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John Uniacke


Uniacke's personal account of the John Oxley expedition and Pamphlet and Finnegan’s survival was published in London in 1825 by former NSW Judge, Barron Field, in his Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales.

John Uniacke from County Waterford, Ireland was an Anglo/Irish young gentleman, aged who arrived in Sydney in August 1823 and to gain experience and preference he petitioned Governor Brisbane to be allowed to accompany [Surveyor General of NSW] John Oxley’s expedition.  

Uniacke stayed behind on Bribie Island while Oxley and Finnegan went in search of the large river observed by the Castaways. 

On his return to Sydney he presented Governor Brisbane his Narrative of Mr. Oxley's Expedition. The story of Pamphlet and Finnegan’s survival was published in London in 1825 by former NSW Judge, Barron Field, in his Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales.

On 13 January 1825, less than 18 months after landing in Australia, he was struck down by a remittent fever at the age of 27. His body was interred in the Devonshire Street Cemetery in Sydney, the main burial ground of Sydney at that time.

Uniacke’s account of his four days stay on Bribie Island is below:

Passages concerning Bribie Island

Saturday, 29th November 1823

After continuing to blow thus for six days, the wind fell, and on the Saturday at noon, having gotten an observation, we found that the current, which here sets to the south, had, notwithstanding the storm, drifted us nearly 20 miles per day to windward, so that at six o’clock P.M. we came to an anchor in Pumice-stone River, Moreton Bay, within 150 yards of the shore, in the very place where Captain Flinders had anchored twenty-two years before, on discovering the harbour, which, I believe, has not been since visited by Europeans. Scarcely was the anchor let go, when we perceived a number of natives, at the distance of about a mile, advancing rapidly towards the vessel; and on looking at them with the glass from the mast-head, I observed one who appeared much larger than the rest, and of a lighter colour, being a light copper, while all the others were black.

This I pointed out to Mr. Stirling, so that we were all on the look-out when they approached; and to our surprise and satisfaction, when opposite the vessel, the man hailed us in English. The boat was immediately launched, and Messrs. Oxley, Stirling, and I, went ashore in her. While approaching the beach, the natives showed many signs of joy, dancing and embracing the white man, who was nearly as wild as they. He was perfectly naked, and covered all over with white and red paint, which the natives make use of. His name, it appeared, was Thomas Pamphlet. He had left Sydney on the 21st March last, in an open boat, top bring cedar from the Five Islands, about fifty miles to the south of Port Jackson. There were three others with him, but the boat being driven out to sea by a gale of wind, they had suffered inconceivable hardships, being twenty-one days without water, during which time one of them died of thirst; and they had at length been wrecked on Moreton Island, which forms one side of Moreton Bay, the upper part of which we were now lying. He was so bewildered with joy that we could make very little out of his story that night; so having distributed a few knives, handkerchiefs etc. among the friendly blacks, we returned on board, taking him with us. He now informed us that his two surviving companions, Richard Parsons and John Finnegan, after having travelled in company with him to the place where we found him, had, about six weeks before, resolved to prosecute their way towards Sydney; that he had accompanied them about fifty miles, but his feet becoming so sore that he was unable to travel further, he had resolved to return to the blacks, with whom we found him, and who had before treated him with great kindness; that a few days after they parted, Parsons and Finnegan having quarrelled, the latter also returned, and had since remained with him, but had been absent the last fortnight with the chief of the tribe on a hunting expedition; and that Parsons had not been heard of since his departure.

Mr. Oxley, on hearing that Finnegan was gone towards the south end of the bay, resolved to seek him on Monday morning, and hoped by keeping along the shore, and occasionally firing a musket, to be able to find him also. But on Sunday afternoon, at low water, a man was observed walking out on a sand-bank from the opposite shore towards us, and holding in his hand a long stick with a skin on it; upon which I took the whale-boat and pulled towards him, when it proved to be Finnegan. Both he and Pamphlet concurring in a story they told us of a large river, which they had crossed, falling into the south end of the bay, Messrs. Oxley and Stirling started next morning in the whale-boat taking Finnegan with them, and four day’s provision, in order to explore it.

1 December 1823

I remained behind to shoot rare birds; and this gave me an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the natives, who are both in their disposition and manners far superior to those in the neighbourhood of Sydney, and indeed to any that I had yet seen.

The principal station of the tribe, with whom we found these poor men, was about two miles higher up the Pumicestone River (so called by Captain Flinders, from the immense quantities of that substance found on its banks) than where the vessel lay; but as they depend principally on fish for their support, they have several huts, at a distance of three or four miles from each other, to which they migrate from time to time as the fish become scare. Their huts are built of long slender wattles, both ends of which are stuck into the ground, so as to form an arch about three feet and a half or four feet high. These are strongly interwoven with rude wickerwork, and the whole is covered with tea-tree bark in such a manner as to be quite impervious to the rain: thus forming a spacious and commodious hut, capable of containing from ten to twelve people. In their journeys the women are obliged to carry heavy burthens (burdens), consisting of whatever rude utensils they may possess, together with a large quantity of fern root, which forms a part of their daily food, and not unfrequently two or three children besides. The men carry nothing but a spear, and perhaps a firestick; and their only employment consists in catching fish; this they do very expertly with a kind of hoop-net, which they use in the following manner: They go out in equal parts of four, six or eight, each man having two nets. They then walk along the beach till they perceive the fish near the shore, which (from constant practice) they place, a little boy, who accompanies each party, creeps towards the water on his hands and knees; the part then divide, forming two lines, one on each side of the boy, at a distance of two or three yards, and as soon as the fish are sufficiently near, the boy throws among them a handful of sand, so as to distract their attention, when the men instantly rush into the water, forming a semicircle round the fish, each man standing between his two nets, which he then draws close together. In this manner they are seldom unsuccessful, and frequently catch more than they can consume.

As they never travel without fire, the moment the fish are out of the water, they commence roasting and eating them, which they do without cleaning or any other preparation; and when they have satisfied themselves, should any remain, they carry them home for their women and children, who have been employed during the day in procuring fern-root, which they call dingowa, and a part of which they give the men in exchange for fish.

When Pamphlet arrived among them, they had no more idea that water could be made hot than that it could be made solid; and on his hearting some in a tin pot which he had saved when wrecked, the whole tribe gathered round them and watched the pot till it began to boil, when they all took to their heels, shouting and screaming; nor could they be persuaded to return till they saw him pour the water out and clean the pot, when they slowly ventured back, and carefully covered the place where the water was spilt with sand. During the whole of our countrymen’s stay among them, they were never reconciled to this operation of boiling.

The women weave a strong neat kind of net with rushes; with one or two of these each native is furnished to carry fish, dingowa, or anything else they may pick up. The nets used for fishing are made by the men from the bark of the Kurrajong a shrub which is very common in the swamps. It is difficult at first sight to distinguish them from nets made of hemp. They have also nets of a much larger size, which they use in taking the kangaroo.

Both sexes go perfectly naked; nor are the females at all abashed at appearing in that state before a stranger. They do not seem to have any ornaments, though they were much gratified with strips of red cloth and bunting, with which we decorated their heads; and some of the scarlet tail feathers of a black cockatoo, which I gave them, had nearly produced a quarrel among them. Several articles of clothing were also given them, but they were invariably taken off and hidden as soon as they arrived at their camp; nor did we see ever any article again after they once became possessed of it.

Each individual of this tribe above the age of six years had the cartilage of the nose perforated, and many of them (especially the children) wore large pieces of stick or bone thrust through it, in such a manner as completely to stop the nostrils. This operation is always performed by the same person, whose office is hereditary and confers some privileges, such as receiving fish etc. from the others. It was held in this tribe by a fine intelligent young man, who was called the Doctor by our men. His father held a similar situation in another tribe on the south side of the river.

These tribes are distinguished from each other by the different colours they use in painting their bodies. Those on the north side blacken themselves all over with charcoal and bees wax, which, with wild honey, they procure in abundance; and those on the south side paint themselves with a sort of red jaspar, which they burn and reduce to a powder. Other tribes made use of a white pigment, with which (having previously blackened themselves) they daub various part of their body. Their chief appeared to possess an unlimited authority over them; he was a tall middle-aged man, with an intelligent countenance. He had two wives, which (though it sometimes occurs) does not seem to be common among them. However, only one of them lived with him as a wife; the other was employed, while he ate or slept, in going among the other huts and collecting from their inhabitants fish, fern-root etc. – a tribute which was daily paid to him without murmuring, although the rest of the tribe in consequence occasionally fell short themselves.

The chief possesses nets both for fish and kangaroo, but seldom uses them except for his amusement. Neither does his head wife ever go out to gather fern-root with the rest of the women. The same practice of scarifying themselves with sharp shells prevails here, as at Sydney; but most of these Indians were cut more deeply, and all with great regularity. The women here, as at Sydney, all lose the first two joints of the little finger of the left hand; but the men do not extract a front tooth on their approach to puberty, as is invariably the case in the vicinity of Port Jackson. The amputation of the finger is performed by the same person who bores the noses.

Pamphlet and Finnegan, while among the Indians, were regularly painted twice a day, and were frequently importuned to allow themselves to be further ornamented by scarifying the body and boring the nose; but on their signifying that they did not wish it, the natives always desisted; nor was any violence used against them during their whole residence.

On only one occasion, during our stay, did the Indians show the least inclination towards pilfering, although they were constantly begging for everything they saw. Our men had been employed on shore all day cutting timber, and several natives had been with them in the afternoon. Upon returning in the evening, it was found that somebody had stolen the best falling axe we had: this, as we had originally but two, we could ill spare; and on Mr. Penson’s informing me of the circumstance, I resolved to recover it if possible. I accordingly took the jolly-boat, and, with Mr. Penson and Bowen, pulled up to their encampment. On landing, several of them came out to meet us, and to them I endeavoured to make known our loss by signs. They soon seemed to understand me, and signified that they would accompany me to the place where it was hidden, which several of them accordingly prepared to do. However, I observed that they dropped back one by one, so that by the time I had advanced half a mile, there were only one old man and one young men left with me; one of these I was determined to secure till the axe was restored. I had some difficulty in making them keep us with me, as they were continually framing pretences to get into the busy; but I was at length succeeded in bringing them opposite the vessel. Here the old man made signs that he and I should stop til the young man brought the axe, and we accordingly halted, while the other was soon out of sight in the wood. I then happened to take my eye a moment off my companion, when he darted into the bush with amazing celerity, and was out of sight in an instant. We now supposed that our friendly intercourse with them was at an end, and that we should not again see the axe; but at eight o’clock next morning we found a number of them on the beach, abreast of the vessel, shouting and elevating the axe, which, on my going on shore, was delivered to me by the old man who had shown such speed the evening before So this incident, instead of interrupting our good understanding, rendered our mutual confidence more strong; or several of the natives ventured on board that day for the first time, whereas they had always before refused to do so with signs of fear. From this time forward not a single day passed, on which we had not ten or twelve of them on board at a time. They seemed very curious, inquiring the use of everything they saw, but it was longer before we could persuade them to eat anything with us. However, when they once began, it was by no means an easy matter to satisfy them.

Our cats and goats struck them with particular astonishment. We could not prevail on them to approach the latter, of whose horns they seemed to have a great awe. They were, however, continually caressing the cats, and holding them up for the admiration of their companions on shore.

I could not ascertain that these people had any idea whatever of religion. They do not stand in awe of either good or evil spirits; nor did the Englishmen we found with them ever observe anything like religious ceremony or prayer among them, during all the time of their residence.

The women are far more fortunate than those in the neighbourhood of Sydney, where they are abused in the most cruel way by the men; and where the marriage ceremony consists of seizing the bride and beating her till she is senseless. Pamphlet assured me that, during his residence among these natives (nearly 7 months), he never saw a woman struck or ill-treated except by one of her own sex. Indeed, save among the women, whenever saw a quarrel in that or any other tribe he was with. The women that I saw were far superior in personal beauty to the men, or indeed to any natives of this country whom I have yet seen. Many of them are tall, straight, and well formed; and there were two, in particular, whose shape and features were such as no white women need have been ashamed of.

The tribe amounted in number to about 30 men, sixteen or seventeen women, and about twenty children. Their quarrels with neighbouring tribes are frequent and often end fatally.

Compiled by Lynne Hooper from sources in the public domain.

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