become known as Woogaroo Station - on this land, in 1852, one of Queensland's oldest still-surviving resdiences would be built - Wolston House.  Furthermore, in 1865 & only a few years before Simpson's death, his property would be transformed into the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum, which we now know as Wolston Park.

Unfortunately for David Bracewell, his return to European civilisation was short-lived - whilst felling trees with a logging party in 1844, he was fatally crushed by a falling trunk.  However, for James Duramboi Davis, his life would continue to cross paths with further amazing events as Brisbane Town's fortunes unfolded.  Shortly after his employment with Stephen Simpson, Davis accompanied Captain Joliffe, whom had been one of Andrew Petrie's party that fateful trip, back to the Wide Bay district to take up land - during Petrie's exploration of the north, Joliffe had accompanied the party in order to evaluate the northern regions for sheep & cattle grazing, on behalf of famous pastoralist & shipowner John Eales.  After a head station had been established at Tiaro, with two outlying stations at Gigoomgan and Owanyilla, Davis's previous employer Simpson paid a visit to inspect the progress as Crown Lands Commissioner.  After various small employment stints, Davis finally returned to Brisbane Town, where he settled at Kangaroo Point in the mid-1840's.  Opening a blacksmith's shop to service the growing region, utilising smithy's skills he'd learnt during childhood from his father, Davis married Annie Shea in November 1846.  Life back within western society was good, & his blacksmith business was trading extremely well...furthermore, Davis was still earning money on a random basis utilising the skills he'd learnt whilst moving amongst the northern tribes.

In the early days of 1848,  Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt sent specifically for Duramboi, to discuss his upcoming Swan River expedition from which the fated explorer & his party would never return.  On travelling out to Woogaroo, an area he knew well after having resided there for a short stint after being retuned from his tribe in 1842, Davis met with the famed explorer.  Disclosing important information necessary for approaching & conversing with aboriginal tribes along the way, he left Leichardt & his party to their final preparations.  Terribly, as any Australian history buff would know, Leichhardt & his party were last seen two months later on the Darling Downs...the exact location of the expedition's demise has never been located, although it is assumed that they likely came to grief in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia.  Ironically, after a number of failed search & rescue attempts had been made by men such as Hovenden Healy, who had been a part of Leichhardt's previously aborted Swan River expedition in 1847, Davis was again called upon in the early 1860's to not only provide valuable information as to Leichhardt's possible final location, but also to volunteer up to two years of his life to accompany the search party!  Whilst Davis was of the opinion that Leichhardt had likely fallen foul of the inland aborigines, he was only too happy to aid in the "rescue party"...however it was not to be.  To this day, the fate & whereabouts of Ludwig Leichhardt's missing party is still a complete mystery, & will continue to be debated by Australian historians.

The "Leichhardt Plate" held by the National Museum of Australia - the only extant relic located from Leichhardt's ill-fated 1848 expedition from Moreton Bay to the Swan River in Western Australia.

As an added aside to the story, which proves yet another fascinating facet to Davis' life, we also need to examine a previous amazing expedition of Leichhardt's.  In 1844, Leichhardt wholly funded an expedition to travel from Moreton Bay to Port Essington on the northern tip of the Northern Territory above current-day Darwin.  Considered a foolhardy mission, most Australians at the time supported Leichhardt's cause, however equally believed he would fail with tragic circumstances.  With Jimbour Station on the Darling Downs earmarked as the starting point for the expedition, Ludwig Leichhardt spent some time at Cecil Plains Station, & discussed his expedition at length with the owners Henry & Sydenham Russell.  Amazingly, the two brother had taken up the station in 1841, the year before Brisbane Town was opened for free settlement...more amazingly, one of the brothers, Henry Stuart Russell, had been a member of Andrew Petrie's expedition party to the Wide Bay region in 1842 - the very expedition that located Davis & returned him to Brisbane Town!  Henry Stuart Russell would go on to become one of the most important early historians of the Moreton Bay region, & would again mingle with James Duramboi Davis - on Davis' advice a few years later, Henry would take a lease & establish Burrandowan Station in the Wide Bay region, based on Davis' testimony that suitable grazing pastures existed in the locality.

Jumping back on track - after his meeting with Leichhardt in early 1848, Davis was yet again to play a major role in the history of Brisbane only a few months later, one fateful Sunday morning on the 26th of March 1848.  On that particular morning, he was roused from his Kangaroo Point blacksmith's shop in the hope his skills learnt amongst the aborigines could be of assistance again to the authorities - the body of a man named Robert Cox had been found butchered on the bank of the Brisbane River very close by, & the authorities were at a loss to explain the circumstances.  Having arrived at the site of the Bush Inn, Davis surveyed the scene of the crime & final location of the body...from the riverbank, he successfully tracked marks of blood into thick grass nearby but lost the trail.  On spying some aborigines standing nearby, Davis requested their help - an ability likely only possible to Davis on that morning, given his indigenous linguistic skills - & the team managed to follow the blood trail to the back fence of the Bush Inn, where a large quantity of blood was discovered.   As a result, Davis provided testimony regarding his findings at the initial hearing into the death of Robert Cox, for which William Fyfe would finally hang in Sydney for the murder...& to which Patrick Mayne would supposedly confess nearly twenty years later on his deathbed.  In recent years, the topic of Robert Cox's murder is still being healthily debated...little credence is paid to Duramboi's connection to the case - yet another historic event of Brisbane, in which this amazing man played an amazing part.

Jumping back to Davis' offer to aid in the search of Leichhardt, an amazing recollection was published in The Brisbane Courier on the 3rd of June 1889, not long after the great man's death.  Penned by S. G. Mee, the article discussed, amongst other things, the discussions about the rescue attempt that the author had with Davis in the early 1860's.  The article ended with an absolutely amazing personal account, that truly aids in appreciating the dignity, complexity & intelligence of James Duramboi Davis: "Before concluding, I cannot omit to mention one little incident that occurred during my second interview with Mr. Davis.  I found him, on this occasion, industriously painting his cottage in Burnett-lane.  At the time we were conversing there strode - or rather rolled - up to us a gentleman (at least he was in the garb of one), who, without the aid of any fictitious rouge - so rubicund was he - would have furnished a telling "frightful example" for Mr. Warner in the cabaret scene in the play of "Drink."  Davis politely requested the obtrusive stranger to retire and leave us to ourselves, as we wished to converse.  To this he strenuously objected.  "How dare you," he fiercely demanded, looking daggers at Duramboi - "how dare you dic - dictate to me!  You, a fellow who has been fourteen years with the savages!"  Davis, looking his gross insulter full in the face, with a quiet dignity I shall never forget, thus retorted:- "What you say, sir, is perfectly true; I was fourteen years with those you call savages; but I can assure you that during the whole of that time I never set eyes on so complete and so degraded a savage as you are at the present moment!"  The rebuke acted like a bomb.  The astounded and discomfited "pot-theist," with a muttered curse, instantly staggered off, leaving us to pursue our colloquy in peace."

Continue to Part III...

Friday, 15 June 2012

Convicts, Absconders & "Wild White Men" of Moreton Bay - Part I

The Haunts of Brisbane wishes to advise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors that this article contains images and names of deceased people.

 Scene on the Mary River, c. 1868 (State Library of Qld)
This week, as part of our "Forgotten Brisbane" trilogy, we promised a yowie story...however, after painstakingly searching for historic accounts of "yowies" around Brisbane (Mt Coot-tha, Mt Glorious, Mt Mee, Mt Tamborine, Beerburrum etc, etc), we came to the conclusion that local "yowie" sightings seem to be a fairly recent phenomena.  However...let's for a minute chase the topic of the "wild man" (as "yowies" or "yahoos" were known in Australia's early days), in the hope of locating an even more amazing story relating to our "Forgotten Brisbane" theme...

Over the past week, we posted two historic articles reporting on "wild men" of the Australian bush, on the Haunts of Brisbane Facebook page - one from Victoria in 1886, & one from New South Wales in 1872.  Whilst these little snippets allude to early accounts of the "yowie" or "yahoo" in Australia, a much earlier & more detailed account exists in an issue of The Moreton Bay Courier on the 28th of August 1847, in which a segment of George Henry Haydon's work of  Five Years' Experience in Australia Felix is re-published:

"A creature described by the natives as something very similar to an ourang-outang is supposed by many colonists to exist in the mountain ranges at the back of Western Port, but their ideas of it are mixed up with such a superstitious dread as to induce many to consider it only in the light of an imaginary being, created by their own fears, or by interested parties amongst themselves; but the fact of some strange and peculiar tracts having been noticed in the ranges, recorded in the Port Philip papers at the time they were discovered, and many other circumstances, seem to indicate that there is some animal resident there which has not yet been seen by a white man; and from the position of this tract of country, being quite out of any road pursued by European travellers, it is very possible such a thing may exist.  An account of this animal was given me by Worrougetolon, a native of the Woeworong tribe, in nearly the following words:- "He is as big as a man and shaped like him in every respect, and is covered in stiff bristly hair, except about the face, which is like an old man's full of wrinkles; he has long toes & fingers, and piles up stones to protect him from the wind or rain, and usually walks about with a stick, and climbs trees with great facility; the whole of his body is hard and sinewy, like wood to the touch." Worrongby also told me, "that many years since, some of these creatures attacked a camp of natives in the mountains, and carried away some women and children, since which period they have had a great dread of moving about there after sunset."  The only person now alive who killed one, he informed me, was Carbora, a great doctor, who had succeeded in striking one in the eye with his tomahawk.  On no other part of his body was he able to make the least impression.

All this might be very true when it is considered that, in the time before the white people came, their golboranarrook, or stone tomahawk, was not by any means a sharp weapon.  The body of the South American sloth is to the touch as hard as wood, and I question much if a tomahawk such as I have seen used makes any impression on its thick skin.  On one occasion, when pheasant shooting, about three days' journey in the mountains, in company with two natives and a white man, we constructed a bark hut, and had retired to repose, when, shortly afterwards, I was startled by a most peculiar cry, very different from any of the other noises which are heard from the wild animals inhabiting these ranges.  I should have previously mentioned, that the blacks, after the fatigues of the day, had very soon fallen asleep; but, on the noise rousing them they both started up, and seized their guns with the utmost horror depicted on their countenances.  Not a word escaped them, and the mysterious sound still echoed amongst the hills.  On my asking one, in rather a loud voice, what he was frightened at, he desired me not to speak loud; that the shouts that had aroused them proceeded from a bundyilcarno, or devil, which is the name they have given this thing.  The noise shortly died away in the distance, and I once more endeavoured to sleep.  Neither of my natives would lie down for the night, and as soon as day dawned, they insisted on leaving the scene of this strange occurrence, and going to some distant part."

So, how do the above stories of "wild men" & aboriginal tales relate to Brisbane's history??  For that, we need to travel back even further again, to a time of penal servitude & an overuse of the lash for even the pettiest of offences...the story, which we'll walk through in three parts over the coming nights, will likely amaze you!

Our story begins on the solemn date of the 19th of July 1824, on which day a Scottish teenager was convicted of theft at the Surrey Assizes in England...his crime - the theft of 2s. 6d. from a church donation box.  For his crime, James Davis was sentenced to seven years transportation to the outlying colony of Australia.  Arriving in New South Wales in 1825 aboard the Norfolk, Davis was again charged with theft three years later...a serious secondary crime which saw him transported to the fledgling Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, which at the time was under the control of notorious Commandant Patrick Logan.  Within six weeks of his arrival at Moreton Bay, Davis quickly realised that he would need to take drastic action if he was to survive - as he would explain many years later, members of his chain gang were cutting other convicts' throats & bashing each other on the head with stones in order to earn a one-way ticket to Sydney & the gallows...such were the hardships & depredations of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, that a hangman's noose was a preferable alternative to hard labour.  During a moment of inattention, Davis made good his escape in league with another convict, & both headed north.  Amazingly, after some time on the run, the pair fell in with the Kabi Kabi aboriginal tribe...even more amazingly, the Kabi Kabi Chief, Pambi Pambi, immediately believed that Davis was the reincarnated spirit of his deceased warrior son Duramboi.  On the back of this freak case of mistaken identity, Davis was accepted into the tribe & offered protection...unfortunately, his travelling partner was not so lucky, speared shortly afterwards as a result of inadvertently breaching the tribe's most sacred burial customs.

The rest, as they say, was history for almost 14 years...

Jump forward to 1842...the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement days had finally come to a close, & Brisbane Town's days as a free settlement were in their absolute infancy.  Over the duration of the previous few years, the regions directly west of Brisbane had been roughly explored, however, the areas to the north were a complete mystery...& it was within those mysterious, uncharted areas that a select few lucky convict escapees, like James Davis, still roamed with their adoptive aboriginal families.  Having heard rumours of such "wild white men" & the potential knowledge they might possess of the land, one of Brisbane's most influential founding fathers, Andrew Petrie, was very keen to head north.  Having come into information that a "wild white man" resided in the area to the north of Brisbane Town, going by the Aboriginal name of Wandi, Petrie sought this man every likelihood, it was surmised that he was David Bracewell - an English convict that had seen transportation to Australia for assault with intent to rob.  Having originally arrived at Hobart Town, Bracewell was soon transferred to Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  Absconding for brief periods on a number of occasions, for which he was heavily punished with the lash, Bracewell made good on a lengthy escape in 1829 and took up residence with an aboriginal tribe north of current Brisbane.  However, having been located & repatriated back to Moreton Bay in 1837, he again fled north in 1839 under fear of being transferred to Norfolk Island.  After some troubles, Petrie finally managed to locate Bracewell near Noosa, & convinced him to aid in their exploration of the north.

Andrew Petrie, c. 1850's (John Oxley Library)

After heading further north & scouting around Fraser Island in the hope of making contact with local aborigines capable of divulging valuable clues as to a river located on the nearby mainland, with Bracewell in tow as interpreter, the party finally located the mouth of the waterway...originally named Wide Bay River, the tributary would eventually be named the Mary River in 1847 after Mary, the wife of New South Wales Governor Charles Augustus Fitzroy.  Petrie & a small group of men took to a whaleboat & made their way up the river, spending a number of days exploring its reaches until finally being brought to a standstill by rocks.  Keen to gain further information as to the surrounding landscape, Petrie sent Bracewell out on a number of scouting missions - it was hoped the recently recruited interpreter might be able to make contact with local tribes in the area.  However, Bracewell returned in the evening with some alarming news - just over a kilometre from Petrie's position, a large number of aboriginal men from several tribes were camped.  A small party including Petrie cautiously returned to the site of the large gathering, whereby Bracewell made himself known by shouting Wandi! - his aboriginal name - into the crowd, causing panic & a show of spears.  Immediately, a tall man rose to his feet & ran towards Petrie's party from the other side of the camp, & Bracewell stood amazed...before him stood a man he'd spent time with over a decade beforehand at the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, & had not seen since - James Davis.  After almost 14 years travelling with his adoptive tribe, Davis had finally come in contact with the European world.

At first, Davis - or Duramboi as he was known to his tribe - was furious with Bracewell...he felt an instant fear that his fellow "wild white man" had purposefully lead the Constabulary to his position to remove him back to the tyranny he'd experienced at Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  After much negotiating on Andrew Petrie's behalf, via Bracewell, Davis was convinced that Brisbane Town's convict days were over, & he'd face no further repercussions for his absconding.  After promising his tribe he would return, a pact he would never fulfil, Duramboi (James Davis) made his way back to Brisbane Town with Wandi (David Bracewell) & Andrew Petrie. In his diary of the expedition, Andrew Petrie described the event, "I shall never forget his [Duramboi's] appearance when he arrived in our camp – a white man in a state of nudity, and actually a wild man of the woods; his eyes wild and unable to rest a moment on any one object. He had quite the same manner and gestures that the wildest blacks have got. He could not speak his ‘mither’s tongue,’ as he called it. He could not pronounce English for some time, and when he did attempt it, all he could say was a few words, and those were often misapplied, breaking off abruptly in the middle of a sentence with the black gibberish, which he spoke very fluently. During the whole of our conversation his eyes and manner were completely wild, looking at us as if he had never seen a white man before. In fact, he told us he had forgotten all about the society of white men, and had forgotten all about his friends and relations for years past, and had I or someone else not brought him from among those savages he would never have left them."

Continue to Part II...