The Peruvian’s Lone Survivor

James Morrill. Source National Library of Australia 136099157-1.

There is a modest memorial standing in the Bowen Cemetery in North Queensland dedicated to James Morrill who died on 30 October 1865.  

The plaque credits him as a sailor who had survived the loss of his ship and subsequently lived with the local Aborigines for the next seventeen years.

The 22-year-old Morrill sailed from Sydney on the barque Peruvian in February 1846 bound for China.     But her voyage came to an abrupt and tragic end on Bellona Shoal far out in the Coral Sea.

One dark night the ship slammed into the reef at her top speed having all canvas out at the time she struck.   The Second Mate was swept into the ocean by a giant wave as he emerged on deck.   The First Mate was then lost when the longboat broke free as it was being lowered over the side.  He disappeared into the night seated in the wrecked boat with only a sheep as a final companion.   The only other lifeboat was also lost in those first minutes of confusion and turmoil.

Twenty-one people made it on to a makeshift raft and escaped the stranded ship.   But if they thought their ordeal was over they were wrong.  It had just begun.    The survivors endured 42 days of unimaginable hardship as they slowly drifted towards the Queensland coast.   

Two thirds died of starvation, thirst, or exposure.   Only seven were alive when the raft came to rest at Cape Cleveland south of present-day Townsville.   Two more died within days of landing.  

That left just James Morrill, the captain and his wife, a young apprentice and the sailmaker.   The sailmaker would shortly find an abandoned canoe and try to make his way down the coast towards Moreton Bay.   He only got as far as the next bay before exhaustion overtook him and he died a lonely death.

The castaways had come ashore on the traditional lands of the Bindal and Juru peoples in what is today the Lower Burdekin region.  In time their presence was discovered and one evening the Aborigines confronted the strange visitors.

   “At first they were as afraid of us as we were of them.   Presently we held up our hands in supplication to them to help us, some of them returned it; after a while they came among us and felt us all over from head to foot.  They satisfied themselves that we were human beings, and hearing us talk, they asked us by signs where we had come from.   We made signs and told them we had come across the sea, and seeing how thin and emaciated we were, took pity on us. …”  – James Morrill.

The four castaways were taken in and cared for.   According to Morrill, the captain and his wife never fully recovered from the ordeal and died a couple of years later, as did the apprentice.    

Memorial to James Morrill, the last survivor of the Peruvian shipwreck who lived with Aborigines for 17 years. Bowen Cemetery.

Morrill, himself, adapted to his new life.   He learned to hunt and fish, and speak the language. He fully immersed himself in the ways of his adopted family for the next 17 years.

But as the frontier of European settlement encroached into the Lower Burdekin, Morrill entertained the idea of making contact.   

One day he confronted a couple of incredulous stockmen introducing himself as a shipwrecked sailor and told them his story.    He eventually bade his Bindal friends an emotional farewell and stepped out of the bush and back into European society.

Morrill was uniquely placed to see the devastation European colonisation was having on Aboriginal peoples. Using his brief period of celebrity, he met with the Queensland Governor and urged him to allow Aborigines to coexist on their traditional lands with settlers, but his plea fell on deaf ears. 

James Morrill. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

He was given a job as assistant storeman at the Bowen customs house and soon became a popular and well-respected member of the small coastal community.   Morrill married, fathered a child but unfortunately the hardships he had endured had taken their toll and he died two years later.

James Morrill’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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2 thoughts on “The Peruvian’s Lone Survivor

  1. Great story – thanks for posting.
    I wonder if there are a statistics as to how many ships were lost in voyages from Europe to Australia (and vice versa) in the Victorian era compared to the total number of voyages made? In other words what were the chances of a ship sailing there being wrecked. Dangerous days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know. The figure would be alarmingly high by today’s sensibilities. I have been looking at Queensland shipwrecks and many of those were lost on the way to and from Australia. Several per year would be my conservative guess against hundreds of safe passages.

      Like

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