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.