Helping Hands: the Wreck of the Rover

Conflict between Aboriginal people and Europeans in the early period of European intrusion into an area is only one part of the story. Throughout the early decades of settlement, in the Eurobodalla area as elsewhere, Aboriginal people frequently helped the newcomers as the result of kindness or as part of an economic exchange.

Aboriginal people provided information on the landscape, guided people to good locations for stock and for timber and fed explorers and early settlers. In the reminiscences of Mrs Celia Rose, who arrived in Moruya as a young child in the early 1830s, she recorded the local Aboriginal people providing food to the settlers:

There was only one sailing vessel… that called at Broulee about once a month, bringing provisions from Sydney, and the shortage was at times acute. Aboriginals saved the settlement several times from starvation by supplying fish and oysters.

They also, as in the case of the wreck of the Rover at Broulee, saved the lives of the newcomers in more dramatic situations. In July 1841 the steamer the Rover which had anchored in Broulee Bay during a severe storm was wrecked on the shore of the northern entrance of Candalga Creek. Ten people on board the ship were saved, and two bodies brought to shore. In a manuscript written by G.A. Robinson of his 1844 south coast journey he tells of the bravery of the Aboriginal men who acted to save the ships crew:

… I was happy to find that the other Aborigines along the Coast were equally well spoken of several persons by their instrumentality had been saved. The most striking instance (brought under notice) was the Wreck of a Steamer in a Storm at Broole when all hopes of saving the white persons were given up, and when no Individual would venture, two Aboriginal natives at the imminent risk of their own lives boldly plunged into the Breakers and rescued the sufferers who but for them must have perished. For their humane and heroic conduct the Settlers in a Memorial to the Government recommended them for a consideration.

In May 1842 William Oldrey of Broulee provided to the Colonial Secretary a census of Aboriginal people in the Broulee area. In this census he listed the names of Jerry, Warrekul Tommy, Bowlbay and Browlee Billy. He referred to Jerry as the ‘King of Broulee’ and stated of him that he, “… exerted himself in July last by assisting to save Ten white persons wrecked in the Rover at Broulee + aided by the other four following men…”.

In 1849, just a few years after the event, the following account was recorded:

Some of the tribe… greatly distinguished themselves, three or four years since, by saving the crew of a schooner which was wrecked in the surf. The white by-standers stood aghas, and could not contrive means to render any assistance; but fifteen of the aborigines formed a line, hand in hand, and went into the surf and saved all on board. A benevolent individual residing near, a captain in the navy, made earnest application to the Governor, for a reward for these daring fellows; but the reply received was, that there were no funds at the disposal of the Government for such a purpose. This seems a hard case, when such immense sums have been realised by the sale of waste lands! But Captain – did all he could to reward these men, by making them frequent presents of little comforts, and he presented to each ‘humanity man’ a brass plate, having attached to it a chain, by which to hang it around the neck. On each plate he caused to be engraved the name of the wearer, and a record of the good deed and his comrades had done. This was the more generous, as the trading vessel that was cast away contained goods and stores belonging to himself, which were all irrevocably lost. The same gentleman is before alluded to as having, at a police office, pleaded the cause of a black held in captivity. He is an old and gallant officer, who has seen a great deal of hard service, and been more than once desperately wounded, and his noble nature ever prompted him to befriend the aborigines.

In recognition of their assistance and bravery Captain Oldrey RN of Broulee, whose cargo the ship was carrying at the time it was wrecked, presented several Aboriginal people with gorgets.60 He had asked that the Government provide some form of reward to the individuals but this was refused.

A gorget in the collection of the National Museum of Australia appears to be one of those presented on this occasion. The gorget is inscribed with the name ‘Timothy, Chief of Merricumbene’, Merricumbene being one of the station runs in the area. One half of this gorget was found in 1911 in an ash-heap near an old boat building shed at Bateman’s Bay, it had been cut up to repair a boat’s keel. The other part was subsequently found and they have since been rejoined. It was recorded in relation to the gorget when it was recovered that:

Old residents, then alive, remembered the occasion of the presentation of the plate to Timothy for his valour in swimming with a life-line to a stranded merchantman in the vicinity of Bateman’s Bay about 70 years before (that is about 1840).

The man who originally used the king plate to fix his boat’s keel stated in a letter that he had also once had a plate given to another man involved in the rescue by the name of Jimmy and that that plate was inscribed with the words, ‘Bale Me Jarrad’. The term ‘bale me jarrad’ is New South Wales pidgin for ‘I fear not’ or more literally ‘not I fear’.

Taken from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales. View the full study.

Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.