Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Brisbane - the River City

(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #1330)

John Oxley (above) is commonly regarded as the discoverer of the Brisbane River and the man behind the establishment of the Moreton Bay penal settlement. Modern Brisbane embraces the river as part of the identity of the city, and Oxley is writ large in that identity.

In 1823, John Oxley was sent from Sydney by Governor Brisbane to find a location to start a new convict settlement. It was intended to send re-offending prisoners away from Sydney in order that the remaining convict population would not be influenced by recidivists.

Oxley sailed northwards to check out three sites: places we know now as Bowen, Gladstone and Brisbane. He sailed past Moreton Bay initially, but after deciding that neither of the more northern spots was satisfactory, he returned to Moreton Bay to investigate it.

Although James Cook and Matthew Flinders assumed that there would have been a significant river that emptied into Moreton Bay, it remained elusive. Oxley was convinced such a river existed, and he intended to find it. On 29 November 1823, Oxley rounded Bribie Island and anchored in the bay. Imagine his surprise to hear his ship hailed from the beach... in English! A group of aborigines was visible, including one who was larger and lighter in skin colour that the rest. He was Thomas Pamphlett - a shipwrecked former convict.

Pamphlett was a member of a party of four who left Sydney on 21 March 1823 and sailed south to collect some cedar to take back to Sydney. These four men were
Pamphlett, John Finnegan, John Thompson and Richard Parsons; all former convicts now working for a William Cox who had sent them off to fetch some timber for construction work on his property. They encountered a strong storm that blew them off course, and they spent three weeks at sea trying to make their way back to Sydney. Thinking that they were south of Sydney, possibly somewhere off Van Diemen's Land, Pamphlett's crew sailed north-west, eventually finding land on what is now Moreton Island. The strong winds and currents had probably blown them almost to New Zealand, and the direction they took to return to Sydney brought them to the east coast of Australia at Moreton Island. During these travails, their ship ran out of water and one member of the group, John Thompson, died and was buried at sea.It was not until that chance meeting with Oxley eight months later that the men became aware that they were actually some 1000 km north of Sydney. Upon reaching land after the storm, they had still been convinced that they must travel northwards to reach Sydney. The three remaining voyagers managed to sustain themselves by foraging for food and with the help of local aboriginal people who treated them hospitably. In fact it would be inconceivable to imagine that the three white men could have survived without the aid of these indigenous people who unhesitatingly provided not only food and shelter, but also medical care and travelling advice. All three men spoke fondly of the aboriginal people they had met and their generosity of spirit towards the white men. As for the aborigines, they were genuinely distressed when they realised that their companions of many months were leaving them, possibly to never return.

During their attempts to follow the coast northwards in hope of reaching Sydney, Pamphlett's group had followed a large river for some distance, unable to cross it until they found an aboriginal canoe at the mouth of a creek that fed into the river. A bronze sculpture of an aboriginal canoe has been erected in a park near the site where the men discovered the craft. Here is a photograph of it - it contains a spear, a dilly-bag, a fish and a crab, much the type of cargo that would be aboard such a canoe.

(Photos: © 2011 the foto fanatic)

This creek is now called Oxley Creek and the place where the canoe was found is in the picture at right above. On the left is the bridge that crosses Oxley Creek at that spot, now called Pamphlett Bridge. The creek flows into a large river that is, of course, the Brisbane River.
These journeys allowed Pamphlett to show Oxley and his crew how to enter the Brisbane River, which is obscured at its mouth by islands and sand bars. This provided Oxley the opportunity to explore the river right up to Termination Hill, the site of present day Goodna, about 80 km from the mouth of the river, and led to his recommendation that Moreton Bay should become the place for the new settlement. Oxley felt that the most suitable initial site would be Redcliffe Point because of the ease of landing ships there, as opposed to navigating the difficult entry to the Brisbane River. We now know that the first settlement only lasted at Redcliffe Point for about a year before being moved upriver to the current site of Brisbane.

Today, reminders of John Oxley abound in Brisbane. There are streets, rivers, suburbs and even libraries and
hospitals named after him, as well as monuments and plaques dotted all over the place. Nothing wrong with any of that, but spare a thought for poor old Thomas Pamphlett, John Finnegan and Richard Parsons who came across the Brisbane River first and then showed Oxley how to find it. Spare another thought for the peaceful and generous Indigenous inhabitants who had spent thousands of years hunting and fishing in this area. They thought there was plenty for everyone, even white ghosts who emerged from huge sea-going canoes. Unfortunately the subsequent arrival of white settlers had a disastrous effect on the lives of these people within a very brief time.

The hardships and adventures that Pamphlett and his colleagues experienced in their lifetimes would take much more space
to recount than I have available here. Their story must endure as one of the great tales of the establishment of white settlement in Australia. Thomas Welsby, who we met in an earlier post, wrote a history of these adventures, relying heavily on the notes taken by John Uniacke, Oxley's assistant on the voyage, who interviewed the men at length after their rescue. Welsby's story can be read here, at the chapelhill history blog site.

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  1. It is interesting that John Oxley would not have set out to find the site of a new village a la Batman in Melbourne, except that he was sent from Sydney by Governor Brisbane specifically to find a new convict settlement. So if transportation to Moreton Bay really did cease in 1839, we have to ask why.

    1. Re the above comment, a manuscript I am currently evaluating states: The Quaker reports given to the Molesworth Committee on Transportation back in England listed: sexual decadence, sodomy, the exploitation of children and venereal disease in the colony. This might have had something to do with it.

  2. I can't help thinking that "River City" is a rather silly nick-name for our city: isn't almost every city in the world built along a river? That's why the cities are there!


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