24 September 2017

An 1860s Look at the Gulf Country

This description of life around the far northern settlements of Cloncurry and Normanton is taken from the Queenslander, 2 October 1869:

'Norman, July 16.

The Gulf, in Southern minds, is still connected with sickness. Every traveller's yarns, they say, should be taken cum grano salis, and this is more especially the case with regard to Gulf travellers. I have frequently heard men tell the most unblushing lies of the horrors they have seen out here, things that never existed, to my certain knowledge, except in their own fertile minds; imagining, I suppose, that by so doing they render themselves heroes, and no doubt they succeed in gaining the congratulations of their friends for having had such miraculous escapes.

Bachelor quarters in Normanton, ca. 1885. (State Library of Queensland)

The subjoined statement of the disorders prevalent out here has been furnished me by Dr. Fotheringham, M.R.C.S., London. The disorders most prevalent out here are:- ‘Bilious attacks, always prevalent in tropical climes and aggravated by the too free use of alcohol in every form; bilious fever is but rare; remittent fever, with its concommitants ague, &c.; low fever, sometimes approaching to one of a typhoid character, coming under the term of complicated fever; sickness brought on by the abuse of calomel, ignorant people taking enormous doses for the purpose of treating slight derangement of the liver; the too frequent abuse, also, of quinine, which is frequently taken by the half handfull a day, producing nervousness, headache, stupidity, and general prostration of the nervous system. Since January, 1867, to date, no fatal cases of the tropical fevers alluded to, and dependent upon malaria, &c., have come under my notice. Kanakas are subject to dysentery and general debility, and no heart to bear up against the slightest attacks of any disorder.’

The great stumbling block to the Gulf progress has been the number of ports and towns that have been started, whereas one town was quite sufficient. Originally Burketown was the port, and would now doubtless have been a flourishing town; but just as people had started and had made their improvements, &c, an agitation was started in favor of the Norman, and soon after a stampede set in for that place. The consequence was, of course, depreciation in the value of Burketown property, and ultimately the ruin of most of the Burketown residents. The Norman, I thought, would prove a failure, as, with the exception of two or three stations, nobody benefitted by the ‘flit.’ However, now that the Gilbert has broken out, of course the Norman will become a great place, unless a port is discovered nearer to the field, which I think is probable, as so little is known of the country. At present the Great Australian Mining Company and the Cloncurry diggings make the Norman their shipping port, but I believe ultimately Bourketown will take this trade, as it is said a road will be opened when the mine commences operations, which will run the Leichhardt River down, and thence to Bourketown. However, it will be some time before this is done.

There is another Town on Sweers Island, and this place is the bete noir of the north. It was originally opened by W. Landsborough, P.M., as a sanatorium at the time when sickness was rampant, and as such should have been retained. As a site for a lying-in hospital or an agapemone, I suppose it is unrivalled, but farther than this it must prove a failure. When our Collector of Customs arrived here, being naturally of a retiring nature, he settled and built the bond on the island. Now, mark the consequences. Communication between this place and the main land is maintained by an old steamer, about which bets are freely made whether she will blow up that trip. Ships coming to the Gulf have to clear for this island, and it is often a fortnight or more before we know that the vessel has arrived. We then proceed to the island by the first opportunity to clear the goods and have them lightered to town. This of course entails great additional expense, and adds so much to the original invoice that it becomes almost impossible for small capitalists to import. All this expense might be avoided, the revenue increased greatly, and an impetus given to the whole country, were a Custom-house officer established at the mouth of the Norman. For three miles within the heads a splendid harbor exists, and were the river bar properly buoyed, vessels of a large tonnage could enter. A good bridle track exists from the town to the heads, and there is no doubt a good road could soon be found. A magnificent site for a town exists there, with abundance of fresh water. Besides, boats and punts could easily bring the goods to town, and no doubt should the town progress a tramway will ultimately be erected. I cannot understand the policy of the Government in dosing their eyes to the advantages of such a plan as small capitalists would then be able to commence business, and the imports would be increased in proportion. Every facility is at present given for smuggling, and be sure, should the Gilbert go a-head, it will open up a market that will not be neglected, if it is not already being worked. At present a vessel could leisurely come into any of the rivers discharge and leave before any intimation could reach the island.

The only semblance of law out here, and the only intimation that our Government give us of their knowledge of our existence, is paying rent for a lock-up without doors, and maintaining a customs on Sweers Island. There is no public magistrate here, and the whole ‘majesty of the law’ is left in the hands of the sergeant and four constables and a few newly-pledged J.P.'s. The sergeant endeavors to assert his dignity with a bullock chain, but is generally deterred from taking a prisoner, as he is then supposed to keep him in durance till the arrival of one of our J.P.s, whose visits are indeed ‘few and far between.’ By-the-way, we should like to enquire why our J.P.s are only selected from our ‘wool kings.’ Why are the merits of our townsmen - men who are constantly at hand to take their seats when required - and many of whom have had great experience, why are their names entirely overlooked? Surely the Government cannot be aware that not a single one of our businessmen appears on the roll.

There is no doubt this will prove a wonderfully rich mineral country when time has elapsed to allow it to be properly prospected. Prospectors are out in every direction, and we frequently hear of fresh finds of gold. Copper, I believe, is also very plentiful. What are the Manton's and other Sydney promoters doing that they do not push out on the Cloncurry and prospect. The two known gold-fields are the Gilbert and the Cloncurry. The latter is situate exactly 300 miles from town, on the Cloncurry River. There is a good road the whole of the way. At present the road is well watered, but towards the end of the dry season there is a dry stage of forty miles and another of thirty-five miles. Up to the present time there has been little better than gully raking carried on. The gold is found in large rough nuggets; in fact, the finds of half an-ounce nuggets are of daily occurrence. In here are about thirty men on the ground, and most of them seem satisfied. Most of the gold found is not at all water-worn, and appears to have dropped from reefs in the immediate vicinity. A great portion has been got by ‘dry panning.’ The most pleasing feature I have heard is that an old experienced digger lately sunk a hole on a flat, and bottomed at ten feet; he took 8 ozs. out. The other diggers immediately took up the ground and commenced sinking; I have not yet heard with what success. It is impossible to estimate what quantity of gold is in the diggers’ hands, as they keep dark, and of course will not part with gold for cheques.

The great drawback to the Cloncurry is the scarcity of water; there is but one permanent water hole in the immediate vicinity, and even this has to be sunk towards the end of the season. This would not suffice any population. I do not know how this difficulty can be overcome, as I know of no place near from whence water can be brought. A store has been opened by Mr. Marsh, but at present he has little or no supplies. I start for there to morrow, and will write you full particulars. Parties coming to this town en route for the diggings would do well not to arrive later than the beginning of November, as from the 1st of December to the 1st of March the roads are impassable, owing to the wet - in fact the town becomes almost an island. Carriage to the Cloncurry £25 a ton. Of the Gilbert I can only speak from hearsay, and had therefore better leave it alone. The Cleveland Bay people know more about it than we do. A few travellers have been back and forwards, but their statements vary very much. I have reliable information that a good road, well watered, can be made from this place under 200 miles.

The only drawback on the road is a few sand ridges, each a few hundred yards long. The present road round by Bauhinia Downs is 240 miles. A bonus has been granted by the townspeople for opening the new road, and two loaded teams start to-morrow for that purpose. The advantage of diggers coming to the Norman is, that they can then judge for themselves which is the best site for their future operations. John Youlle, of Wentworth renown, better known as ‘Johnny the Reefer,’ with his two mates arrived by the Margaret and Jane. They selected the Cloncurry, as there were fewer people there. They were on their way up when I last saw them.

In conclusion, I would advise intending immigrants to book through to the Norman, as they will thus save the additional expense of being landed at the island, and the passage money from the island to town.

Weather fine, but hot. No church bells here. We weary to hear the old hundredth chimed.'

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