The Dutch (1600-1800)
The discovery of the areas now known as the Gulf
Country was exclusively a Dutch maritime affair. By the beginning of the
17th century the Dutch East India Company was well established in the East
Indies and was looking to extend its influence and increase its profits
by searching out new sources of supply for the raw materials which the
islands yielded so abundantly. In line with this policy the yacht 'Duifken'
(Wn. Jansz, Captain) was dispatched from Bantam in 1605 to learn more about
the lands and islands to the south, especially New Guinea. The expedition
sailed down the south-west coast of New Guinea, missed Torres Strait entirely
(the Strait was discovered by Torres in 1606) and entered the Gulf of Carpentaria.
They sailed down the eastern gulf coast as far as Cape Keer-Weer, and then
turned back to the islands.
The knowledge that an unknown coast lay to the south
prompted the Dutch East India Company to send out another expedition in
1623. This time two vessels, the "Pera" and the "Aernem" under Jan Carstenszoon
were despatched. The expedition extended discovery of the eastern gulf
coast south to the Staeten (Steaten) River, landing at several points (principally
for water) and gave the first descriptions of the northern coast of Australia.
The time of their visit was April and May, and they
were not impressed with what they saw.
Detailed Coastal Exploration (1802-1842)
Mathew Flinders (1802) - Detailed examination of
the Gulf coasts was carried out by British naval vessels in the first decades
of the 19th century, but Britain's interests in the north were not aroused
until Dutch and French activities prompted action. Cook, in 1770, had re-established
the existence of Torres Strait, and Bligh's and Edward's voyages in these
same waters kept the Cape in public and official mind.
By 1802 it was apparent that Britain had a real interest
in the north and that more knowledge about the coastlines was urgently
needed. The opportunity to prosecute such examinations came in 1802 when
Matthew Flinders, in the refitted "Investigator", set sail from Port Jackson
with instructions to examine Torres Strait and the coasts of the Gulf of
Matthew Flinders arrived in the Gulf waters on November
3rd, 1802 in the "Investigator". For the next 2 & a half months he
examined and chartered the Gulf Coast. Whilst in the Gulf Flinders blazed
a tree on Sweers Island. It was 40 years before further exploration.
Captain J. Lort Stokes in the "Beagle" spent the
period between the 29th June and 4th August, 1841 retracing Flinders route
in more detail. Between July 30th and August 6th Stokes discovered the
Albert River and ascended it for a distance of 50 river miles from the
mouth in a long boat. He was much impressed with the level grassy plains
dotted with trees which stretched endlessly to the south, which he named
"The Plains of Promise". Stokes also visited Sweers Island and on finding
the tree blazed by Flinders, he blazed the reverse side.
Dr Ludwig Leichardt's expedition in 1848 was next
in the area. Forced by the topography to make a great sweep inland, the
party crossed the Flinders and a river that Leichhardt mistook for the
Albert. This was later named the Leichhardt by Augustus Gregory. The explorers
were now 12 miles south of present day Burketown. They reached the
actual Albert River on 18th August and came upon a "fine running brook"
which Leichhardt named Beames Brook after Walter Beames, Esquire of Sydney.
In 1856 Augustus Gregory on his exploratory
overland trip from Victoria River to Brisbane stopped on the Albert to
meet with the "Sandfly", which was to resupply the party. Too impatient
to wait, Gregory pushed on after burying letters at the foot of a marked
tree. The schooner arrived in November.
After the disappearance of Burke & Wills, search
parties were organised by Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. The
Queensland Government sent Frederick Walker with a relief expedition overland.
He and his party rode out of Rockhampton in September 1861 and headed west.
William Landsborough and his party aboard the "Firefly" escorted by the
"Victoria" set out for the Albert River on August 24 to set up a rendezvous
and depot to meet with Walker. In October, 1861 they found trees marked
by Augustus Gregory and Lieutenant Chimno of the survey ship "Sandfly"
in 1856. They marked a line of trees to guide Walker's overland expedition
to the depot on the Albert on the 7th December, 1861.
Over the next 3 years the stations of Gregory
Downs, Floraville, Beames Brook and others were taken up in the Gulf. It
was obvious that a town and port was needed in the Gulf. Towns and Company
chartered a small vessel the 'Jacmel Packet' and on 12 June, 1865 it arrived
off the mouth of the Albert River. The goods were eventually landed on
the present site of Burketown. By September 1865 the population was about
40 and by October a store and a hotel were under construction, the balance
of buildings were humpies. Rations and grog were plentiful but already
one evil was noted: prices for goods were so high that some intended settlers
could not stay. The town grew; however currency, both notes and coins,
were so short in early Burketown that the business people issued their
own currency, dubbed "shinplaster" or "calabashers". These were in the
form of IOU's hand printed on tissue paper so that they had as short a
life as possible. In February, 1866 Lieutenant Wentworth D'Arcy UHR with
8 troopers and accompanied by William Landsborough, the first Police Magistrate,
rode into Burketown where everyone carried a pistol and where a successful
shop keeper could ride well, shoot well and be an able pugilist.
The pioneer spirit was indomitable and the first official race meeting
was held 25 July, 1866 with prize money at $200 (sic). The fever epidemic
abated but returned in late 1866.
Also that month the vessel "Margaret and Mary" dropped
anchor in the Albert. She had come from Sydney (1) and brought an epidemic.
Between 25 and 50 people died and some of the survivors fled to Sweers
Island led by Landsborough. The island was occupied for some 18 months
during which time two people are known to have died and were buried on
the tiny island.
A small boiling down works was operating providing
a limited market for Gulf cattlemen. The Schooner "Restless" loaded casks
of tallow from Ellkins Bros boiling down works.
At the first land sale on 14th August 1867, 75 allotments
were sold. About this time the barque "Captain Cook" arrived with machinery
for another boiling down works being erected by J. G. MacDonald. A paddle
steamer, the "Pioneer" ran between Burketown and Sweers Island.
In October 1868 Towns and Co traded wool, tallow,
hides and skins between Sweers Island and Batavia.
Burketown continued to grow and service the vast
cattle stations and ply the sea trade with vessels such as the 120 ton
HANNAH BROOMFIELD owned by Aplin Bros.
The Shire of Burke was proclaimed on Saturday 31st
In March 1887, Burketown consisted of 138 people,
4 hotels, a general store, 8 small neat weatherboard cottages and a 3 trooper
police station. At 11 a.m. on 5th March 1887 a cyclone accompanied by a
tidal surge struck Burketown. 11 hours later 98% of the town was gone and
7 people had died. The heroic actions of a raw-boned Scotsman, Sergeant
John Ferguson, saved many lives. Two hotels were completely destroyed and
5 houses carried away. Of the humpies no trace existed and stock losses