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Opinion And World View: Mary Watson Of Lizard Island

...Mary took a supply of provisions and water. They floated all night and on the next day, they landed on a bare reef where they remained for three days...

Paul W Newbury tells the tragic story of Mary Watson who had to flee from Lizard Island.

Mary Watson migrated to North Queensland from England with her parents in 1877. In 1880, she married Captain Robert Watson who ran a trepang or beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) operation on Lizard Island, north-east of Cooktown. Trepang is a marine organism that lives on the sea floor and it was boiled and dried before being sold to Asian markets where it was regarded as a delicacy.

In 1881, Mary and their son Ferrier joined Watson on the island where he had modified a stone building to make a home for his family. In September 1881, Watson left Mary on the island with Ferrier and two Chinese servants while he went on a six week excursion to catch trepang. The next day, a group of natives came to investigate smoke they had seen on the island and they killed one of the servants.

Three days later they came again and speared the other servant Ah Sam but Mary defended herself so resolutely with firearms, she was able to drive them off. She must have thought to remain on the island meant certain death so with Ferrier and the wounded servant, she escaped in a large iron pot used to boil down trepang

Mary took a supply of provisions and water. They floated all night and on the next day, they landed on a bare reef where they remained for three days. When her water gave out, Mary pulled the pot over to a nearby island but found no water. Mary had enough food but she could not eat because of her parched and swollen throat.

There, Mary, Ferrier and Ah Sam died of thirst. It was not until January 1882, that a fishing vessel found their bodies on an island north-east of Lizard Island. They were brought back to Cooktown where they were interred. Mary’s diary was found with her.

The Cooktown Courier printed excerpts of the diary because it said that divulging the details would dispel the charge of insanity some in the community attributed to Mary for leaving Lizard Island. The following excerpts reveal the pathos of the last days of Mary, Ferrier and Ah Sam.

Oct 4, left Lizard Is in tank on October 2, Sunday afternoon, got about three miles from Lizard, got on reef.

Oct 6, able to pull tank up to an island Ah Sam went to find water as ours all gone. There were natives camped there. We had to wait for the return of tide.

Oct 7, made for another island, four or five miles away. Ashore but could not find any water, cooked some rice and clam fish, stayed here all night, saw a steamer bound north, hoisted Ferrier’s pink and white wrap but did not answer us.

Oct 8, changed anchorage of tank as wind was freshening. Went down to a kind of little lake, remained here all day looking out for a boat, did not see any, very cold night, blowing very hard. No water.

Oct 10, Ferrier very bad with inflammation, very much alarmed. No fresh water and no more milk but condensed. Self very weak really thought I would have died last night.

Oct 11, still all alive. Ferrier very much better this morning, self feeling very weak, I think it will rain today, clouds very heavy, wind not quite so hard, no rain, Ah Sam preparing to die have not seen him since 9th, Ferrier more cheerful, self not feeling at all well, have not seen boat of any description, no water, nearly dead with thirst. It was her last entry.

In North Queensland in the 19th century, human tragedies were acted out on both sides of the frontier. One reason for these lamentable stories was that settlers appeared to lack an appreciation that Aboriginal resistance should have been anticipated. It was a blunder on the part of Europeans to think Aboriginal people would fall back rather than fight for their land.

In other parts of North Queensland, settlers who attempted to communicate with local Aboriginal tribes were able to live amicably with them. In this instance, the local people, the Dingaal, made it clear they wanted the Europeans to leave. Many deaths followed those of Mary Watson, Ferrier, Ah Sam and Ah Leong in indiscriminate acts of retribution.

In 1886, the people of Cooktown erected a public monument to Mary Watson in Cooktown’s main street. It served to perpetuate the legend of her life and death. The monument serves as a pointer to the racial attitudes of the time because it makes no mention of Ah Sam.

Mary Watson’s death aroused a lot of feeling. Her brave struggle to save her infant son and the journal she wrote contributed to her legend as a folk hero. To her contemporaries, Mary was a homemaker who symbolised the sacrifice of women in the Australian bush. Her death stirred antagonism towards Aborigines in the Cooktown area.

The traditional owners of Jiigurru (Lizard Island) have occupied their traditional lands back beyond the time when the islands of the region were connected to the mainland of Australia around 10,000 years ago before the end of the last ice age. Today, the six islands of Lizard Island National Park are a tourist attraction because of their relative isolation, scenic beauty, reef diving and game fishing.

It is said that after James Cook left the Endeavour River estuary, he landed on Lizard Island and climbed one of the peaks to plot his way through the Great Barrier Reef. Cook named it Lizard Island because of its large lizard population.

In the late 1980s, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) installed an interpretive sign for tourists at the site of the ruins of the Watsons’ cottage. The sign told the story of Mary Watson’s death and a panel with moveable pages gave the European perspective of her story. The Aboriginal perspective and the island’s indigenous heritage were ignored.

Then in the 1990s, the QPWS collaborated with the traditional owners to develop signs that addressed the shared heritage value of the site. The challenge was to address conflicting perspectives.

On one hand, they sought to commemorate Mary Watson’s pioneering spirit and her death along with Ferrier, Ah Sam and Ah Leong. On the other, they wanted to commemorate the experience of the Dingaal people—the invasion of their country and loss of life. They also sought to celebrate the traditional owners’ continuing connection to country.

The Dingaal people have given their perspective of the Mary Watson story. They say the Dingaal people of that time had not intended to kill the white woman but they wanted to warn her away from a sacred site. They say Lizard Island has added heritage meaning for them because Mary Watson’s death led to the deaths of many of their people in brutal acts of reprisal.


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