James Mor­rill

Australian Geographic - - Snapshot -

ANAKED MAN perched on a fence stam­mer­ing out to two armed set­tlers not to shoot him, say­ing “I am a Bri­tish ob­ject”, is a vivid sym­bol of the per­ilous po­si­tion held by those who crossed the colo­nial fron­tier. Dur­ing the 17 years in which this man, James Mor­rill, lived with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in north­ern Queens­land, cat­a­strophic changes were wrought upon Indigenous cul­ture and so­ci­ety by the in­vad­ing colonists.

As a youth, Mor­rill joined the crew of the Peru­vian, sail­ing from Syd­ney for China in 1846, but just days out, the ves­sel was ship­wrecked. The 21 sur­vivors built a raft that was blown into shore more than 40 days later, just south of present-day Townsville. Only seven peo­ple sur­vived, three of them dy­ing shortly af­ter from ex­haus­tion and star­va­tion.

The four re­main­ing cast­aways, in­clud­ing Mor­rill, were dis­cov­ered by local peo­ple af­ter what must have been two very long weeks. In some­thing of a comic scene, the ter­ri­fied sur­vivors raised their hands in sur­ren­der and the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple mim­icked the ges­ture, slowly com­ing closer and closer to them un­til they were able to feel the strangers “all over from head to foot to make sure we were hu­man be­ings like them­selves”.

A se­ries of cer­e­monies and feasts fol­lowed to wel­come them into their new com­mu­nity. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing months, Mor­rill and the oth­ers were taught how to gather food, hunt and fish, and be­gan to pick up the lan­guage. At one stage, many tribal groups were invited to come to­gether so they could see the Euro­peans. Fol­low­ing the gath­er­ing, Mor­rill and the other sur­vivors de­cided to go away with some of the vis­i­tors from the south, rea­son­ing they might be able to reach a white set­tle­ment. Af­ter two years, Mor­rill was the only re­main­ing sur­vivor. He de­cided to re­turn to the peo­ple who had orig­i­nally taken him in and was wel­comed back. “I lived on year af­ter year in the tribe, as one of them­selves,” he told his bi­og­ra­pher.

How­ever, by the early 1860s, there were in­creas­ing signs of Euro­pean colo­nial pres­ence in the re­gion and news of alarm­ing in­ci­dents in­volv­ing ag­gres­sive white peo­ple came from the south. A set­tle­ment was es­tab­lished at Port Deni­son (later the town­ship of Bowen), where local peo­ple were driven off their land. A sense of fear and mis­trust be­came part of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of Euro­peans.

Mor­rill be­came con­vinced that his best chances for sur­vival now lay in get­ting back into the white com­mu­nity, where he could seek pro­tec­tion for the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who took him in. His Abo­rig­i­nal fam­ily tried to dis­cour­age him, telling him he would “be taken for a black­fel­low and treated ac­cord­ingly, that is shot”.

But they ac­cepted his de­ci­sion and helped him lo­cate the hut of two white men af­ter he per­suaded them that by meet­ing with the white peo­ple, he “might be the means of sav­ing their lives”. It was here that he climbed onto a fence to es­cape a bark­ing dog and called out to the stock­men not to shoot him.

Mor­rill made it to Bowen on 20 Fe­bru­ary 1863. He was wel­comed there by prom­i­nent cit­i­zens and “be­sieged by those cu­ri­ous to see the man who had lived such a strange and event­ful life”. Mor­rill made an im­pas­sioned call for land rights for the peo­ple who had taken him in. In the wider white com­mu­nity – at Mary­bor­ough and in the Wide Bay re­gion – he had sup­port­ers. But lo­cally there was un­equiv­o­cal op­po­si­tion and Mor­rill didn’t suc­ceed in ne­go­ti­at­ing for the peo­ple he knew so well to keep their own land. The an­swer to the re­quest he brought back from his peo­ple – to be al­lowed to re­tain the swamps and salt­wa­ter creeks – as one jour­nal­ist put it, “was sent from the ri­fle, and those who had pro­tected and fed one of our fel­low-be­ings for so long a time were shot”. In 1865 Mor­rill died sud­denly at the rel­a­tively young age of 41 of a knee in­fec­tion (the ef­fect of an old spear wound). The old Abo­rig­i­nal men who had known him claimed that he had ac­tu­ally “died of a bro­ken heart”.

James Mor­rill was about 22 when his life among Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple be­gan. This son of an Es­sex mill­wright and en­gi­neer ran away to sea, ended up in Syd­ney and joined the crew of a ship sail­ing to China. His “life with the lo­cals” be­gan af­ter the ship was wrecked off north­ern Queens­land.

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