John Elliott led a group of native plants enthusiasts on a trip to Cape Cleveland last weekend. The excursion prompted me to write about his recent book, mogoer munya, because a rock shelter which we visited features in the book.
mogoer munya – man from the clouds is an account of the life of James Morrill, an ordinary English seaman of the mid-nineteenth century who was shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1846. He was one of four who survived the raft journey to the coast and were rescued by the Birri-Gubba people of Cape Cleveland.
The other three castaways died after about two years but Morrill lived with the tribes for 17 years. By the end of that time, white settlers were spreading up the coast from Bowen and after some indecision Morrill made himself known to them and rejoined white society.
There, of course, he was an instant celebrity, but his life was not easy. Destitute, he depended on charity; feted as the man who lived with the savages, what he needed was a job. He quickly wrote a Sketch of his life to keep the curious at bay and returned from Brisbane to Bowen, where he was given minor government positions but rarely allowed to act as a bridge between white and black people as he had hoped to do.
John Elliott has brought together a mass of historical material and integrates it with the full text of Morrill’s brief Sketch, twenty-odd pages becoming 200. The result is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in pre-contact indigenous life, bush tucker, early pastoral settlement between Bowen and Townsville, the early years of Bowen and the very earliest days of Townsville and Cardwell.
John has carefully avoided adding his own interpretation to the material he has collected, but his contemporary sources don’t illuminate Morrill’s life after he rejoined settler society as well as we might like – partly because the broader picture, of white settlers moving into coastal lands and killing or displacing the original inhabitants, was deliberately obfuscated at the time.
Morrill said disappointingly little about his 17 years – almost all of his adult life – with the Birri-Gubba. In my own view his primary reason was that the hostility of the settlers to the indigenous people was so great that they could not tolerate any sympathetic depiction of the ‘savages’.
mogoer munya is therefore a complex reading experience. Anyone wanting to browse or research its several subjects will find it accessible enough, but readers wanting a wider perspective will have to juggle a multitude of nineteenth century voices to arrive at a coherent sense of the events and their meaning for us now.
Buying the book
The starting point of our walk was the same as for our walk to Elephant Rock some months ago but we walked upstream instead of down.
After a pleasant walk up the creek and back, John offered to show us some rock art nearby and we drove to the Cocoa Creek turn-off and down towards the National Parks camping ground. A fire had been through some of that country and cleared enough of the long grass to reveal an old water tank, a stock trough and mature mango trees, remnants of a farm established near the road perhaps a century ago.
After another short drive we parked on the slightly higher ground near the foot of a ridge and walked up to the rock shelter. It looks out over mangroves and mud-flats and, as John observed, it is near one of the few scraps of reasonably flat ground above the reach of high tides. As such, it is a good candidate for the permanent camp where Morrill and his friends were brought back from the brink of starvation, as described in his Sketch.
Various items on this blog and my other one (Words & Images) touch on northern Australia’s indigenous heritage. The most relevant are:
- Visiting Turtle Rock on Hervey’s Range – another rock shelter in our region.
- People in Australia before Europeans arrived and The European colonisation of Australia, two collections of history articles.
- Singing the Coast: Masks, Mists, Mirrors, Maps, about the difficulties of writing our history.
Alan Garner’s Strandloper is based on the story of William Buckley whose experiences in Victoria parallel Morrill’s. In every other respect Strandloper is the polar opposite of mogoer munya, being historical fiction bordering on fantasy; but there are plenty of other books about Buckley for anyone wanting mere facts.
Fred Cahir’s book, They Rescued Us – Aboriginal Heroes On Country, is a collection of contemporary accounts of “rescues by Aboriginal people of non-Aboriginal people across Australia from the earliest days of the invasion of Aboriginal Australia to 1967.” The stories “directly challenge the dominant narratives and understandings of Australian colonial history, with relevant implications for cultural heritage and reconciliation efforts.” (Both quotations are from the author’s Preface.)