The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

Rough Men in Small Boats

Rough men in small boats. The trade in fur-seal pelts left an indelible mark on early European settlement along Australia's Southern Ocean littoral. Albany was no different. Noongar men between Cape Arid and King George's Sound were tricked, their women kidnapped and abused.
Rough men in small boats. The trade in fur-seal pelts left an indelible mark on early European settlement along Australia’s Southern Ocean littoral. Albany was no different. Noongar men between Cape Arid and King George’s Sound were tricked, their women kidnapped and abused.

Originally Published 7 April 2014:

So, it was the great French and British maritime explorers who gave name to most of the coastal sites we are concerned with and recognise today.  I’m going to stay with the foreign influence as the trade in fur-seal pelts is largely about that, but first want to establish a contrast which is and will remain consistent throughout this series of posts.

Consider the primary places of recognition along the South Coast in a macro sense; King George’s Sound, Cape Riche, Doubtful Island Bay and the Recherche Archipelago, including Cape Legrand, Cape Arid and Middle Island. There are just a handful of European names really and on any coastal map today they still make the primary points of bearing. There are more European names, of course, but these were applied during the settlement period from 1840 onwards. Most when E.J Eyre, J.S. Roe and J. Forrest made their explorations, others from more local pastoral endeavours over roughly the same time. On a micro level, however, along the same approximate 500 mile length of coast, the opposite occurs. On a micro level there are literally hundreds of Aboriginal place names. They range inland but we can draw points of delimitation for our own purposes running west to east at Kendenup/Eticup, Gnowangerup, Jerramungup, Cocanarup, Mandurbanup, Condingup and Balbinya. Many of these names are Anglicised to some degree or another; that is, they are no longer recognised in their original Aboriginal form, but they represent the native presence and were all in existence by way of living knowledge (memory) long before any map or chart was ever made.

Noongar Gonwana overview-map-large
This map is taken from the Gondwana Link project. It features a small area inland from Cape Riche. The idea is to illustrate the great many Noongar names given to very localised areas that exist right through the South West of W.A.

That thought in place, we can now go back to the foreigners and introduce the American connection.  The point at which we begin is the so-called French and Indian War of the 1750’s as this is when France and Britain started a period of conflict that persisted throughout Captain Cook’s exploration of the South Pacific and the subsequent beginning of colonisation at Botany Bay, right through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. During this time the American War of Independence was fought and the business of slavery became fractious between the pro Southern States and the less convinced others.  In the meantime, control of the lucrative fur trade passed from the inland territories of New France into the hands of the coastal colonies of New England whose attitudes toward slavery were becoming more liberal.  The heavily populated New England colonies developed a powerful commercial relationship with the sea, primarily out of Boston, and it was from there the Americans first launched themselves upon the trade in fur-seal skins and then, as technology demanded, oil extracted from the blubber of whales.

Cook's journal highlighted the potential of the fur seal trade to American shipowners based in New England.
Cook’s journal highlighted the potential of the fur seal trade to American shipowners based in New England.

It was the journal of Captain Cook which first pointed out the value of fur-seals pelts and the Americans, especially in the wake of their independence and feverish with the need for economic prosperity, set about it with genuine zeal. The trade was to be had with China and the skins, at the time, were valued at around, ‘a buck a piece’. The American’s started cleaning out the sealing grounds of the Antarctic in 1775 and by 1790 were hitting upon New Zealand. From there they progressed into Bass Strait, from there on to Kangaroo Island (Off Encounter Bay) and ever westward across The Great Australian Bight until, around the time King and Roe first made their way to King George’s Sound, they reached the Recherche Archipelago to set up on Middle Island, the largest and most accommodating of the group.

These commercial ships operated in stark contrast to the limited, organised and deliberate drawing up of the Antipodes by the British and French colonial administrators. When they came they more or less swarmed, holding little regard for anything but raw commercial purpose.

King George’s Sound represents the western extremity of the entire southern Australian coastline; Bass Strait, the eastern extremity. Because of the (comparatively) advanced colonial presence on the eastern seaboard and because the Americans came from the east and because there were more seals there than anywhere else, it was Bass Strait which copped the full brunt of the intensive fifteen year slaughter.  The experience at our end of the line is a late and isolated account of a tumultuous period of rough and dangerous living which went on to a far greater degree over there, but none-the-less left an indelible impression upon our own settlement.

King Georges Sound represents the western extremity of the Southern Australian littoral, Bass Strait the Eastern extremity. The map is cut from Louis de Freycinet's first ever published Map of Australia, 1811
King Georges Sound represents the western extremity of the Southern Australian littoral, Bass Strait the Eastern extremity. The map is cut from Louis de Freycinet’s first ever published Map of Australia, 1811

The employees of the sealing vessels did not enjoy the Health and Safety protections we do today, nor the guarantee of payment for hours worked.  The crews, typically six to eight in number, were dropped off by their mother ships in small whaleboats, seven-seater skiffs which could be rowed or sailed, at island locations with limited provisions on the promise they would be recovered in a number of months time. Their job was to go amongst the seals, slaughter them, skin them, salt the skins for preservation and then wait to be picked up. The mother ships, often supplementing their sealing excursions with trade cargos would then set sail for places as far afield as Mauritius before returning. Some, never returned at all.

From Evanescence;

The gang sailed in four tiny boats. As the islands came into view their seaward aspect appeared a mass of bare grey rock glinting in the midday sun, and the sealers felt deflated. But they heard the steerer, Bailey, shout, ‘Look again, lads,’ as they neared, and the rocks at once came alive. A heaving mass of panting animals, slow and clumsy, lay basking in the late summer heat.”

Dan Cerchi, researching his ancestor, George Robinson, who is directly connected to the story of the abandoned sealers at King George’s Sound through his owning of the ship Hunter, tells the story of his 3 times great-grandfather leaving the American sealing brig, General Gates in 1822. .  .  “George left the ship at Hobart Town, taking as payment 1 Spanish Dollar and 10 gallons of rum for more than 4 years brutal, grisly, work and near complete isolation.”

The men who undertook to do this kind of work came from poor and often troubled backgrounds. The American crews were made up of young white men of poor means, free blacks, mulattos, escaping slaves and other unattached men of mixed global origin. As the industry boomed in Bass Strait during the first decade of the 1800’s other men made their way there, either from Hobart town or on ships based in Sydney. Some of these men, if not many, were escaping convicts, mixed-race outcasts and other general misfits.

N.J.B. Plomley, the Australian historian who wrote ‘Friendly Mission’, the seminal work on the activities of George Augustus Robinson (not Dan Cerchi’s ancestor), which tells an incredible story about the impact of colonisation on the indigenous people of Tasmania, also drew attention to the nature of the sealing industry based there during that time.

He (Plomley) wrote of the lawlessness and the number of escaped convicts on Bass Strait. “…and the straits became not only the home of men who disliked the confines of government, but also there came many who, having escaped from the law, were bent on joining a ship to put themselves quite out of its reach.

For an insight into the kind life lived by those in the early sealing industry, take time to read about the extraordinary exploits of Joseph Murrell, which you can find here:

Postscript 12 April 2016: For a comprehensive look at the business of sealing and the lives of those who impacted the South Coast read Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection – Part 3.

The 1814 William Westall painting, View on the Northside of Kangaroo Island. The scene features seals and kangaroos. Westall also sketched a Cape Arid view from Middle Island.
The 1814 William Westall painting, View on the Northside of Kangaroo Island. The scene features seals and kangaroos. Westall also sketched a Cape Arid view from Middle Island.

These men, for want of willing female company, sometimes traded for them with Aboriginal leaders on the mainland. When this didn’t serve them they made raids, captured whoever they could and brought them along with them.  Over time, Kangaroo Island became something of a settlement for the sealers and their stolen women and it is from there, most likely, the crowded little whaleboat which made its way up to the Astrolabe off Breaksea Island in October 1826, got its female contingent.

From the Sydney Gazette, 1st of July 1826, (originally printed in the Hobart Town Gazette”


. . . This, as well as every other labour, is performed by the native women, whom these unprincipled men carry off from the main, and compel to hunt, work, and fish, and do every other menial service, while they themselves sit on the beach, smoke, drink, and sleep by turns, occasionally perhaps rowing to kill a young seal while basking on the sunny beach. This food, though far from palatable, is all that their indolence will in general allow them to procure, and they sometimes salt it down for future store. It is much to be lamented that so debased a specimen of the Christian race as these men, should be the first to give an impression to the natives, who are there very numerous, and of a superior cast to those here and at Sydney.

From the work done by Dan Cerchi and other sources we now know who was in the whalers (whaleboats) that came alongside the Astrolabe and that later came into the military compound Major Edmund Lockyer established in the large harbour at the foot of Mount Clarence. They were. . .

From the Hunter

William Bundy, Boatsteerer

James Everett, Steersman

Thomas Toolen, Seaman

Robert Williams, a Black man

Pidgeon, a Sydney Black

Richard Symonds, coloured American, from Canada

James Leadenhall

John Smidmore

Edward Edwards, Native boy

Harry, belonging to mainland opposite Kangaroo Island

Mooney, a native woman of Van Diemen’s Land

From the Governor Brisbane

George Thomas, Boatsteerer

John Randall, Steersman

John Hobson, Seaman

Thomas Tasmein, a Black Man

William Hook, a New Zealander




George Magennis or Machaness,

John Sigsworth

Samuel Bailey,

Sally, a native woman of the mainland opposite Kangaroo Island

Dinah, a native woman of Van Diemen’s Land

Girl child, native of the mainland off Middle Island, Recherche Archipelago

Of the North American men in these crews Robert Williams, Richard Symonds and Thomas Tasmein were all of Negro or partial Negro heritage. William Hook was Maori. Dinah and Mooney were Palawah, native women from Tasmania. Sally and Harry were native to Cape Jervis, the mainland opposite Kangaroo Island. Edward Edwards (Ned Tomlins) is thought to have been around 13 years old and related to either Dinah or Mooney. His father may have been Samuel Tomlins who drowned at Kangaroo Island sometime before his mother, Bulra, was traded back to Bass Strait (Plomley and Henley 1990:103).  Pidgeon was native to the Port Jackson (Sydney) area. The rest of the men were European; either English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origin.The girl child was eight or nine years old, what language she knew was probably Ngadju, different to that spoken by other coastal Noongars between Albany and Israelite Bay.

Going to back to my first reading of D.A.P.West’s little book, ‘The Settlement On The Sound’, the most compelling story in the early pages belongs to the fate of the little girl who was taken from Middle Island and held by the sealer Samuel Bailey. In an age where we have never been more concerned with the deeds of paedophiles, Samuel Bailey represents a 19th Century version at large in an unchecked place. Even Dunstan West’s few paragraphs were enough for me to draw breath at the appalling cruelty of what looked to have taken place.

As many who know even the smallest amount about the arrival of the Amity at King George’s Sound on Christmas Day 1826, the story of native conflict with the landing party looms large.  The Amity’s blacksmith, Dineen, took three spears because of the actions of the sealing gang between the time d’Urville and the Astrolabe left and the navy arrived. The heart of it lay in the influence of one man in particular; Samuel Bailey.

Green Island, Oyster Harbour
Green Island at Oyster Harbour. The sealer’s attempt to maroon Noongar men here took a turn for the worse when one was shot dead in a moment of panic. The surviving men were then sailed to Michaelmas Island to prevent any chance of escape. Lockyer’s ship, Amity just happened to sail by soon after.

Lockyer discovered the sealers had staged a raid on a Noongar family at Oyster Harbour. They tried to marooon the men on Green Island while they carried off four of their women. Two escaped and nothing is known of the fate of the third. The fourth survived and was later rescued. Things went wrong during the raid and one of the Noongar men was shot dead. The sealers then thought Green Island was too close so sailed the remaining men out to Michaelmas Island in the sound and left them there. The Noongar men lit a fire to signal the mainland. Lockyer’s crew saw the smoke as the Amity by chance sailed by. Lockyer investigated and had the men rescued the next day, after which his blacksmith, Dineen, was speared in a so-called ‘payback’ attack.

Eclipse Island off Vancouver Peninsula at Albany
Eclipse Island off Vancouver Peninsula at Albany

Major Lockyer figured something was wrong so didn’t respond in kind. A little later some of the sealers, desperate to get back to some kind of civilisation, came in to the military camp and told the story. Lockyer sent a boat to Eclipse Island, the rock ocean side of Vancouver Peninsula, where he found Samuel Bailey in company of one of the Menang women from Oyster Harbour (badly beaten) and the little girl from Middle Island, who he called Fanny..

I was appalled by Bailey, as most people who come to know the story are. I didn’t want to write about him in particular but my fiction has always been informed by a curiosity surrounding the sexually motivated acts of men and their often contrasting sense of morality. Almost all the stories in OUTDONE carry this theme.

In Evanescence I use Samuel Bailey as a moral-less man. At least he is consistent like that. He knows he is bad and makes no attempt to disguise it, from himself or anybody else in his company. I invent two other characters, one we don’t get to know much about, the other we learn comes from an abusive and deprived background. He wasn’t moral-less, just unable to know what to do and being a young man looked upon the capture of a native woman (or girl) in the context of his predicament as something quite acceptable.

Each of them fancied their time with the girl from the moment he’d brought her into camp, but there was a difference between fancying and actually going about it. Not that anyone else was allowed to, of course. She was Bailey’s captive, and Bailey’s alone. Some were so lustful they could not see beyond the imaginings of being in possession of such a prize. To others though, the sight of a man in his thirties with a rag in one hand and the wrist of an eight year old girl in the other was sufficiently distasteful to turn their humour.”

What I did want to do was explore the world of that gang, so I imagined a scene east of King George’s Sound where a similar attempt to raid a native camp had gone wrong. I didn’t want to just recount the already much written about events at Oyster Harbour which Lockyer came to learn about when the sealers eventually came in to seek refuge. The little girl Lockyer called Fanny had been taken from Cape Arid, the mainland off Middle Island, most likely from a known Aboriginal camp around the mouth of the later named Thomas River. We know the gang began their operations there, moving west over the seven month period to at least King George’s Sound. I wondered, had they tried again before the Oyster Harbour raid, at another location? And I wondered, what would have happened if it was the sealers who came off second best?

Again from Evanescence. . .

Getting into the boat before the tar babies got nearer was more important than standing there looking at his arm, and it didn’t stop Gareth pulling on his oar either, getting the hell out of there before the spears came raining down. Anything was better than looking up to see a quivering skewer in the air, not being able to get out of the way and finding it stick you like a pig. The way Johnson got it.

They were as far as the headland before Gareth let go, sat back with the rest of them and saw that they were safe. Bailey whooped. Yoo-hooo-eee! Gareth looked at his arm. A long even slice ran from elbow to wrist. He knew it was bad. She had sliced nerves, sent his bones humming, his ears ringing.


Gareth turned, looked down at the legs and seat of his mate. Saw a pool of runny excrement about his arse, blood streaked shit and piss dripping off the seat. He raised his view, Johnson was still holding the stick in his side, all that blood running down from there. Gareth looked up some more, saw his mate Johnson’s eye balls rolled up and back, his mouth open, a small round hole in that long black beard. Still as a statue, dead as a door nail.”

Evanescence was also my first attempt to play Aboriginal. They warn against it in all the literature reviews. An author putting himself in the place of ‘the other’ doesn’t work. Because he is not ‘the other’ how can his characters be? Even the attempt cannot be taken seriously.  But these are stories with a story to tell and in writing them I felt it was necessary to try and get into the minds of ‘the other’ for no other purpose than trying to create a more complete offering.

In Part 2 of this entry I’ll introduce the Aboriginal characters I’ve chosen to represent and explain who they are and why they are included. It is also important at this juncture to throw open the potential controversy here. As I have chosen to write historical stories based on the deeds of actual characters who lived and died over a hundred years ago (as far as is practical in story telling), I could not do it using the Europeans without also using Noongar identities.

One of my intentions behind this project was to use true stories –an actual history- in order to get people thinking about what happened, so that there could be a revision. The first of many that must necessarily take place if the South Coast is to truly be cognizant of where it came from and what it did to get to where it is today. We are not talking about global politics here, but we are talking about a place with a history important to itself.

The first thing to do, therefore, is to let know anyone who is of Noongar origin that the following post will contain the names of persons deceased. I also have to put in the disclaimer that as much research as I have done I cannot be sure of the truth, thus the stories are fictional accounts. No one can know who was actually where and cannot know what actually happened during times almost two hundred years past when there is no written, recorded or photographic record.

I wanted to use actual Noongar identities in the stories because I wanted to try and tap or stir the memory of that time. One can never truly write as ‘the other’ and I cannot even come close to giving true representation of an indigenous person, let alone during that era, but I can through the stories at least try to create something of an identifiable reality.

Postscript 12 April 2016: For a comprehensive look at the business of sealing and the lives of those who impacted the South Coast between 1790s and 1840s go to Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection – Part 3.

2 responses to “Rough Men in Small Boats”

  1. Patricia Ryder Avatar
    Patricia Ryder

    Could your Samuel Bailey also be the John Williams Andrews of Fanny Harris fame?

    1. Avatar

      The story is that Samuel Bailey and Fanny were both sent to Sydney on the returning Amity but there are no records to show what happened after. There is a hope that fanny was set ashore at Cape Arid where she was stolen from and which was known at the time but there’s no evidence to say she was. I often wondered if JBP and Samuel Bailey were the same person. The name Bailey appears amongst the Bass Strait sealers of the era and it is possible he returned from Sydney to there and then back to King George Sound afterward. No one knows quite how JBP got to Albany, the strongest suggestion being that he came aboard one of the Henty sailings around 1834. I don’t think it can ever be properly determined but equally it can’t be dismissed either.

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