Morning Glory Clouds of the Gulf of Carpentaria

The Investigator Tree:

Eighteenth century inscriptions, or twentieth century misinterpretations ?

by B.J. Stubbs and P. Saenger

 Reprinted with permission of the authors
and the editors of RHSQ,
Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.
First published August 1996.

In 1841, John Lort Stokes, commanding H.M.S. Beagle, was exploring Australia's northern coastline, and in July he arrived at the small island in the Gulf of Carpentaria (Lat. 170o6'S Long. 139o37'E) which Matthew Flinders, nearly forty years before, had named Sweers. On the western side of this island Stokes discovered a tree with the name of Flinders' ship, the Investigator, carved along the trunk in large letters. This discovery excited Stokes who wrote of it thus:
       It was . . . our good fortune to find at last some traces of the Investigator's voyage, which at once invested the place with all the charms of association, and gave it an interest in our eyes that words can ill express. All the adventures and sufferings of the intrepid Flinders vividly recurred to our memory. (1)

    This tree later became known, in consequence of its historic inscription, as the Investigator Tree.

    On 5 March 1887, almost half a century after Stokes's voyage, the Gulf region suffered a violent cyclone which destroyed or damaged most of the buildings in Burketown, and also damaged the Investigator Tree on Sweers Island, seventy kilometres to the north. As it seemed likely that the injured tree would eventually fail and decay, part of its trunk was salvaged and sent to Brisbane.
    In February 1889, the tree became the property of the Queensland Museum. (2) It is presently displayed in the Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying in Brisbane.

    By the time the Investigator Tree was brought to Brisbane it bore not only the name of Flinders's ship, but also that of the Beagle, which Stokes had added in 1841. In addition were a large number of other names, including some dating from A.C. Gregory's North Australian Expedition in 1856, and some from the Burke and Wills Search Expedition under William Landsborough in 1861. Indeed, the tree carried inscriptions representative of many phases in the history, not just of Sweers Island, but of northern Australia generally. This makes the Investigator Tree an historic artifact of great cultural importance. A detailed historical interpretation of the inscriptions on the tree has been compiled by Saenger and Stubbs. (3)

    Besides the many inscriptions which were added to the tree after the visit of Flinders in 1802, many published articles and books have expressed the intriguing idea that the tree also carried inscriptions of Dutch and Chinese origin, predating Flinders's visit. In fact, in almost every account of the tree published after its arrival in Brisbane - and they number at least ten, spanning over eighty years - claims have been made for Dutch and Chinese inscriptions. Curiously, only one item from before 1889 makes any such suggestion. This paper tests these relatively recent claims that the Investigator Tree carried inscriptions predating the 1802 visit of Matthew Flinders to Sweers Island.

Claims for Pre-Flinders Inscriptions
According to Reed in 1973, in an entry entitled 'Sweers Island Q' in his Place Names of Australia, Dutch and Chinese navigators left inscriptions on [the Investigator Tree] at various times' prior to the visit of Flinders to the island in 1802. (4) This is a relatively recent perpetuation of the idea that the Investigator Tree carried pre-Flinders inscriptions. The idea which lacks any obvious basis in fact. In order to discover the origin of this apparent myth, its history, which encompasses more than a century, is subjected here to close scrutiny.

The earliest reference we have discovered to pre-Flinders inscriptions on the Investigator Tree is in a report on explorations undertaken in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1880. The Queensland Government Schooner Pearl, under the command of Captain Pennefather, was sent that year to chart the waters around Point Parker on the western side of the Gulf. The Pearl arrived at Sweers Island on 15 September. Pennefather found the tree and later reported that 'on [it] is to be seen the name of H.M.S. Investigator with the date 1802, and a still earlier date, supposed to have been carved by the Dutch'. (5) It is unknown whether Pennefather himself made this supposition, or whether he was attributing it to some unnamed informant. If the former is true Pennefather himself may be the originator of the Dutch inscription myth; if the latter, he may only have been following an older tradition.

Pennefather's reference to the supposed Dutch inscription was reiterated in 1895 by Major A.J. Boyd in a narrative based on the official reports of Pennefather's 1880 explorations in the Gulf. (6) Boyd read his paper at a meeting of the Queensland Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in November 1895. Between Pennefather's voyage and this time, the trunk of the Investigator Tree had arrived in Brisbane where it was placed on exhibition in the Queensland Museum, and it is probable that Boyd's narrative, through its timing and greater accessibility, influenced thinking about the tree more than Pennefather's earlier but more obscure official report. In this way the idea of a Dutch inscription on the tree may have received a considerable boost.

In 1903, in his posthumously-published Early Days in North Queensland, Edward Palmer presented a summary of the names and dates carved on the Investigator Tree. (7) The oldest inscription, Palmer claimed, with the date 1781, was the name of a Dutch exploring vessel the Lowy--allegedly commanded by Captain Abel Tasman, which called at Sweers Island in that year. Unfortunately for Palmer, the three ships under Tasman's command during his exploration of the Gulf were named Limmen, de Zeemeeuw, and de Bracq, and his voyage took place in 1644, not 1781. Although not the earliest reference to a Dutch inscription, Palmer's was the first we have found which gives a date, and is the first to use the name Lowy. It is not known where Palmer obtained this information, but Pennefather's report certainly provided no such detail. Thus, Pennefather's modest 1880 supposition was developed to great heights of extravagance in Palmer's later account.

Not only did Palmer elaborate the earlier suggestion of a Dutch inscription, but he added a claim for the existence of a Chinese inscription on the tree. The second oldest marking on the tree, Palmer said, comprised 'some Chinese characters' and the date 1798. Palmer is thus the earliest known perpetrator, and therefore perhaps the originator, of the Chinese inscription myth.

In 1933 an unattributed article in the Brisbane weekly newspaper the Queenslander, undoubtedly following Palmer's imaginative lead, referred to 'Chinese letters' on the tree, made in 1798 when a junk was wrecked on Sweers Island. Twenty-five of the Chinese trepang fishermen on board the vessel lived on the island, the article also claimed, until rescued by a 'Macassar prau'. It is unclear, however, why shipwrecked Chinese or their Macassan rescuers would carve the date into a tree using a foreign script! According to the same article, and again following Palmer, a Dutch exploring vessel, commanded by Tasman, called at Sweers Island in 1781, and the name of that vessel--here the Loury--was carved into the trunk of the Investigator Tree. The writer of this article almost certainly used as his principal source, and embellished somewhat, Palmer's account of the Investigator Tree inscriptions published thirty years before.

Several magazine articles published in the 1940s refer to the Investigator Tree and to an inscription in Chinese supposedly carved on it. One, by E.D.F. in 1942, claims that the crew of the Investigator found a tree on which 'were carved some Chinese characters and the date, 1798, evidence of visits by Asiatic beche-de-mer fishers'. In addition, the 'remains' of a wrecked junk and signs of brief visits of early Dutch ships' were found. (8) In a similar vein, G. P. in 1946 claims that Flinders found evidence of the visit of Chinese to Sweers Island: 'he found a tree on which were carved some Chinese characters and the date, 1798'. Flinders then 'carved the date and name of his ship on the same gnarled old tree on which he found the Chinese characters'. (9) Another article, by 'Ringata' in 1943, rightly describes the Investigator Tree carvings as a 'romantic link with three early navigators', but then continues to claim:

Also on the trunk are a number of carved Chinese characters; it is believed that these were executed by members of the crew of a Chinese beche-de-mer fishing boat. (10)
  Then, two decades later, Lack wrote in 1962 that:
 Chinese characters, almost obliterated by time, on the famous Investigator tree from Sweer's [sic] Island, now in the Queensland Museum, would seem to indicate that Chinese junks came seeking beche-de-mer in the Gulf of Carpentaria at least half a century before Cook sailed along the eastern coast, and a hundred years before Flinders' Investigator visited these waters. (11)
From 1933 onwards, the references to Chinese inscriptions on the Investigator Tree have in common their use of these supposed markings as evidence of the visit of Asian trepang fishermen to Sweers Island. There is better historical evidence for such visits, however, than for the alleged inscriptions, and it would have been more sound to use the visits to support claims for the existence of the inscriptions, not the reverse.

How did these claims originate? The ingredients of the idea are contained in the history of the Dutch and Macassan presence in northern Australia.

Historical Elements of the Myth
That Asian mariners visited the northern coast of Australia long before the first Englishmen did so is beyond doubt. The development prior to the end of the eighteenth century of a thriving Macassan trepang fishing industry along our northern shores was discussed in detail by Campbell in 1916 and analysed thoroughly in Macknight in 1976. (12) Although the industry was centred on the port of Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) on the Indonesian island of Celebes (now Sulawesi), the consumption of trepang was almost entirely restricted to the Chinese, and China was the final destination for most of the trepang exported from Macassar. It must be emphasised that the Chinese themselves did not do the fishing in northern Australia, contrary to this suggestion in many of the articles quoted above.

     Trepang became a common and substantial item of trade between Macassar and China by the late 1700s. According to Macknight, Dutch restrictions on Macassarese enterprise after 1667 probably caused the redirection of resources into new activities such as the trepang industry in general, and voyages to northern Australia in particular. Direct trade between Macassar and south China in the earlier part of the seventeenth century provided opportunities for trepang to become known there. In addition, the general outline of the Australian coast was known from Dutch charts of the time, facilitating Macassarese activity in that region.

     The trepang industry probably began, in the opinion of Macknight, in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The absence of references to the Macassans in records of Dutch exploration of northern Australia prior to 1754, however, suggests that it began in a 'small, irregular and secretive way', but it had certainly become a large and flourishing industry by the end of the eighteenth century. (13) Thus, when in December 1802 Flinders visited the cluster of islands in the south-western corner of the Gulf which he named Sir Edward Pellew's Group, he found that:

Indications of some foreign people having visited this group were almost as numerous as those left by the natives. Besides pieces of earthen jars and trees cut with axes, we found remnants of bamboo lattice work, palm leaves sewed with cotton thread into the form of such hats as are worn by the Chinese, and the remains of blue cotton trousers . . . It is evident that these people were Asiatics, but of what particular nation, or what their business [was] here, could not be ascertained; I suspected them, however, to be Chinese. (14)
    Flinders had visited Sweers Island the previous month and there he found seven human skulls and a number of bones lying together near three extinguished fires. A square piece of timber, seven feet long, of teak, which according to the judgment of the carpenter had been a quarter-deck carling of a ship, was also found, thrown up on the western beach. Later, on nearby Bentinck Island, he saw the stumps of twenty or more trees, which had been felled with an axe or some other sharp iron instrument. Close to these were found scattered the broken remains of an earthen jar. From these several observations Flinders conjectured that a ship from the East Indies had been wrecked there 'two or three years back', that part of the crew had been killed, and that the others had 'gone away . . . upon rafts constructed after the manner of the natives'. (15) Notably, Flinders made no mention of having discovered a tree bearing the carvings of these or any other visitors to Sweers Island. Nor did Robert Brown, the naturalist on the Investigator, nor Peter Goode, the gardener, although both made careful botanical searches of the island. (16)

The origin of these 'foreign visitors' was revealed to Flinders in February 1803 when he discovered at the Gove Peninsula, near the western entrance to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 'a canoe full of men' and 'six vessels covered over like hulks, as if laid up for the bad season'. Flinders had little doubt that these people were of the same origin as those whose traces he had already found 'so abundantly in the Gulph'. It was soon ascertained that the six vessels, which seemed to have twenty or twenty-five men in each, were 'prows from Macassar'. (18) Flinders communicated with their six Malay commanders and learned that sixty prows, carrying about one thousand men, had left Macassar in the north-west monsoon two months before and the fleet, divided into groups of five or six vessels each, now lay at various places along the coast. (19) The purpose of the expedition was to search for a marine animal called trepang, (20) which when dried and smoked was sold to the Chinese. Pobassoo, the chief of the division which Flinders encountered, had made six or seven such visits to the Australian coast during the preceding twenty years, that is since about 1782, and he claimed to be 'one of the first who came'. (21)

Stokes, who landed on Sweers Island in 1841, found no inscription on the Investigator Tree other than the one which he attributed to Flinders. Fifteen years later, Lieutenant Chimmo, of the paddle steamer Torch, landed there and discovered at high water mark on the western side of the island:

 the remains of a Malay proa . . . the beams of which were teak. We concluded she had been cast away during the N.W. monsoon; her beam was 17 feet; length could not be ascertained. (22)
He also found the tree which still 'plainly bore' the inscriptions of the Investigator, and of the Beagle which had visited the island in the meantime. (23) Like Stokes, Chimmo made no mention of any earlier carvings.

Further evidence of the visit of Asian mariners to Sweers Island is provided by a record of the Queensland Museum having received in 1889 a 'piece of mast of a Chinese junk, supposed to have been wrecked on Sweers Island'. (24) The Queenslander claims that this was forwarded to Brisbane with the main branch of the Investigator Tree, and that it was part of the wrecked Chinese junk 'found' by Flinders. (25) It is unknown whether this is so (Flinders found only one piece of timber), whether it was part of the wrecked prow which Chimmo found in 1856 (assuming they were different wrecks), or whether it belonged to another more recent wreck.

Several elements of the claims discussed above for pre-Flinders inscriptions on the Investigator Tree seem to have as their bases comments made by Flinders in the account of his exploration of the Gulf quoted above. Flinders's conjecture in 1802 that a ship from the East Indies had been wrecked on Sweers Island 'two or three years back', (26) together with his supposition that the Asian visitors whose traces he found in Sir Edward Pellew's Group were Chinese, may be the basis of the claim for the 1798 Chinese inscription first made by Palmer in 1903. Flinders's observation that each of the prows which he encountered in 1803 contained twenty or twenty-five men may be the basis for the claim in the Queenslander that the crew of the wrecked 'junk' numbered twenty-five. The origin of the claim that a Dutch exploring vessel called at Sweers Island in 1781 is not clear, but there may be some significance in the comment by Pobassoo, as recounted by Flinders, that he had made six or seven visits to the Australian coast during the preceding twenty years - since about 1782.

Several Dutch ships are known to have explored the waters of northern Australia from the early seventeenth century - notably those under the command of Tasman in 1644. That any actually visited Sweers Island is, however, unlikely. Tasman's are the only Dutch ships known to have sailed close to Sweers Island, but it is highly improbable that they stopped there. On Dutch maps showing Tasman's route around the Gulf, the Wellesley group of islands to which Sweers belongs appears as a peninsula--Cape van Diemen. Clearly, Tasman failed to recognise the individual islands of this group. (27) It is therefore inconceivable that he visited the western side of Sweers Island where the tree stood. The idea that he went ashore, and found the tree, (28) and carved a name on it, is sheer fantasy.

Although it therefore seems improbable that the Dutch visited Sweers Island, it is equally clear that Macassan trepangers had been there, both before Flinders, and probably on later occasions as well. It is still a big leap, however, from knowing of these visits to claiming the presence of Macassan inscriptions on the Investigator Tree. Flinders, whose record of his 1802 visit to the Gulf is meticulous, found no cause to comment about pre-existing inscriptions on the tree on which the name of his ship was carved in 1802. Subsequent visitors such as Stokes, in 1841, and Chimmo, in 1856, also found no such inscriptions. How, then, it must be asked, did the idea originate? Why did the need arise to invent such inscriptions?

Origin of the Myth

In 1895, the year in which Major Boyd presented his narrative of Captain Pennefather's voyage, there appeared in Brisbane the first edition of J.J. Knight's In the Early Days: History and Incident of Pioneer Queensland. In this book the Investigator Tree receives honourable mention as a 'valuable relic of Flinders' voyage to the Gulf'. Knight included an illustration of the tree which he had obtained, along with most of his text regarding it, from an article published in the Queenslander shortly after the arrival of the tree at the Queensland Museum in 1889 (see photo). This article's anonymous writer, blissfully unaware of Pennefather's earlier speculation, made no reference to pre-Flinders inscriptions on the tree. Rather, after stating that Flinders cut the name of his vessel on it, he added:
      a portion of the original inscription - namely, "Investig," - is clearly visible to this day, while the name in full is also cut in the bark, but is evidently of a more recent date. (29)

    This article is the next known published reference to the Investigator Tree after Pennefather's report of 1880. The two inscriptions which its author was then able to make out are both still visible on the tree today, one clearly and one much less so. The older of these inscriptions, we propose, is the one which Pennefather, eight years previously, could not read and had supposed to be of Dutch origin. This was quite a reasonable deduction if Pennefather could not decipher the older inscription and assumed the newer one to date from Flinders's visit. Thus, the Dutch inscription myth arose as a means of explaining the existence on the tree of an inscription which, although difficult to decipher and of great apparent age, was in fact of lesser antiquity. How, it must now be asked, did the tree come to bear two inscriptions, both of which apparently read, or originally read, Investigator?

    In July 1841, when the Beagle visited Sweers Island, Captain Stokes found 'the name of Flinders' ship cut on a tree . . . . and still perfectly legible although nearly forty years old'. 'On the opposite side of the trunk', Stokes noted, the name of his ship and the year of his visit were cut. (30) In July 1856, Lieutenant Chimmo found that the tree 'still plainly bore the inscriptions of the "Investigator and Beagle;" the former fifty-four years since, the latter fifteen'. (31) Later in 1856, four months after Chimmo's visit, Sweers Island was visited by the Messenger, bearing part of A.C. Gregory's North Australian Expedition, under the command of Thomas Baines, on its return from the Victoria River. The answer to the mystery of the second Investigator inscription is to be found hidden in Baines's journal. (32)

    On 19 November, after having spent two days replenishing the water casks of the Messenger, Baines recorded that 'nearly all men . . . carved their names on some of the smaller trunks of the Investigator's tree and one invading the main stem had made some unintelligible cuts two or three of which came across the name of the Investigator'. (33) Baines, who was the artist on the expedition and the leader of this party by instruction of Gregory, gave orders that 'this relic of the Adventurous old Navigator should be respected and as it was now barely legible [he] cut the word afresh just below it'. (34) Baines also made a sketch of the tree on which he made the note:

      Tree near Flinders' Well on Sweers Island Gulf of Carpentaria with the names of the Investigator and the Beagle carved on it the uppermost is the original name carved by Flinders crew, the lower and more distinct was cut by myself to mark the spot visited by the old navigator when his own might be effaced. (35)

    It is this second Investigator inscription, made by Baines in 1856, we propose, which caused the confusion which led to the invention of eighteenth century Dutch and Chinese inscriptions.

Confusion Arises

Three accounts of visits to the Investigator Tree are known from the period between that of Baines in 1856, and the removal of the trunk of the tree to Brisbane about 1889. (36) In 1861, during an inspection of the island on 30 September, William Landsborough and Captain W.H. Norman found 'the old tree with [Flinders's] ship's name cut on it, looking quite healthy'. (37) The inscription was 'still quite legible, though cut so far back as 1802'. (38) George Bourne, second in charge of Landsborough's party, reported seeing the 'tree with Investigator . . . cut on it, besides other names'. (39) it was probably the inscription made by Baines in 1856, however, not Flinders's original, which Landsborough, Norman and Bourne saw. The earlier one was apparently not noticed.

In 1866, it is claimed, (40) John G. Macdonald visited the Investigator Tree and recorded the names and dates which then were legible. Macdonald's list, as published in the Queenslander in 1933, began 'FLINDERS INVESTIGATOR 1802'. In August the following year, the Eagle, under the command of Captain F. Cadell, and en route to the Northern Territory on a voyage of discovery, called at Sweers Island. B.J. Gulliver, who was attached to the party as botanical collector, came upon the Investigator Tree which was 'growing and in a healthy state'. Gulliver copied the inscriptions which were 'distinctly visible' into his diary. They also included the entry 'FLINDERS INVESTIGATOR 1802'. (41)

Macdonald and Gulliver are the only known observers to have recorded 'Flinders' among the inscriptions which they claim to have seen on the Investigator Tree. Although it may seem improbable that both, independently, would make the same error, the best explanation which we can give is that this dual mistake is the result of equally imaginative attempts to interpret the original 'Investigator' inscription which, a decade before, had been rendered partly illegible by the careless carvings of someone from the crew of the Messenger. This original inscription, it must be remembered, was now more than sixty years old, and was therefore unclear even without the damage it sustained in 1856. Unless Macdonald and Gulliver had read Baines's diary, they would not have suspected that the inscription had been replicated, so their 'Flinders' inscription is a fair guess. In addition, it must be noted that none of these 1860s observers refer to pre-Flinders Chinese or Dutch inscriptions.

In 1880, Pennefather interpreted the older 'Investigator' not as 'Flinders', as Macdonald and Gulliver had done, but as something in Dutch. The Queenslander reporter in 1889 examined the tree more closely than visitors to Sweers Island had done previously, for he was able to make out the portion of the original 'Investigator' inscription which, about twenty years before, Macdonald and Gulliver had mistaken for the name 'Flinders' and which eight years previously Pennefather had also misinterpreted. He was also able to rightly assess that the full word 'Investigator'--the carving made in 1856 by Baines--was a more recent addition. It is notable that such a careful observer as this person obviously was, found no inscriptions on the tree which he had cause to think might be Chinese or Dutch. It is suggested, therefore, that the supposed foreign scripts are simply imaginative interpretations of the original 'Investigator' inscription which had been rendered indecipherable, or at least unclear, by age and injury.

Had Pennefather examined the tree more closely in 1880 he might never have made the mistake of supposing the older inscription to be Dutch - but he did. Thus, the idea of pre-Flinders inscriptions seems to have begun with Pennefather. It was reinforced, however, by Boyd in 1895, and Edward Palmer later embellished it with dates and other details to the point where it took on the appearance of fact, not merely supposition. Of course, there is always the remote possibility that Palmer had access to reliable information which we have been unable to locate. In answer to that possibility, we must state that Palmer's account of the tree is demonstrably wrong in several other details. Palmer records 'Stokes' among the names which he claims were inscribed on the tree, but no evidence for this can be found. Stokes did, however, have the name of his ship cut into the tree. Palmer also incorrectly identifies Robert Devine (whose name was carved into the tree) as the first lieutenant on the Investigator (1802), when in fact he was the Captain of the Messenger (1856). (42) He also records 'Chimmo' in his list of inscriptions, but judging by Chimmo's own account, is not justified in so doing. Chimmo recorded that:

 we all assembled beneath THE TREE which still plainly bore the inscriptions of the "Investigator and Beagle;". . . the Torch's name was not added, for if all did the same the original wouId soon be obliterated, which I hold to be next to sacrilegious, considering that the original and the originator stand alone as long as wind and weather will permit. (43)
In the light of such a plethora of inaccuracies, why should Palmer's claims for pre-Flinders Dutch and Chinese inscriptions not be questioned?

The First 1802 Inscription

The earliest inscription on the Investigator Tree which we now believe to be beyond dispute is 'Investigator', apparently carved by one of that ship's company in 1802. There is nothing, however, in the journals of Flinders, nor of others such as Robert Brown or Peter Goode who were part of his party, to confirm that he or a member of his crew actually carved this inscription on the tree. This omission resulted later in some doubt over the authenticity of the inscription.

When the Northern Protector of Aborigines, Dr Walter E. Roth, first visited Sweers Island in 1901 he took special note of the condition of the Investigator Tree. The limb bearing the inscription for which the tree was named had been removed 'some few years back' and deposited in the Queensland Museum. The remainder of this 'very interesting historical landmark' had been mutilated by subsequent visitors, and only a corner post remained of a fence which had once been erected around it.

Roth's visit to the Investigator Tree occurred only a year before the centenary of Flinders's visit to Sweers Island. Roth thought that the erection of a new fence and some permanent commemorative inscription would be a fitting way to mark the occasion, and he offered to assist the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland branch) to establish such a memorial during his return visit to the island the following year. (44) The Council of the Society were unreceptive of the idea, however, believing that it was not at all certain that Flinders, or even any member of the crew of the Investigator, had marked the tree, and, even if he had, that the portion of the tree preserved in the Queensland Museum was 'sufficient for all ordinary requirements'. The Council's belief was based on the absence of any mention of the tree in Flinders's own account of his visit to Sweers Island. (45)

There is a simpler explanation, however, for the lack of a mention of the Investigator Tree in the original accounts of Flinders's 1802 visit to Sweers Island. It was commonplace for early navigators and explorers to record names and dates on trees, and these, as on the Investigator Tree, became important references for future visitors. It was necessarily less common, however, and therefore more noteworthy, to record a name on a tree which already bore the name of a previous visitor. Stokes did so in 1841 and considered the event worthy of particular mention in his journal. Conversely, that Flinders made no mention of the tree may indicate only that he was the first to use it in this manner, that is, that the Investigator Tree bore no earlier inscriptions than that left by Flinders or his crew in 1802.

The idea that the Investigator Tree bore inscriptions, either Chinese or Dutch, pre-dating the visit of Flinders to Sweers Island in 1802 seems to have been first expressed in 1880 by Captain Pennefather. It was modified and embellished during the subsequent one-hundred years, most notably by Edward Palmer in 1903. After close examination of many accounts of the Investigator Tree written over a period of about 130 years we have found no evidence to corroborate such claims. It has, however, been possible to explain them.

The Dutch and Chinese inscriptions were invented to explain the existence on the Investigator Tree of an illegible - or at least difficult to decipher - inscription which was clearly older than a legible one apparently dating from 1802. These myths or explanations drew on knowledge derived primarily from Flinders's account of his visit to Sweers Island and to the Gulf region generally in 1802, and were perhaps supported by Chimmo's account of his visit in 1856. They would never have arisen, however, had it not been for a member of the crew of the Messenger in 1856 having damaged the original 'Investigator' inscription, and of Thomas Baines having carved it anew.

Once the idea had originated, that it managed to survive - indeed thrive - is regrettably due to a series of cases of unquestioning repetition, combined with sheer wishful thinking. The perpetuation of Palmer's claims in later articles such as the Queenslander, E.D.F., Ringata, G.P., Lack and Reed, have together lent considerable apparent weight to the idea of older inscriptions than the original 'Investigator'.

Analysis of records spanning well over a century has failed, however, to reveal any credible evidence for any inscription older than the first 'Investigator' in 1802. The evidence for earlier inscriptions seems unsound at best. Ironically, Baines's 1856 replication of the original inscription, undertaken to conserve the memory of Flinders's visit, was probably the underlying cause of the later confusion and speculation. After about 1860, any visitor to the tree who found a legible inscription apparently dating from 1802 could only assume that the adjacent illegible inscription - Flinders's original - was older. Herein, we believe, lies the explanation for the numerous unproven claims for Dutch and Chinese inscriptions on the Investigator Tree.



1. Stokes, J.L., Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 (T. and W. Boone, London, 1846; reproduced by the Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1969), pp. 270-71.

2. Queenslander, 19 March 1887, p. 460 and 9 March 1889, p. 451; Knight, J.J., In the Early Days: History and Incident of Pioneer Queensland (Sapsford and Co., Brisbane, 1895), p. 7; Entry in Queensland Museum donor register; Annual Report of the Trustees of the Queensland Museum [for the year 1889], Votes and Proceedings, Legislative Assembly of Queensland (hereafter V&P) 1890, vol. 3, p. 1107.

3. Saenger, P. and Stubbs, B.J., 'The Investigator Tree: A natural historic monument,' Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland 104, 1994, pp. 67-78.

4. Reed, A.W., Place Names of Australia (Reed, Sydney, 1973).

5. Several writers including Pennefather have said that the year 1802 appears on the tree with the name Investigator, but this cannot be substantiated. In fact, it seems unlikely. C. Pennefather, 'Capt. Pennefather's report upon explorations in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and surveys in the vicinity of Point Parker', V&P 1880, vol. 2, pp. 1127-9.

6. Boyd, A.J., 'Narrative of Capt. G. Pennefather's Exploration of the Coen, Archer, and Batavia rivers, and of the Islands on the Western Coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1880,' Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia--Queensland Branch, vol. 2 (1896), pp. 47-61. Pennefather, C., op. cit. and Pennefather, C., 'Cruise of the Queensland Government Schooner "Pearl" in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Captain Pennefather's report of the exploration of the Coen, Archer, and Batavia Rivers,' V&P 1880, vol. 2, pp. 1123-5.

7. Palmer, E., Early Days in North Queensland (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1903; republished 1983).

8. E.D.F., 'An Historic Island,' Walkabout, 1 October 1942, p. 1.

9. G.P., 'Historic Island of the Gulf,' Cummin and Campbell's Monthly Magazine, September 1946, pp. 7, 41.

10. Ringata, 'History in wood', Walkabout, 1 November 1943, p. 30.

11. Lack, C., 'History and Potential Future of Cape York Peninsula,' Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal 6(4), 1961-62, pp. 942-1013.

12. Campbell, W.S., 'The Oldest Industry in Australia: Trepang,' Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings 3(9), 1916, pp. 429-37; Macknight, C.C., The voyage to Marege: Macassan trepangers in Northern Australia, (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976).

13. Macknight, op.cit., pp. 93-9.

14. FIinders, M., A Voyage to Terra Australis (2 vols and charts), (G. and W. Nicol, London, 1814; reproduced by Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1966), vol. 2, pp. 172-3.

15. Flinders, op. cit. vol. 2, p. 147.

16. A microfilm copy of Robert Brown's handwritten diary is held at the National Herbarium, Black Mountain, Canberra. The section dealing with the stay on Sweers Island (16-30 November 1802) was read and copied by P. Saenger on 14 September 1990, and later transcribed. Edwards, P.I. (ed.), 'The journal of Peter Goode, gardener, on Matthew Flinders' voyage to Terra Australis, 1801-03', Bulletin of the British Museum, Natural History Historical Series, vol. 9, 1981, pp. 1-213.

17. Flinders, op. cit. vol. 2, p. 228.

18. ibid vol. 2, p. 229.

19. ibid vol. 2, p. 230.

20. A holothurian, also known as sea-slug, sea-cucumber and beche-de-mer.

21. Flinders, op. cit. vol. 2, p. 231.

22. Chimmo, W., 'Voyage of H.M.S.V. "Torch", Lieut. W. Chimmo R.N. commanding - from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria,' Nautical Magazine, April-September 1857, pp. 361-62.

23. Chimmo, op.cit. p. 320; Chimmo, 'Account of the Search for the North-Australian Exploring Expedition under Mr. A. C. Gregory,' Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society (London), vol. 1, 1857, p. 259.

24. Annual Report of the Trustees of the Queensland Museum, V&P 1890, vol. 3, p. 1098.

25. Queenslander, 'The Investigator Tree,' 16 March 1933, p. 6.

26. Flinders, op. cit. vol. 2, p. 147.

27. Schilder, G., 'New Holland: the Dutch discoveries', in Williams, G. and Frost, A. (eds), Terra Australis to Australia (Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Melbourne, 1988), pp. 83-115; Sharp, A., The voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman, (Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 311-332.

28. If it even existed a century and a half before Flinders.

29. An interesting relic,' Queenslander, 9 March 1889, p. 451.

30. Stokes, Discoveries, pp. 270-71.

31. Chimmo, 'Voyage of H.M.S.V. "Torch,"' p. 320.

32. Baines, T. 'Journal,' 5 vols (1856-57), Mitchell Library manuscript C408.

33. ibid.

34. Gregory, A.C., 'North Australian Expedition,' Letter to Colonial Secretary, 2 December 1856, Votes and Proceedings, Legislative Assembly New South Wales 1856-57, vol.2, pp. 171-172; Baines op. cit.

35. Baines's original sketch is in the picture library of the Royal Geographical Society, London, It has been reproduced in Braddon, R., Thomas Baines and the North Australian Expedition (Collins, Sydney, in association with the Royal Geographical Society, London, 1986), and in Saenger, P. and Stubbs, B.J., 'The Investigator Tree: A natural historic monument,' Proceedings Royal Society of Queensland 104 (1994), pp. 67-78.

36. The date of removal of the tree from Sweers Island is unknown. It may have been kept in the Brisbane Port Office for as much as nearly two years before it was transferred to the Museum.

37. Norman, W. H., 'Report of Commander Norman of H.M.C.S. Victoria: together with a copy of his journal on the late expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria,' Victorian Parliamentary Papers, paper no. 124, 1 May 1862, p. 14.

38. Laurie, J.S. (ed.), Landsborough's exploration of Australia from Carpentaria to Melbourne (Thomas Murby/Simpkin, Marshall and Co., London, 18667), pp. 9-10.

39. Bourne, G., Bourne's Journal of Landsborough's Expedition in Search of Burke and Wills (H. T. Dwight, Melbourne, 1862).

40. Queenslander, 'The Investigator Tree,' 16 March 1933, p. 6. It is not known where the writer to the Queenslander obtained this information, but it was presumably taken from Macdonald's own written account of the visit. Such an account, however, has not been found.

41. Gulliver, B.J., 'The Explorer's Tree,' Brisbane Courier, 12 November 1889, p. 6; Queenslander, 16 November 1889, p. 927.

42. This mistake was repeated by Queenslander (1933) and Reed (1973).

43. Chimmo, 'Voyage of H.M.S.V. "Torch"', p. 320.

44. Roth, W.E., 'Report on a visit to some of the Wellesley Islands,' 6 January 1901, QSA A/44681 11679/1901.

45. J.P. Thomson, Secretary, Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Queensland, to Home Secretary's Office, quoted in W.E. Roth to Home Secretary's Office, 26 March 1902, QSA A/44681 4870/1902.

Drs. B.J. Stubbs and P. Saenger lecture at the Centre for Coastal Management,
Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, 2480.
Sweers Island and the Gulf: A Chronology

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