Tag Archives: Torres Strait Islands

The mystery of the La Pérouse expedition survivors: wrecked in Torres Strait?



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Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de La Perouse in 1785, before La Perouse embarked on his fateful expedition to the Southern Hemisphere.
State Library of NSW

Garrick Hitchcock, Australian National University

The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.

The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.


Read more: When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg


La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.

Portrait of Comte de La Perouse, circa 1792.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”

A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.

The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.

What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?


Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions


An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.

On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.

Western part of Mer (Murray Island) and the neighbouring islands of Waier (L) and Dauar ®, 1 December 2016.
Garrick Hitchcock

The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?

The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.

The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.

Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.

Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.

One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.

The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?

The ConversationA last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.

Garrick Hitchcock, Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the Mabo decision and native title


Kate Galloway

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


On June 3 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the long-running case of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his compatriots from the Torres Strait island of Mer. Together they challenged the authority of the Queensland government to claim not just sovereignty but also ownership of the land comprising their ancestral home.

What happened?

Queensland annexed the Murray Islands through the Queensland Coast Islands Act of 1879. The court had to determine the effect of this annexation on the rights of the Meriam people to their land.

In its argument, the state claimed that on becoming sovereign over this territory, it derived ownership of all the land comprised in it – including the island of Mer.

This concept, known as universal and absolute beneficial crown ownership, was derived from the idea that Australia was “terra nullius”. According to international law, this implied that a territory was uninhabited. Consequently, England could lawfully claim sovereignty over that territory.

Similarly, under English law, Australia was deemed to be “settled and uninhabited”, and therefore English law was fully imported into the new territory.

A feature of this law was that the Crown was the absolute owner of all land — a relic of English feudalism. If, by law, the Crown was the absolute owner of all land, there was simply no possibility of recognising any other type of landholding, including that of Eddie Mabo.

By contrast, Mabo argued that, despite the state’s claim to sovereignty, he and his people retained ownership over the land. The basis of this argument is the well-known reality that Australia was not uninhabited at the time of colonisation. To maintain a law based on this outdated fiction would be unjust.

The court agreed. Although it could not upset sovereignty, the fact of sovereignty could no longer support the state’s claim for absolute ownership of all land. It recognised a new category of territory – one that was “settled but inhabited”.

As an inhabited territory, the original inhabitants – including Mabo and his community – retained ownership of land.

However, the state did have the power as sovereign to extinguish pre-existing ownership rights. But the Anglo-Australian legal system would continue to recognise those rights until they were extinguished. This is known as native title.

What was its impact?

Although in the early days the Mabo decision generally seemed welcome, it was not long before it became increasingly divisive.

Many celebrated a huge victory for justice for Indigenous Australians. Some of this enthusiasm foresaw a new age of reconciliation, perhaps even a new republican constitution.

But, increasingly, in the months after the decision, many opposed what they saw as the decision’s support for the “white guilt industry”. Mining companies asserted that a “flood” of land claims would inhibit mining in Australia contrary to the national interest. The Australian Mining Industry Council (now the Minerals Council of Australia) took out full-page advertisements to that effect.

Adding to the panic, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett claimed that Australian backyards were under threat from Aboriginal land claims – he has since admitted he was wrong.

The decision has remained important to Indigenous communities throughout Australia, notably because Anglo-Australian law now officially recognises the prior existence of Indigenous peoples. No longer is Australia “terra nullius”.

However, there have also been Indigenous voices expressing criticism of the decision. Noted scholar Irene Watson observes:

Post-Mabo most people believe we have gained justice. We are still working for the same goal, land rights and self-determination, but we are also working harder than ever before, for now we are also working on unmasking the illusion; the illusion that “the blacks have got it all”.

What are its contemporary implications?

The decision had a huge impact on Australian life. However, regardless of which side of the debate you might be on, it is clear that our institutions and society can cope with such apparently enormous shifts.

Some suggest the Mabo decision did not go far enough to achieve real justice. This indicates that, despite the perhaps inevitable argument that follows profound change, we can afford to be aspirational in embarking on reform efforts.

It is also clear that divisive language, such as that of the debate that followed the Mabo decision (and since), is unnecessary. Knowing that our institutions can withstand the “shock” of change surely means we can engage in a well-modulated and respectful public discussion to achieve it.

Finally, we clearly cannot be complacent following even apparently significant advances in the law’s approach to Indigenous Australians’ claims for justice. There remains work to be done; any single advance will not be sufficient.

To fulfil the promise of Mabo, to advance justice for Indigenous Australians, we need a suite of reforms embracing law, policy and the economy.

Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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