- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Peter Brigden
An article in the March 2019 edition of this magazine titled They Also Servedcovers the memoirs of LCDR Frank Simon RD, RANR. I was lucky enough to be shown a copy of these memoirs and in particular the third and final volume mainly covering his service as a Torres Strait Pilot, where he mentions Booby Island.
Who discovered Booby Island?
To the indigenous Kaurareg people, the Torres Strait formed part of their hunting and fishing grounds, with their westernmost island called Ngiangu. The first known European mention is from an expedition from Batavia by the Dutch ship Rijdercommanded by Jean Gonzal. In May 1756 he explored the Torres Strait and named the westernmost island Rijder Island. However, the first record of a landing is by Captain James Cook on 23 August 1770 who named it Booby Island because of the seabirds, known as boobies. William Bligh in his famous open-boat voyage on his escape from the Bounty mutineers passed here on 3 June 1789 but did not land. When Captain Bligh became Governor of New South Wales he petitioned the Imperial Government to form a depot at Booby Island for shipwrecked mariners, but it was not until 1824 that Bligh’s request was granted.
An early description of Booby Island1was of a bare porphyry rock about fifteen acres (six hectares) in area and about fifty feet high. It is at the western extremity of Torres Strait, being the first land met when approaching from the west. Once covered in vegetation, it became denuded by the guano hunters in the late 1800s. It lies 14 miles (23 km) from its nearest neighbor the Prince of Wales Island and 20 miles (32 km) from Thursday Island.
The island aroused interest in colonial times because of the number of ships lost in this area. For example, on 30 September 1814 the ship Eliza, on passing Booby Island, observed a vigorously waved white flag. A boat sent to investigate found five crew members from the wrecked brigantine Morning Starwhich had been on passage from Sydney to Batavia. The captain, Robert Smart, and nine other crew members had taken the ship’s longboat and set out for Timor, never to be heard from again. In total 22 crew members from the Morning Starare believed to have drowned.
The Post Office
Due to its position it became famous for its ‘post office’ in a small cave on its northern end. The mouth of the cave faced the landing place. In 1814 or earlier, some mariner, after passing through the hazardous Inner Route, left mail in the cave for a vessel proceeding in the opposite direction to pick up. A flagstaff was erected in 1822 and later the Queensland Government placed some provisions for shipwreck survivors, plus a register for passing vessels, so that over the years it became well known in shipping circles as ‘the post office cave’.
In his King of the Australian CoastMarsden Hordern, referring to the 1820 voyage of the colonial ship Mermaid, says:
Booby Island rewarded them with two turtles and nearly a thousand eggs. But King found something there which pleased him even more than fresh supplies – evidence that an increasing number of ships were using Torres Strait on passages from Sydney to India. Booby Island marked the end of their navigation among the intricate coral reefs, and their masters were leaving messages there for the benefit of others.
In 1835 Captain Hobson in HMS Rattlesnake established Booby Island as a maritime post office where ships could leave letters to be forwarded to various destinations by other visiting ships. Hobson also left a book with a request for ships’ captains to record details of the weather, currents and dangers they had encountered on their voyage.
In 1862 Sir George Bowen2, the first Governor of the new colony of Queensland, took passage from Brisbane in HMS Pioneer (Commander Frederick Robinson RN), also with Commodore William Burnett,3the Commander-in-Chief Australia Station embarked, to report on the military aspects ofhisnewdomain.Theycalledatthefurthest northwesterly limit of his jurisdiction at Booby Island on 9 September where: …there was deposited an iron case for the letters generally left on this rock by the passing ships of all nations, to be conveyed to their respective addresses by succeeding vessels.
After years of lobbying for a lighthouse to be established to improve navigation when entering the dangerous Torres Strait, it was not until 24 June 1890 that an oil burning light was first beamed from its 59 foot (18 metre) tower. A generator was installed and the light converted to electricity in 1963, and in 1991 solar powered batteries were installed. Four cottages were built for the lighthouse keepers and relief crews, which now lie deserted.
While the mining of guano in Queensland was regulated in 1868 it was a few years later that islands off the Barrier Reef and surrounding areas became attractive to phosphate miners. The industry peaked in about 1890 when most vegetation had been stripped from remote islands with devastating impacts on the local environment.
John Smith, who was Executive Officer serving in the survey ship HMAS Moresby, says that in 1964 his ship had just taken over from HMAS Warrego which had surveyed Gannet Passage to the west of the Torres Strait. This involved establishing a tidal station on Booby Island with two sailors camped there for several weeks. At this time the lighthouse was manned, with families and numerous young children. They came to an agreement that in exchange for looking after the children and helping with school work their mothers would provide meals for the sailors, using naval provisions.
It did not take long for our capable Jack Tars cum schoolies to teach the children the intricacies of tide poles which had to be read every 30 minutes over a 24-hour period. With a roster fully established a very satisfactory arrangement was concluded to contented and well fed sailors, and some well behaved school children.
Frank Simon says: I have visited this cave, in which can be discerned painted on its walls the names of a couple of passing vessels. Near the island’s center is a rift with some vegetation and a grave marking the burial of a lighthouse keeper’s child from the early days.
In the 1970s the lighthouse keepers used to supply the Pilot House (on Thursday Island) with eggs. One delivery had a distinctly fishy flavor, which turned out to be caused by the fowls being fed fish as their feed of grain and becoming exhausted. Today the light is unmanned, as it is automatic, being powered by solar batteries.
Booby Island still plays an important role in the safe navigation of ships transiting the Torres Strait. Its lesser known role as a ‘post office’ stems from about 1814 and continued to about 1870 when the regularity of shipping services and their improved reliability with the introduction of steam made this informal postal service redundant.
- The Torres Straits Daily Pilot,which was said to be the world’s smallest and most expensive daily newspaper, commenced publication in 1877 and ceased during WWII. It was the forerunner of the Torres Newswhich commenced production in 1955.
- Sir George Bowen was a highly effective colonial administrator who became governor of just about everywhere – after serving as the first Governor of Queensland in succession he became Governor of New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong.
- Six months later, on 7 February 1863, in his new flagship HMS Orpheus(Captain Robert Burton RN) Commodore Burnett and Captain Burton together with another 187 officers and men were drowned when Orpheuswas wrecked on the bar while entering Manukau Harbour on the west coast of New Zealand.