05 June 2018

A History of Queensland Bunyips (Part One): The 19th Century

‘The bunyip, though its fame has spread over all Australia, and though nearly every large reedy swamp boasts of one, has never been captured; and it is regarded by most people very much in the same light as the unicorn is viewed - as a myth.’ (Warwick Argus, 14 January 1893)
By the time the country beyond the Moreton Bay region was opened to non-Indigenous ‘settlement’ in 1842, the ‘bunyip’ of Aboriginal lore was firmly established in the consciousness of non-Indigenous Australia. These mysterious water creatures had many names across Aboriginal Australia, including Mochel-mochel (Condamine River, Queensland), Moolgewanke (Lake Alexandria, S Australia), Kuddimudra (Diamantina River, S Australia), Kadimakara (Lake Eyre, S Australia), Banib (Lake Albacuytya, Victoria), Tunatpan (Port Phillip Bay, Victoria), Kajanpratic, Tumbata, Toor-roo-dun (Victoria), and Kianpratty (New South Wales). The white arrivals generally referred to them all simply as 'bunyip'.

Early Non-Indigenous Reports of Bunyips

European interest in the bunyip had been kindled - but then largely doused - by a series of fossil discoveries during the early 19th century. A reference to the creature was included in a pamphlet published in 1812 by James Ives, who spelled it 'Bahnuip' and referred to a 'black, seal-like creature that has a terrifying voice'. Large bones found at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales in 1818 were described as being much like a hippopotamus or a dugong, but the discoverer never returned to the find site. It has been suggested that the bones were similar to those of a Diprotodon. A significant discovery was made in 1830 of very large fossilised bones in the Wellington Caves, New South Wales. These were later identified as megafauna Nototherium and Diprotodon.

A bunyip as depicted by Aboriginal man in 1848.

A bunyip as depicted by an Aboriginal man in the 1840s.

One of the first recorded mentions of a ‘bunyip’ came in an 1845 Geelong Advertiser article titled ‘Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal’. This was a story about fossils found near Geelong. A local Aboriginal man was shown one of the bones and reportedly claimed it belonged to ‘the bunyip’, which he then drew. He also related a story of an Aboriginal woman killed by a bunyip, and a man named Mumbowran ‘who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal’. This description was provided by the reporter:
‘The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.’ (Geelong Advertiser, 2 July 1845)
There was an outburst of ‘bunyip-mania’ in 1846-47 after a squatter found a strange skull by the Murrumbidgee River, New South Wales. He showed it to local Aboriginal people who reportedly told him it was a ‘bunyip’. A number of experts studied the skull and by 1847 it had been identified as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf. Despite this, the skull was displayed to large numbers of enthusiastic visitors for two days in the Australian Museum in Sydney, prompting many of them to claim their own ‘bunyip sightings’.

The skull found at Murrumbidgee, NSW, in 1846. (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1847)
The skull found at Murrumbidgee, NSW, in 1846.
(Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1847)

Most Europeans did not seem to take the bunyip stories too seriously, but this was - to them - a new continent and the possibilities for discovering exotic new fauna were very real. In that sense, the term ‘bunyip’ seems to have been used in much the same way as ‘Unidentified Flying Object’ was in the 20th century. The term UFO technically refers to something that has not yet been identified but probably has a rational explanation, but it also carries cultural connotations of extra-terrestrial origins. Likewise, the European use of ‘bunyip’ merely signified an unidentified aquatic animal, while also conjuring up popular notions of a fantastical and almost supernatural creature. 

Nevertheless, newspaper accounts of bunyip sightings were imbued with a strong sense of scepticism that often bordered on outright mockery. This was clearly demonstrated in 1853 after wealthy members of the New South Wales government attempted to create an Australian aristocracy with themselves. This idea was famously derided by politician and democracy advocate Daniel Deniehy as a ‘bunyip aristocracy’. The message was clear; much like the bunyip, the proposed aristocracy was a colonial fake.

A Colonial Queensland Bunyip Chronology

Waterhole at Bromelton, near Beaudesert.
Waterhole at Bromelton, near Beaudesert.

The first recorded European account of an alleged bunyip in what would become Queensland came in 1850, when a woman walking near a waterhole on the Bromelton property near the Logan River claimed to have witnessed a huge horned creature with eel-like features and a platypus-like bill. She estimated that the visible portion above the water was about 10 metres in length. She left and returned with two witnesses but they only saw the tail for a short while before it disappeared below water. She did, however, provide the most detailed and fantastical description of any ‘bunyip’ sighting in Queensland history. A fuller account of this incident can be read here.

Many other reports of bunyips appeared in Queensland newspapers over the following century, and most were unconvincing to say the least. What is noticeable about these accounts is the geographically sporadic nature of the data. Not one single location seemed to sustain a consistent record of bunyip sightings. The usual pattern was that somebody would claim to have seen ‘something’ in a particular river or waterhole, and then that alleged bunyip would never be heard of again. While this might tally with the Aboriginal concept of a supernatural being, the scattered nature of the sightings combined with the complete lack of a physical record nullify the notion of the bunyip as an undiscovered animal.

In 1868, a letter signed ‘Alex Warder, Boom Boombah’ appeared in the Brisbane Courier, telling of the bunyip tales that station workers shared with each other. He claimed that men acquainted with the Logan, Upper Mary, Fitzroy, Condamine, Laidley and other rivers all had stories to tell, and that:
‘There being so little variation regarding the bunyip in the accounts of these men, is it not reasonable to suppose that there is truth after all in what not a few only scoff and jeer at? The blacks to a man believe in the bunyip, and look horrified when it is mentioned.’ (Brisbane Courier, 12 December 1868)
In 1873 Alderman Eastaughffe of Dalby claimed that while he was out shooting ducks near a creek there, he saw what he described as a ‘huge monster, with a head like a seal and a tail consisting of two fins, a large and a smaller one.’ No further details, such as an estimated size, were recorded.

It seems to have been a commonly accepted theme among non-Indigenous writers that Aboriginal people were terrified of bunyips. An 1876 newspaper series titled ‘A Strange Exploring Trip’ mentioned this scene near the Barcoo in central west Queensland:
‘You would have been astonished if you had heard all the noises on a big waterhole like that early in the night. Such groans, harks, cackles, whistles, gobbles, and noises as never seemed to come from beast or bird. The fact is that a waterhole like that brings them all together, and in the cool of the night they have a grand corroboree. The blacks won't go to the water at night, not of the big holes, as they say the bunyip lives there. I can't say whether he does or not, as I never saw one, but he couldn't make a more terrible noise than what was going on already.’ (The Queenslander, 22 April 1876)
A stockman and two South Sea Islander labourers witnessed a strange creature while fishing in a waterhole on Gigoomgan station near Tiaro in 1877. They turned and ran, but from their descriptions it sounded like a 4-metre crocodile. It was never seen again, but a few weeks later a reporter from the Darling Downs Gazette investigated the place and:
‘An extraordinary animal was seen. It had four legs, a head, a long tail, and two humps on its back. These are undoubted facts. Now for the theory which accounts for them. The bloated carcase of a kangaroo was floating in mid-water and on the protruding surface were seated two fresh water tortoises, engaged in the congenial operation of sucking the putrid flesh. Disturbed by the human intruders, the reptilians slipped into the water, and their 'floating island' turned over, displaying its legs, and appeared to the affrighted spectators to perform a somersault and a plunge simultaneously.’ (Maryborough Chronicle, 20 March 1877)

Sketches of Australian Scenes, 1852-1853, JG Sawkins - Gigoomgan (Messers Hays)  State Library of NSW.
Sketches of Australian Scenes, 1852-53, JG Sawkins - Gigoomgan (Messers Hays),
State Library of NSW.

An article in the Queensland Figaro in 1888 referred to a bunyip sighting, although the description seems to be very much of a land animal. The name of the witness was not provided, nor a specific location apart from it being somewhere in the vicinity of the Mary River. It is doubtful that much credence can be placed on this report.
‘He saw the animal, lying asleep in the hollow end of a log. It was stretched along on its stomach, its chin resting on its paws, similar to a dog; it was, without doubt, as large as a tiger, its limbs, apparently, quite as strong, the forelegs being as thick as a man's arm, and the chest wide and seemingly very powerful. The head was nearly round, nose short - not unlike a cat's - ears short and pointed, and the mouth, which was firmly closed, was clean and beautifully formed, having no loose skin hanging from the jaws. A large brush of hair stood out from either side of the upper lip, and the eyes tightly closed, apparently, quite round. The body was clean built and very neat; the hind quarters were not so plainly visible; in fact, it could not be seen whether the animal possessed a tail - at any rate he had got it curled round by his side, as is customary with dogs, cats, &c. But the most remarkable feature in connection with the creature was its beautiful color, a deep-brown, thickly studded over with jet black spots about the size of a shilling, the hair, which was quite short, having a nice glossy appearance.’ (Queensland Figaro, 7 July 1888)
More reputable information was provided in 1891 when Dr Joseph Lauterer presented a talk about he called the Yerongpan languages of Brisbane and Ipswich to the Royal Society of Queensland. He claimed that:
‘The Yerongpan natives believe in a kind of bugbear, who kills and eats the blackfellows. They do not call it bunyip (which is an imported name) but worridziam.’ (Brisbane Courier, 16 March 1891)
This is the only reference to the word ‘worridziam’ that I have so far found.

Lake Elphinstone, about 100 km west of Mackay, was the scene of the kind of elaborate bunyip hoax that was perpetrated decades later at Lowood. A large number of police and civilians set out to investigate the lagoon after hearing new tales of a strange monster from local Aboriginal people. They claimed that a ‘huge, hairy, horned monster had risen from the lake near their camp, his eyes shone like globes of fire, and lit up the shores of the lake’.

The investigators set up an overnight camp on the banks of Lake Elphinstone:
‘At midnight the monster appeared gliding from the centre of the lake towards the shore. A thrill of horror ran through the crowd. Shot after shot was fired, but still the monster steadily advanced. They could discern his great thick horns and shaggy head, while his eyes glared as the blacks had described. A whole volley was now fired, and replied to by a peal of demoniacal laughter from the monster, who still advanced. Every man skedaddled for his life, save one Jack Fortescue, the biggest dare-devil in the north, who, without a moment's thought, threw himself on the enraged bunyip in a struggle for life or death. Jack had recognised the cackling laugh of his mate, Jim Playford, the most inveterate joker in Nebo, and penetrated the hoax. Jim had mounted the hide and bend of an old scrub.bull, carefully stuffed with straw, on the bows of a small bark canoe. Swimming behind, he pushed the canoe along in front of him, with the mock bunyip for a figurehead. The eyes of the monster were two skilfully placed bullseye lamps, highly burnished with Kangaroo Brand Alumina Polish. The little boys of Nebo now call out to the custodian of the peace, "Who shot the bunyip ?" and Bobby hangs his head and looks tired.’ (The Telegraph, 19 March 1892)

Lake Elphinstone, Queensland.
Lake Elphinstone, Queensland.
During that same year, the fishermen on the Condamine River became very wary of a spot in the river about 20 km from the town of Warwick. Several lost their lines there to an animal that was reported to ‘resemble, in appearance, a bunyip’. No further description was provided.
‘It does not roam about much, but confines itself to one very deep hole in the river. Some people here believe it to be a fresh water seal. A very strange feature is that where it habitates no fish of any description are to be found. Several people of late have tried to "sneak" on it from behind trees, while basking in the sun, but can never succeed.’ (Warwick Examiner and Times, 6 February 1892)
In a rare example of bunyip reports coming from the same region within a short time frame, fisherman on the Condamine claimed to have seen a bunyip near Darkey Flats (now known as Pratten), northwest of Warwick. They described it as being;
‘About as large as a medium-sized dog, skin covered with fur the color and appearance of that of a platypus, legs short, head shaped like a pig's, and the ears pricked and inclining forward.’ (Warwick Argus, 14 January 1893)
The reporter added that ‘…people (unscientific) are apt to class the bunyip with those visionary snakes so often seen by those that love the bottle not wisely but too well…’ It was a comment that well summed up attitudes to the bunyip at the end of the 19th century, but there would be plenty more sightings in Queensland during the decades to come...