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 later escaped and spent 14 years living with Aboriginal people. It’s thought he maintained some of his connections after being found and returned to white society. He was, this portrait suggests, a rather grumpy old man later in life.
This Aboriginal man holding a club and a boomerang was of the Kabi people. Davis named the people he lived with as the Gigyabarah, but writers today have identified them as the Kabi.