Australian Geographic - - Snapshot - James Davis

JAMES DAVIS was one of many early con­victs who be­lieved their for­tunes might be bet­ter among Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. He was only weeks into his sen­tence at the no­to­ri­ous Moreton Bay pe­nal set­tle­ment when he es­caped in Fe­bru­ary 1829. Au­thor­i­ties en­listed local Indigenous peo­ple to help ap­pre­hend and re­turn run­aways, but some con­victs found shel­ter with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in­stead, and were able to re­main with them for many years. Davis was one.

He was found 14 years later by an ex­plo­ration party pur­su­ing con­vict run­aways af­ter Moreton Bay jail’s clo­sure. Davis was deeply ac­cul­tur­ated in the life of the Indigenous peo­ple with whom he lived; he was adorned with arm­bands and cer­e­mo­nial scars, spoke up to five dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and was skilled in climb­ing and hunt­ing.

He had been taken in by ‘the Gi­gyabara Tribe’ (iden­ti­fied today as the Kabi), hav­ing been recog­nised and adopted by se­nior man Pamby-Pamby as his long de­parted son Du­ram­boi.

As Du­ram­boi, Davis was happy and content. “In fact,” wrote An­drew Petrie, who headed the party that found him, “he told us he had nearly for­got­ten about the so­ci­ety of white men, and had hardly thought about his friends and re­la­tions for these 14 years past; and had I or some­one else not brought him from among these sav­ages, he never would have left them.”

Davis was at Wide Bay in a huge gath­er­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal na­tions from around the re­gion when he was found. Petrie wrote: “I shall never for­get his ap­pear­ance…a white man in a state of nu­dity…his eyes wild and un­able to rest for a mo­ment on any one ob­ject…he looked at us as if he had never seen a white man be­fore.”

Henry Stu­art Rus­sell, one of Petrie’s party, also de­scribed the scene: “Der­ham­boi [Du­ram­boi]… flew off again into a sa­tanic passion, wrenched off his bi­jouterie and set to tear­ing and claw­ing up the ground with his fin­gers, sink­ing his voice from the shrillest howl to a very Bed­lamite whis­per, ac­com­pa­nied by a wicked leer.”

Davis was try­ing to warn the men that the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple gath­ered at Wide Bay were in a venge­ful mood. Not long be­fore, a mass poi­son­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple had been car­ried out by shep­herds on sheep sta­tions re­cently es­tab­lished not far from the south­ern end of the Bunya lands, in what is now known as the Kil­coy mas­sacre. Some 50 to 60 peo­ple had died ag­o­nis­ing deaths af­ter eating arsenic-laced flour, and two shep­herds had re­cently been killed in ret­ri­bu­tion.

Davis acted out for the trans­fixed party the scenes of both the poi­son­ings and the stalk­ing and killing of the shep­herds. He was al­lowed to re­turn to the gath­er­ing to bring back his adop­tive fa­ther with ev­i­dence of the at­tack upon the shep­herds. The next morn­ing Davis duly emerged from the bush ac­com­pa­nied by his Abo­rig­i­nal fa­ther, Pamby-Pamby, who pre­sented them with a watch that be­longed to one of the shep­herds killed at the Kil­coy station. He was given an axe in re­turn, as promised.

On his re­turn to white so­ci­ety, Davis served out the re­main­der of his sen­tence as a hut­keeper and black­smith for the po­lice, un­til he was rec­om­mended for a ticket-ofleave in 1844. Like other re­turned white men, he was em­ployed as a colo­nial ex­pe­di­tion guide. He later worked as an oc­ca­sional in­ter­preter for the courts in mat­ters in­volv­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple un­til his death in 1889. Davis was fa­mously re­luc­tant to talk of his ex­pe­ri­ences. When asked how he had been treated by the peo­ple he’d lived with, he sim­ply stated, “First rate – noth­ing could be bet­ter.” He had no pa­tience when pressed for de­tails. “If any­one wants to know about the blacks,” he would say, “let them go and live as I did.”

“He had nearly for­got­ten about the so­ci­ety of white men, and had hardly thought about his friends and re­la­tions for these 14 years past.”

James Davis had sev­eral roles af­ter be­ing rec­om­mended for a ticket-ofleave in 1844. Here he is seen out­side a crock­ery shop in Ge­orge St, Bris­bane, in 1872, where he was the store­keeper.

Moreton Bay con­vict set­tle­ment and pe­nal colony was es­tab­lished for hard­ened crim­i­nals and re­cidi­vist prison­ers in 1824 in what is now south­ern Queens­land. James Davis was sent here in 1829. Sent to the colony as a thief at the age of 16, James Davis...

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