BARBARA CRAWFORD was aged about six when in 1837 her family migrated to Sydney from Scotland. She was probably no older than 12 when she ran away with William Thompson to Moreton Bay where, some accounts say, they were married.
In 1844 the now Barbara Thompson and her new husband sailed north for the Torres Strait with a shipwreck survivor to salvage the wreck’s cargo. But their cutter was smashed on a reef off Horn Island. Three Islander men rescued Thompson and took her to Muralug Island in the Torres Strait, also known as Prince of Wales Island. There she was adopted into the family of an elder named Pequi, as his daughter returned from the dead.
Known as Giom, she spent five years with the Kaurareg Islanders and Aboriginal people of Queensland’s far north. She was aged about 17 in
1849 when crewmen of surveying ship HMS Rattlesnake saw Thompson on a Cape York beach. She was so deeply tanned they didn’t know she was a white woman until she called to them in English. They quickly took her to the crew’s beach camp, where they dressed her in men’s clothes and combed her hair before taking her to the ship.
The officers noticed she seemed ambivalent about leaving the Kaurareg and that they were very sad to see her go. The ship’s artist, Oswald Brierly, described the close relationships she had with some of the Kaurareg who visited her on the ship before it set sail, including the elder Sallalli. Brierly wrote: “He comes and sits cross-legged by the hour talking in such kind tones to the white woman, calling her his child.”
Meticulously recorded interviews with Thompson by Brierly during their journey to Sydney provide a rare firsthand voice of someone who lived with Islanders and Aboriginal people at this time. From all accounts, Thompson was treated with great kindness by the Kaurareg, particularly the men, although at first, many of the women were “jealous of the attention shown her”.
Thompson denied she’d had a Kaurareg husband. Brierly, however, referred in his journal to an old man who named the Kaurareg babies, writing: “He must be an old wag in his way, to judge by the following names: first child, a girl – Ootzoo = muddy water.” Some historians have speculated that the baby’s name was a reference to her fair skin and that this was Brierly hinting that the child was in fact Thompson’s own daughter, but we can’t know for sure.
Thompson gave Brierly detailed accounts of everyday life on the islands – the songs and dances, sport and games, houses, and the sophisticated tools, weapons, utensils and craft. She provided vivid descriptions of the men’s hunting techniques, including an ingenious method of employing suckerfish to catch turtles. She was proud of the canoes of her “brothers”, and told Brierly that the Indigenous people pitied “white fellows”, who they thought had no country of their own and were therefore obliged to “roam about” on ships for provisions.
What became of Thompson once she returned to European society is unknown. In the 1860s, missionaries encountered some people who remembered Giom.
But a few years later the violence of colonialism reached the Kaurareg when a punitive party (hunting for a white woman and child wrongly believed to be held captive) triggered rampages by white settlers in the region. Today the Kaurareg memory of Thompson has been entirely lost.
She was so deeply tanned they didn’t know she was a white woman until she called to them in English.
News of the Rattlesnake’s arrival travelled through Indigenous networks and Islander men approached the surveying ship to trade.