Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880 (SLQ)
Thomas Harris, master of the schooner Douglas set sail from Trinity Bay in Queensland for Dunk Island in early January 1877. With ten crew aboard, their ultimate destination was the Coral Sea guano island of Chilcot owned by Beaver & Co, also the owners of the Douglas. The seeds of future trouble were sown the morning after they reached the island:
… two canoes came off, each having a native on board ; they came on board my ship voluntarily’; I gave them tobacco and other things ; I also gave them to understand that they could come with the ship for eighteen months if they liked ; they said “ budgerrie,” and three days after, just when we were getting underway, four natives came off (the two who had previously visited the ship, and two others); three of them were allowed to come on board ; the other one I refused to take with us on account of his treacherous looks…
Harris and the Douglas were engaged in ‘blackbirding’, the then-legal procurement of black labour, including Aborigines, from Pacific islands to work the sugar cane fields of colonial Queensland. He provided the details to the magisterial inquiry established to get the facts of the ‘massacre’, as the press termed the murders:
there was a license authority sent on board the ship at Melbourne, authorising me to recruit native black labour on certain islands in the South Pacific, or from the main land, for a period of twelve months, to be engaged in beche-de-mer fishing, or procuring guano. Natives so engaged were not to exceed twenty in number …
What happened when they arrived at Chilcot was recounted by Harris in his evidence:
… at night two of the men (Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh) were left to sleep on the island, two of the blacks remaining with them; the men had no arms save half-axes, which they were cautioned to be careful not to leave in the way of the blacks…
They all turned in for the night. Everyone was tired and with the boat a kilometer or more from land Harris did not consider there was any need to set watch. But:
about midnight, while the mate and I were asleep on the “lockers,” we were awoke by a cry of “Save me, they are murdering me.” I said to the mate, “For God’s sake, get up.” He rushed out and I followed. The mate went by the port side, and when I reached the deck I met one of the hands (James Purcell), all cut and bleeding. I told him to go down into the cabin. He went down but seemed half stupid. I next saw a black following the mate with a raised axe. I sang out to him and he turned round and struck at my head, severely wounding my hand, raised to guard my head. I immediately closed with him to take the foe, but could not succeed. So I made for the cabin where I found Purcell lying in a pool of blood and moaning very much. The boy was also there. I tried to load a revolver, but could not on account of the wound on my hand.
By now their assailants were trying to smash in the skylight glass using lumps of coal and oars. Harris managed to load his revolver and got off a few shots. The attackers were now in full possession of the dock, ‘cutting and hacking everything with the axes they had.’
about fifteen minutes to 5 o’clock a.m. heard a blackfellow’s voice, and immediately afterwards the steward tumbled down into the cabin, wounded. I gave him a revolver, and told him to fire at the black stationed at the skylight. He fired and I believe hit the black, but did not kill him. He ran up on deck and put another shot into him, which killed him.
Harris heard one of the crew forrard cry out: ‘One of the blacks is overboard’. He looked through a porthole and saw a man swimming:
I told the steward to fire at him, which he did, but cannot say whether the fugitive was hit. I saw him land on a rock, and sent the boy to the maintop to watch his movements. Next saw a sea take him off the rock. Never saw him again, believe he was drowned.
On looking around saw two blacks dead and ordered the bodies to be thrown overboard. Also saw the body of Patrick Troy, greatly mutilated. On mustering crew, found the others badly wounded, the mate and steward only being unhurt. I sent them away in a boat to the island to see how matters stood there. When they returned, they reported that the two men, Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh, had been murdered in the hut. The mate stated that the bodies wore much cut about the head and that decomposition was fast setting in. But before sending the boat away again, I ordered the body of Patrick Troy to be wrapped up in his blankets and taken on shore to be buried with the others. The murders were no doubt perpetrated with the half-axes. Those now produced are the weapons mentioned.
The exact truth behind these grim events will never be known but it seems clear that the Aboriginal men taken aboard at Dunk Island were either tricked or forced into accompanying the crew. This was the era in which the kidnapping of indigenous people for labour was legal. Most were ‘kanakas’ from the South Pacific islands. Known colloquially as ‘sugar slaves’, it is thought that around 60 000 were forced or cajoled to work mainly in the Queensland sugarcane industry where they were often badly treated and poorly paid. The trade began in the 1860s and lasted until 1904 when those who had been indentured and their descendants were deported in accordance with the Commonwealth of Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act (the ‘White Australia Policy’). But several thousand islanders remained in Australia, forming the basis of a descendant population now numbering 20 000 or more who live mainly in North Queensland.