Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Expedition to New Guinea - 1885

In July 1885, an Australian geographical party from Victoria, led by Captain Henry Charles Everill and including the botanist William Bauerlen aboard the Bonito, arrived at Thursday Island on its way to New Guinea.  Bauerlen dined several times with Douglas at the residency and considered him “a fine thorough gentleman.”  Douglas subsequently accompanied them on the trip to New Guinea, travelling in a separate vessel with Samuel McFarlane in the London Missionary Society yacht, Mary.  It was his first trip there and Everill named a bend in the Strickland River on the New Guinea mainland the Douglas Bend, in his honour.[1]  On 23 July 1885, Douglas left the group[2] and returned to Thursday Island on the Queensland government schooner, the Mavis, but the ship was wrecked on Dungeness Reef in early August, and Douglas had to be rescued by another vessel.[3]  The loss of the Mavis meant he was unable to travel about the Torres Strait and henceforth was confined to Thursday Island.

This was a serious setback to his administration of the islands.  Furthermore, Douglas enjoyed travelling and possessed a curious and enquiring mind.  He wanted to acquaint himself personally with the Torres Strait and its inhabitants; the grounding of the Mavis denied him this opportunity.  Douglas was always happiest when travelling.  Frequently living or working on the frontier, he was a man of action who preferred to visit or explore rather than occupy a desk.

On his way to New Guinea Douglas had called in at Murray Island to conclude a matter commenced by Chester.  In 1882, the island had been reserved by Queensland government proclamation for use by Torres Strait Islanders, leading to the subsequent removal of a number of South Sea Islanders already resident there.  Despite this, by 1885, 13 South Sea Islanders had again taken up residence and the Murray Islander chief asked Chester to remove them.  Chester sought advice from Griffith, who agreed to their removal from the island.[4]  Chester then drew up a notice giving the South Sea Islanders 30 days notice to remove themselves.[5] However, it fell to Douglas to implement this and he arranged for their relocation to Darnley Island.[6]  Douglas was impressed with the Murray Islanders, believing they “deserve and are entitled to all their privileges as Queensland subjects.”[7] 

In line with his liberal beliefs, Douglas also arranged for boats to be presented to the chiefs of Darnley, Saibai, Stephens and Mabuiag Islands to allow, in the words of his successor, Hugh Milman, under whose rule the boats were delivered, “an opportunity or means to work for themselves, and emulate or copy the white men.”[8] 

In October 1885 Sarah Douglas fell seriously ill, an illness made worse by the absence of a resident doctor on the island.[9]  Dr Arthur Edward Salter was belatedly appointed as the health officer, and sent to Thursday Island but, as there was no accommodation available, he had to live with the Douglas family.[10]

Douglas’s first six months in the Torres Strait had been eventful, especially Sarah’s illness.  As he informed his brother Edward, “I have had really hard times of it at home.  Much trouble … I have had a deal of worry”[11]

Fortunately, for him, things were looking “brighter now, brighter than they have been for some time.”  In this letter he scorned the administration of nearby New Guinea:

New Guinea has been messed over.  I could govern New Guinea from here for one half the £15,000 which the colonies allow to the Colonial Office for mismanaging it.[12]

Unbeknown to Douglas, he soon had the opportunity to put his theories into practice for, on 2 December 1885, the special commissioner for New Guinea, Sir Peter Scratchley, succumbed to malaria, dying at sea between Cooktown and Townsville.[13]

This chapter so far has traced Douglas’s life from the fall of his premiership to his appointment as government resident on Thursday Island to administer Torres Strait on behalf of the Queensland government, his relocation to the island, his first six months there, his travel to several Torres Strait islands, and the resolution of a complex dispute on Murray Island.  His transition from politician to administrator was complete.  Douglas had gained experience as a journalist, now had four children, and had travelled back to the country of his birth where he had the pleasure of being reunited with family and friends.  While living on Thursday Island was not his first choice, his family had joined him, his boys were attending the newly established Thursday Island school,[14] his wife’s health appeared to be improving, and the Brisbane Week newspaper considered that Douglas was administering the region well:  “so far good has followed the appointment.”[15]
Douglas was soon to be appointed to a new post, a post he had previously unsuccessfully sought, that of administrator of New Guinea.  However, it was a position that contained more than its fair share of challenges and privations, and he soon yearned for his Thursday Island home, a home, an island, and a people that he had quickly grown to love.[16]

[1] William Bauerlen, p. 7; Wanderer.  Thursday Island.”  Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1885, p. 3; John Douglas to Chief Secretary, 3 August 1885.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A434/6069.  For information on this expedition, see “Special Record of the Arrangements for the Exploration of New Guinea.”  Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.  New South Wales Branch.  Vols. 3-4, 1885-86, pp. 105-64 and “Exploration of New Guinea.  Capt. Everill’s Report.”  Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.  New South Wales Branch.  Vols. 3-4, 1885-86, pp. 170-87
[2] It was feared that Bauerlen and his party had been massacred, but after four months incommunicado, they steamed back to Thursday Island.  (John Douglas to Edward Douglas 10 December 1885.  Douglas Papers.  John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/B/4/2; “Report of Special General Meeting Held on Friday, 20th November, 1885.”  Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Victorian Branch, vol 3, 1885, pp. 89-101.)  Douglas landed in New Guinea for the first time on 17 July 1885.  (John Douglas.  Islands in Torres Straits.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1885, p. 1047)
[3] Queensland State Archives, Col A/443 no’s 5740 (6 August 1885) and 6121 (21 August 1885)
[4] Henry Chester to Colonial Secretary, 12 March 1885.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A417; C. Pennefather to Colonial Secretary in-letter 3261 of 1882, Queensland State Archives, COL/A339
[5] John Douglas to Colonial Secretary, 6 August 1885.  Queensland State Archives, COL/A434
[6] Ibid.; John Douglas.  Report of Mr. Douglas on a Visit to Murray Island.  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1885, pp. 1083-85.  Douglas arrived at Murray Island on 28 July 1885 and gave his reasons for removing the Pacific Islanders as “My duty was to evict the intruders in virtue of the notice and to sustain the authority of the superior government.”
[7] Douglas (1885A), p. 1083
[8] Hugh Milman.  “Annual Report of the Acting Government Resident at Thursday Island.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1886, p. 494
[9] John Douglas to Chief Secretary, 30 October 1885.  Col A/443 no 8826, Queensland State Archives. 
[10] Ibid.; Douglas (1885), p. 4.  The residency comprised four bedrooms, a dining room, drawing room, veranda, front and back hallways, a kitchen and pantry, a bathroom and a servant’s room.  (Queensland State Archives, QS 788/1)
[11] John Douglas to Chief Secretary, 30 October 1885.  Col A/443 no 8826, Queensland State Archives; John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 10 December 1885.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, Queensland State Library, OM 89-3/B/4/2
[12] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 10 December 1885.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, Queensland State Library, OM 89-3/B/4/2
[13] “Poor New Guinea.”  Week, 5 December 1885, p. 541; Joyce (1976), p. 99
[14] Douglas had chosen the site of the school during his 1877 visit.  (Douglas (1900A), p. 11.)  The school itself opened on 13 July 1885 with an enrolment of 23 children, 12 boys and 11 girls.  (Tenth Report of the Secretary for Public Instruction for the Year 1885.  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1886, pp. 790-91)
[15] “The Year 1885.”  The Week, 2 January 1886, p. 13
[16] “The Ministerial Northern Tour.”  Queenslander, 22 May 1886, pp. 806-7