Chapter Three: THE ROAR OF THE MOUTH: TRAGIC WATERS

On calm nights of summer, when the few street lights of Goolwa are out, when Nurrunderi has chased the moon away and the skies are clear of cloud, the Milky Way is a misty luminosity above the reflecting water.

The Southern Cross hangs low above the river, each star a separate jewel. It points the way to the south, to the lonely beach where the breakers‘ restless roar sounds as it sounded long ago when the first men heard its note – subdued by distance, unless there is a southerly blowing, to a ghostly muttering of indistinguishable voices.

There are ghosts enough on this tragic shore, from young Collett Barker’s to those of the unknown sealers who must have died even earlier, when they tried to steal women to take back to their islands in Bass Strait.   It is thought that revenge against such unscrupulous white men was a motive for the murders on this lonely coast.  As cruel as the spears and waddies of the Narrinyerri were the cold waves seething over the bar.  Sturt believed that if instead of mud-flats they had found a clear channel such as exists with a high river, “ignorant of the dangers before us, we should most assuredly have rushed to inevitable destruction.”

His report condemned the outlet as impracticable, after he later made unsuccessful attempts to run through from the sea in a whaleboat.  Yet many, among them the naval Governor Hindmarsh, believed it to be quite safe for ships of shallow draught. The argument still goes on to this day. However, Colonel Light after one look at the exposed coast of Encounter Bay determined to put the capital on the gulf sixty miles from the mouth of the Murray: the site which is now admitted to be the right one. Through all the bitter quarrels and recriminations over the capital, Light steadfastly stuck to his guns, confidently leaving it to posterity to judge who was right.  And posterity has

vindicated him.

Among the ghosts that murmur in the surf are those of Captain Blenkinsop, a whaling captain, and Judge Jeffcott, South Australia’s first judge, who were drowned while attempting to prove that the mouth was navigable and that the capital should be near Goolwa.  Governor Hindmarsh was determined to move the capital.  He insisted that he had the right, though Colonel Light’s instructions were clear and unequivocal.  Hindmarsh had grown more and more vehement in his dislike of “Port Misery” and the eight weary miles of muddy or dusty track between the capital and the mangrove swamp which served as a port and had to he traversed by people with neither horses carts, with all their worldly possessions on ships which could bring them across the world but could not navigate the swamps.  Quantities of goods of vital necessity to the young colony, were ruined.

No doubt the fact that Mrs Hindmarsh had to watch her precious piano floating through the mangroves had something to do with the violence of the Governor’s feelings, but his sentiments were shared by many of the colonists. The South Australian Company’s losses were enormous, and  had to be explained away to the shareholders. The Governor was determined to move the capital and the whole settlement to the vicinity of a good port, regardless of the fact that he was without the power to do it.  A sealer by the name of Walker told him of the “splendid harbour” in the lee of Granite Island where Blenkinsop had anchored the “Hind”. He immediately sent the Crown Surveyor, Strangways, and a colonist, Hutchinson (who had travelled on the “Buffalo” with him) overland, and Captain Crozier by sea, to examine the anchorage and the surrounding country.  Blenkinsop sent a whaleboat, “Currency Lass” and her crew of six through the Mouth on December 4th., 1837 to join Strangways and Hutchinson; who with a party of ten in all drove across country in drays to the river bank at Goolwa.

The whole party gradually worked up-river, exploring the banks and tracing the course of the channel. They named Currency Creek after the Whaleboat.   A “Currency Lass” was an Australian-born girl as opposed to a “Sterling Lass” born in the old country. The expression arose from the fact that in New South Wales there was a great shortage of sterling and a heterogeneous collection of coins from every country\and even minted by local merchants was in use.  Sterling was of course considered of far greater value, and in the same way, the miss born overseas thought herself far superior to the local product.  They crossed to a stony barren-looking island opposite the opening to Currency Creek, and named it after the Governor.  From Hindmarsh Island they crossed back to the north bank of the river till they reached the western headland at the entrance to Lake Alexandrina, which they called Point Sturt.   From this headland they gained an excellent view of the Lake and the strait which they judged to be about six miles wide.  The point on the eastern side they called Point McLeay after Sturt’s faithful companion on his long hazardous journey, and that was as far as they got, the weather being far too rough for them to venture into the Lake with their whaleboat.  Their supplies were giving out by this time. The obliging Captain Blenkinsop who had accompanied them, Offered to go back to the fishery for more supplies.  On reaching the fishery he found Judge Jeffcott, waiting for a ship to take him on to Tasmania. The two men with a crew of four made a second assault on the Mouth, with tragic result. The treacherous Mouth is usually blamed for this fatality, but according to contemporary accounts, Blenkinsop discovered a rich quantity of very valuable whalebone on the beach near the channel, and he loaded the whaleboat to the gunwales. With a crew of six, and the stores for the surveying party, the boat was grossly overloaded and she foundered and filled as she went through the last of the great breakers, drowning four out of six of the men, including Judge Jeffcott and Captain Blenkinsop. The only body recovered was that of Blenkinsop, which was buried in the sand on the 12th of December with the broken whaleboat to mark the spot.   Later the body was moved to his cottage at Victor Harbour and buried in the garden.

In spite of this tragedy, the report made by Strangways and Hutchinson on their return to Adelaide was favorable both to the port in question and to the river. They considered that the Mouth might be navigable for steam ships of shallow draught, but that a canal might be the most satisfactory communication between the Goolwa channel and Encounter Bay.  They spoke in glowing terms of the ‘harbour’. In their report to Governor Hindmarsh they said:

“About ten miles from a deep and wide channel communicating with the Murray, over a gently undulating country is an anchorage at Granite Island in Encounter Bay… Captain Blenkinsop told us that good- sized merchant ships might lie close to the island… that men-of-war might anchor in five or six fathoms, open only from east to south. By laying down strong moorings, the anchorage might be made to hold three times as many ships as at present, and the greatest facilities exist for a long line of quays and warehouses…”

They added that what was to become Victor Harbour possesses rich soil, fresh water, two rivers as well as safe anchorage.  Captain Crozier endorsed Captain Blenkinsop’s opinion of the harbour.

In this report of Strangways and Hutchinson two of the solutions to the problem of linking the river and the sea, and of overcoming the Bar between them, make their first appearance.

One was the direct assault on the Mouth with steamers of shallow draught, the other was the construction of a canal from Goolwa to Encounter Bay. No thought was given to the laying of a railway, and there was certainly not the slightest consideration of Freeman’s Nob as a possible port – that ill-fated bay which was to become Port Elliot and to ruin forever the South Coast and the River trade.

The drowning of Judge Jeffcott and Captain Blenkinsop happened late in 1837. This tragedy, and yet another wreck on the south coast (for the “John Pirie” was lost a few days later and the “South Australian” shortly before) caused a violent reaction against the Encounter Bay area.

The Whaling ventures had failed, the harbour had failed in the lee of Rosetta Head (“The Bluff”), and the Mouth had proved treacherous. “It appears to us that there is no practicable communication between the Murray and the sea by this entrance,“ as Strangways added to his report.

Governor Hindmarsh remained unconvinced. He had set his heart upon moving the capital elsewhere, but far too much money had been invested in Adelaide and the town lands for such a thing to be countenanced, The whole Province rose in an uproar.  The drownings at the Mouth and the wrecks in Encounter Bay were the great topics of conversation. There was no peace until Governor Hindmarsh had been recalled.  Soon after Governor Gawler replaced him, the South Australian Company built a new port on the Port River, with proper landing facilities. The South Coast never recovered.

Among its ghosts are the tough whaling men who put out in their little boats when the look-out spied a whale blowing out in the bay. That was more than a hundred years ago.  Now only a few harpoons and trypots are left, and the ribs and vertebrae of whales scattered on a few verandahs,

 

Beside the ghosts of the whalemen stands another ghost, whose shelter is made of brushwood and seaweed over a frame of whale ribs; that brown man whose “ngaitye” or totem is the whale, and who stands on the beach singing his “wishing” song to save the mother whale and her calf:

“Swim round the bay, mother and son, hei, ei, ei!

Around the bay, mother and son, hei, ei, ei!”

The next assault on the Mouth was made by Captain Gill, master of the good ship Fanny, which was wrecked down the Coorong on January 21st, 1838. He procured a whaleboat from the fishery, also three men and a pair of bullocks, to help in the transport of passengers and goods from the wreck. This is his report on his passage through the Mouth:

“The information I received respecting the Mouth was that there was a long succession of big rollers that had a perpendicular fall of five or six feet, and that several sealers and Whalers, all good boatmen, had made various ineffectual attempts to get in…

“In our most recent charts extant, we are informed that ‘the passage from Lake Alexandrina to Encounter Bay is impracticable even for boats‘.

“I now give the result of my own observation and experience Having procured a whaleboat from Mr Harper at the Fishery, and three men, including a native, and a pair of bullocks, I proceeded along the coast for a certain distance, and then by aid of the bullocks, dragged the boat over the sandhills and launched it in the Western outlet of the Lake. Sailed to estuary, about midday.  Being low water we sailed out under a close-reefed sail. There was not a single breaker in the channel, not did I perceive any bar, I should say there was from three to five fathoms of water. Although our boat was considerably lumbered she did not ship a spoonful of water.”

This statement by Captain J.M. Gill on 24th August, 1838 was published in the South Australian Gazette of 8/10/1838. In one account of Captain Gill’s adventures, it is stated that he entered the outlet several times.  By this time Captain Sturt was back in the colony. Captain Hindmarsh had been recalled and was on his way home. The colony was in a state of great indecision and unrest.  ‘Port Misery‘ was as much of a problem as ever. Encounter Bay and the Murray Mouth were a perpetual source of friction, uncertainty and hesitation.  No-one felt like building or investing money or in any other way advancing the affairs of the capital. At the request of Milner Stephen, the Acting Governor, Sturt went back to the scene of his earlier distress, that fateful communication between the river and the sea.

“Unable to go through,” he says in his report,“ The rush of water from the outlet met the rollers as they came in and fairly doubled them up, if I may use the expression, there were in fact two currents, an under one of fresh water from the Lake and an upper one of salt water.

“Our boat therefore would have been driven into the waves, without a chance of her rising to the seas, which rose before they ‘topped’ to twelve or fifteen feet in height.

“It is marvellous to me how Captain Gill escaped at such a season of the year (June). I should not think that even steam navigation would conquer the difficulties of such a position.” This report appeared in the South Australian Gazette of September 20th 1838. Sturt made several attempts to take a boat both in and out of the Mouth, but was emphatic on the “utter impracticability of the place”.

Still the question of the Mouth reared its troublesome head, and the new governor, Colonel Gawler, sought a fresh verdict on the possibility of navigating the Bar. First Of all, he went himself to the scene of so much controversy.  He spent three days watching the channel from Barker’s knoll,  the high sandhill over which the ill-fated explorer had disappeared and in his report to the  Commissioners of September 17th, 1840; he said:

“Having had two or three days of very favorable opportunity of observing the outside of the Mouth from the high sandhills on the eastern side, I ascertained what I conceived to be the course of a channel of deep water in which the rollers broke with much less force than on either side of it.  On mentioning the circumstances to Mr Pullen, the Colonial Marine Surveyor,  I found that his observations agreed with mine, and that he was desirous to attempt to sound it.

“The weather being very moderate on the morning of the 6th of September 1840, I allowed Mr Pullen to proceed in a whaleboat with five other volunteers, and am happy to say that in ten minutes from the time of leaving the point of the Western sandspit at the River’s Mouth, they had passed up the channel, crossed the bar at the head of it and had rounded into smooth water thoroughly on the outside of all the shoals and breakers, After waiting there a short time, they returned into the River by the same channel, without any approach to serious danger.”

He ended his report by saying: “There is every reason to think that, in moderate weather, steamers, and with leading winds, sailing craft of six feet draughts of water and under might with safety run into the Murray.”

In the South Australian Gazette of the 15th September 1840 the Governor declared;

“The port thus thrown open at the sea mouth of the Murray I have named Port Pullen after J. W. Pullen, the Colonial Marine Surveyor.”

And there matters rested. The young colony suddenly had far too many other worries requiring immediate attention, to spend any more time or money on the possibilities of opening up the Murray.

As far as ‘the Town on the Goolwa’ was concerned, it was surveyed in January, 1840, and was part of the Currency Creek Special Survey. The sections in this survey were allocated by ballot. They were peculiar land orders of 90 acres, comprising 8 acres in the town of Currency Creek, 2 acres in the Town on the Goolwa and 80 country acres. The survey does indicate nascent hopes for a port at Goolwa, for the blocks along the river front were long and very narrow, following the layout of ports in England, where warehouses ran up to the discharging ships for the receipt of cargo.

Another interesting point about the land grants is their wording. This is a copy of an original deed:

“John Dance of the Goolwa, Blacksmith, is seized of an estate in fee simple… of that section of land situated in the Town on the Goolwa, No. 27 containing 2 roods… originally granted on August 17th 1842 under the hand of George Grey, Resident Commissioner and Governor of the said province to John Thompson.”

 

Gawler had already been given the dual position of Governor and Commissioner, the Board of Commissioners realising that divided control was impossible, but it does seem strange that the title of Resident Commissioner should precede that of the Governor representing the Crown.

The Goolwa blocks were all taken up, although no substantial buildings were erected on them. The river flowed slowly and emptily by as it does today. The Mouth roared triumphantly and the mist shone above it with an unearthly beauty. Whalers and sealers came and went and gradually disappeared.   Up on the east coast of Scotland in a little fishing village with the quaint name of Cockenzie there was a laddie going to school – he was just a wee bairn of four when the Foundation Act was passed in 1834. This boy, George Bain Johnston, came to know every whim, every caprice of the Murray Mouth.  While surveyors argued and governments debated, George Johnston and his cousins and school friends made the river their own. For thirty busy, romantic years they, and many others, carried cargoes up and down the great eastern waterway; but it was George Johnston above all men who navigated the entrance to the river, plying between Goolwa and Port Adelaide with fearless regularity, throwing Sturt’s words in his teeth, week in, week out, solving the problem of the Mouth in his own independent way, by frontal attack.  Of all the ghosts of Goolwa Beach he is the most persistent: Geordie Johnston with his black curly hair and beard, his laughing blue eyes, his happy chuckle and his great bear-like shoulders.  Geordie, going in through the Mouth, with two barges abreast and one behind, standing at the wheel of his fine new “Queen of the South”; watching every movement of every wave, watching the troughs — for it is even more dangerous to go in than to come out. The following seas must not catch up with the stern of the boat.

When Captain Johnston brought out the “Queen” from Scotland, he wanted to give the public a service as regular and predictable as a train. She was to ply regularly through the Mouth between Goolwa and Port Adelaide until people forgot the evil reputation of the entrance.  Yet she failed in the end, and her failure broke the mighty heart of George Johnston. When she went aground in the entrance people lost faith in her. She was only another steamer braving the treacherous Mouth. Trading interests, shipowners, insurance companies would have none of the Mouth.

George Johnston died a year after the “Queen” was sold to Melbourne interests.

The Johnston family still has the log-book of the Queen, with nothing entered in it – only cuttings pasted in by Captain Johnston from newspapers of the ’70s, referring to Goolwa, the river trade, and the plans for cutting a canal – all stuck in the empty log book which should have been filled with the triumphs of his finest ship.

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