On the 6 February 1872, Rev. Marcus Brownrigg set sail from Launceston in a small ship named The Freak. His destination was the group of tiny islands sprinkled across Bass Strait known as the Kent and Furneaux Groups. Over the course of the next month he recorded in his journal: stories about isolated lighthouse keepers; the ruins of the site chosen for the forced removal of Aborigines; mutton birding operations in full-swing on Chappell Island; and farmers and their families eking a living on 'Big Dog' and 'Little Dog' islets.
Originally a land bridge connected Tasmania with the Australian mainland and this was used by Aborigines. But as this eroded away it was flooded, isolating Tasmania and leaving behind the clusters of islands that make up this group. Much later George Bass and Lieutenant Flinders charted the islands in 1798. They were soon followed by American and European sealers who took advantage of the seasonal arrival of seals and the nesting patterns of aquatic birds. By 1810 seals had been killed is such great numbers that the industry died out. A few individuals (about fifty) remained in the Straits and some established families with Indigenous women.
The next chapter in the history of these islands started with the savage and sustained attacks on the Tasmanian mainland by the colonists on Tasmanian Aboriginies. This included the controversial 1830 wars initiated by Colonel Arthur and the actions of George Augustus Robinson who convinced surviving Aborigines to surrender and be relocated.
The place designated for their new home was a small wind-swept piece of land called Gun-Carriage Island also known as Vansittart Island, in the Furneaux Group. The first Aborigines were shipped there in 1831, but it was soon apparent that this site was completely unsuitable and on 25 January, 1832, the Charlotte relocated the entire group of thirteen females, twenty-six males, and one infant, from Gun-Carriage Island, to the south-western point of Flinders Island to an area known as 'The Lagoons.'
The move was described to Brownrigg by Captain Batman and by a Government surveyor, engaged on the island at the time of the first arrival,
..the party from Gun Carriage [Island], informed me, that when they saw from shipboard the splendid country which they were promised, they betrayed the greatest agitation, gazing with strained eyes at the sterile shore.
The last group of Aborigines were shipped from the mainland of Tasmania in December 1842. But by then the bleak climate had forced the government to move the group to a settlement about 12 miles northwards known as "Wymbalenna" or "Settlement Point." When Rev. Nixon visited there in 1843, he found only fifty-four people living there, and by October 1847 all of the remaining inhabitants had been shipped to yet another home at Oyster Bay, in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. In total sixteen Aborigines were moved to this new home; a truly sad indictment of the government's policy.
In 1872 Rev. Brownrigg visited 'Civilization Point' and the name and his description reflects the whole ironic tragedy of government's actions over the preceding forty years,
It would be difficult to conceive of a more weird, melancholy, and desolate scene than that which now meets the eye. The superintendent's quarters are almost incapable of repair. The brick church, so far as its interior is concerned, is in a pitiable condition, and is used as a shearing shed.
The Bass Strait were also an important navigational route for European ships crossing the oceans from the west to Australia. A trip through the Strait could curtail a voyage from the Cape of Good Hope by four degrees and enable ships to avoid the winds which obstructed navigation around Tasmania's, Cape Pillar. All of which could shorten a voyage by several days.
But the straits were also full of treacherous tidal currents, hidden reefs and numerous rocky islands which meant the Europeans needed to construct and maintain lighthouses to ensure safe passage of their ships. Some lighthouses were among the earliest built in the colony and a were still operating when Brownrigg visited in 1872 and later when Reverend Montgomery visited in 1872.
Brownrigg visited the Goose Island lighthouse with James Beadon but as anchorage was not good for larger vessels he was forced to leave The Freak and travel in Beadon's small, and leaky, whaleboat the Lucy. In all they emptied over 100 buckets of water on the short trip from Badger to Goose Island.
At Goose Island they were met by Captain and Mrs Napper, the superintendent of the lighthouse. This lighthouse was 135 feet above sea and because it had been struck by lightning four years was undergoing repairs but was functioning perfectly otherwise. There was not a single tree on the island which was covered in tussock grass. The inhabitants collected water as rain and brought fuel for their fires over from Badger Island.
One of the most impressive of the lighthouses was found on Deal Island one of the three islands that make up the Kent Group. Deal has lofty conical granite hills., deep ravines and wooded slopes around which are a series of precipitous cliffs. The Freak was too large to fit into the tiny East-Cove and so Brownrigg made the trip in a smaller whale boat. After landing they made their way up a zig-zag road cut into the cliff face to the top where the substantial dwelling of Captain Morgan, the Superintendent was located.
The next day they set out for the lighthouse situated on a rocky promontory 1000 feet above the sea and 1.5 miles away. The building itself was made from the stone found on the island, except the sills for windows which were brought in from Hobart Town, and in 1872 its revolving light could be seen for 36 miles; when there was no fog.
Some two weeks into their trip they landed at one of the more significant islands in the group. This was Mount Chappell Island which every year around September 21, becomes a huge rookery for Mutton Birds, or Sooty Petrels. According to Brownrigg these were the chief livelihood of island inhabitants. Oil used in lubricating machinery and lighting in lamps was extracted by squeezing body from back along neck until the oil came out beak, they then discarded the carcass. Other uses for the birds described by the Reverend were ‘fatting’, where the birds were plucked and had their legs wings removed and were then boiled in a pot and the fat collected.
A final use was known as ‘salting’ which saw the birds plucked, cleaned before removing the lower joint of leg and outer of wing. Their bodies were then salted and packed in barrels with salted water sufficiently strong to float an egg.
By February, when Brownrigg visited, the young birds had hatched and people from many of the surrounding islands had set up huts and collected firewood in preparation for killing and curing the young oil rich birds. Brownrigg also mentions that,
… the huts are odd looking structures; they seldom exceed four feet in height at the walls, and about six feet at the ridge. The sides and roof are made of light sticks, and covered in with coarse grass. An opening at the side forms the door, and a few stones built up at one end serves for the fireplace. Grass is then strewed upon the earthen floor, and the habitation is considered complete. These huts are tenanted only during the "season," being manifestly unsuited for the colder portions of the year.
At the end of February The Freak set her nose in the direction of the Bank's Strait, and made her way to the lighthouse at Swan Island. This small island on the southern side of the Banks Strait comprises of a series of treeless hummocks with its highest point at the northern end. This is where the revolving lighthouse is situated. Mr. Charles Baudinet was the Superintendent and while there the Reverend baptised four of his children, the eldest of which was six. This gives a good idea of how isolated the people were and also how much time could pass between the church visits.
After this short stopover The Freak anchored at Pilot Bay, on the mainland of Tasmania with the Reverend,
thankful for the Providential care which had guided and kept us in safety in all the "perils by waters."
Bass's Strait, In the Naval Chronicle, Vol. 15, (1806)
Brady, E. (1939). Historical highlights. No. 2. Bass Strait / by E.J. Brady
Brownrigg, M. (1872). The cruise of 'The Freak': A narrative of a visit to the islands in Bass and Banks Straits with some account of the islands / by the Rev. Canon Brownrigg. Launceston, Tas.: J.S.V. Turner, printer : Sold by Walch Brothers & Birchall [etc.]
Brownrigg, Murray-Smith, Murray-Smith, Stephen, & Brownrigg, Marcus Blake. (1987). Mission to the islands : The missionary voyages in Bass Strait of Canon Marcus Brownrigg, 1872-1885 / edited, with an introduction, by Stephen Murray-Smith. (2nd ed.). Launceston: Foot & Playsted
Edgecombe, J. (1986). Flinders Island and Eeastern Bass Strait / Jean Edgecombe.Thornleigh [N.S.W.]: J.M. Edgecombe
Roth, H., Barnard, J., Royal Society of Tasmania, & Anthropological Institute. Journal. (1889). Is Mrs. F. C. Smith a "last living Aboriginal of Tasmania"? / by H. Ling Roth. London
Roth, Butler, Garson, Walker, Butler, Marion E, Garson, J. G., & Walker, James Backhouse. (1899). The aborigines of Tasmania / by H. Ling Roth ; assisted by Marion E. Butler, and Jas. Backhouse Walker ; with a chapter on the osteology by J. G. Garson ; preface by Edward B. Taylor. (2nd ed., rev. and enl.. ed.). Halifax [England]: F. King & Sons
Nixon, F. (1857). The cruise of the Beacon : A narrative of a visit to the islands in Bass's Straits / by Francis R. Nixon. London: Bell & Daldy
Simpson, K., Broken Hill Proprietary Company, & BHP Billiton Limited. (1972). Birds in Bass Strait / [by] Ken Simpson. Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed for Broken Hill Proprietary
1 Cruise of 'The Freak', a narrative of a visit to the islands in the Bass and Banks Straits with some account of the islands., Rev Canon Brownrigg, J. S. V. Turner, Printer Brisbane Street, Launceston, 18721
2 Aboriginal Tasmanians, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aboriginal_Tasmanians citation, Flood, Josephine: The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People, Allen & Unwin, 2006
3 Francis R. Nixon, The Cruise of the Beacon, a narrative of an visit to islands in Bass's Strait, Bell and Daldy, London, 1857
By Geoff Barker, Senior Curator, Research and Discovery, State LIbrary of New South Wales, 2017