I had the pleasure today to read an old newspaper article from “The Brisbane Courier” which describes what the South Brisbane and West End areas of Brisbane were like in the 1820’s. The story was published in 1930 by someone who, fifty years earlier had made “the acquaintance of an old man – a time- expired convict – who was one of the first contingent of prisoners in 1825 to quit Redcliffe and ascend the Brisbane River in a cutter”. It’s a valuable recollection in that it describes the Paradise that was Brisbane prior to European Settlement.
If, like me, you’ve ever stood in your backyard and wondered what it would have been like three or four hundred years ago, or even earlier, then this article might give you a fleeting glimpse.
When I read this I get a better idea of the grief and anger many indigenous Australians feel about the loss of their land.
If you want, you can click on the image of the newspaper clipping to the left and read it. To make it easier, I’ve included a transcript of the article as well.
Source: The Brisbane Courier. 22 March 1930. Page 10.
THE BRISBANE RIVER.
100 YEARS AGO.
By AN OLD BRISBANEITE.
ITS SHALLOW WATERS.
RECENT issues of “The Brisbane Courier” have referred with a certain amount of pride to the fact that the P. and O. Coy. have decided to extend the service of their fine steamers to Brisbane. When one considers that less than a century ago men frequently waded across the Brisbane River at various spots between the present site of the Victoria Bridge and Queensport it can be realised that the work of improving the river has been one of great magnitude. Many years ago I was told by a gentleman then engaged in the pilot service at Brisbane that on one occasion at low tide he waded across the river from Queensport to Pinkenba. I had it from an ex-convict that during the years of the convict settlement in Brisbane, that is, after the year 1825, the soldiers when off duty were in the habit – at low tide – of wading about in the shallow pools of water where the Victoria Bridge now stands, and catching large quantities of fish. They caught the fish with their hands, and put them into bags or baskets slung over their backs.
It was my experience, more than half a century ago, to make the acquaintance of an old man – a time- expired convict – who was one of the first contingent of prisoners in 1825 to quit Redcliffe and ascend the Brisbane River in a cutter. This man was well educated, as was evidenced by the fragments of old manuscripts which he had written and placed at my disposal for perusal. He exacted from me a promise that I would not divulge the contents of his notes so far as they related to the convict system, but their perusal conveyed particulars of some dreadful incidents in the administration of the penal affairs of the settlement. The writer of those notes was an ardent lover of Nature, and the beauties of the scenery along the banks of the river probably appealed to him in a manner that was lost upon his fellow prisoners. He drew vivid pictures of the scenes of enchanting beauty which unfolded themselves as each successive reach of the river came into view. To use his own words: “It looked as though some race of men had been here before us, and planted this veritable garden of Eden.” The convicts were being conveyed to a prison from which possibly the majority would be released only by death, and yet the gateway to that prison lay between river banks lined with foliage whose beauty it were almost impossible to describe. Skirting the water’s edge for miles on each side of the river was dense vine-clad jungle, festooned with the blue and the purple convolvulus, while on the tidal brink grew the beautiful salt-water lily – its flower white as alabaster, its glorious perfume filling the air with fragrance. Kingfishers – some scarlet breasted, others white, all with backs of azure blue – darted hither and thither, while anon the solitude was disturbed by the raucous laughter of the kookaburra.
MAN VERSUS NATURE.
But the conditions of an earthly paradise were not to continue indefinitely, for in the course of time – particularly after the abolition of the convict system, and with the advent of free colonists in the Brisbane area – there came the inevitable day when
“The sound of the axe was heard in the land” –
when the war of devastation – man versus Nature – called by most people the march of progress – began, and the beautiful jungles were swept away. A few giant Moreton Bay fig trees were spared for some years longer. One of these stood in William-street, where now is the residence of Mr. Tom Mulcahy, of the Home Secretary’s Department. Another grew on the present site of the Treasury Buildings. Prior to the erection of these buildings that grand old tree stood sentinel over the Chief Secretary’s office – a small one-storied building, where some of the most important laws in force in Queensland first saw the hand of the Parliamentary draftsman. It was under the shadow of that old tree that Sir Thomas M’Ilwraith – then Premier – signed the historical telegram to Mr. H. M. Chester, police magistrate of Cooktown, instructing him to proceed post haste to New Guinea to hoist the Union Jack on the shores of Port Moresby, and to proclaim the annexation of New Guinea in the name of Great Britain. Incidentally it may be stated that M’Ilwraith’s action was repudiated by the Imperial Government, of which Gladstone was the head.
NATURE’S FAIRY BOWER.
One of the most enchanting spots within the Brisbane area was an immense jungle in the western portion of South Brisbane. It began at about the spot where the Victoria Bridge now stands, and it followed the course of the river right away to Hill End, along the whole length of what is now the Montague-road. This jungle was a tangled mass of trees, vines, flowering creepers, staghorns, elkhorns, towering scrub palms, giant ferns, and hundreds of other varieties of the fern family, beautiful and rare orchids, and the wild passion flower. While along the river bank were the waterlily in thousands, and the convolvulus of gorgeous hue. What posterity lost by the destruction of this magnificent jungle in all its pristine glory only those who were privileged to see it can form any conception. Here at our very door we had a wealth, a profusion, of botanical beauty which can never be replaced by the hand of man. Too late have we recognised the desirableness of conserving these glorious works of Nature. The Lamington plateau and Mount Tamborine certainly are beauty spots, and rich from a botanic point of view, but it is not every city dweller who can get to them. A few weeks ago there appeared In the “Courier” a letter from the pen of Mr. Fred. W. Taylor, dated North Tamborine, February l8, in which these words occur: “On ascending the mountain (Tamborine) from the Tamborine station one travels through avenues of wonderful scrub, with palm trees waving their proud plumes to the whispering breeze, and there are vast reserves of virgin scrub prolific in orchids, staghorns, &c., on stately forest trees.” These words would have applied with equal truth to the magnificent stretch of primeval foliage at West End had the early residents of Brisbane exercised sufficient foresight to preserve to posterity that magnificent botanical heritage.
It was during the destruction of this jungle that evidence of the brutal convict system was brought to light, for, amid this primeval grandeur, there were found the skeletons of several human beings, rusted leg-irons still encircling the bones. Obviously the convicts had escaped from the settlement – either by crossing the river on logs or by wading across at low tide. They preferred to die in this veritable garden of Nature rather than continue to live amid all the horrors of the convict system. But while all lovers of Nature must deplore the destruction of these enchanted spots, there is consolation in realising that after all such destruction was the first step in the direction of a free settlement, which displaced the brutal and degrading convict system.