A few years later, another of the same author's books was republished: The Wild White Man of Badu. Here we were presented with the gripping account of this same character. It told how, on escaping from Norfolk Island in an open boat, the convict killed and ate his companions and then, fortuitously negotiating the reefs of the Coral Sea, landed on Badu Island at the most opportune time. The natives were celebrating the wongai, or wild plum, totem when he arrived at the same time as the lightning flashed behind him. Shouting "Wongai!" which he had heard the natives shout, and which he assumed was a war cry, he slew the first warrior who attacked him. Thus, the natives concluded he was their god in human form, and so commenced his climb to power.
Of course, when I was a boy I assumed that anything on the printed page was the truth. Fifty years later, I have developed some critical faculties, but all that time I have been wanting to learn the full story of this enigmatic character who once dominated the western islands of Torres Strait for a quarter of a century. I don't suppose I ever will.
One of the problems is the low profile occupied by Torres Strait culture and history in the popular mind. Racially and culturally, the Torres Strait Islanders are Papuans, not mainland Aborigines. They fought their internecine wars with bows and arrows, they practised agriculture, headhunting, and the occasional cannibalism, along with a complex religion with a special priesthood. Yet, although popular books on Aboriginal traditional life were relatively common when I was younger (I don't know why they aren't now), you'll be hard pressed to find any popular works on Torres Strait culture. The multi-volume Report of the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait by Prof. A. C. Haddon (1904) appears to have been the only comprehensive study performed, and its results have never reached the popular market. The result, so I've been told, is that Ion Idriess' novel, Drums of Mer is being read by the inhabitants of Murray Island (Mer) as a guide to the traditional culture.
Likewise, there appears to be no comprehensive, popular history of the Torres Straits in the nineteenth century, despite the presence of some remarkable native statesmen and warriors, such as Kebisu of Warrior Island, Kwoiam, a mainland Aborigine who somehow became a warrior hero of Mabuiag - and Wini, the wild white man of Badu. The result is that I have been forced to largely consult secondary sources, and since they tend to copy one another rather than the primary sources, errors have crept in.
Each of the islands possesses a native and an English name. Badu is the native name of Mulgrave Island, and is pronounced "bah-doo", with the stress on the first syllable. The first vowel is long, as in "father". However, whereas English pronounces a "d" with the tip of the tongue on the gums, this particular "d" is pronounced with the tongue tip between the teeth, and often sounds like the "th" in English "this".
Wini was pronounced "wee-nee", while "Wongai", I suspect, is pronounced "wong-eye", rather than "wong-guy".
The Thomas Lord AffairProbably Wini had arrived at Badu around about 1840, give or take a few years, but the first the outside world heard about him was when the 70 ton, two masted schooner, the Thomas Lord halted there in June 1846. I shall quote the newspaper account given when it finally returned to Australia.
This sort of thing, I might add, was par for the course in the Torres Straits. Anybody who landed on any of the islands knew he was taking his life in his hands. Although the newspaper account is silent on the matter, other reports suggest that a white man was involved in the attack: Wini.MASSACRE OF THREE OF THE CREW OF THE "THOMAS LORD." - WRECK OF THE SCHOONER "HEROINE."The schooner Thomas Lord, Capt. Seagrove, which arrived on Thursday morning last [ie 13 August 1846], from Copang [Kupang, West Timor], brings most distressing intelligence to Sydney. She sailed from this port on 23rd December, 1845, in search of bêche-de-mer, and on 22nd Frebruary was driven on shore, on a sand bank in the inner route through Torres Straits, and sustained considerable injury. Capt. Seagrove then thought it advisable, if possible, to return to Sydney, but finding he could not do so, stood to the northward, and having found a convenient place under the lee of Haggerston's Island, hove the vessel down by her boats, and found she had carried away her false keel, part of the main keel, and about three feet of the lower part of the stern post.
These damages being in some measure repaired, the Thomas Lord proceeded to Mulgrave Island, at the western extremity of Torres Strait, for the purpose of bartering with the natives for tortoiseshell, at which island Mr. Bessant, the supercargo, together with the carpenter and four seamen, landed in the long boat. The natives behaved in a friendly manner until night approached, when their conduct caused suspicion, and Mr. Bessant and his crew then repaired to a small island in the vicinity which was uninhabited, where they intended to remain for the night. On landing, a fire was kindled and provisions cooked, after which the carpenter and two seamen took to the boat and moored her a short distance from shore. Mr. Bessant and the other seamen (John Thompson and James Hyslop) remained on the beach.
About eleven p.m. the men in the boat were alarmed by a noise proceeding from the beach, and thinking that their companions had been attacked by the natives, immediately pulled to the spot and found such to be the case, they having crossed over in their canoes and surrounded them. Mr. Bessant and Hyslop were killed on the spot, but Thompson, with great difficulty, reached the landing-place, dreadfully mutilated, having had his right hand cut off by the stroke of a tomahawk, and the other only remained attached by some of the tendons; he had also received several wounds in the head, and a spear had penetrated to the spine of his back. Unfortunately the fire-arms in the boat had got damp, and only one musket would go off, which was levelled at the natives by the carpenter, and was the means of dispersing them for a sufficient time to enable them to get Thompson into the boat: he survived until Sunday evening last, when he died from the injuries he had received. Several attempts were made to recover the bodies of the three that were killed, but without success.
A few months later, a major inter-island festival was held at Murralug, or Prince of Wales Island, where he made a determined effort to contact the only white person known to have interviewed him: Barbara Thompson.
Barbara ThompsonBarbara Thompson was a Scottish-Australian teenager who had been shipwrecked off Prince of Wales Island in 1844. Under normal circumstances she could have expected to have her head removed by the inhabitants but, like a lot of dark-skinned races, they initially assumed that the increasingly common pale-skinned visitors were ghosts from the shadowlands of the dead. In this case, her life was saved because a local chief "recognized" her as his daughter, Gi'om who had drowned shortly before. Considering that the facial physiognomy and hair structure of the two races are completely different, one can only conclude that the grieving parents' need to believe was exceptionally strong. Be that as it may, she was taken "back" into the family, and eventually married off to another leader called Boroto. Finally, in 1849, when on a tribal excursion to the mainland, she was rescued by H.M.S. Rattlesnake, under the command of Capt. Owen Stanley (after whom the New Guinea mountain range is named), searching for the survivors of the Kennedy expedition. She herself survived until 1912. Nevertheless, having spent her teenage years as the wife of a black savage, she chose to put her past behind her. Thus, unlike, for example, Eliza Frazer, whose story has been told and retold, Barbara Thompson has largely been relegated to a footnote in history - a pity, because her experience is of great general interest.
But for our purposes, the main interest lies in her meeting with Wini. We shall commence with the brief information recorded by John MacGillivray, the naturalist of the Rattlesnake.
Hopes had been entertained prior to starting of seeing something of a white man of the name of Wini, who had lived with the Badus for years. Gi'om had seen and conversed with him during a visit to Murralug which he had made in hopes of inducing her to share his fortunes. She supposed him to be a foreigner, from his not appearing to understand the English she used when asked by him to speak in her native tongue. He had reached Mulgrave Island in a boat after having, by his own account, killed his companions, some three or four in number. In course of time he became the most important person in the tribe, having gained an ascendancy by procuring the death of his principal enemies and intimidating others, which led to the establishment of his fame as a warrior, and he became in consequence the possessor of several wives, a canoe, and some property in land, the cultivation of which last he pays great attention to. Wini's character appears from the accounts I have heard - for others corroborated part of Gi'om's statement - to be a compound of villainy and cunning, in addition to ferocity and headstrong passions of a thorough savage, - it strikes me that he must have been a runaway convict, probably from Norfolk Island. It is fortunate that his sphere of mischief is so limited, for a more dangerous ruffian could not easily be found. As matters stand at present, it is probable that not only during his life, but for years afterwards, every European who falls into the hands of the Badu people will meet with certain death.It is interesting that MacGillivray was able to corroborate Mrs Thompson's account, presumably from Aborigines or other Islanders, although it is not explained how. But it is obvious one part of his conclusions is false. If Wini could not understand English, then he could not have been a convict. It takes more than five or ten years to forget the language you have been speaking for the first thirty or forty years of your life. You may grow rusty (Barbara Thompson did), but you don't lose it. Heck! I've learned certain foreign languages in my youth, and I can still use them, albeit imperfectly, although I have never been fluent in them, and have not spoken them for a couple of decades. Yes, the occasional foreigner did find his way into the British penal system, but none who could not understand the language of their captors. Besides that, if anybody did escape by boat from Norfolk Island, there should be a record of it.
A further suggestion has been made that he was a French escapee from New Caledonia, but that is completely ridiculous. New Caledonia was not gazetted as a penal settlement until 1854, and the first convicts did not arrive for another ten years.
The most complete investigation into the life of Barbara Thompson has been undertaken by Raymond Warren, who has uncovered a vast amount of material at variance with the "official" story. (See reference at the bottom of the page.) However, he advises me that ninety percent of the information concerning her years in the Torres Strait comes from journal of Sir Oswald Brierly, the official artist aboard the Rattlesnake. Unfortunately, it remains unpublished. I have therefore had to rely on Warren's own summary.
He tells how Wini, who had already heard of Barbara Thompson, sent a fleet of sixteen war canoes containing 200 warriors to Murralug in order to fetch her. His quest was vain, however, for she had gone into hiding once she witnessed the arrival of the canoes. It was late in the second year of Barbara's stay on the island that he arrived for the festival and sought her out. This time, she had no fear of him. He presented as a middle aged white man clad in a pair of seaman's trousers decorated with shark's teeth, and resplendent in a tall Baduan headdress. She found him quite pleasant, despite his fearsome reputation, as they conversed in the native language. He explained that he had been shipwrecked, and had been promptly "recognized" by two brothers as their deceased father. He had become popular among them because of the skills he had acquired in the spirit world at repairing canoes. This should thus put paid to Idriess' "Wongai" version.
Warren suggests that the reference to his killing three or four of his companions may have been a garbled account of his role in the Thomas Lord massacre. Maybe. In any case, he was admitting to an atrocity.
By now Barbara was married to Boroto, the people she knew were on Murralug, and her island was next to the strait where so many ships passed from the outside world. Therefore, when asked to accompany him back to Badu, she declined, and he did not press the issue. To save face, he told his own people that she talked too much for him.
Where Did He Come From?Wini told Barbara Thompson that his name was Gienow and that, although English ships came to his home port to buy fruit, none of his country's ships went to England. So what can we deduce from that?
First of all, what sort of name is "Gienow", bearing in mind that Mrs Thompson never saw it written down (and she was illiterate anyway)? To start with, is the first letter intended to be hard, as in "get" or soft, as in "gem"? If it were pronounced soft, the hearer would probably have written it "Jienow", but who can say? In either case, it rules out Dutch, because neither sound exists in that language. (They have the letter, but it is pronounced quite differently to anything in English.) Spanish does not have a soft "g", but does have a hard one. That would mean the name would be spelled "Guinau", but it doesn't look Spanish. Most other European languages have either a hard or a soft "g", or both.
My guess is Portuguese, because it contains a lot of words ending in -ão, which is pronounced something like a nasalised "ow". However, his reference to his country's ships not visiting England fails to ring true for Portugal, or any other southern European country. Therefore, if I were to hazard a guess as to his nationality, I would say Brazilian.
The Crushing of MoaMoa, or Banks Island, is right next to Badu, and therefore its natural enemy. At the same time, whenever a shipwreck occurred in the Straits, it provided a bonanza of exotic consumer goods for the locals. And the most desired was any item constructed of metal. This gave Wini's knowledge an advantage. I shall quote an article by Clem Lack at a meeting of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.
Kwoiam is reputed to have entered into an alliance with Wini, or Wongai, the white chief of Badu. Theirs were the brains and organisation that spelt disaster to Kabara and his Moa Island warriors. Kabara, chief of all the Moa Island tribes, had waged sporadic war on the Badu and Mabuiag people. Kwoiam and Wini planned to overwhelm Moa by a series of onslaughts in overwhelming strength. Wini had armed his warriors with cutlasses, several cases of which he had obtained, with other booty, from the wreck of H.M.S. Antagonist. The Antagonist in 1863 was travelling from Sydney to Port Essington, where a military outpost had been established, and the ship was carrying supplies to the men of the garrison. While the vessel was sailing through Torres Strait she ran into a storm and was stranded on a reef near Badu. The ship was abandoned and the crew, taking to the boats, made the 500-mile voyage to Port Essington. Wini assured his warriors the cutlasses were invincible weapons which had won the Lamars (white men) many victories, and he drilled his men in the use of the cutlasses, showing them how to cut and thrust and parry. When they were ready and the cutlasses had been honed to razor sharpness, the massed warriors of Badu crossed the channel separating the two islands, and fell upon the men of Moa, killing many of them. Effecting a junction with Kwoiam's forces, Wini and Kwoiam swept the Moa Islanders from the sea with a great armada of war canoes. Kabara died a hero's death on his fighting deck, and with him died most of his warriors. It was the eclipse of the fighting men of Moa, although some of the Islanders with their women and children escaped to Hammond Island.It makes a dramatic story. Idriess also goes into a great deal of detail about this expedition, covering several chapters, but with differences. Firstly, Wini did not go into alliance with Kwoiam, who was already dead, but brought his augud, or talisman from Mabuiag. Secondly, the shipwreck is not named. Thirdly, and most importantly, he places the event in the 1840s, even before Wini's encounter with Barbara Thompson. So which version is correct?
Neither! Idriess is correct that Kwoiam was dead, and that it was his talisman they used. Indeed, when Haddon initially visited Mabuiag in 1883, he gained the impression that Kwoiam had passed away many years ago, not that he was alive and fighting just twenty years before. However, Europeans noted that Moa was heavily populated in the 1840s, and did not become depopulated until much later. Also, by 1863 Wini would have been an old man.
Most importantly, Anna Shnukal has recently compared all eleven accounts of the Moa's last battle (click on the first item in this search). Wini is not mentioned in any of them. In fact, the Baduan leaders are given as Wayi, Sorbai, and Sagigi. Moreover, Shnukal argues cogently that the site of the Antagonist wreck of 14 May 1863 was Green Island, close to Cairns, and that the relevant wreck was that of the Honolulu, which took place in the narrow channel between Moa and Badu on 20 July 1870, and that the battle probably occurred the following month. Wini had himself been killed five years before. But even if the massacre took place in 1863, it is unlikely that all of the traditional accounts would have failed to have mentioned Wini's leadership of the Baduan forces, if that had been the case.
The above is indicative of the difficulties of discovering anything concrete about Wini, and the mass of questionable "information" doing the rounds. I had every reason to believe that either Lack or Idriess had access to some primary document, but it appears that the primary documents are scattered all over the place, very difficult to access for someone such as me, and most popular accounts simply copy from one another.
The Further Adventures of WiniSo what was Wini up to in the decades following his interview with Barbara Thompson? Over the next twenty years, the outside world slowly but surely made its mark on the Torres Strait communities. There were, of course, shipwrecks galore. Then ships arrived in greater numbers searching for bêche-de-mer, and the first bêche-de-mer station was set up at Albany Island in 1862. A crucial change was made the following year when John Jardine and his third son, John Jr. were sent to establish a settlement at Cape York called Somerset, with John Sr. as police magistrate.
On 2 March 1865, his sons, Frank and Alexander also arrived after a terrible ten-month trek through Cape York Peninsula. Like the explorer, Kennedy they had been beset along the way by hostile Aborigines who, in this part of the continent, tended to act on a spear-first-and-ask-questions-later policy. Frank himself, who succeeded his father as police magistrate in 1868, was also a ruthless so-and-so who treated the Aborigines as shootable vermin.
Then, in 1871 the first missionary arrived, the date of his arrival, 1st July now being a public holiday in the Torres Straits called The Coming of the Light.
Wini was not amused. When the Jardines arrived, they found that Wini's reputation had gone before him, among whites as well as blacks, and it was not good. He was accused of a policy of killing any white man who landed on Badu, but no specific incidents have been recorded. One wonders how many incidents it would require before such a story became current. Did the natives of other islands inform the white visitors of the policy?
This might be called the "black legend" about Wini. Ray Warren suggests that he had been seriously defamed, and that there was little actual evidence of his violent behaviour. That might be going a bit too far. He had, after all, admitted to Barbara Thompson that he had killed his shipmates - or at least took part in the Thomas Lord massacre. We have already seen how MacGillivray, as far back as 1849, had heard that he had gained power by killing his enemies, and had acquired a reputation as a warrior. That last point is important, because this was a society based on blood feud and headhunting. A man would not be respected if he kept out of the fight, just as a stranger would not be accepted into a Plains Indian tribe if he had not "counted coup".
Ion Idriess also, as I have mentioned before, followed the black legend. Wini, whom he calls Wongai, plays only a minor part in his 1957 book, Coral Sea Calling. However, in chapter 18 he describes how, apparently in 1858 or 1859, a lugger seeking bêche-de-mer or trepang came across Wini's canoe and, seeing their chance to destroy their hated enemy, gave chase while attacking it with musket fire. He got away, however, and
Only a month later a longboat filled with despairing castaways sought succour at Badu Island, and lost their heads to a man.His failure to record the ships' names suggests that he was relying, not on a written account, but oral history which he had heard from either the natives or the old-timer sailors, both groups of which he had interviewed.
What appears certain is that Wini wanted nothing to do with any white visitors, and he kept them well away from his island. Perhaps he assumed, with some degree of accuracy, that their presence would upset the comfortable little set-up he had made for himself. However, there are other ways he could have ensured that. He could have ordered that his subjects have no dealings with white visitors at all, and passed the word around. He could have visited Somerset with an interpreter, or sent a message, that he wanted his island left alone, and that if they minded their business, he would mind his. He could even have offered to govern it on their behalf. The fact that he made no attempt to contact any white person, let alone the authorities, suggests that, although he was not an ex-convict, he had something to hide.
In 1933, a journalist repeated the oral history he had received 21 years before.
It chanced that certain lawful occasions took me ("Makaira" of Brisbane "Courier") to Badu in 1912, a highly respectable, sanitated vaccinated, law-abiding, more or less hard-working religious minded Badu. An interested acquaintance with Torres Straits extending from over 20 years before had yielded many a strange story from white man or islander; and although the bad old days were (officially) forgotten, a select few old gentlemen were glad to accompany me on a walk, and chat about matters of the past. It was here, at a pretty ferny pool, that Wini had had the watering party from "the big fellow ship" all killed, and had hung up their heads on that tree with his own hands. On that little offshore islet, four men had been killed looking for trepang - that was the tragedy of the schooner Thomas Lord, of Sydney, in 1846. Then an eager old chap intervened with a gory account of Wini's expedition against the Moa people, when "plenty head, six canoe all full head," had been brought back by the victors, led by Wini himself.One wonders whether the last was a reference to the final attack on Moa, or to an early one. Because Badu and Moa were separated by only a narrow channel, they were subject to innumerable raids and counter-raids, in many of which Wini took a lead. I suspect, therefore, that these earlier ones tend to be conflated in some people's minds with the final one. Indeed, I suspect that was the case with Idriess' account.
On 24 February 1951, another journalist, J. E. Murphy published in The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) a story entitled, "The white cannibal king of Torres Strait", which he claimed "You won't find in the history books". He found it on a visit to Badu.
My informant was Sagege, village headman, oldest then surviving native and last living contact with Wini, the Cannibal King of Torres Straits.If the interview had been recent, then approximately ninety years had elapsed between the deeds and the telling, and it is hard to believe Sagege had ever met Wini, although he had probably known people who had. And, frankly, the story is unbelievable, although it probably contains a kernel of truth, from which it has grown like Topsy. If nothing else, it demonstrates how such oral histories tend to grow and be transmuted.
The tale was apparently transmitted in Pidgin English, which likely added nothing to its reliability. In Sagege's words,"Wini E proper No. 1 no good fella that one he spik nudder kind", by which he confirmed that he spoke no English.
He begins with describing how ships would pull in and attempt to trade. Sometimes they would barter for women. At other times, they would abduct women.
Opposition among the islanders melted away when the kanakas in the lugger crews, who had been but recently "blackbirded" from their home islands in the South Seas, were armed by their unscrupulous masters and sent ashore on missions of rapine. This was the normal order on Badu till one morning a particular rogue-skipper saw with surprise drawn up on the beach a large body of natives, armed with stabbing spears and stone-headed clubs. The main body of the islanders dissolved before a few shots from the trader's dinghies but were quickly rallied by a small light-skinned man, who seemed to be the leader of the defenders. Meanwhile, from the mangroves on both flanks, a flotilla of canoes shot out in the direction of the anchored lugger. In the face of these determined sorties the lugger captain quickly recalled his dinghies and weighed anchor for some more inviting shore. A succession of would-be landing parties met the same reception at the hands of the hitherto docile Baduites, who were always led by the same mysteriously white skinned man.He pointed out that they couldn't very well complain to the Jardines at Somerset without some very embarrassing questions being asked. I can't help feeling, however, that this ninety year old story has acquired some anachronisms. Ships seeking trepang, or bêche-de-mer, had been arriving since the 1840s - witness the Thomas Lord affair - but only really came in force in the mid- to late-1850s. The importation of indentured labourers from Melanesia ("kanakas") commenced only in 1863, and it is unlikely many would have served as crews prior to that date. The Jardines, as noted previously, arrived in 1862 and Wini, as will be described later, was killed in 1865. Indeed, the major defect of Segege's story is that it all takes place within this very window of time. Also, it must be remembered that Badu was not the only island where renegade crews could seek native women - and not the only island where they would get the violent reception they deserved.
Nevertheless, there is probably an element of truth at the base of it. The Islanders were headhunters, and they would not have needed much excuse to add a white visitor's head to their collection. However, it is quite possible that interference with the native women was a key provocation towards violence. Wini would naturally have been involved. It wouldn't take long for him to acquire a reputation. Also, after a while he may well have decided that he had irredeemably compromised his position with his own kind.
Sagege reported that he had arrived in a whaleboat, had been accepted on the island, and eventually gained ascendancy there. The crunch came, however, when they brought a new problem to him. Frank Jardine had systematically stamped out cannibalism. They were now unable to obtain red meat, and marriageable maidens, from raiding other islands. Wini suggested they go back to the old ways. The elders objected that such as course would be suicidal under the administration at Somerset. To this, Wini pointed out that the custom had been for the three tribes of Badu to do their own raiding, whereas, if they joined forces, they would be invincible. He also instructed them to drag out of concealment the cutlasses which had once been salvaged from a wreck and stored in a cave. From what you have read before, you will be able to guess where this part of the story came from, and why the time factor alone makes it impossible.
Wini outdid his dusky subjects in cannibalistic excesses. He led them on raids which were motiveless in that there was no shortage of either fresh meat or wives for the young men. Such raids shocked the Baduites whose cannibalism was at least either economically or ritually inspired. After his legions had struck at various islands Wini's power was such that it was not longer necessary for him to launch his invasion flotillas of out-rigger canoes. As the price of survival vassal chiefs sent him tribute in the form of prisoners and women. This meant that his influence had secondarily as well as immediately evil effects, since some island tribes raided weaker neighbours in the quest for bribes for the tyrant of Badu.Naturally, he understood that he could get away with this only as long as it remained unknown to the authorities. He therefore declared an absolute embargo on extra-island trade. Nevertheless, eventually the story leaked out.
Of course, the whole thing is nonsense. Yes, the Torres Strait Islanders did practice cannibalism - occasionally. On Murray Island (Mer) there stands a memorial to the first Christian convert who, immediately after being baptized, was killed and eaten by his compatriots - which says a lot for the courage of the second man to declare for Christ. Just the same, it was headhunting which was their forte. Cannibalism itself was uncommon, as was raiding for women. After all, societies whose young men are regularly killed off in war do not normally suffer a shortage of women! However, Sagege was probably aware that it was cannibalism which fascinated white people, so he served him accordingly.
It is extremely unlikely that a white man, however debased, would have instituted such a policy. It is almost as unlikely that his subjects would have accepted it. That it would, or could, have been done under the watchful eye of the Somerset administration without any official report being made is fanciful. On the other hand, it overestimates the strength of the administration, which was just clinging to the tip of Cape York, able to collect information but, for the first years, politically impotent. Also, it would take years for a "cannibal king" to acquire the sort of suzerainty described here - years which Wini simply did not have.
So what is the kernel of truth behind Sagege's story? Probably it relates back to a tradition about how the wild white man had managed to unite the Baduan tribes into a cohesive force and adopt tactics which allowed Badu to dominate the eastern islands by effective raiding.
The Murder of WiniIn March 1865, the same month in which his sons arrived, John Jardine made his official report to the Colonial Secretary in Brisbane, in which he referred to the savagery of the inhabitants of Badu, and added:
Strong influence is exercised among them by a white man, called by the natives, "Wini", who has been living there for many years. This man, who is supposed to be an escaped convict from one of the former penal settlements in Australia, no doubt, considers it polite to keep Europeans from the island of Badu, where he resides. The natives of Cape York hold him and the Banks Islanders [Moans] generally in the greatest dread, getting me to understand that all strangers going to those islands are killed, and their heads cut off.It was for this reason that his son, Frank Jardine decided, not to either isolate Badu, nor to force the issue with Wini and bring him to heel, but to kill him. Of course, this was not exactly official; he never let his name be placed on the official report as the killer, but everyone knows he was the one responsible. For this last action, I shall quote the 1912 informant of the anonymous 1933 journalist, because it is consistent with every other version, including those of Lack and Stafford (see reference at end of post), and of Sagege.
At last there came one who might have been 18 years old at the time: "White man shootem that feller Wini." Nods and murmurs confirmed the statement, and gradually the story evolved into whispers. A white man had come in a small ship, and had beaten off the attacking canoes with heavy loss, picking off the steersman at incredible distance. Plenty frightened they were. Wini had killed two of the scared men when they landed; all men run away bush. Wini all same cranky. As he raged in insane fury on the beach, the white man had shot him dead; thereafter landing and making plenty good talk. Wini's body was pitched into the channel with the sharks.I might add that Warren disputes the story of the feeding of the body to the sharks as a lie invented by Jardine. He points out that the natives would not have treated the body of a respected elder in that fashion, not least because he had two adult "sons". Nevertheless, it does appear to be a native tradition. Also, I gained the impression that it was Jardine, not the Baduans, who behave so churlishly. But perhaps it is fitting that Wini, the man who came from nowhere, who had a reputation but no history, should attract a whiff of controversy even in death.
"What name that white feller?"
Silence, grins, then a chin pointed in the direction of Cape York. "Frank, name belong that feller."
Deconstructing IdriessYou might wonder whether there is any point in deconstructing Ion Idriess' version of events. After all, he has been deceased for 35 years, and although some of his books are occasionally reprinted, they are not part of the modern generation's experiences. Nevertheless, it was his stories which led me on this quest, and he is the only person who had written any widely read popular books on the Torres Strait, so here goes.
By all estimations, Ion Llewellyn ("Jack") Idriess (1889 - 1979) lived the sort of adventurous life most of us can only dream of. Employed in a whole host of occupations on outback stations, by 1910 he was writing articles for The Bulletin, and was working as an opal miner and a tin miner. 1913 found him living with an Aboriginal tribe at Cape York. 1914 found him enlisting for the First World War. After the war, he returned to Cape York, and he also travelled around the Torres Strait islands in the company of the wandering missionary, William MacFarlane, talking with the natives about the olden days. It is likely he had taken notes at the time for, after all, he was still a writer for The Bulletin. He mined for gold in New Guinea, got involved in buffalo hunting, and innumerable other activities. Then in 1927 he began his career as an author, churning out a book every ten months. His experiences had effectively made him the chronicler of the outback.
Idriess always wrote his histories as novels. As such, he is in the honoured company of such people as Irving Stone (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Lust for Life) and Robert Graves (I Claudius, Claudius the God). Of the latter writer, a friend of mine, a classical scholar, observed: "He stuck close to the original documents, and when there were two possibilities, he did the right thing and chose the most interesting one." That might be a good summary of Idriess' methods.
Drums of Mer (1933) was his first novel of the Torres Strait. It was a work of fiction, centring on a white man who had been adopted by the people of Murray Island (Mer), but in the introduction the author explains which parts are fictional. He relates how he had travelled with the Rev. William MacFarlane, who put him in touch with the island historians - and who also wrote a foreword to the novel. He also enumerates his sources: Haddon's report on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, the Jardine diaries, the diaries of Lt. Chester, who established the seat of government on Thursday Island, and "four cobwebby volumes of valuable official records, which had been unearthed from an old lumber-room in the Court House "[of Thursday Island]. Don't let anyone tell you that Idriess did not have good background information.
Pointedly, the introduction carries the sentence:
And there have been occasional blotches on the white man's escutcheon, such as that renegade Wini, "The Wild White Man of Badu," who attained a power sufficient to terrorize both native and white.In Headhunters of the Coral Sea (1940) there is no mention of Wini, but the introduction provides an interesting insight into his methods. He said that, during his wandering in the Coral Sea he first heard stories of two white boys adopted into the Murray Island community. Years later, he discovered three small pamphlets which revealed that their names were Jack Ireland and Will D'Oyly from the wreck of the Charles Eaton in 1834. Later, when asked to write a "boy's book", he remembered the two boys. Most of the book, he claims, was based on the oral history of the islanders, although he had left out some of the gorier incidents. This suggests that he once kept notes which, if they still exist, would be of great historical value.
Isles of Despair (1947) is the Barbara Thompson story, based on the written material available at the time (he lists them in his introduction), and where gaps existed in the narrative, he filled them in with his knowledge of Torres Strait ethnology, and with conjecture. He also claims to have talked with the descendants of Barbara's tribe, the Kowráregas, and even referred to their testimony at one point. (There couldn't have been many of them, because they had been massacred and dispersed by Frank Jardine.) For this book, however, the wild white man is no longer known as Wini, but as Wongai. He even quotes the passage of MacGillivray cited above, but puts "Wongai" in square brackets after MacGillivray's "Wini" to emphasize what he considers the correct name. This suggests to me that either (a) he believed he had fresh, more accurate information (wherever from, at this stage?) or (b) he thought the Wongai myth would make a better story. If the latter, why on earth choose a wild plum totem?
At last we come to The Wild White Man of Badu (1950). Again, the brief introduction is instructive. He refers to the time, long before he considered writing books, when he travelled around the Torres Strait islands, and frequently heard stories about Wongai in both the eastern and western islands, even from Maino, the son of the great Kebisu. Only later, when chatting with the old time pearlers on Thursday Island, he heard tell of "Wani", and realised he was the same as Wongai, and a white man. He began to take notes. Later still, he was able to read Frank Jardine's diaries and reports, and again found references to "Wani". One is still left to wonder, however, why he confidently used the name, "Wini" in his earliest book.
On rereading the novel, it became clear that the first chapters concern incidents no-one could possibly have known: how a convict escapee from Norfolk Island killed and ate his companions, then followed a specific route into the Strait, landed on Badu just at the time of the Wongai festival and, by a quirk of fate, became recognized as a god. The following chapters go into detail about his power struggle on the island. He names his wives, and describes how he whipped one of them. The author, in fact, recounts the glee and enthusiasm with which his informants related that particular incident. One is bound to wonder how much of the novel is based on native oral tradition. Again, if notes of that period still exist, they would be highly useful.
To the extent that oral tradition is present, it was probably provided in a fragmentary manner, and he was left to sort out the chronological order as best he could. The affair of the wreck and the cutlasses is brought into the account of the attack on Moa. I have not gone back over the novel to determine whether the details of the story correspond to the earliest native account of the final battle of Moa. I suspect that he has conflated the cutlasses incident with an earlier raid.
Idriess' book ends with "Wongai's" failed attempt to bring Barbara Thompson into his harem; he probably did not have enough material to finish it. He does, however, provide a summary for the final chapter, and one comment does ring true. Like many other leaders, Wini found that, having created a fighting force, he was forced to use it. His subjects urged him to carry on the war with Moa in earnest until, after years of conflict, Moa was virtually depopulated. (That was probably also the fact behind Sagege's wild tale.)
Idriess then makes an astounding claim which I, for one, find hard to believe: that the man shot by Jardine was not Wini, but a man covered in pipe clay for the mourning of his brother. Allegedly, Wini then went into hiding, pretending to be dead, and lived to be a very old man.
As I said before, the island politics in the period make a dramatic and romantic theme. However, a definitive history based on primary documents remains to be written. Regrettably, I feel that Idriess' account, with its mixture of fact and fiction, is likely to end up the default window future generations will have into this forgotten world. As he put it in the first paragraph of his introduction:
[B]y now even the "threads" of the story are vanishing - probably have vanished. Just one more page absorbed by Time in the fascinating book of Australian history.
Haddon, Alfred Cort (1898), The Recordings of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits
Lack, Clem and Harry Stafford (1964), The Rifle and the Spear, Fortitude Press, Brisbane
MacGillivray, John (1852), Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, vol. 1
Shnukal, Anna (2008), The last battle of Mua: eleven texts. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series 4(2):35-59
Warren, Raymond J. (2004, revised 2008-9), Wildflower, the Barbara Crawford Thompson Story, privately published, available from Amazon or from the author.