Morning Glory Clouds of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Historical Notes on Sweers Island

Peter Saenger
Part Three


Dec. 12 - Despite years of agitation to move the customs house from Sweers Island, William Thornton - the Chief Collector of Customs - writes to the Colonial Treasurer to suggest that it would be "... impolitic in the extreme to remove the Head Quarters of the Customs from Sweers Island to Normanton ..." (168) where a branch of the customs had already been established.


Dec. 30 - W.J. Greenaway (169) appointed as sub-collector of customs at Sweers Island to replace McManus, who had drowned. (170)


Jun. 16 - A report (171) concerning the removal of the customs establishment from Sweers Island to Normanton carries the marginal notes: 'Approved subject to the reduction in boatmen employed - I see the £75 is only for shifting - inquiry should be made to see it it is worth shifting.' 'Removal of customs ... approved ... 31.8.80.' The expenses for the removal of the customs was paid from contingencies. (172)

Sept. 15 - Captain C. Pennefather arrived at Sweers Island from Thursday Island aboard Q.G.S. PEARL to chart the waters around Point Barker. Because he had not been able to procure a sufficient supply of water at Thursday Island, he "filled up at this place, the water being good and plentiful". (173) In the official report presented to both Houses of the Queensland Parliament, Captain Pennefather reports that the Island is "lightly timbered; with soil of loose sandy nature. At the time of our visit it presented a very sterile appearance owing to want of rain and its being overstocked; in fact, it seemed wonderful how the quantity of stock, over 1200 in number (cattle, sheep and goats), managed to exist. (174) He also reports that "there are two cocoa-nut trees on the Island, thriving and doing well, also guavas, dates, tamarinds, etc., - the climate of the place being apparently well suited to the growth of fruits of the kind". (175)

As far as the township is concerned, Pennefather was less enthusiastic, observing that "the few remaining buildings on the island are very much affected with white ants, and would hardly pay for removal. The site of the once thriving township of Carnarvon is only to be recognised by the heaps of broken bottles which mark the positions of the various buildings which have now totally disappeared". (176)

More interestingly, Captain Pennefather mentions the inscribed tree at Point Inscription and is the first of several authors (177) to suggest that the earlier date was of Dutch origin. He reports that "on an old tree 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." (178)

Sept. 20 - "Having filled up with fuel and water, sailed from Sweer's" (179) to survey the other islands and the adjacent mainland, subsequently arriving at Thursday Island on 25th October.


W. Saville-Kent visited Sweers Island. In his book on the Great Barrier Reef (180), he describes and shows photographs of specimens of coral rock conglomerate collected from Sweers Island. In addition he reports (181) that "had space permitted, another highly interesting and instructive photograph would have been reproduced here viz., a view of the low sand cliff immediately facing the beach on Sweer's Island, where the specimens just described were collected ...... The aspect of this cliff is very singular ..... Some twenty years ago Sweer's Island was visited by a devastating hurricane, which well nigh wrecked the homestead established there, and during it the cliff, ranging from ten to twenty feet in height, was more or less completely submerged ....... The action of the latest hurricane, and accompanying inundation ....... was to undermine an extensive area of the face of the cliff, to such an extent, that a large portion has fallen down and lies scattered in huge, heaped-up blocks at high-tide level. A little way inland, out of the reach of the sea and spray, the stratum of siliceous sand and ironstone gravel occurs without any admixture of carbonate of lime."


With the abandonment of Carnarvon, Sweers Island reverted to Aboriginal use. It seems likely that animals left on the island were killed by the natives.

The first anthropologist to visit the area was Dr. Walter E. Roth, Northern Protectors of Aborigines, who was accompanied by native police from the mainland and J.F. Bailey, Director of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. Tindale claims that the visit is not well documented although it is reported that a small plant collection from Bentinck Island and some photographic negatives are in existence. The only negative so far located (182) shows a group of eight men in front of a row of dilapidated buildings in the deserted township. [Correspondence (183) from the Queensland Herbarium claims that no records of plant collections from Bentinck Island collected by J.F. Bailey are held there although Blake (184) cites specimens of Melaleuca leucodendra and M. viridiflora collected in June 1901 on Bentinck and Sweers Island respectively.]

Roth's report (185) mentions the inscribed tree as well as that "a few remains of Landsborough's cottage are still visible. The island itself is at present held under occupation license: it is well watered, carries about 700 sheep and 400 goats, and has a good anchorage."


Oct. - "SS WATER LILY rescued the crew of the schooner MYSTERY after she was wrecked at Albany Heads in October while bound from Sweers island to Burketown." (186)


June 11 - Dr. Walter E. Roth, Northern Protectors of Aborigines, departs Normanton in the MELBIDIR accompanied by Charles Hedley, Conchologist from the Australian Museum, Sydney, constable Warner and two trackers. (187)

June 13 - Roth's party "arrived at Sweers Island, anchoring in the Roads, and took in some fresh water." From here, they travelled to various of the islands around Sweers Island. In his report. Roth mentions that "... Mr. Hedley has made an excellent collection of marine zoology, including about 400 species of molluscs: he is of opinion that the Gulf of Carpentaria fauna should be considered an out-lier rather of the indian than of the Pacific Ocean. The salient characters of the region are the slight development of reef-building corals, and their associated fauna, as compared with the Torres Strait and the East Coast of Queensland. Towards the head of the Gulf, the corals entirely disappear, and the mangrove-swamp fauna is developed in great luxuriance..." (188)

"After service around several Australian ports, the old iron paddle steamer FRANCIS CADELL, 140 tons, was abandoned as a derelict in the river near Burketown," (189)


"The ketch MARK TWAIN sprang a leak and foundered near Speers Island on 27 July." (190)


Howard, Northern Protector of Aborigines (and successor to Roth) visits Bentinck Island.


Mr. J. Bleakley, Chief Protector of Aboriginals, visited the Bentinck- Sweers Island area.

1916 (?):

John MacKenzie who, in 1911, had obtained a government lease over Sweers Island and part of Bentinck Island where he had earlier lived, moved to Sweers Island to carry out 'lime-burning' from a kiln (191) constructed on the western side of Inspection Hill. Lime was sold around the Gulf ports. He had a house and kept sheep, goats and horses. He had two Aboriginal helpers from Mornington Island who soon became disenchanted by the continual diet of goats' heads and livers and returned to Mornington Island. (192) MacKenzie then obtained Aboriginal-Malay halfcasts as helpers and a white partner named Nelson. (193)


First missionary, the Rev. Robert Hall, came to Mornington Island from Mapoon. MORNING STAR was the mission lugger. (194) After Rev. Hall was killed, the Police, led by Sergeant Scanlon, formed a search party for the killers. Using the MORNING STAR they sailed from Burketown for Sweers island to obtain "more wood and water .... and the policemen shot some of the goats and sheep left there. We camped there to cook the meat and sailed next day for Dugong River on Mornington Island." (195)

Bleakley visits Bentinck Island.


According to Tindale (196), a Bentinck islander account recalls a hostile attack by a white party in 1918. Accompanied by dogs and mounted, the party consisted of 'an unidentified white man with helpers' and was reportedly responsible for the deaths of eleven persons. Elsewhere (197) Tindale reports the death in c.1918 of 'Ngiltalngati' as a result of being "shot by white man who came in a boat from Sweers Island: ran away to top of sand hills at Berumoi and died". This appears to be supported (198) by a detailed verbal account provided by Roma Kelly (Dibirdibi Mambunkingathi) who was born at Mambunki on Bentinck Island in 1917. (199) This account indicates that the European party almost certainly included McKenzie, but it is unclear who was with him on Bentinck Island at the time of the massacre.
There are numerous folk tales surrounding the killing of the last of MacKenzie's goats and a horse,

[Roughsey pp. 97-98: An old Kaiadilt man now living at Mornington told me some stories about his early life on Bentinck and his first sight of white men and their boats. Their first meeting with the white man was when a small guano mine was worked on Sweers Island, just across from Bentinck. A very small town called Carnarvon was built to house the workers. This is how old Thadudgunthee, or Jack as we now call him, remembers those days.

The white men had a big camp on Sweers. One day they came across to Bentinck Island after water. As soon as they came ashore they started shooting at us ....... After a few years the white men all got in their boats and left Sweers ..... Next morning we went on to the town where we collected many things. We found a few tomahawks and many pieces of steel and nails to make spearheads. While we were looking about for these things we saw strange animals coming down to the well. The animals were white and had two sticks on their heads. We had never seen goats before but we decided to kill and eat them. The well had the only water on the island so we camped there and speared three or four each day until they were all gone.

Long after the Kaiadilt left Sweers, another white man called McKenzie came to live on the island. He frightened the Bentincks away by shooting at them.]


John MacKenzie's operation on the island ceased. [Why?]


Three efforts were made by officers from the Mornington Island Mission to make contact with the Bentinck islanders. These attempts were carried out during beche-de-mer operations by Mornington Islanders using Fowler Island as a base. The first really successful contact was in late 1927 when 48 Bentinck Islanders were contacted and photographed in groups with the missionary officers.


The Island is declared as a 'reserve for the use of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the State' (200)


Bleakley and a party of Government Ministers made a visit to Bentinck Island.


Eleven Bentinck Islanders were sent to Aurukun Mission after the killing of a Mornington islander, 'Cripple Jack', had occurred on Allen Island. Relationships between the Mornington and Bentinck Islanders had deteriorated since the beche-de-mer operations of the 1925-27 period. These eleven natives were held at Aurukun until 1953 when they were sent to Mornington Island to join the remainder of the Bentinck Islanders.


Oct. 1 - Walkabout' Magazine has an article by 'E.D.F.' entitled 'An Historic Island' which provides an interesting account of Sweers Island, its history and that "to-day, the ruins of the old settlement on Sweer's Island are plainly visible. Frameworks of buildings and a few old rusty tanks and sheets of iron show that the island once supported a considerable population. An old ant-eaten jetty still stands. The land cleared and ploughed by the hardy settlers has almost disappeared in the encroaching bush. Lonely and forgotten are a number of graves on a tree-choked rise overlooking the old town, Most of the inscriptions have been obliterated by weather and time," (201)


Oct. - RAAF personnel from the radar station no. 313 (established on Mornington Island in March 1943) visit the island in the mission launch, arriving off Sweers Island ('Milt'] about midday. Deciding to go ashore to look at the township of Carnarvon, they were attacked by a group of spearthrowing Kaiadilt. The visitors retreated to the launch and fired several shots, killing ' Kongarangati dawart', a young Bentinck man. (202) Some of the warning shots are reported to have hit a Kaiadilt woman in the thigh while she was digging for yams inland. (203) The Kaiadilt killed on the beach was buried nearby.

Detailed investigations were conducted by the mission superintendent J.B. McCarthy, the airforce and the Queensland Police and the facts taken from the various witnesses (204) can be summarised as follows:

"... camped ... on.., a narrow sand point opposite Raft Point ..... "...... two RAAF men went down along the beach to have a look at a well and a grave

...... started to walk up the beach to where the grave was .....

"...... and I decided to go and have a look at the well and remains of an old building there ...... We had walked about fifty yards along the beach...."

"Some men went down the beach and the others up along the beach collecting wood to light a fire for tea. I went over the sandhill, and waited at an old wreck for Mitchener, Jack to come back"

"Mitchener, Jack and myself went along the beach towards the old wreck.... Lewis, Gully and myself walked along the beach in the opposite direction .... to have a look at a well and the remains of a camp."

"Wyllie, Jack and myself went along the beach towards an old wreck collecting wood...... When I arrived back with the wood, I sat on the beach ..... Lewis Wyllie and Gully walked along the beach in the opposite direction to where we were gathering wood to have a look at a native well."

"The first job to do was to gather wood....., and we brought it back and Jack built a fire..... and Wyllie and I decided to go and have a look at the well and remains of an old building there. We walked about 50 yds along the beach when we heard natives screaming out......

"Mitchener. Jack and myself went towards an old wreck gathering fire-wood..... .....Lewis, Gully and I went to have a look at a well in the opposite direction. When we were about 100 yds along the beach we heard a lot of shouting...."

"...... the body was buried ..... on the side of a small hill sloping to the water edge and the body would be about 25 ft above HWM and about 30 yds from the water edge. Beyond the grave the hill extended another 20 ft or so ......


Twenty-five Bentinck Islanders visited Mornington Island for a month in the June-July period.


'G.P.' writing in 1946, describes the township as follows: "Today, the ruins of the old settlement on Sweer's Island are plainly visible. Frameworks of many buildings and rusted tanks and sheets of iron, and an old ant-eaten jetty remain. Lonely and forgotten are a number of graves on a tree-choked rise overlooking the old settlement. Most of the inscriptions have been obliterated by weather and Time. One cannot help wondering what would have been the result of the Sweer's Island settlement had it remained. Would It have prospered or would its island seclusion have eventually caused its abandonment?" (205)


Aug. - Forty-two Aboriginals were found in very poor condition on Sweers Island. They were taken to the Mornington Island Mission by the Superintendent Rev. J.B. McCarthy. Subsequent examination in December of the natives remaining on Bentinck Island revealed a prevalence of malnutrition and disease (tuberculosis and dysentery).


February - Cyclone. The mission launch anchored off Sweers Island and found seven men and their wives and families which were taken aboard and moved to Mornington Island. (206)


Norman Tindale, with a party containing 20 Kaiadilt people, visited the Bentinck-Sweers Island area. Some archaeological investigation was carried out around Inscription Point and in the coastal area west of Inspection Hill.


Dec. - Curators of the Australian Museum (Drs. McMichael and Yaldwyn) visited Sweers Island and collected marine intertidal organisms on behalf of the Australian Museum.


Southers and Dickens commenced the erection of a tourist facility and purchased freehold property in parts of the old township of Carnarvon. Subsequently, the interests were purchased by Broken Hill South, who investigated the Island as a potential shipping point for Lady Annie phosphate rock.


Jan.-Feb. - Mr. John Dymock, an amateur naturalist, visits the Island and prepares a map and lists showing flora, fauna and sites of historical interest. (207)

Mar. - All freehold land within the town, of Carnarvon, with the exception of portions 2, 3, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, is resumed by the Crown. (208)


Oct. 6 - 12 - Drs. P. Saenger, M.S. Hopkins and C.C. McIvor, aboard the KATOORA. completed a biological survey of the Island and made collections as part of the investigations to assess the environmental impact of the proposed port development by Broken Hill South Pty. Ltd.


Dec. 14 - Tenders called for the development of a tourist complex on Sweers Island closed with no responses received. Aboriginal protests against such a development had been made on the grounds that the island was a sacred tribal area but the Lands Minister, Mr. Glasson, said that the lack of interest was due to economic considerations. (209) The Minister stressed that the Government would still study any future proposals for a Sweers Island tourist venture.


May - "A new resort has opened up on Sweers Island In the Wellesley Group and caters for reef and offshore fishing. Although only small scale at this stage, it certainly indicates the trends for the future." (210)


The boundaries of the Aboriginal Reserve on the Island are redefined to exclude previously surveyed areas of crown land and the airstrip. (211) Two sections are established, the northern section comprises 775 ha while the southern section is of 480 ha.

End of Article.

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