South Coast Sealers

Here's an interesting story published in the West Australian, on Saturday, August 17, 1929. It was written by someone called "Polygon" and appears to be a credible account of King George Sound just before Edmund Lockyer arrived at the end of 1826.

SOUTH-COAST SEALERS - Wild days before settlement

In the lee of Eclipse Island, sheltered by the steep shores of granite, the three whaleboats rode, the crew resting on their oars. They were a ragged and rascally looking gang, dirty white and mixed black and their shaggy locks fell over faces puckered into wrinkles that told of all manner of petty villainy in out of the way places and of chilly, windy nights with a hard sleet blowing in the eyes and of lean years of hungry wandering with little satisfaction and many quarrels.

There was a quarrel among them now, but the huge steersman Randall, who was standing over them, had roared them into silence and in this sudden quiet of lowering, sullen hate, fresh hope came to the cowering, naked black wretches that were the subject of the argument.

At one end of the second boat were huddled, under skins and a dirty half of sail, three or four gins, secure as favourites, watching unmoved a scene similar to the many they had witnessed in different boats in various bays and inlets since they themselves were dragged shrieking from their mia mias and divided in lottery among a pack of sealers.

“Follow the rules, boys,” roared Randall “and draw cuts for the women that's what I say.” “Yes, draw cuts,” growled two or three, “draw cuts,” repeated Randall, wrenching a handful of greasy, clay-daubed hair from the head of one of the black women on the floor of the boat. “Draw cuts for the beauties - the longest has it.” The men in his boat stretched forward to draw a strand from the handful of hair he clasped. The other boats ranged alongside till all had drawn, Randall crying again and again, with something of the gleeful abandon of a schoolboy. "Draw cuts for the beauties, draw cuts for the beauties."

All were eager now in the lottery and held each his strand between finger and thumb, measuring its length with that of his neighbour’s. By this rough method Sam Bailey and George Maginnis found themselves possessed of women “lucky dogs,” grunted the thick-lipped Kirby. And Bailey thought that for once fate had given him his desserts. “Which will you have, George?' he said generously. “Oh, one's as good as another. Pass her over.” The two frightened black girls, who had been carried off in the latest raid on the tribes on the mainland, were dragged apart and one passed into Maginnis's boat a quivering bundle squirming in the rough hands that grasped her limbs.

The division of prizes thus completed, the sealers prepared to go about their work, such as it was. Eighteen months they had been on this coast and a lean time it had been. Sealing, robbing the natives, cruising among the islands, quarrelling among themselves, subsisting on whatever came their way, they had led a poor life and their open boats were too small for them to venture to leave it by daring the open sea. A few weeks before, at the beginning of December 1826, the three boats had met in Oyster Harbour and hunted together, but their luck had been out. Then Randall and Everitt, the steersmen, had worked out their scheme of getting wives. One morning Randall, Kirby, Maginnis and Bailey had set out armed with guns and cutlasses and had returned at evening with four captives.

During the night two had escaped. The warriors of the tribe had descended to the shore, their bodies daubed with white clay, brandishing their fighting spears and the sealers had thought it wiser to go to sea.

Already, on Green Island, the corpse of a black man lay rotting, dead from a bullet wound brought on him by his own frantic resistance to another one of Randall's little schemes and on Michaelmas Island four others had been marooned, as a joke, perhaps, or as part of some project that the crews did not understand. Now they were to go roving again and maybe next time any one of them would draw the lucky cut when women were to be divided.

“I'm hanged if I go on,” said Bailey,"I'm staying here for my honeymoon. And being strong and heavyhanded in his obstinacy, he did stay on the island. The crews were shuffled about and the three boats went their different ways sealing, under Randall, Everitt and Bundy. On Eclipse Island, Sam Bailey set up a rough hut and established his household with the terrified black and the little seven-year-old Fanny, whom they had carried off from some other raid - no one was quite certain which - and whom they were always wanting to leave behind somewhere, a child being a nuisance to men doing men's work in the sealing fields.

"Why the hell they didn't drop you overboard is known only to their own tender hearts,” said Sam to the child. Little Fanny was some comfort to the young gin and they clung to each other like sisters when the rough brute, who was king of the island, went storming around trying to be as kind and as domestic as he could. What with the cantankerousness of the woman, the whining of the child and the dullness of life on a small island, Sam found himself pining for the old rough days of hard rowing and the knocking over of sleepy seals and of Randall's curses and Pidgeon's laughter. He wished that his boat would return sooner than the steersman had promised.

The whaleboat did not come, but another boat came - a naval cutter. The sealers had run into close touch with authority. Having seen a brig standing in to King George's Sound, Bundy had waited a few days and then rowed in, hoping to scrounge some food. To the heavy- jawed Major he said that they were seamen from the schooners Governor Hunter and Brisbane of Hobart Town and had been abandoned in the islands by their master. It was a probable tale, and partly the truth. But Major Lockyer, in the course of establishing Fredericktown, had found the natives in great agitation and had already discovered the corpse on Green Island and rescued and heard the story of the four blacks on Michaelmas.

He said little and gave the sealers full rations, but from Hook, the New Zealander, he gathered in private the full story and took it down in the form of a deposition. Hence it came about that the sealers found themselves detained. The cutter was sent to find out Bailey. The cutter came back at dusk. The friends of the gin were waiting on the beach for her and she rushed wailing into their arms. Bailey was a prisoner on charges of murder and of carrying off a native woman. On the brig Amity he was sent to Sydney and with him travelled the child Fanny, for no one remembered rightly to where she belonged and the Major could only hope that better provision could be made for her in Sydney than he could ensure in an isolated military outpost.

The other sealers remained, drawing rations. They were quite content to be detained under such conditions. They became easily accustomed to the role of distressed mariners. Their staying was a problem for the commandant. The sealers could not be allowed to starve. They would not work, even though he threatened to reduce their ration and on any scale of diet, the settlement could not afford to feed them.

The Major had doubts, too, whether he could charge them with anything, whether the law extended to King George's Sound, and whether it could be applied to a crime committed before the territory was occupied. His own authority was doubtful and he could not escort them to Sydney for trial, yet he felt that their evident outrages against the natives on various occasions needed attention. Three months passed. In April the boats of Randall and Everitt, which had approached once before but had sneaked away, ventured in again. They had gins with them - Mooney, Sally and Dinah - but not the poor wretch from King George's Sound.

Heaven knows what had become of her. The problem of dealing with the sealers was made greater by their increased numbers. There was only one thing to do. They were set at large on the understanding that whenever they appeared at Sydney they should surrender themselves to the civil power. Two of them, John Randall and James Kirby, entered on HMS Success, under Captain James Stirling, who called at the Sound on his way to explore the Swan River.

Most of the others engaged themselves aboard the visiting ship Ann, which touched at the settlement in May. What became of them, what became of Bailey, what became of Fanny is not known. Their story started in darkness and ends in darkness. It was but a glimpse that the coming of the first settlers gave of the wild and tangled life that was lived along this coast years before settlement had even been proposed. It is a page of West Australian history that has been seldom turned.