Morning Glory Clouds of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Sweers Island: changes over two hundred years since Flinders' visit

by P. Saenger

Centre for Coastal Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW 2480, psaenger at

Saenger, P., 2005. Sweers Island: changes over two hundred years since Flinders' visit. Gulf of Carpentaria Scientific Study Report, The Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, Brisbane, Geography Monograph Series 10:11-22.

Thanks also to the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland

Early settlement 1861-1868

  Leaving Melbourne on 4 August 1861, the Victorian Colonial Warship Victoria was despatched to the Gulf of Carpentaria, carrying the William Landsborough search party for the overdue Burke and Wills Expedition. It also conveyed supplies for the search party led by Fred Walker, which had left overland from Rockhampton on 25 August.

Anchoring off Bountiful Island on 27 September, the crew of the Victoria set about catching turtle and, according to Kirby (1862), 126 turtles were caught in two days. Proceeding to Sweers Island, a depot was established, grass was cut for the horses, and a turtle pond was built (Bourne 1862), although many turtles died before the pond was completed. Early the next morning, Landsborough went ashore, describing ‘… fine young grass not above a few months old … The island is of sandstone formation and the land is very sandy. The grasses on it are good. It is lightly timbered with the pandanus palm, oak trees (casuarina), stunted white gum, black figs, red plum and other trees. The fruit on the plum and fig trees, especially the former, are very nice …’ (Landsborough n.d.).

Others also commented on the abundance of grass: Bourne (1862) states ‘… landed on Sweer’s Island to cut grass for the horses; took our guns; grass plentiful. Saw many birds such as bustards, pigeons, quail, pheasants, crows, native companions.’

In his published journal (Laurie 1866), Landsborough described Sweers Island as follows: ‘Bentinck Island is about thirty miles in circumference; Sweer’s, only three: both are well grassed and wooded … Further inland we found the grass of good quality, and fit for cutting … as the sheep we had on board could now have the advantage of grazing, and my horses that of fresh fodder’. Kirby (1862) added that ‘there are no large trees, those we saw being stunted in their growth, and of small size; we saw neither plants nor fruits. The soil is a dark loam of considerable depth, and, except on the beach, there is little or no sand; no animals were seen, but birds of the cockatoo, pheasant, and parrot tribe are abundant… Fish are to be had in the greatest abundance, more especially codfish, weighing from seven to twenty pounds, and I see no good reason why a fishery of a remunerative character might not be established there.’

Early in December, Walker’s relief expedition arrived at the Albert River, and after reporting to Captain Norman, he was treated to turtle soup, together with fresh cress, onions, radishes, and sprouts which had been planted on Sweers Island. Apart from his gardening and turtle pond, Captain Norman also maintained at least 7 sheep on Sweers Island — the first agricultural pursuits on the island.

Diedrich Henne, Baron von Mueller’s 26-year-old botanical assistant, was attached to the Captain Norman’s expedition. He made extensive seed, wood and plant collections on Sweers Island, bringing back six cases of botanical specimens to be deposited in the Melbourne herbarium. His diary, translated by Johnston (1970), suggests that snakes were common on the island following rain: ‘… we have snakes in pretty large numbers, especially the harmless carpet snake: however, also one, I believe venomous species: they are short and plump, about eighteen inches long, and are brown and yellow banded, with blunt tail; also iguanos turn up.’ Henne also described the first release of sheep onto the island. On preparing to leave the island on 11 February 1862, the sheep grazing on the island had become so wild that they could not be caught or shot—and were left behind to fend for themselves; the lack of surface water on the island would have ensured their demise.

With the establishment of Burketown on the Albert River during 1865, it became the shipping centre for the Gulf stations. However, in February 1866, the Margaret-and-Mary arrived from Bowen at the Albert River, bringing with it an epidemic known as ‘Gulf Fever’— now thought to be malignant tertian malaria (Fenner 1990; Kettle 1993)—and within a few days, virtually the entire crew was dead, and soon, around 60 persons were recorded to have died in the district. When William Landsborough, the newly appointed Police Magistrate for the district arrived in April, he arranged for the removal of most residents to Sweers Island. Landsborough departed for Sweers Island in the pilot boat, accompanied by the surveyor, George Phillips, the pastoralist, John G. Macdonald, and the prospector, Ernest Henry, who was to go on to discover large copper deposits at Cloncurry in 1867.

They arrived at Sweers Island, and camped at the site of the earlier depot. On revisiting the island after five years, Landsborough (n.d.) wrote ‘… The country is high downs and a few fine trees with thick foliage … The northern end as well as the southern end of Sweer’s Island is rather thickly wooded. In the course of one walk we saw several pigeons, cockatoos and bustards. Although shy Mr. Henry succeeded in shooting some cockatoos and a bustard’. Henry (n.d.), in turn, described the island as ‘… in the centre are some nice downs extending to the east side, but at the north and south ends there is a good deal of scrubby country…’. When the schooner Lilly arrived at the Albert River from Bowen in late May, Landsborough (n.d.) purchased 25 sheep, which were landed on Sweers Island, and signalled the be ginning of sustained grazing on the island. Writing to Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen, Landsborough (Port Denison Times 1/ 12/1866) claimed that ‘This township on Sweers’ Island is fast becoming a place of considerable importance. The harbour is found so convenient that for some time back there has been always a few vessels in it, either discharging cargo, waiting for loading from the main land, or getting water or ballast … This place having a good port for loading and discharging cargo, and having, I believe, the best climate in this part of the world, will, I imagine, have a good chance of becoming one of the places of the greatest importance in Australia. Coming down from my high flight of vision allow me to remark that fishing is attended with consider able success. A garden, commenced by Messrs. Ellis Read and Co., promise well. Sheep and other kinds of stock do well. There are no native dogs, and … the island therefore may become valuable for sheep runs.’

An anonymous ‘voice from Carnarvon’ re ported (Port Denison Times 18/5/1867) that ‘… the land sale in Burke Town passed off well; all lots were sold consisting of 88 allotments, all that were surveyed on the Island … Our gardens on the Island give us an over abundant supply of vegetables, and we are longing to see the Ellesmere so that the passengers may get a feed of them what, I am sure, they have not seen for some time. I have seen a few gardens but a garden on Sweers Island, formed by two gentlemen, excels anything I have ever seen; out of one small corner we gathered I should say one hundred and ninety mellons, the most of them equal in circumference to a bucket … Bananas and pine apples are not quite so plentiful; the cherry and black currant trees have not done so well as we expected.’

By 1867, Sweers Island virtually replaced Burketown as the official government centre, with all vessels trading to the Gulf region calling at Carnarvon, which had been laid out and surveyed during mid-1866 by George Phillips. The newly laid-out town of Carnarvon consisted of 60 town and 15 suburban allotments and comprised several stores, around 15 houses, a Customs House, a lock-up and, at east, one hotel. The names of many of the families associated with the settlement of Carnarvon are recorded on the ‘Plan of Town of Carnarvon and Suburban Allotments Sweers Island’.

Shortly after South Australia assumed administrative responsibility for the Northern Territory, Captain Francis Cadell was commissioned by the South Australian Government to explore in detail the rivers of the Gulf of Carpentaria and Arnhem Land. He departed Sydney on 2 April, 1867 in the screw steamer Eagle, arriving off Sweers Island on 22 August. The brothers T.A. and B.J. Gulliver, on instructions from Baron F. von Mueller, travelled aboard the Eagle and collected plants around Sweers Island, the Gilbert, Norman and Flinders Rivers in the Gulf of Carpentaria and at Caledon Bay. Writing to the Queenslander (16/11/1889), B.J. Gulliver reported that ‘… during the two days we stayed there I made some botanical excursions on the island, securing, amongst others, a specimen of a rare and peculiar red-flowering lily.’

By January 1868, William Landsborough and Surveyor George Phillips had surveyed a new township on the Norman River, and most of Sweers Island residents relocated to Normanton during the year to escape the isola tion of island life. Perhaps as a departing ges ture, a large banquet in honour of the pioneering settlers was held at the Alhambra Hotel on Sweers Island in August 1868 (Port Denison Times 12/9/1868), attended by such notables as the Hon. John Robertson, J.G. Mac Donald and George Sandrock, the Collector of Customs. The early attempts by Captain Norman at agriculture and mariculture in addition to the taking of wood for steamers and fires, are likely the first European resource utilisation of Sweers Island of any consequence. However, during the period of establishing Carnarvon, Sweers Island vegetation and fauna would have undergone significant changes, as all kinds of stock were introduced to the island, human habitation and stores were erected, and timber har vesting for fuel and construction purposes was widespread.

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