02 October 2019

A Brisbane River Shark Attack, 1847

"SHARKS.- On Wednesday, several very large sharks were seen in the river, near the Steam Navigation Company's Stores; one of these monsters, upwards of fourteen feet in length, was observed in pursuit of two immense stinging rays, which, in their violent efforts to escape, threw themselves high and dry on the bank of the river, where they were captured. Persons bathing should be extremely cautious in venturing far from the side, particularly when others are not present to render assistance in case of accident." (Moreton Bay Courier, 27 November 1847)
This warning against bathing in the Brisbane River seemed clear enough. Every summer was breeding season for bull sharks and large females were abundant in the river. However, just one week after the warning appeared in the Courier, a schoolmaster named William Robertson and his friend James Stewart, who was a manager at the Binnie & Co. saddlery in Brisbane, decided to cool off one Tuesday morning by taking a dip in the river near what is now known as the North Quay. These were of course the days before air conditioning and suburban swimming pools. The river waters were one of the few options of staying cool in the colonial subtropical summers.

View of Moreton Bay Settlement, 1835.
Moreton Bay Settlement by Henry Boucher Bowerman, 1835. (State Library of Qld)

Stewart undressed and entered the water, but the wary Robertson had a ‘certain misgiving that an accident was about to happen’ (or so he later claimed) and remained on the riverbank. After a just a few minutes, Robertson heard a sudden scream and turned to see a large shark, belly upwards, rushing to attack Stewart about 20 metres away. Stewart immediately headed for the bank, but the shark gripped his thigh, badly tearing the flesh. Over the following minutes there was a violent struggle as Stewart inched towards safety, and sometimes he seemed to be underneath the shark, and sometimes on the back. He was bitten a second time, this time on the calf, causing another serious wound.

He finally reached the bank and Robertson pulled his exhausted friend from the water, while the shark swam slowly away. Seeing that Stewart was in a bad way, Robertson immediately ran to get help from Dr Keith Ballow (Resident Surgeon of the Moreton Bay General Hospital), while the victim tied a handkerchief around his wounded thigh in an attempt to stop the haemorrhaging. Ballow arrived and bandaged the wounds before rushing Stewart to the hospital.

Word of the attack quickly spread through the small town, and a number of residents arrived at the riverbank intent on capturing the shark. Among them was Jones, the barrack sergeant, who baited a large hook with a bullock’s heart and succeeded in dragging the shark to land. It was a Bull Shark, just over three metres long. As was usual after a capture, the shark was cut open so that the stomach contents could be examined, out of curiosity, but the disappointed spectators found that it was quite empty. The jaws were removed for display.

Stewart's leg eventually had to be amputated. He later moved to Sydney, where a correspondent to the Brisbane Courier saw him in 1866 and noted that, "Stewart, who had the fight with the shark, is walking about Sydney still - or rather limping, poor fellow, for his leg has been cut off long since."

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