Search for new penal settlement: Oxley discovers the Brisbane River [chapter 15 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 15 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 23 September 1934.]

The story of Australia — XV.

Search for new penal settlement

Oxley discovers the Brisbane River

Matthew Flinders, in 1799, sailed out of Moreton Bay, where he had been engaged on exploration work, fully convinced that no river of any importance flowed into the bay. In 1801 he began his voyage in the Investigator and discovered that Port Curtis, which he named in honour of Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, and Port Bowen, which is now called Port Denison, and on which stands the town of Bowen.

It is important to remember these facts, as the discovery of these ports led indirectly to the discovery of the Brisbane River, and the first settlement on the shores of Moreton Bay.

But strange to say, nearly 20 years elapsed before Moreton Bay attracted the attention of the authorities in Sydney. During these years there had been a large influx of convicts into the colony, and it had become necessary that some sort of classification should be adopted to prevent the worst class of criminals mixing with those not so bad.

The changes were made during the administration of Governor Brisbane. Educated convicts were sent to Bathurst, and twice convicted to Hobart Town, Norfolk Island, or Port Macquarie. This valuable provision resulted in the settlement of Moreton Bay district and the discovery of the Brisbane River.

Coastal survey

It was on October 21, 1823, that Lieutenant Oxley left Sydney with instructions from Governor Brisbane to examine Moreton Bay, Port Curtis, and Port Bowen, on the east coast, and report on their suitability for establishing a convict settlement. He sailed in the Mermaid, and was accompanied by Lieutenant Stirling and John Uniacke.

As the ship sailed up the coast a call was made at Port Macquarie, where Oxley had the satisfaction of seeing a flourishing settlement, which had been established many years before on his own recommendation. Proceeding northwards he discovered and named the Tweed River. On November 6 the Mermaid reached Port Curtis, and here Oxley stayed for some time. He made a thorough survey of the country around its shores, and came to the conclusion that it was unsuitable for a settlement. While he was here he discovered “a rapid mountain stream,” which he called the Boyne River.

Owing to bad weather he did not proceed to Port Bowen, but went south again, and, after encountering a severe storm, which strained the Mermaid considerably, Moreton Bay was entered on November 29, 1823. Oxley anchored at the mouth of the river which Flinders had named the Pumice-stone.

When the boat had been safely anchored the men on board noticed a party of natives on the beach. To their surprise one of them appeared much larger and lighter-skinned than the rest. Oxley sent a boat ashore, and was surprised to find a white man, who hailed him in English. The next day Uniacke took down his surprising story. He elicited from the man, whose name was Thomas Pamphlet, that he and three others — Richard Parsons, John Finnigan, and John Thompson — had been sent from Sydney in a large open boat, seven months before to the Five Islands (Illawarra) to obtain cedar. They encountered rough weather which drove them, as they thought, southward, as far as Van Diemen’s Land. They were travelling northward, however, and were eventually cast ashore on Moreton Island.

John Thompson died from exposure, but the others were saved. They had been received and kindly treated by the natives, and through them reached the mainland, crossing a large river in their route. Pamphlet informed Oxley that not long before the Mermaid arrived the three of them had set off to walk to Sydney overland, but when they had got about 50 miles he had turned back and rejoined the tribe. Finnigan also returned, and was at present on a hunting excursion with the chief.

The Brisbane River

Finnigan appeared on the following day and corroborated Pamphlet’s statement. Both men were confident that a large river flowed into the southern portion of the bay, and this determined Oxley to make a thorough examination of the coast at once. Oxley and Stirling, accompanied by Finnigan, started the next morning, December 1, in the whaleboat to verify the statement. By the end of the day they were at Redcliffe Point, and on the following morning the river was found. In his diary he wrote: “Early on the second day (December 2), in pursuing our examination, we had the satisfaction to find the tide sweeping us up a considerable opening between the first islands and the mainland. The muddiness of the water convinced us we were entering a large river, and a few hours ended our anxiety on that point by the water becoming perfectly fresh, while no diminution had taken place in the size of the river after passing what I called Sea Reach.”

Site for settlement

The party continued their expedition up the river for 50 miles. Here Oxley landed, and ascended a hill, which he called Termination Point. He named the stream the Brisbane River, in honour of Governor Brisbane. By December 5 the whaleboat had reached the Mermaid, and on the following day she sailed for Sydney. Thus ended an expedition which brought far-reaching results. Upon the strength of Oxley’s report, Governor Brisbane established a convict settlement at Redcliffe. This place was abandoned for a site 20 miles up the river, upon which has grown the city of Brisbane.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 23 September 1934, p. 29

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