Local guides uncover river


Oxley’s crew were astonished to see a white man on the shore at Bongaree, Bribie Island. Image: Pictorial Atlas of Australasia

Rivers along Australia’s east coast eluded many early British explorers including Captain James Cook, who saw signs of fresh water when passing Moreton Bay, and Matthew Flinders, who charted the Bay in detail but was unable to find the river’s mouth. When Surveyor General John Oxley was sent north in the 17-metre cutter, the Mermaid, he was on a mission to find a suitable location for a northern outpost and penal settlement for the colony of New South Wales.

On 29 November 1823 he rounded the southern tip of Bribie Island and entered Pumicestone Passage. He was amazed to see what appeared to be a white man, naked on the shore amongst a group of Aborigines. He was even more astonished when the man called out to the Mermaid’s crew in English. The man was Thomas Pamphlett. With his companions Parsons and Finnegan, he had been washed ashore on Moreton Island on 16 April 1823. They had been at sea for 26 days, drifting after being blown off course by a storm. A fourth companion, Thompson, had gone mad drinking seawater and died. They had thrown his corpse overboard. The next day Finnegan was also found. He had been travelling with the Aborigines. Parsons, who had struck out alone, trying to get back to Port Jackson by land, was unable to be found. Oxley – hearing Finnegan knew of a ‘large river’ – pressed the castaway into service as his guide.

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