Sunday, March 18, 2012


                     THE MARY WATSON STORY

 copyright R.J.Warren 2011-2012 

‘Mary Watson’ was a young Cornish woman gripped by a young mothers fear and desire to protect her baby when unknown aborigines came ashore near her home on Lizard Island, Queensland on the 27th of September 1881. Mary was born Mary Beatrice Phillips in Truro, Cornwall on the 17th of January 1860. She was well educated and migrated with her family to Queensland in 1877. She became a private tutor first in Maryborough and then Cooktown where she met her future husband, Captain Robert Watson who was a Beche De Mer fisherman. They were married on the 30th of May 1880 and set up house at Captain Watson’s hut on Lizard Island off the North Queensland coast.  

The couple lived happily for the first year and on the 3rd of June 1881, their son, Ferrier was born at Cooktown. Three months later, when back at Lizard Island, Captain Watson and his partner, P.C. Fuller [Phillips had been erroneously written here, it was Mary's maiden name inserted by mistake. Apologies] began making arrangements for a new fishing base at Knight Island which is about 330 Kilometers from Lizard Island or a few days travel by fishing boat. They left Mrs. Watson in the care of two Chinese servants employed by Captain Watson and departed for Knight Island. The two Chinese servants were Ah Sam, who helped with the housework and Ah Leong, who was the gardener. On the 27th of September 1881, a group of aborigines arrived at Lizard Island and during the next two days tension ran high for Mary Watson, especially so, when on the 29th of September, Ah Leong went missing. 

Mrs. Watson suspected that the natives had killed the gardener and on the 30th of September when a few natives approached the hut, she fired at them with two guns left by her husband. On the 1st of October, the remaining Chinese servant, Ah Sam was speared and suffered four wounds to his side and three to his shoulder and arm. It was this incident that convinced Mrs. Watson to try to make an escape from the island. So, with her servant and child, .she collected food, water, an umbrella, a pillow and some account books, her diary, a revolver and ammunition and after placing the lot in an old Beche de Mer boiler tank, they pushed off to sea. The voyage made by the old tank was nothing short of miraculous to say the least for they were without sails or engine in a square iron tank, with little comfort from the searing tropical heat. 

he little group and their unwieldy tank traversed 40 miles of sea, before landing on Number 5 Island of the Howick group. They had already landed on Number One Island but had to cast off again having found no water on that islet. They tried to hail a passing steamer while between the two islands but they received no reply. Finally, they reached number 5 island where the Chinese servant crawled away and lay under a tree to die. Mary Watson remained with her baby inside the tank where she must have sweltered. 

They had arrived at number 5 island on the 8th of October. Her last entry in her diary was on the 11th of October 1881. This stated that she was very weak from thirst that she could see dark clouds on the horizon and that her child seemed much better than he had been. Shipping records show that no rain clouds or rain were in the area at that time so it seems that Mrs. Watson may have become slightly delirious at the time she wrote her last entry. When questioned regarding the occurrences around Lizard Island at the time Mrs. Watson and her group were missing. Captain Frier who was passing the island observed that he saw several brush fires on the island and that the door to the Watson's hut was ajar. Two aborigines were seen nearby and on October the 20th, the crew of the ship Neptune reported that about 40 aborigines were seen on the island. 

The British warship HMS ‘Conflict’ took five police to the island on the 21st of October and found part of Mary Watson's diary describing the early events leading up to her leaving the island. This finding prompted a search of the area that was unsuccessful. This was until an aboriginal crewman from the Beche de Mer schooner ‘Kate Kearney’, discovered the body of Ah Sam under a tree on the 22nd of January 1882. 

That got the search underway again, resulting in the discovery of the bodies of both mother and child. Mrs. Watson was found in the small tank lying on her back with the baby resting its head on her arm. The tank was partially filled with rainwater, which had fallen in recent days, and although there was enough food in the tank, it was lack of water that killed the three people. An interesting side note to the story was captured in sketches made of the hut and its out buildings. 

These had been daubed with aboriginal motifs that showed Stingrays and other fish and what appeared to be a woman with arms and legs akimbo as if running away. Could this have been a message that the natives had only come to fish? If so, what happened to Ah Leong, did he perhaps take a canoe or boat and run away or was he killed and eaten as so many Chinese were by North Queensland and Torres Strait natives. 

Why did the aborigines not follow them in their canoes? They would have known that the woman and wounded Chinese could not have gone very far. The fact that the aborigines were not showing too much interest in them after they set off in the old tank shows that perhaps the young woman would have survived if she had not left the island. Only those who were there know what really happened but history records a young mother striving to protect her child from the dangers of an early colonial Australia. The tank in which she floated for over forty miles is, I believe, in the Queensland Museum, Brisbane. 

                                      THE LOS ANGELES MOVIE FLEET
As the film industry in America rose to greater and greater heights, the need for more epic films like Moby Dick and Mutiny on the Bounty were called for by a public crying out for romantic adventure movies. Soon sea tales were the in thing as stars like Gregory Peck cashed in on the salty stories of the seven seas. Captain Hornblower and Moby Dick are two of his better films. Pirate movies and their swashbuckling heroes played by actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn, came into their own. Crimson haired heroines like Maureen O’Hara were the romantic rage of the middle twentieth century. At least four very good ships were bought for the Los Angeles Movie Fleet. They are listed in our little movie fleet register below. It should be realised that when ships were required to look older for a particular movie i.e.; Captain Hornblower, then the building of a high stern or aft castle was just a small inconvenience for the movie set builders.

‘BOHEMIA’ Built 1875. Wood ship of 1633 Tons. Length; 221.7 ft. Breadth; 40.2 ft. Depth; 25.5 ft. Built at Bath, Maine, for H. L. Houghton. She was sold to the L. A. Movie Fleet for use in films. [NP]

‘SANTA CLARA’ Built 1876. Wood ship of 1535 Tons. Length; 209.5 ft. Breadth; 40 ft. Depth; 25.5 ft. Built at Bath, Maine, for A.G. Ropes. She was later sold to the L.A. Movie Fleet for use in films. She ended her days as a hulk.

‘INDIANA’ Built 1876. Wood ship of 1488 Tons. Length: 208.9 ft. Breadth: 40 ft. Depth: 23.9 ft. Built by A. Sewall and Co for themselves. She was sold to the L. A. Movie Fleet for use in films. Master: Captain Colley.

‘LLEWELLYN J. MORSE’ Built 1877. Wood ship of 1393 Tons. Length: 198.2 ft. Breadth: 36.6 ft. Depth: 24 ft. Built by J Oakes and Son and owned by J. Rosenfeld. She was sold to the L. A. Movie fleet for use in films. She was later beached and burned.

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