The discrepancy between lived reality and the version of it reported in the newspapers is nowhere more apparent than when trying to find evidence of frontier conflict events. Although attacks on White people were frequently reported—often in tones of stentorian outrage— attacks on Aboriginal people rarely were. Despite the bodies of Aboriginal people being rarely buried, accounts of their deaths often were.
One such account of early frontier conflict in the Brisbane River valley emerged from the Colonial Secretary’s correspondence for 1871. We’ve been going through this series systematically to mop up any additional references, and occasionally something interesting and unexpected pops up.
This is a petition written by a man named John Sullivan, who, at the age of 66, wrote to the then-Governor, Maurice O’Connell, to beg for “a situation” or “a passage home to England, where I should be amongst my friends, and likewise clothes for the passage and a little means when I land to enable me to reach my friends as after being fifty three years from home I shall have some difficulty in finding them.” At the time of crafting his petition Sullivan was “employed as Porter at the Hospital with just enough means to pay for my washing and tobacco.”
Sullivan found himself in straightened circumstances because, for 24 years, he had only had one arm, his right arm and hand having been blown off by the misfiring of his own gun in August 1847. In his own words:
Your ExcellencyQSA846884 1871 Petition from John Sullivan undated, Colonial Secretarys Office In Letters, In letter 71/860, DR61842
I arrived in New South Wales in the year 1818 being then thirteen years old. I was entrusted to the care of Captain Reed of the “Asia” by my friends and was apprenticed on my arrival in Sydney to Richard Jones, Merchant, for five years. After having served my time I came to Brisbane in the year 1844 and was employed by the same gentleman. The natives at that time were very troublesome. On one occasion when they had been more than usually outrageous a party of seventeen men was fitted out to punish them and protect the lives of the settlers of which party I was one. In an engagement my gun bursted and shattered my right hand and arm to pieces. The Whites being defeated, retreated, and left me lying helpless and at the mercy of the Blacks who drove my skull in with a waddy, speared me in the leg and left me for dead. Being found in this condition I was brought into Ipswich and was attended by Dr Dorsey. This occurred about four and twenty years ago. I struggled on for twenty years without asking for any relief until my eyesight failed through the fracture of the skull. I then applied to the Queensland Government for any aid they could afford me and they promised to give me employment in which I could earn a living suitable to my crippled condition. All they have done for me was to send me to Dunwich. I did not think that was suitable for me, as I could do many a light thing such as watchman or gateman on the Railway line.
While Sullivan provided no detail of where or when this event took place, a short entry in the Moreton Bay Courier provides an interesting complement:
John Sullivan, a shepherd in the employ of Mr. Gideon Scott, had his right arm shattered when lifting a gun to shoot an eagle hawk, which kept hovering around a flock of ewes lambing, the trigger having caught in something which caused the piece to go off, and five days having elapsed ere he could reach Ipswich, gangrene had commenced, and progressed to such an extent, that amputation of the limb was indispensible, which operation was performed by Dr. Dorsey, and the poor fellow is now so far convalescent that he will be enabled shortly to resume his employment.Moreton Bay Courier 4 September 1847, p2
“Fake news” might be a very recent term, but its existence isn’t, although why so much detail was invented to explain Sullivan’s injury is a mystery. Perhaps this was the cover story that Sullivan himself told at the time.
Gideon Scott had taken up Mt Esk by 1847, and, given Sullivan’s removal to Ipswich, it is likely that the event took place in this region. Certainly there seems to have been sustained warfare across the Brisbane and Lockyer valleys throughout the 1840s, with a vicious back-and-forth series of attacks and reprisals extending from Eton Vale to Tent Hill, Grantham, Laidley’s Plain and Kilcoy (Kerkhove and Uhr 2019).
There is no way to know the full extent of deaths in this decade, although various estimates—always only of the White side of the equation—were advanced for different purposes. In 1849 James Canning Pearce, who took over Helidon Station from George Mocatta in 1843 or 1844, claimed that:
Some three years since a statement was made in the Legislative Assembly by, I think, Mr. McLeay, that he had been informed upwards of fifty white men had been killed by the blacks in these districts—a statement that appeared so incredible, as was alleged, that the Colonial Secretary promised to inquire into the matter; and accordingly Mr. Commissioner Simpson addressed a letter to me upon the subject, requesting, as an old resident, that I would forward him, for the information of the Government, a list, as far as I could recollect, of the number of white men killed by the blacks: I did so, and if my memory serves me, the list I gave him consisted of upwards of sixty names.Moreton Bay Courier, 4 August 1849, p2
Given that Robert Ørsted-Jensen and Ray Evans (2014) calculated a ratio of 44:1 for Aboriginal compared to settler deaths, Pearce’s estimate implies that the number of Aboriginal people killed over this decade may have exceeded 2500.
Sullivan’s experience was probably just one in a series of settler reprisals throughout this decade, not all of which were successful. Sullivan’s 17-man party was clearly defeated, as was an earlier sortie in 1841 made up of many of the main landowners in the valley, including James Pearce. This earlier defeat was satirised in “The Raid of the Aborigines,” written by William Wilkes, ex-convict, contributor and editor of the Moreton Bay Courier (and possibly the person who reported on Sullivan’s injury). At least part of this 67 verse “heroic poem” runs:
So Ferret with sorrow gave out the command—
“I fear we the foe can no longer withstand:
Bold Pittson is mained, and young Billy is lamed,
And brave Tracy Tupman (I hope he’s ashamed),
Like Marcus—that silly old Roman—
His duty forgets for the smile of a woman;
Besides, gallant Wingate has had some hard knocks,
And is smeared with his own blood—or that of an ox.
Let us haste to our horses—they’re not very far,
And hold, in the saddle, a council of war.”
Then one and all cried “to the right about, face,”
And bolted sway at a slashing round pace.
But poor Justice Ferret, who, fainting with fear,
Still kept at his favourite post in the rear,
Being hotly pursued by a little pug dog,
Plunged up to the knees in the midst of a bog.
In vain were his struggles, in vain did he shout;
Like Yorick’s poor starling, he “could not get out.”
His Melton top-boots were the pride of his heart,
But, oh! with those natty top-boots he must part;
So he cut them in pieces without many words,
And mounted his horse in his stockings and cords.
But oh! when the Justice came up with the rest,
Some fingers and thumbs on some noses were press’d;
And Pittson said slily to young Billy Uhr,
“Were his breeks with his boots, ’twere as pleasant, I’m sure.”
The heroes were scarce on their saddles reseated,North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser 11 January 1861, p4
When Wingate cried out that the blacks had retreated;
“March forward,” cried Ferret, “the day is our own,
And all they have left in their camp we can bone.”
If Sullivan hadn’t been driven to petition the Government for financial aid as a result of the injuries he sustained 24 years earlier, there’d be no record of his reprisal party. Having had his skull fractured, then his right hand and arm amputated is indicative of some of the wider human consequences of frontier violence that rarely, if ever, made it into print. For Aboriginal people the consequences would have been severe, long-lasting, traumatic and ongoing. How many of them were left for dead will remain unknown.
Evans, R. and R. Ørsted-Jensen 2014 “I cannot say the numbers that were killed”: Assessing violent mortality on the Queensland frontier. Unpublished paper delivered at ‘Conflict in History’, The Australian Historical Association 33rd Annual Conference, University of Queensland, 7–11 July 2014.
Kerkhove, R. and F. Uhr 2019 The Battle of One Tree Hill. Brisbane: Boolarong Press.
 Sadly for John Sullivan, a note in the margin of his petition includes the observation that: “’This man is now an Hospital patient got drunk on Tuesday night and dislocated his shoulder. Cannot recommend anything for him”.