CairnsBlog brings you our weekly column, History Bites, a series of historical vignettes, pertinent to our unique and special region.
Produced by Dr Timothy Bottoms, a published and widely respected historian based in Cairns, North Queensland. He has spent ten years researching and writing City of the South Pacific, A History of Cairns.
Dr Bottoms is a specialist in Aboriginal and North Queensland history and has wide experience in writing, producing and presenting radio documentaries and music biographies.
In 1870 the telegraph was extended to Cardwell, 50 kilometres east of the newly found Etheridge goldfield. This enabled more effective communication with the south and helped in relaying the news of the wreck of the Maria on Bramble Reef, east of Hinchinbrook Island on 26 February 1872 to Brisbane and Sydney. The subsequent search party was sent from Sydney on the Governor Blackhall.
There were 75 men on board the brig Maria, bound for New Guinea. From the wreck, thirteen men were on a large raft, twelve on a small raft and an unknown number on two of the ship's boats, one of which carried the Captain. Loos lists fourteen of the survivors as having been killed by the Bama. Two survivors from the ship's boats made their way to Cardwell and raised the alarm. They had been attacked near Tam O'Shanter Point and had seen the Captain and one other killed. These were probably the Dyirbal speaking Djiru.
To the north, the larger raft grounded between the Johnstone River and Cooper Point. Five drowned and the remaining eight were aided by presumably members of the Wanjuru. The second, smaller raft, with twelve originally on board, came ashore to the south of the Johnstone River, in Dyirbal speaking, Mamu territory. It is not known how many drowned, but six bodies were found, and it was dramatically claimed that "all but one have been most barbarously murdered by the blacks".
One unfortunate ramification of this tragedy was that the indigenous inhabitants were cast in a negative light, despite reports to the contrary by one group of survivors that “the little fellows were very good to us, generally bringing us half of what they had.” Thus, while some of the survivors were helped by a local clan near Cooper Point, others appear to have breached etiquette with a people of a different clan further south and were killed.
A retribution party set off from Cardwell and massacred many Djirru people, on the coast opposite Dunk Island. Captain Morseby of HMS Basilisk found his involvement in this affair, even as carrier of the mercenaries, particularly distasteful when he wrote that “several unfortunate blacks were shot down by the native troopers, who showed an unrestrained ferocity that disgusted our [Royal Navy] officers”.
Charles Heydon who was on the Governor Blackhall “had opportunities of becoming acquainted with the state of public opinion in North Queensland with regard to blacks. I heard white men talk openly of the share they had taken in slaughtering whole camps, not only of men, but women and children.”