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

Sweers Island as a stock run

By the end of 1868, the township on the is land was virtually deserted; a few Government officials and their families remained, as did a few other graziers. Around this time, the Xula loaded wool, tallow, hides and skin at Sweers Island direct for London, while Captain Till, in the Clara, loaded wool, tallow, hides and skin (Port Denison Times 10/10/1868), and it seemed that a new phase of agricultural production was imminent—intensive stocking.

In February 1869, the Chief Inspector of Sheep, P. R. Nordow (1869) wrote to the Minis ter for Lands that ‘… an outlay of £120 for fencing—in addition to wire and a few articles—is asked for in order to make the quarantine avail able for the reception and dressing of imported sheep … During last year 41 imported sheep were landed at Sweers Island and should scab be introduced there the consequences in such a far off District would be disastrous’. The re quest was rapidly approved to safeguard this blossoming agricultural industry.

Captain Till of the Margaret and Jane, recently returned to Bowen from Sweers Island, reported that ‘… Sweer’s Island is deserted by all but the officials and their families and one Chinaman. Mr. Sandrock has 150 or 200 head of cattle feeding on the island. Towns & Co. cattle are being mustered by Mr. Morrisett for transmission south’ (Port Denison Times 4/2/ 1871). At this time, only about 20 people were left on the island (Amstel 1871), accompanied by numerous ‘cattle, sheep, horses, goats, fowls etc’ (Holder Cowl n.d.).

Thus, Sweers Island was largely deserted in favour of Normanton, and only a few families, including the Creffields, ‘… who keep cattle, goats and sheep on the island …’ remained until 1897 (Palmer 1903). When the publican, Donald McLennan died on 4 February 1876, his herd of cattle was removed to the mainland via the Io (Port Denison Times 20/10/1877). The customs and pilot service, however, were not relocated to Normanton until August 1880. However, a month later, when Captain C. Pennefather arrived at Sweers Island from Thursday Island aboard Q.G.S. Pearl to chart the waters around Point Barker, he noted 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 1,200 in number (cattle, sheep and goats), managed to exist.’ (Pennefather 1880). He also reported 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’.

In 1901, the first anthropologist to visit the area was Dr. Walter E. Roth, Northern Protector of Aborigines, who was accompanied by native police from the mainland, and J.F. Bailey, Director of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. J.F. Bailey collected 56 plant specimens from Sweers Island, 15 from Bentinck, 6 from Bountiful and 5 from Mornington Islands during that June visit, including the type specimens of Amyema villiflorum subsp. tomentillum from Sweers Island (Barlow 1984). Roth (1901) re ported 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.’

On a second visit to the area in June 1903, Roth was accompanied by Charles Hedley, a malacologist from the Australian Museum, Sydney. Roth (1903) 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 outlier 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 man grove-swamp fauna is developed in great luxuriance…’

From around 1908, John MacKenzie apparently held an occupation lease over Sweers Is land, keeping sheep, goats and horses. In addition, he carried out ‘lime-burning’ from a kiln constructed on the western side of Inspection Hill (Stubbs 2004). This mining venture ceased sometime around 1922, but much of the stock was left on the island. Some of this stock was shot by police troopers while searching the area for those responsible for the death of the Reverend Robert Hall on Mornington Island. Others were speared by the Kiaidilt people, whose numerous folk tales surrounding the killing of the last of MacKenzie’s goats and a horse (Roughsey 1977), signalled the end of the occupation and grazing era, and a reversion of the island to its traditional owners.

This grazing phase in Sweers Island’s past must have led to severe overgrazing of the vegetation considering the stocking rate—which would have been at around one sheep, cattle or goat per hectare. While such grazing intensity may have been sustainable during the wet sea son, it must have placed severe stress on the vegetation during the long dry season e.g. in September, when Pennefather (1880) noted its sterile appearance. It also seems likely that the sand blow-outs along the eastern shoreline were caused by, and are reminders of, the ~ 55 years of intensive grazing on the island.

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