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Opinion And World View: Fringe Of Leaves: The Story Of Barbara Thompson

...In 1844, Barbara Thompson was on a voyage with her husband in the cutter America when the vessel struck a reef near Muralag Island in a gale. She was the sole survivor and after the gale subsided, a party of Kaurareg Islanders on a turtling expedition found her clinging to the wreck...

Paul W Newbury tells a remarkable tale of survival.

On 21 August 1770, Captain James Cook rounded the top of the peninsula he named after the Duke of York; he stopped at the place he named Possession Island; he hoisted the Union Jack; and claimed the eastern seaboard of the continent of Australia in the name of King George the Third. He also named the island group off Cape York, the Prince of Wales Archipelago. Cook noted in his log he could see smoke rising from a number of campfires on the island. This is the first recorded observation of the activities of the Kaurareg people.

Nearby at Cape York in 1849, the naturalist John McGillivray was startled when a woman stepped from a group of natives she was with to claim the protection of the British. The incident occurred when the HMS Rattlesnake lay in anchor off Cape York. McGillivray told the story of Barbara Thompson’s captivity in 1844-49, among the Kaurareg people of Prince of Wales Island in his Narrative of the Voyage of the Rattlesnake 1852.

In 1844, Barbara Thompson was on a voyage with her husband in the cutter America when the vessel struck a reef near Muralag Island in a gale. She was the sole survivor and after the gale subsided, a party of Kaurareg Islanders on a turtling expedition found her clinging to the wreck. They rescued her and one of them named Boroto took possession of her as his share of the plunder.

The Prince of Wales Archipelago consists principally of Muralag (Prince of Wales Island), Waibene (Thursday Island), Ngurupai (Horn Island) and Kirriri (Hammond Island). The Kaurareg are a seafaring people who obtained their living from the sea and they cultivated gardens. In 1844, they numbered about two hundred people.

Barbara Thompson was compelled to live with Boroto though she was well treated. Later the elder Piaquai recognised her as the spirit of his daughter Giom returned from the dead as a white person. The islanders restored her to the position she formerly enjoyed and they acknowledged her as one of the tribe.

Although Thompson saw ships passing by Muralag, none sought anchorage. When she heard that a British vessel was anchored off Cape York, she induced her friends to take her there. When MacGillivray asked her if she wanted to go with the British, she began to speak with a mixture of English and Kaurareg words but finally she found the words to say: ‘Sir, I am a Christian and I would rather go back to my friends’.

MacGillivray noted that Thompson displayed a nervous demeanour that he took to mean she was conscious of her nakedness because she had only a narrow ‘fringe of leaves’ to cover her genitals. Her skin was tanned and blistered with the sun and she showed marks of several large burns received from sleeping too close to the fire at night.

While the Rattlesnake stayed at Cape York, her Kaurareg friends visited her daily. Her spouse, Boroto, tried to induce her to go back to live with him. When she refused, he left in a rage and threatened his faithless spouse with losing her head if she ventured again on shore. MacGillivray wrote that she took the threat seriously and did not go ashore again.

Thompson gave the naturalist information on the Kaurareg language and their customs and beliefs. Thompson’s account of reciprocal relations between the Islanders of Muralag and the mainland Aborigines was of great interest to him. Thompson recovered from her ordeal and she married again. She died in 1912 aged 84.

In ‘Sir, I am a Christian’ in The Explorers 1998, Tim Flannery says that Patrick White got the title for his novel A Fringe of Leaves from Barbara Thompson though his novel was based on the story of Eliza Fraser of Fraser Island fame.

The Prince of Wales Island group in Endeavour Strait formed an economic and cultural bridge between Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait. The Kaurareg are directly related through marriage to the Aboriginal people of Northern Cape York Peninsula and they identify as Aboriginal rather than Torres Strait Islander who are of Papuan origin.

By the mid-nineteenth century, vessels seeking pearl shell and the marine resources, trochus and trepang, began to arrive in Torres Strait and Cape York in increasing numbers. The Cape York Aborigines and the Kaurareg Islanders bore the stress of this exacerbation of activity. As can be seen by the hospitality offered to John MacGillivray in 1848, visitors to Torres Strait were received with friendship and cooperation.

In 1864, the British Government set up the settlement of Somerset at the top of Cape York to protect the Empire’s access to Torres Strait. In the 19th century, the Kaurareg people suffered differently at the hands of the British than Torres Strait Islanders.

The Torres Strait Islanders escaped much of the frontier violence because the Prince of Wales Islands formed a buffer between Europeans and the Torres Strait Islands. Queensland annexed the islands near Cape York in 1872 and the remainder in 1879.

Queensland’s claim of ownership of the Islands of Torres Strait was challenged by Eddie Mabo in 1982 and in 1992, the High Court of Australia upheld his claim of ownership of land on the Island of Mer that pre-existed the colonisation of Australia by the British. The court introduced the term ‘native title’ into the legal lexicon and extended the decision throughout Australia.

In 1996, the Kaurareg people lodged a claim to seven islands of the Prince of Wales Island group under The Native Title Act 1993. In 2001, the Federal Court of Australia made five determinations recognising the Kaurareg as traditional owners of five of the islands. Except for one area, the people were given the right of possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the five islands to the exclusion of all others.

In his judgement, Justice Drummond of the Federal Court of Australia cited Captain Cook’s observations of the Kaurareg people in 1770 in support of their claim. As he sailed by Muralag, Cook noted he saw a number of men and women on the beach. ‘Some of the men’, Cook wrote, ‘had on large breast plates’. Cook supposed they were made of pearl shell. He said ‘this was a thing, as well as bows and arrows, we had not seen before’. This is the first recorded sighting of the Kaurareg people that took place 243 years ago this month.

In a decision in August this year, the HCA ruled that as well as having native title rights to their islands, state and federal legislation prohibiting commercial fishing without a licence does not extinguish their native title rights to fish for commercial or other purposes in their waters.

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