Wednesday, July 8, 2015

John Douglas visit to Torres Strait in 1877

On 8 November 1877, John Douglas travelled by steamer to Somerset and Torres Strait[1] to ascertain, now that a settlement on Thursday Island had been established, whether the government should continue with Somerset as an administrative centre.[2] Douglas had always taken an interest in Torres Strait. He later remarked that he regarded himself as “the founder and originator of this settlement,” for it was while he was postmaster-general that the Torres Strait mail service first commenced,[3] and it was also due to his efforts that the settlement at Thursday Island had been established earlier in the year.[4]

Douglas was much taken with Thursday Island. He found the view from the resident magistrate’s house of the surrounding islands to be “very charming,” while the house itself, built on a “commanding knoll about fifty-feet above high water … has a very pleasing appearance, with its trim flagstaff and terraced slopes.”[5] Little would he know that in a few years’ time this house would become his home for almost 20 years.

Also travelling around the colony were the treasurer, James Dickson, and the postmaster general, Charlie Mein. On 18 November 1877, they arrived at Salisbury, informing the large crowd assembled there that it had now been proclaimed a sub-port and henceforth would be known as Port Douglas, in honour of the premier. The announcement was “well received.”[6]

[1] During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the region was known as Torres Straits, but for the sake of clarity, I have used the contemporary spelling.

[2] Brisbane Courier, 7 November 1877, p. 2; “Summary for Europe.” Brisbane Courier, 5 December 1877, p. 3. For a detailed account of Douglas’s trip, see “Our Northern Outposts.” Brisbane Courier, 8 December 1877, p. 6. It was reproduced in Peter Prideaux. From Spear to Pearl-Shell; Somerset, Cape York Peninsula, 1864–1877. Brisbane, Boolarong Publications, 1988, pp. 159-64. Douglas’s trip directly led to the abandonment of Somerset as an administrative centre.

[3] John Douglas to the Home Secretary, 24 January 1902. Queensland State Archives, Hom/A39; Douglas (1902), p. 45; Douglas (1900A), p. 10. The mail service commenced when the steamer Souchays departed Brisbane in January 1866. However only two voyages were undertaken to Batavia to connect with the British India Line mail steamers there, as the service was considered too slow. (Ian Nicholson. Via Torres Strait: A Maritime History of the Torres Strait Route and the Ships’ Post Office at Booby Island. Nambour, Queensland, Roebuck, 1996, p. 238; James Turnbull. The Postal History and Postal Markings of Thursday Island. Melbourne, The Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria, 1990, p. 9.) Turnbull incorrectly referred to the Souchays as the Souchaya.

[4] John Douglas to the Home Secretary, 24 January 1902. Queensland State Archives, Hom/A39; “Thursday Island. Interview with the British Resident.” The British Australasian, 12 June 1902, p. 1005. The settlement at Thursday Island officially commenced on 19 July 1877, with Henry Marjoribanks Chester, the police magistrate at Somerset, appointed to the same position on Thursday Island. Chester had moved to the island by September 1877.

[5] Prideaux, p. 161

[6] “Port Douglas.” Brisbane Courier, 8 December 1877, p. 3. Douglas first visited the town on 2 December 1877, on his return from Torres Strait. (Brisbane Courier, 4 December 1877, p. 2)