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...


  1. First ever sighting reported of Yowies was back in 1795, of a 12ft Yowie near Sydney Cove. The aboriginals told the European settlers of the Yowies, and many settlers had encounters in the 1800's.

    1. There are no historical references to that 1795 Yowie sighting. It is likely to have been made up by Rex Gilroy in 1976...