1824 Moreton Bay, Qld
On a bright September day, the 148-ton Amity rounded the northern end of Moreton Island and entered the much calmer waters of the bay. The Amity, built in New Brunswick, Canada, was a two-masted square-rigged brig, seventy-five feet six inches long. She was a pretty boat with pleasant clean lines, and reputed to be a sturdy, reliable vessel. However, space was cramped with more than seventy passengers (soldiers, families, convicts), crew and supplies for the new settlement to be established at Red Cliff Point. They sailed close in to Bribie Island’s southern shore and dropped anchor near the Pumice-stone River mouth where a large number of Aborigines had gathered.
Government surveyor John Oxley, who was in charge of the expedition, had visited this area the year before in search of the river he suspected emptied into the bay. He had rescued Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan, two of a trio of ex-convicts shipwrecked on Moreton Island and cared for by the local Aborigines.
The four-man crew had sailed south from Port Jackson (Sydney) in a thirty-foot open boat bound for the Illawarra district to fetch cedar. When a storm drove them off course, one man had perished. Convinced they had been blown south, the remaining three men sailed north and three weeks later found themselves off the coast of Moreton Island. After they landed the pounding surf destroyed their boat and marooned them.
Once Pamphlett and Finnegan had recovered from the shock of discovering they were 600 miles north of where they thought they were they showed Oxley the hidden river mouth. He surveyed the waterway and reported his findings to Governor Brisbane (the river would later be named after him). The third castaway, Richard Parsons, had walked north with Aborigines. Oxley left him a note in a bottle explaining that his mates had been rescued, that they would visit again.
Now, while Oxley distributed gifts of cloth, hatchets and knives to the Joondaburri elders, who remembered him from his previous visit, prisoners filled barrels with fresh water. Botanist Allan Cunningham wandered off, scribbling familiar plant names in his note book. As the last filled barrel was loaded into the boat, a soldier fired his musket to recall the botanist. Stepping out of the forest, Cunningham gaped – near the boat, encircled by Aborigines, stood a naked sun-browned white man, Richard Parsons, whom Oxley introduced as the missing ship-wrecked man.
On parting, Parsons farewelled his Aboriginal friends, who were sad to see him go as they had grown fond of this cheerful white.
“I’ll be back,” the big, ruddy-faced man called out, smiling through gappy teeth and waving from the departing boat.
Due to many months of disuse his English came out broken. He struggled to recount his adventure to Oxley and Cunningham. “I um . . . walked to the north. ‘Oped to reach Port Jackson, upon my word. Um . . . after many weeks travel I come to a large bay . . .”
Oxley interrupted. “Probably Hervey’s Bay by the sound of it. Sorry, please continue.”
“We come across a mob of natives; hostile they were. The blackfellas with me didn’t want to go on. It was gettin’ hotter every day and there was these tropical-looking plants – and I thought, somethin’s amiss here. What if I’m goin’ the wrong way, I asked myself. So I turned around and come back to where I had left me mates. The blacks showed me the note in the bottle but it was of no use as I can’t read.”
“So what made you stay here, rather than continuing south?” quizzed a curious Oxley. By now Parsons’ English had improved.
“I noticed that trees had been felled. The Aborigines said they had been carried away to the great white ship. I could see that the timber would be valuable for building and furniture making, so I figured that whoever had cut the trees would be returning for more. And there you have it. I’ve only been here this last month and already I am rescued!”