Australian Geographic - - Snapshot - Bar­bara Thompson

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.

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