The Post Office in the middle of nowhere

Booby Island. Image courtesy National Library of Australia

It might seem strange that one of Australia’s earliest post offices was also one of its most remote.    It was established on Booby Island in Torres Strait in 1835 but passing ships had already been leaving correspondence there for many years by then.

Booby Island, known as Ngiangu to Torres Strait Islanders, lies about 3200 kms or 1800 nautical miles by sea from Sydney.   The nearest European settlement was some 2000 kms west where the Dutch had an outpost at Kupang on the island of Timor.  

Cook named it Booby Island after the birds that nested on its rocky slopes. The island was an important navigation landmark for it marked the end of the dangerous waters between the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef to the east and the Arafura Sea at the western entrance to Torres Strait.     

The earliest record of shipwrecked sailors seeking refuge on Booby Island dates to 1814.   The ship Morning Star bound from Sydney to Batavia struck a reef and sank in Torres Strait and the crew made for nearby Booby Island.    They were stranded for five months living in one of the islands caves before a sharp-eyed observer on a passing ship noticed a white flag being vigorously waved by someone on the island.  Five men were saved.    Twenty-two of their shipmates, including the captain, perished.

By the 1820s ships were regularly passing through Torres Strait on their way from Sydney to Indian and China and all too many of them ran aground or sank in those dangerous and remote waters.

In 1822 a flagstaff was erected and a logbook provided on the island so ship’s captains could register their safe passage.     Those mariners also left sailing reports in the ledger detailing uncharted reefs and hazardous currents they had encountered to aid their fellow seafarers.  These observations, some done at the cost of the vessel, were later added to updated naval charts.

From an unidentified illustrated newspaper depicting Booby Island in the Torres Strait. Illustration Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

In 1824, on being appointed Governor of NSW, Captain William Bligh had the island stocked with barrels of fresh water, preserved meat and sea biscuits and other provisions for use by shipwrecked sailors.

By then Torres Strait had earned a fearsome reputation among mariners as a dangerous seaway not to be entered lightly.    Bligh was no doubt inspired to act by his own epic voyage in an open boat from the South Pacific through Torres Strait to Batavia after his mutinous crew had relieved him of the Bounty in 1779.       

In 1835 Captain Hobson of H.M.S. Rattlesnake established the unmanned “post office” in one of the island’s small caves.    There mariners could leave letters in a box where they would be taken on to various destinations by other passing ships.  

According to a passenger on the Upton Castle when he stopped there in 1838 he found the post box “covered with canvass and well secured, and supplied with a quantity of pens, paper, and ink, and pencils in excellent order. “

Early illustration of the Booby Island Post Office.

It is worth remembering that the only other post office in Australia at the time was in Sydney.    Melbourne would not get a post office for another couple of years and it would be seven years before another post office appeared in what would become Queensland.

In the span of just 15 years castaways from at least ten ships owed their lives to Booby Island.   The Coringa Packet, and Hydrabad (1845) Ceres (1849), Victoria (1853), Elizabeth, Frances Walker and Sultana (1854), Chesterholme (1858), Equateur, and Sapphire (1859) and many more before and since made for the island after their ships were lost.

Booby Island remained an important refuge for shipwrecked mariners and a place to exchange information until the 1870s when it was supplanted by a government outpost on Thursday Island.

For more interesting stories from Australia’s maritime past check out  A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available now as a Kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

Copyright © C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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