COSSACK – Australia

Name Origin: HMS Cossack was the ship that bought Governor Sir Frederick Weld to the Tsien Tsin Harbour.

Nestled at the mouth of the Harding River some 12kms North of Roebourne. Cossack has experienced a somewhat chequered past to bring it to its present state of today. The town was originally named Tien Tsin after the boat which carried the first settlers in 1863. The town was established as the major shipping port for the Northwest. The township soon became home to a large pearling fleet, and named Cossack after a visit from Governor Weld in the war ship “Cossack” in 1871.

With the cry of Gold in the 1880’s, hundreds of prospectors streamed through the port to seek their fortunes in the Pilbara fields. Cossacks fortune changed in the 1890’s when the silting of the harbour along with the growing need for an increase in the size of ships servicing the flourishing pastoral industry made the Harbour impractical. In 1910 the facilities were relocated to Point Samson. Hard times followed resulting in the eventual abandoning of the town in the early 1950’s. From then until 1979 the majestic stone buildings lay in ruins but once the historical significance of the town was realised, restoration work began to return them to their former glory. Today Cossack offers a unique look at our colonial past with a total of five of the original buildings now been fully restored. These include the Old Post office and Telegraph building which now houses the Art Gallery. The Old Court house which houses the Shakespeare-Hall Social History Museum, the Customs House now home of the Tea Rooms and Galbraith’s Store (See photo). It is planned that continued restoration work will be undertaken on the remaining buildings within the area. Cossack today beckons the traveller and offers truly a unique glimpse into out region’s past. The WA Museum and University of Western Australia are conducting ongoing archaeology at Cossack. Many of the items recovered date back to 1808, and are on display in the Old Courthouse Museum. There are a number of Aboriginal rock engravings on the surrounding cliff faces of the beaches around Cossack.

Pacific Islanders’ Protection Bill

 When the 1872 Pacific Islanders’ Protection Bill reached its committee stage in the British Parliament in April and the Royal Naval presence in the Pacific was increased, naval officers found they had rather more in common with Consul March. As they went around the islands, they were most zealous in their duty to ‘impress on the chiefs that the English Government does not countenance and will not allow the kidnapping to go on’. Indeed, Captain Douglas of HMS Cossacksent his superiors three letters – with 103 enclosures and sub-enclosures – as witness to his earnestness in dealing with the cutter Volunteer alone. To what extent March’s behaviour in the matter of the Carl was influenced by his attitude towards the white elements in the Cakobau government is difficult to assess – and his espousal of the islander’s cause does seem rather at odds with his so-called racist views. Nevertheless, he too appears to have been genuinely concerned for the imported labourers’ welfare, and as zealous as Douglas in his attempts to regulate the labour trade.

It was March who issued licenses for the various labour vessels flying the British flag before they set out on their quest, and who conferred a measure of legality on their efforts; he also inspected the ships on their return, in order to ensure that the natives they carried had come of their own free will, and were in good health. Entries in his diary show him to have been highly critical of the whole business in general, and the callousness of the employers in particular:

August 3rd 1871 The other day an imported labourer, a native of the Solomon Islands, was found half buried, with his toes sticking out of the ground. Had the body examined by Dr. Freeman. It appears he died a natural death, and was buried like a dog. Today I hear of another, who had been found sown up in a blanket, and deposited behind Mrs. Cox’s boarding house. The body must have been there several days, as it was quite decomposed. These poor imported people may die without any notice being taken, in fact like brute beasts, and the planters object to my supervision of their plantations. I am sent here to grapple with and put down the wicked trade. I am expected to do a great deal, but am left alone to fight a host of unscrupulous black-guards.

Such blackguards included not only the captains and crews of the labour vessels, but also the planters and merchants on shore. In one official report March cited the example of the Nukulau, a ship that had sailed without consular clearance, to illustrate the difficulties under which he was working:

I mentioned the matter to one of her owners, Mr. J.C. Smith of Levuka, a Minister of this so-styled government. He averred that he was no longer a British subject, having taken the oath of allegiance of Thakambau, and that as the period for which the provisional certificate under which the Nukulau was sailing had expired, he considered her a Fijian vessel.

The Smith referred to was just one of a number of planters and traders in the Cakobau government who were in an ideal position to obstruct the consul – and did. It is not surprising, either, that their attitude was taken as official, and was adopted by captains who also felt themselves to be immune. All this should be kept in mind in the light of subsequent events. It was against this background of conflict between the two authorities on Ovalua, each with their own quite different interests, that Captain Joseph Armstrong brought his ship safely back to port. On Thursday, 18 April 1872, after many weeks at sea, and bearing the dangers of rocks, reefs, poisoned arrows – and the equally hazardou8s pleasures of Ponape – those on board the brig Carl breathed a sigh of relief. The vessel negotiated the narrow channels between the outlying islands, made for safe anchorage at Levuka, and it was over now they would reap the rewards of their labours, the head money would be apportioned more or less fairly, and they could be off to their various forms of rest and recreation.

Alas, once ashore on Ovalua – a port shared by the Royal Navy ships of the Australian station and patrolled by Consul March – the reality was to prove quite different.

In his account of his experiences in the South Seas, Captain George Palmer reckoned that the consul for Fiji and Tonga had ‘as difficult a billet as any gentleman in the diplomatic line, or indeed any other’. He was referring to 1869, when the islands harboured ‘every variety of villains from the neighbouring colonies’. By 1872 that particular consul had been replaced, although the villains stayed the same. Except that now the ‘Melbourne sharper’ and the ‘Sydney defaulter’, types described by the captain in his book, could – in Edward March’s opinion at least, – be found in King Cakobau’s cabinet. The Fijian government, for its part, expressed its contempt for the British consul in the most courteous of terms, but that contempt was plain. Matters between the warring parties came to a head after the arrival of Dr. Murray’s Carl.

On 23 April, Minister for Native Affairs F. E. Hennings respectfully invited Consul March to accompany him on board the brig that afternoon to inspect the native labour force and check that all was in order. The invitation apparently failed to reach March in time, and Hennings went alone, returning to his office afterwards, he found a message to the effect that March had already ‘done the needful, so there is no occasion for my going again, especially as the weather is bad and I am suffering from a bad foot’. 

It was a lame excuse in every sense for what may have been a piece of very bad manners. Bad foot or no, March was so appalled by what he found – ‘a state of confusion, the master intoxicated, and the discipline among the crew correspondingly bad’ – that he immediately swung into action. The natives were disembarked in batches, taken to the consulate, and suitable interpreters summoned. All, it soon became clear, ‘had been kidnapped and brought to Fiji against their will’. Moreover, the consul informed his superiors in England, the Line Island natives had told him they had been ‘cowed to the last degree whilst in the vessel’. Through the interpreters March was told of three deaths, and after the interviews two natives stayed on in the consulate: an old man deemed too ill to go anywhere else, and a girl who spoke English and who for three years had been under the tuition of an American missionary on Ebon Island in the Marshalls and the missionary’s wife. It must have been extremely galling for March to find out later that when Minister Hennings had followed him on to the Carl that day he had – contrary to the consul’s clear instructions – passed the immigrants fit for labour in the name of the Fijian government, and that most of them were quickly engaged for the plantations.

As well as being the Minister for Native Affairs, Frederick Hennings happened to be ‘the consignee of the Carl, the mortgagee of the Carl, and the person most interested in the disposal of the natives’. He was also, as March who was half Spanish on his mother’s side pointed out, German by birth and a naturalised Fijian – as if nothing more needed to be said. Hennings was promptly defended by his colleague, John Thurston, the Fijian Minister for Foreign Relations: March had passed the natives taken on the first ‘piratical’ voyage as having been honourably acquired, Hennings had been acting as the brig’s agent and not in his ministerial capacity when he in turn passed those recruited on the second. Thurston failed to point out that Fred Hennings was also acting for the brother and himself, and that the brig’s living cargo was transferred to their Makogai Island plantation, where they were immediately put to work. (They were still there months later, and three of them were found by Edward March before he relinquished office, ‘lying upon a mat on the ground, their glassy eyes telling of approaching death, turned towards me as if making a last appeal to be returned to their people’. Some were already dead ‘from consumption and the penetrating influence of deep dejection’.

The antagonism between Thurston and March was inevitable. Thurston had been acting consul and had fully expected the position to be his permanently; instead, March replaced him in November 1869. Thurston was not impressed with his successor, and his assessment of the consul as being both vain and idle was shared by many during the two years March was in his post. For a long time Thurston held out against pleas to join the Cakobau government and kept aloof from politics altogether, and it was only March’s espousal of the racist elements in planter society that forced him to change his mind.

‘If I am now a Fiji-man’, he told a friend when he had finally thrown in his lot with independent government, it was because of the man he termed ‘Don Eduardo’ or ‘this half bred Spanish bigot – an interesting turn of phrase for an official now pledged to promote harmony among the races. 

As well as dealing with the natives, Thurston’s ministerial colleague, Fred Hennings, also took care of the ailing Dr. Murray, who was ‘so ill that he had to be carried on shore and was placed in an empty house having no communication at all with the outside world’ – as Murray’s still devoted wife Caroline put it in her letter to officialdom on her husband’s behalf.

Certainly, while the brig Carl remained at anchor and the drunken debauch that had so scandalised the consul presumably went on, its owner stayed for some weeks in a detached cottage outside the town close to Hennings’ own residence under the care of Levuka’s Dr. Brown, and with his life, as he thought, in supreme danger. As he recovered from the effects of the ague that had laid him low from early in the voyage, he became aware of the consul’s interest in his affairs. Accordingly, and perhaps predictably, James Patrick Murray decided to take the necessary steps to preserve his reputation – and his neck. On 29 April, Edward March accepted Dr. Murray’s invitation to call. It was the consul’s third visit and with him came William Mitchell, another physician, anxious to check the sick man’s health. Dr. Brown, the man being paid to affect a cure, was reluctant to leave the patient alone with his visitors, which, in the light of what followed, was understandable. In a move which was to mean the end of the brig Carl’s usefulness to Fred Hennings, trader, and deal a considerable blow to the dignity not only of Hennings the minister, but of the Fijian government itself, Murray was invited to finish his convalescence at the consulate where, with March’s every encouragement, he made three devastating depositions concerning his former companions. 

The third and last deposition concentrates on the initial voyage alone, and is a horrifying account of the massacre that took place in September 1871 off the Solomon Islands. Because of the public outcry at the loss of those seventy or so human lives which formed the basis of the charges against the Carl, little attention was given to the deposition covering the subsequent events of December 1871 to April 1872, and they have largely been forgotten. They are startlingly damning documents and coming as they do from someone so deeply involved himself, they are little short of incredible. Upon examination, however, it becomes obvious why Dr. Murray made them.

The informed reader who knows of Murray’s behaviour after the failure of the Ladies’ Leichhardt Expedition back in 1869, and remembers the way in which the physician forestalled censure of his actions by casting the blame elsewhere, will have a sense of deja vu. But this time Murray readily admitted himself to be at fault. That he was guilty of murder, anyone on board the brig in September 1871 would swear, anyway, but when he set his name to his final testimony he called on a higher power as witness for the defence.

I make the above deposition from purely conscientious motives, having been party in these horrible transactions, when aborigines were regarded as so many cattle and treated accordingly. I met a just retribution from the hands of the Almighty on my second trip, by sickness and manifold dangers bringing me to the brink of the grave.

As a result, he added, he had ‘registered a sacred vow to devote my future life, as far as possible, to the suppression to this infamous and sanguinary traffic’.

Murray realised no doubt that his story of what had taken place on the second voyage would seem fantastic, and that he might even be called mad. He explained Hennings’ attempt to keep him in seclusion after his return as a calculated attempt to derange his mind, and render his evidence inadmissible. The reason for his taking part in the second voyage was, the doctor said, for reasons of health: he had some down with ague on Tanna Island and felt that se breezes would help his recovery. He left William Scott, his friend and partner, on the island to run their plantation – and, incidentally, meet his death at the hands of the natives – and looked to Captain Armstrong and the Carl‘s young passenger, Archibald Watson, to care for him in his convalescence. At some point during the voyage, Murray said in his second deposition, feelings towards him changed. He was treated as not being quite in his senses, and subjected to a long process of persecution – first of a bantering nature, but finally of such proportions that he feared for his life.

Murray’s account of what occurred on board the ship was delivered under oath, but that does not necessarily make it the truth. That he was ill is evident: Watson’s log bears witness to that. That Archie took care of him, and that the crew saved him from drowning is also true. Did the whites perhaps indulge in a certain degree of horseplay to relieve the daily tedium, which Murray in his delirium misinterpreted? If they had seriously intended to dispose of him, as the doctor testified, and later elaborated, it would surely have been easy enough to arrange …

Whatever the truth, Murray lay for weeks in Hennings’ cottage in Levuka, brooding over the real or imagined dangers he had survived. When Edward March began to visit him and talk of his perceived mission to bring all blackbirders to justice, Murray must have begun to feel alarm. With the mention of HMS Cossack’s expected visit to the island, I believe the doctor panicked. And as the seriousness of his position struck home, the gravity of the charges he laid against his former companions intensified, in first one, then a second, then a third series of accusations brought against them to quick succession.

Murray’s charges led the consul to do all in his power to keep the Carl in Fiji. This was not difficult, as Murray, the owner, had given no orders to sail. In a place like Levuka where gossip was rife, the sudden friendship between the physician and the consul would have been the subject of some speculation – enough for Archie Watson, now clear of the Carl, to assess his own position. 

If Archie had indeed taken no part in the brig’s first voyage, there was no denying his presence on the second. As HMS Cossack approached the island of Ovalau, the so-called poisoner of James Patrick Murray and his ‘most inveterate enemy began to think of his future. Accordingly, he took the precaution of finding himself a lawyer. Who better to advise him than James Stewart Butters, one time mayor of Melbourne, presently colleague of Frederick Hennings and Speaker of the Fiji House of Commons – a man no stranger to litigation himself, and who had the mental and physical agility to escape any unheralded danger. Butters’s sang-froid was communicated to his young client and former associate, and – for the time being anyway – Archibald Watson kept his head.

Extract from Chapter Twelve – Painting the Islands VermilionArchibald Watson and the Brig Carl 

Jennifer M. T. Carter

Melbourne University Press 1999

 Research sources:

The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Death of Queen Victoria by Sir Wm. L Clowes & others – Vol. VI. First published in 1903: Published again in 1997 by Chatham Publishing: ISBN No 1 86176 015 9.

British Warships in the Age of Sail 1817 – 1863 Design, Construction, Careers and Fates” by Rif Winfield Seaforth Publishing ISBN 987-1-8432-169-4

The internet (sources not guaranteed)

Painting the Islands Vermilion Extract from Chapter Twelve – – Archibald Watson and the Brig Carl 

Jennifer M. T. Carter

Melbourne University Press 1999

Relatives of the ship’s company

The National Archives

ADM 38/5903

ADM 38/5904

ADM 38/7858

ADM38/7859

ADM38/7860

ADM38/7861

ADM38/7862

The Times 9 January 1861

The Log of Midshipman C.S Nedham 9 December 1868 to 23 February 1869 held by the Naval Museum Portsmouth