“It struck me there must have been some bad work going on there.”(12)
Major Edmund Lockyer arrived in King George Sound on the brig Amity on Christmas Day 1826 to annex the western part of New Holland for the British Crown. Captained by Thomas Hansen,(13) the Amity was laden with the resources for the new settlement including skilled-convict labour, soldiers, sheep, seeds and poultry. As Commandant, it was Major Lockyer’s contract to construct and govern what was essentially to be the beginnings of a military outpost and to guard against French occupation.(14)
Whilst sailing into the Sound, Lockyer saw smoke from a fire on Michaelmas Island and noted that he thought a sailor may have been marooned there. The next day he sent a boat to the island and his crew returned with four Aboriginal men, some with cutlass scars across their throats and other evidence of battle upon their bodies. Lockyer had reported thus far spending a harmonious day meeting and hunting with some Menang men. Therefore he must have been shocked as the collective mood of these men swiftly became antagonistic once they had held a meeting with their countrymen who had been marooned on Michaelmas. Several of the men left as a group and called away any Menang men who were with Lockyer. They then speared the Major’s only blacksmith Dennis Dineen, in what appeared to be retribution for an unexplained, historic insult. To his credit, Lockyer ordered that no retaliatory action be taken. The next day when he explored Green Island in Oyster Harbour, Lockyer discovered the desiccated body of an Aboriginal man lying close to a partially completed raft. At this point, Lockyer realised that he had sailed into a feud between the Menang and an unknown band of seamen, who must have taken the Menang men to Green Island. “It struck me there must have been some bad work going on there; the natives have no Boats; they never venture above Knee deep in the water.”(15)
Two weeks after the Amity’s arrival his suspicions were confirmed when eight sealers in a whaleboat slipped into Princess Royal Harbour.(16) The sealers boarded the Amity and asked Lieutenant Festing for victuals. Festing referred them to the Major, and the boatsteerer(17) William Bundy gave Lockyer a note from his employer Mr. Robinson, stating that the writer would ‘pick up the bill’. The seamen “proved to be part of a Sealing Gang, the Boat belonging to a Mr. Robinson of the schooner Governor Hunter(18), with some of the crew of the schooner Brisbane, the Master having gone off and left these men on the Islands here.”(19) In contrast to the Major’s ethnically homogenous party consisting of English nationals, only half of the sealers he met that day were of Anglo Saxon heritage; the other four he variously described as ‘a Sydney Black’, ‘a Black Man’, and a ‘New Zealander’.(20) This diversity of origins was common in Southern Ocean sealing communities at the time.
Major Lockyer invited the sealers to eat and stay aboard the Amity that night. On the morning of Thursday the 11th of January, he sent for the sealers and interviewed them in his camp. Their testimonies, in particular that of William Hook, detailed the killing of the man on Green Island in October 1826 and the abduction of several Menang women, and prompted Lockyer to request that Festing detain the sealers and their boat. Consequently, that night the Amity became the first watch house in Western Australia. The next day, Lockyer sent for William Hook and interviewed him again. He quizzed Hook on his understanding of the “nature of an Oath and the consequence of swearing to what was not true”(21) and when he was assured that William Hook understood, he swore the sealer to his information and made him sign the statement.(22) This statement, sent as part of Lockyer’s report to the Colonial Secretary, is the only known primary source that documents the sealers’ crimes of October 1826.
In the evening of October 12th, 1826, eight weeks before Lockyer arrived, a sealing gang from the Governor Brisbane sailed a whaleboat across King George Sound to come alongside the French expedition ship Astrolabe. After a rough crossing from Trinidad, Captain Dumont d’Urville had stopped in King George Sound to give his crew a rest and mend the rigging. The sealers told the captain they’d been abandoned, were living from their fishing alone, and had settled on Breaksea Island in the Sound. Captain d’Urville offered them the night aboard as well as ship’s biscuit and brandy. In return the sealers brought to the table muttonbirds, natural history and information on safe anchorages. The sealers complained to d’Urville of “a great deal of the hardships and privation they had endured while waiting for a boat to take them off.”(23)
Four Breaksea Islanders took up d’Urville’s offer of a working passage to New South Wales. The remaining five declined; d’Urville perceived his offer as being “coldly received.”(24) This led d’Urville to thinking that most of them were escaped convicts who preferred to avoid the eastern states and the law. (Some of the English sealers had a living memory of the Napoleonic war between England and France and this may have influenced their attitude.) D’Urville expressed his distrust of the sealers, writing that he only gave them permission to stay aboard because he worried they would otherwise find his shore camp that night and he wanted to get a measure of the men first. Still, he showed some private admiration in his journal: “What an extraordinary fate for eight Europeans to be abandoned like this with a frail skiff on these deserted beaches and left entirely to their own resources and industry!...”(25)
12 Historical Records of Australia: Despatches and Papers Relating to the Settlement of the States: Tasmania, April – December, 1827, West Australia, March 1826 – January, 1830 Northern Territory, August, 1824 – December, 1829: Series 3, Vol. 1. Sydney: The Library Committee of the Commonwealth Department, 1923, p. 466 (Hereafter referenced as Lockyer, H.R.A. III, Vol.1)
13 Hansen, K., The Life and Times of Captain Thomas Hansen 1762-1837, Watermark Press, Auckland, 2007, p. 23.
14 Although Major Lockyer was acting on Governor Darling’s concern that the French were preparing to annexe New Holland as a penal colony, Leslie Marchant maintains they had no intention of doing so. “In reality there was no basis for that fear. Major Lockyer’s action in coming to Albany did not thwart the French. The French then no longer had serious intentions of challenging the British there.” Marchant, L., France Australe, Scott Four Colour Print, Perth, 1998, p. 246. However Edward Duyker, in his biography of d’Urville argues that surveying King George Sound was a deliberate aspect of the Astrolabe’s ‘unofficial’ expedition. Duyker, E., Dumont d’Urville: Explorer and Polymath, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2014, p. 192.
15 Lockyer, H.R.A.III, Vol. 1, p. 466.
16 For Lockyer’s reports to the Colonial Secretary during this period see H.R.A., III, Vol. 1, pp. 457-537.
17 ‘Boatsteerer’ is a whaling term. In a sealing gang the boatsteerer was the leader of that boat’s crew.
18 Here, Lockyer erroneously names the Hunter the Governor Hunter. The Governor Hunter was wrecked in 1819.
19 Lockyer, H.R.A. III, Vol. 1, p. 468.
20 Lockyer, H.R.A. III, Vol. 1, p. 468.
21 Lockyer, H.R.A. III, Vol. 1, p. 469
22 For William Hook’s statement see Appendix 1, or Lockyer, H.R.A. III, Vol. 1, p. 473.
23 Rosenman, H., Trans. Ed. An Account in Two Volumes of Two Voyages to the South Seas, Vol. 1 Astrolabe 1826-1829, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 1987, p. 31. (Hereafter referenced as Rosenman, H., Trans. Ed. 1987.)
24 Rosenman, H., Trans. Ed. 1987, p. 31.