The Remarkable Castaways of Moreton Bay

Source: ‘The Finding of Pamphlet’, Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, vol. II, 1886,

Most Queensland school children are taught that the first non-Aboriginal people to settle in their state were convicts and their gaolers who arrived in September 1824.   But actually the first white-skinned people to live in what would become Queensland were three castaway ex-convicts who came ashore 18 months earlier.

In 1823 Governor Brisbane sent the NSW Surveyor General, John Oxley, to determine if Moreton Bay, 800 kilometres north of Sydney, would make a suitable penal settlement to house the colony’s worst and most incorrigible convicts.

On 29 November the small government cutter Mermaid, carrying Oxley and his party, dropped anchor in Pumicestone Passage separating Bribie Island from the mainland.   To their astonishment, among the Aborigines they could see on shore stood a taller, lighter-skinned man excitedly haling them.    His name was Thomas Pamphlett and he and two mates had been living with the local Aboriginal peoples for the past seven months.

This is their story.     On 21 March 1823 four ticket-of-leave men, Thomas Pamphlett, John Finnegan, Richard Parsons and John Thompson, sailed from Sydney in a 10-metre-long open boat bound south to the Illawarra to gather cedar logs for sale in Sydney.

However, they were caught in a ferocious storm which battered the craft mercilessly for five days.   They were driven far from the coast under a bare mast and when the storm finally cleared five days later they had no idea where they were.     They thought they had been blown south towards Van Diemen’s Land but in fact they had been taken north.    So, when they could finally hoist a sail they bore north in search of Sydney.  

Their water had run out days earlier and they only had rum to quench their thirst.    All four were in a bad way but John Thompson became delirious and died from thirst.   They kept him in the boat for several days until the smell drove them to bury him at sea.  

They finally sighted land about three weeks after setting off from Sydney.   This turned out to be Moreton Island though that was not known to them at the time.   They could see a freshwater stream flowing across the beach so Pamphlett swam ashore with the water keg in tow.   He drank his fill but was too weak to swim back to the boat.    The others, crazed with thirst, brought the boat closer to shore but it got caught in the surf and was smashed to pieces.

The three men were alive but stranded.   They salvaged some flour, a bucket, an axe, a pair of scissors, the water keg but little else.    They soon came across an Aboriginal camp in the sand dunes and were befriended by the people.    The three castaways lived with their hosts for a couple of months then they decided to set off north thinking they would eventually reach Sydney.

First they went south to cross over to Stradbroke Island then onto the mainland where they ventured north around Moreton Bay   All the time they were accompanied by different bands of Yuggera.   Pamphlett and Finnegan decided to stop at Bribie Island on the northern edge of the bay and lived with the Joondoobarrie people until they were found by Oxley and his party.     Parsons, still determined to return to Sydney kept heading north and may have gone as far as Harvey Bay before it was made clear to him his presence among the Butchella people was not welcomed.  

The cutter Mermaid. Photo State Library of Queensland

He returned to Bribie Island many months later only to find his comrades had been taken away on the Mermaid.   However, the party of explorers left a message in a bottle for Parson should he ever pass that way again.   Unfortunately, he was illiterate and could not read the message that had been left for him, but he remained in that area in the hope that another ship might pass that way.    He was in luck.   The brig Amity sailed into Moreton Bay in September the following year with 30 convicts and their guards to establish the first settlement at Redcliffe.   When they came ashore Parsons was standing on the beach waiting for them.  

Richard Parsons was returned to Sydney and found work as a bullock driver. John Finnegan later returned to Moreton Bay and took up a post piloting ships in and out of the bay. Thomas Pamphlett also returned to Moreton Bay, but it was not of his own choosing. He stole two bags of flour in 1826 and was sentenced to spend seven years toiling at Moreton Bay penal settlement.

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.

(c) C. J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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The Brig Amity’s Amazing Career

Brig Amity replica at Albany Western Australia. Photo: C.J. Ison.

All Australian school children learn of the Endeavour’s role in the history of Australia.   Some people may have heard of the First Fleet’s flag-ship Sirius or the Investigator which Matthew Flinders used to chart much of Australia’s coastline.   But, I wager few, outside Albany WA, have heard of the Amity or know of her contribution to our colonial past.  

During the brig Amity’s six years as a colonial government vessel, she was employed to establish two new settlements in what would one day become Queensland and Western Australia.   She went to the rescue of the Royal Charlotte survivors after that ship ran aground on Frederick Reef in Australia’s dangerous northern waters.   She regularly transported convicts, soldiers and stores from Sydney to outlying settlements and circumnavigated the continent at least twice.  

The Amity was built in New Brunswick, Canada and launched in 1816.   She was a modest sized vessel even by the standards of the day at 148 tons, measuring a fraction over 23 metres (75 feet) in length.   But she was a sound ship and could handle rough weather.  

Officer’s stateroom with tiny individual sleeping cabins leading off the main room. Photo: C.J. Ison.

The little brig spent the first few years of her life hauling cargo back and forth across the North Atlantic between North America and Britain.    In 1823 a Scotsman named Robert Ralston purchased her, having decided to emigrate to Van Diemen’s Land with his large family.   He fitted the vessel out for the long voyage and filled its hold with cargo and livestock for the colony. 

After a five-month voyage the Amity sailed up the Derwent River and dropped anchor in Hobart Town on 15 April 1824.   Ralston and his family purchased land and established several business enterprises in Hobart and Launceston and a few months after their arrival he put the vessel up for sale.

The New South Wales colonial government purchased the Amity in August 1824.    The brig’s first assignment was to establish a new settlement at Moreton Bay.   Two years earlier the Bigge Report had recommended establishing a place of secondary transportation somewhere far north of Sydney for convicts who had committed additional crimes in the colony.

The Moreton Bay Penal Settlement about 10 years after its founding. Photo Courtesy SLQ.

On 1 September the Amity and her crew sailed with a military officer, 20 soldiers plus wives and children, a hand-full of civilian administrators plus 30 convicts. The journey took 11 days and was marked by severe storms. Accommodation between decks measured just 1.5 Metres (5 feet) high. Here the seasick soldiers, wives, and convicts spent a miserable time along with the new settlement’s pigs, goats and poultry. None-the-less they arrived at Moreton Bay and her passengers and stores were disembarked at Redcliffe where John Oxley decided the new settlement was to be established.

Later in the month the ship was nearly blown ashore during a violent storm. Dropping a third large anchor was the only thing that averted disaster. She soon after left the new settlement and returned to Sydney for more stores. On her third trip to Moreton Bay, in mid-1825, she helped relocate the settlement from Redcliffe to the north bank of the Brisbane River which proved a far more suitable and enduring location.

While anchored in Moreton Bay the crew noticed an unfamiliar longboat coming towards them.   This proved to be the first mate and some of the survivors from the ship Royal Charlotte which had run aground a month earlier on Frederick Reef some 720 km (almost 400 nautical miles) north in the Coral Sea. 

The first mate reported that there were still nearly one hundred souls, many of them women and children, stranded on a small sand cay which was almost awash at high tide.   The Amity was immediately sent to rescue the castaways and arrived off the reef on 28 July.   Getting close to the survivors proved a dangerous operation with powerful breakers crashing into the reef threatening any vessel which got too close.   The Amity eventually anchored several miles from the reef and its whaleboat was sent to evacuate the people and salvage what they could from the wreck.   She then sailed directly to Sydney arriving there ten days later.

A view of the encampment of the shipwrecked company of the Royal Charlotte on Frederick’s Reef. Illustration by Charles Ellms (circa 1848)

For the next 18 months or so the Amity was in constant use ferrying convicts and supplies between Sydney and the outlying settlements at Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Port Macquarie.   But, in late-1826 Governor Darling, who had recently replaced Brisbane, had another important mission for the Amity and her crew.

She was ordered to take three officers and a small detachment of soldiers, 23 convicts plus a handful of civilian officials under the overall command of Major Edmund Lockyer to establish a new settlement.   This one was to be located in the remote south west of the continent at King George Sound (Albany).  

Convicts and other passengers were accommodated between decks which measured just five feet in height. Photo: C.J. Ison.

Until then Australia’s southern coast from Bass Strait to Cape Leeuwin was little known outside its indigenous peoples and the haunt of sealers who lived largely outside the law.   Darling was increasingly concerned that the French, who had recently visited the area, might try to establish a permanent presence there. 

The small brig weighed anchor on 9 November 1826 but she soon ran into a severe storm which saw her put in to George Town on the Tamar River in Van Diemen’s Land for repairs.    She finally anchored safely in King George Sound on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day she began disembarking her passengers and cargo.   A month later the Amity returned to Sydney and resumed her regular re-supply duties.

In May 1827 she accompanied HMS Supply and the brig Mary Elizabeth on a voyage via Torres Strait to Fort Dundas on Melville Island not too far distant from present day Darwin in the Northern Territory.   Fort Dundas had been established three years earlier to facilitate trade with visiting Malay fishermen but it was eventually abandoned due in part to the determined resistance put up by the Tiwi people whose land it was.

Sketch of Fort Dundas – 1824 by JS Roe. Picture courtesy State Library of Western Australia.

Leaving Fort Dundas and the other two ships, the Amity continued circumnavigating the continent stopping to drop off supplies at King George Sound before returning to Sydney via Bass Strait.

In 1828-29 she paid another visit to the remote Northern and Western settlements when she dropped off stores before returning to her home port of Sydney thereby completing a second circumnavigation.

The following year, December 1830, the New South Wales government sold the brig off.    She made her way back to Hobart and passed through several hands over the next decade.   A couple of owners tried whaling while others employed her as a cargo ship but all seemed to struggle to turn a decent profit.  

In 1842 the Amity was now 26 years old and no doubt past her prime.    Her new owner, a Hobart butcher named Gilbert, used her to transport livestock across Bass Strait from the mainland to Van Diemen’s Land.  

On 18 June 1845 she was driven onto a shoal off Flinders Island during one of the ferocious storms Bass Strait is rightly known for.   The ship was destroyed but fortunately the captain, owner and crew, numbering 11 in all, survived.

In 1976 a full-size replica of the Amity was completed in Albany to celebrate that town’s 150th anniversary since its founding.   The replica provides a fascinating close-up look at an early 19th century sailing ship.

Brig Amity replica at Albany Western Australia. Photo: C.J. Ison.

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: Tales from the Quarterdeck / C.J. Ison, 2020.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Postcard of the Mandalay of Farsund Norway which was shipwrecked at Mandalay Beach near Walpole Western Australia in 1911.

As Captain Emile Tonnessen saw the sheer granite walls of Chatham Island loom into sight, he knew his ship and crew of 12 men were in serious trouble.  

Unrelenting gale force wind and high seas had driven his 913-ton iron barque Mandalay North-east for the past several days, and his chart showed that should he escape crashing into Chatham Island, an uninterrupted line of cliffs still lay directly in his path.

The Mandalay had sailed from Delagoa Bay (since renamed Maputo), Mozambique in early April 1911 bound for Albany to take on a cargo of Karri logs bound for Buenos Aires in Argentina.

It was to be the 68-year-old captain’s final voyage before retiring to spend time with his children whom he had seen little of during his more than half a century at sea.   But for a last-minute change of plan, he would have returned to his home in Norway directly from Southern Africa.

The voyage was largely uneventful until they neared the Western Australia coast in the vicinity of Cape Leeuwin on Saturday 13 May.  

The weather rapidly deteriorated.   South-westerly winds grew to hurricane strength and mountainous seas washed over the vessel.   All canvas was taken in and the Mandalay was swept along under bare poles.   The ferocious weather continued for two days pushing the helpless vessel towards the rugged and sparsely populated coast.

The crew worked furiously to get control of the ship.  The only sail they could put up was on the fore-top mast, but it was not enough to alter the ship’s course.    They were powerless to veer from the track the storm was pushing them let alone put about and make for open water.  

Chatham Island viewed from Mandalay beach. Photo C.J. Ison.

On Monday morning, 15 May, they cleared the kilometre wide and 90-metre-high granite outcrop that is Chatham Island with only a few hundred metres to spare.    Tonnessen later recalled that the waves were so large and powerful they crashed completely over the island as his ship was driven passed.

While they had escaped being smashed against the granite slopes of the island, it was clear they would not be so lucky to get past the sheer cliffs of Long Point now lying somewhere ahead through the torrential rain.    The captain took the only action he could.

He would have to sacrifice his ship to give his crew a fighting chance of survival.   In all his years seafaring he had never been shipwrecked, but now he was going to deliberately run his vessel aground.   It was no doubt made doubly hard for he was a part owner of the Mandalay and knew it to be underinsured.

The Mandalay stranded on the beach.

It was now about one o’clock in the afternoon. Tonnessen lined up to run the ship ashore on the only beach he could see and hoped for the best. They hoisted as much sail as they could, everyone donned their cork lifebelts and awaited their fate. About 100 metres from the beach the bow struck the sand hard. The top-main mast came crashing down and the ship bounced along the sea bed as successive waves pushed it closer to shore. Then the Mandalay swung broadside to the ocean swells and breakers crashed over the deck sweeping it clean of anything not securely tied down.

The crew lowered a lifeboat over the lee side but the seas were too turbulent to safely cross the short distance to shore. One of the young seamen, Knut Knutsen, tied a rope to his lifebelt and dived into the sea intent on getting a line ashore.

Unfortunately, the rope became entangled around his legs and he floundered in the chaotic surf. Knutsen was close to drowning when a second sailor, Frank Ward dived into the maelstrom to rescue him. Ward managed to get his unconscious friend to shore where he soon recovered. Now with a line ashore and a line attached to the ship, the lifeboat was able to ferry the rest of the men to safety.

L-R Frank Ward and Knut Knutsen at Fremantle after the wreck of the Norwegian barque Mandalay. Photo published in the Western Mail, 3 June 1911, p. 27.

The castaways were able to get sufficient stores and food ashore to build a shelter using some of the ship’s sails and spars. Unfortunately most of the food was contaminated with sea water but it was better than nothing.  

The men spent several miserable days camped on the beach hoping for help to arrive.   They placed a pole high on a sand dune with a distress signal flying.   Several ships passed in the distance but Tonnessen could not tell if any of them had seen their flags.  It would have been far too dangerous to put a boat ashore, but he hoped that one of the passing ships would call in to Albany further down the coast and alert the authorities who in turn would send a rescue party overland.

The crew of the barque Mandalay. Photo courtesy Walpole Nornalup and District Historical Society.

While Captain Tonnessen and the others remained camped on the beach, the First Mate, Lars Gjoem, and two seamen set off on Tuesday, the day after the wreck, with compass and chart to find a way cross country to the nearest settlement.   Two days later they returned to the beach cold, wet and exhausted, unable to find a path through the dense bush.  

On Friday 19 May, the day after the first party’s return, the Second Mate, Frederick Fincki climbed one of the high hills behind the beach and thought he could see a route through the maze of broken ground inland.   He briefly returned to the camp to collect a staff and a knife and set off towards what he would later learn was Nornalup Inlet.  

He soon found himself wading through a swamp but doggedly continued for several hours hoping to reach dry land. He eventually came out at the edge of the inlet at the same time one of the few local settlers was returning to his homestead by boat after his quarterly trip to the coast for supplies.

The settler, Frank Thompson, picked up Fincki and took him to his home, wondering to himself what would have happened had he not been passing by at the time he did.   It was bitterly cold, night was fast approaching and the young Norwegian was far from dry land. His chances of surviving the night were poor.

The following day Thompson, his son and the Second Mate returned to the beach to rescue the remaining men.   Over the next several days the shipwrecked sailors were cared for by Thompson and other settlers until they were safely delivered to the small settlement of Denmark further down the coast and then taken on to Albany where they caught the train to Perth.

Mandalay Beach with Long Point in the background. The wreck lies approximately in the centre of the photo. Photo C.J. Ison.

Frank Thompson was presented with a gold fob watch by the Norwegian Consul and he and the other settlers who had helped in the rescue earned the undying gratitude of Captain Tonnessen and his crew.   The Mandalay was never got off and slowly rusted away on the beach that now bears its name.    Its remains are periodically exposed when the conditions are right.

©Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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The Mystery Ship of Walga Rock

The drawing of a sailing ship at Walga Rock, 350km from the Western Australian coast. Photo: C.J. Ison

Tucked away at one end of an Aboriginal art gallery at Walga Rock is a clear depiction of a European sailing vessel. What makes this truly extraordinary is that Walga Rock lies more than 350 km (220 miles) inland from the nearest place where the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean crash against the Western Australian coast.

The picture has intrigued travellers and academics for the past century, ever since its existence became known outside the Wajarri people on whose land Walga Rock is found.  

The painting is stylistically very different to everything else in the extensive gallery.   It looks to be a depiction of a specific vessel and there is what could be Arabic verse in the same white ochre below it.    

A section of the art gallery. Note the style and subject matter is substantially different to the ship drawing. Photo: C.J. Ison.

 Several theories have emerged as to its origin.    

Some people believe the picture is of one of the long-lost Dutch ships which came to grief off Western Australia’s rugged coast in the 17th Century.    The VOC ships Batavia and Zuytdorp head the list.   

The Batavia was wrecked off the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 and while the captain sailed a longboat to Batavia (Jakarta) to get help, a bloody mutiny unfolded among the remaining survivors.   When rescuers finally arrived most of the mutineers were rounded up and hanged but two were put ashore near present-day Kalbarri at the mouth of the Murchison River.    It is possible these men may have been taken in by local Aborigines and followed the Murchison River inland to the Wajarri people’s land and made the painting.

Dutch ship Zuytdorp, 1712.

The Zuytdorp sailed from Holland in 1711 bound for Batavia but never arrived.   The remains of a shipwreck were discovered 40km north of Kalbarri in 1927 but it was not until 1954 that it was identified as the missing Zuytdorp.   It was speculated that survivors may have been adopted by the local people and, over time, moved inland along the Murchison River.   Dutch silver coins, part of the ship’s cargo, have been found at water holes far inland, giving some strength to this theory.

Others have speculated that in the late 19th Century, a Wajarri man may have travelled to Port Gregory or Geraldton on the coast and returned to make the illustration of a sailing ship he had seen.

Another theory is that an Indonesian pearl fisherman named Sammy Hassan made the depiction early in the 20th Century.  It is thought that he was brought to Shark Bay to work in the pearling industry with 140 other boys on the steamer Xanthos in 1872.   Forty-five years later, aged about 60 he was reported to be living among the Wajarri people by early settlers and soon after, the picture was first noticed in the rock art cavern.   Unfortunately, there is also a report that a “Sammy” had died as a result of a shark attack back at Shark Bay.

So, if it was not Sammy who made the picture?   It may have been one of the other boys, also named Sammy, brought out from Malaya and Indonesia to work as pearl divers.

Top: The Dutch ship Zuytdorp; Middle: the Walga Rock drawing; Bottom: The steamer Xanthos. The Walga Rock drawing bears a stronger resemblance to the bottom image.

The strongest evidence for the last theory is the drawing itself. It bears a striking resemblance to the Xanthos, which only plied Western Australian waters in 1872 before it sank at Port Gregory. The two masts and funnel and the painted faux gun ports match the Xanthos as does the flat deck. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zuytdorp both had three masts and a high stern, making the Xanthos a stronger contender.

The upper-Murchison River and country around Walga Rock was explored and prospected from the 1850s onward.    But I could find no mention of the painting of a European ship on the gallery wall prior to the early 20th Century which is the era fitting the Sammy / Xanthos theory.  

Walga Rock art gallery. Photo: C.J. Ison.

Regardless of the drawing’s origin, Walga Rock is a fascinating place to visit and the image opens a window on several aspects of Australia’s colonial and maritime past.

I would like to thank the Wajarri elders and community for allowing the public to visit the Walga Rock art gallery.

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, 2020.

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International Lighthouse Weekend 22-23 August 2020.

Bustard Head Lighthouse established in 1868 is Queensland’s second oldest lighthouse. Photo C.J. Ison.

International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend started in 1998 as an amateur radio event where ham operators broadcast from lighthouses around the world.

It is a time to remember the contribution lighthouses and past lighthouse keepers have made to safe navigation of the world’s seaways.

I thought I would share a few photos of some Australian lighthouses I have been lucky to visit in recent years.


The Bustard Head Lighthouse was built in 1868 and is Queensland’s second oldest lighthouse.   It is constructed of prefabricated cast iron sections assembled on the spot.   The light is now automated and can clearly be seen from the town of 1770 20 kilometres down the coast.

Bustard Head Light Station at Bustard Head between Gladstone and the Town of Seventeen Seventy – Established in 1868


Construction of the lighthouse started in 1836 and it was completed in 1838.   It is Australia’s second oldest lighthouse and was built by convicts from locally sourced stone.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse on Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia was built in 1836. Photo C.J. Ison.


The Eddystone lighthouse was built in 1884 from locally quarried granite and stands 35 metres tall.

Eddystone Point Lighthouse on the Bay of Fires East Coast of Tasmania was built in 1889 from locally quarried pink granite. Photo C.J. Ison.


Hells Gate is the entrance to Macquarie Harbour on the southwest coast of Tasmania.    The name “Hells Gate” was supposedly coined by convicts who were transported to the isolated and harsh penal colony on Sarah Island.    The lighthouse was built in 1892 after silver and lead were discovered at Zeehan. 

Hells Gate Entrance lighthouse at entrance to Macquarie Harbour on the West Coast of Tasmania Australia was built in 1892. Photo C.J. Ison.


Low Head Lighthouse stands at the mouth of the Tamar River.    This lighthouse was built in 1888 and replaced an earlier one constructed in 1833 but had fallen into disrepair.   It stands 15 metres tall.

Low Head lighthouse at the entrance to the Tamar River in northern Tasmania, Australia. This is the second lighthouse built on this spot in 1888. Photo C.J. Ison.


The 30 metres tall lighthouse was built in 1878.   It was manufactured in Birmingham England and brought out to Australia on the Lady Louisa where the prefabricated sections were assembled on site.

Moore Point Lighthouse built in 1878 at Geraldton, Western Australia. Photo C.J. Ison.


The Split Point Lighthouse was built in 1891 after several shipwrecks in the waters nearby.  It stands 34 metres tall and made of concrete.

Split point lighthouse at Aireys inlet on the Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia built in 1891. Photo C.J. Ison.


The first Sea Hill Lighthouse was built in the 1870s.   it was replaced by a second lighthouse built in 1895 and still stands there today.  It is 12 metres tall and is clad in corrugated Iron.

Sea Hill Lighthouse, Curtis Island, Capricorn Coast, Central Queensland. Photo C.J. Ison.

© C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck.