1 night and 21,000 years on Stradbroke Island

Minjerribah is the indigenous name of Stradbroke Island in Quandamooka, or Moreton Bay, Queensland. I’ve heard it means ‘place of mosquitoes’ and there is many a night that will reveal in full force the appropriateness of that name. But I’ve also heard it means ‘place of the sun’ in the Jandai language and that’s totally appropriate too. Middens on the island indicate the presence of communities living on the island 21 000 years ago. Ironically, it took until 2011 for the Quandamooka People to be given native title over Stradbroke Island, Peel Island, other smaller islands and the surrounding waters in accordance with modern Australian law.

Stradbroke image
Stunning, simple beauty of Stradbroke Island. Image Margeurite Carstairs, Flickr

Amity Point on Stradbroke Island was the first site of European occupation when a hut was built there monitoring ships coming in and out of the bay through the South Passage. This entrance was notoriously difficult to navigate, and many a ship foundered or was wrecked here. In our last blog post, The oldest continuous culture in the world today, we continued to follow the journey of James Aird after his arrival in the colony. We take up his story, and that of Moreton Bay and its inhabitants, via another of his diary entries concerning Stradbroke Island and ‘Captain Gainey.’  It seems this Aboriginal man was intimately connected to the well-known story regarding the wreck of the ship “Sovereign” in 1847.

Let’s head back to James Aird’s diary to see where we left off, at an entry titled

Night on Stradbroke

Another night I camped in the South end of Moreton Bay in Captain Gainey’s hut sometime after my first acquaintance of him. On my landing late one moon light night on the island of Stradbroke with two of my mates.  Seeing the camp fires of the Blacks we advanced thither till we came near and were attacked by the natives’ dogs or dingy as they call them. At length I found myself among the camps. The natives, coming out to know our message, on finding out who I was, put sticks on their camp fires and made them blaze. Made me sit down among them. The little naked children came out. They give me sea cow to take with me, also a few shells. I then inquired for the captain whose name is Captain Gainey. I was shown his bark hut. I asked for Captain Gainey. He rose and kindled the fire sticks which was very hard in the little door of his hut. The height of it was not over four feet high. So I was invited in, of which I accepted. But the door had to be entered on hands and knees. The captain’s bed was in one end, a hole in the sand and two blankets. He had many questions to ask me. He was almost naked on this occasion. 

I spoke to him of Mrs Gainey dying and of the whitefellow saying prayers at the grave when she was buried. Old man appeared to be very sorry to hear of his wife being named. I spoke to him of the good man gods of which he heard of. But I think he knew something of heaven when he seen the bright star fall. 

Carpet python copy
‘Kabul’ the carpet python is an important totem for the Quandamooka people for Stradbroke Island. Image Simon Q, Flickr

James Aird was a man before his time I think. While most people at this time were casting Aboriginal people aside as ‘savages’ – primitive people belonging to a lesser race of humanity – James Aird was acknowledging they understood spirituality and the idea of a ‘God’ or “Spirit.” He acknowledged their pain and grieving. And he got to know them as individuals with personalities, responsibilities and a will to survive in greatly changing times, just as the new European arrivals were doing.

It seems Captain Gainey was actually not a Stradbroke man. He was instead, from the Nooghi tribe who lived on Moreton Island, known as Moorgumpin. During the 1800’s, the last of the Nooghi people were removed from Moorgumpin and brought over to live on Stradbroke Island.

This Captain was one of this Moreton Island tribe who saved a shipwrecked crew and many of the passengers twenty years ago among the breakers at Moreton Island by swimming off. The Sydney Government give him a brass plate to hang on his breast with chain round his neck. His name’s on it, the name of the ship and the year. He also gets a fishing boat every four years to pursue the dugong and take his people from one island to the other. 

Brass plates like this one were issues to the Moreton and Stradbroke island aboriginal rescuers

The paddle boat ‘Sovereign’ had tried to cross the bar twice already, and decided to push through on the 3rd attempt. It was a dismal failure, with the engine stalling and the boat at the mercy of the waves and drifting to the north of the spit. The prominent Gore family were washed overboard along with their servant, and 51 others. It was only through the immediate and courageous efforts of the local Nooghi and Noonuccul tribes that anyone survived.

The aboriginal men managed to save 10 out of the 56 people on board. Mr Stubbs was on the verge of drowning

‘when a native belonging to the pilot’s crew seized him by the waist and supported him until his strength returned… Captain Cape sustained 3 more breakers and does not remember anything else until he found himself on a hillock of sand on the beach, where he had been carried by the blacks who had dragged him though the surf…. The native crew, by their utmost exertions succeeded in saving the lives of six more individuals.’ Once on shore, Mr Stubbs reported that the aboriginal men ‘treated us with every mark of the most heartfelt pity and commiseration.’ 

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Drawing of Sovereign crossing the south bar by T. St. Ledger, 2001. Collection of the Queensland Maritime Museum

Though this story lives on 170 years later, the names of the Aboriginal men are less in our living memories. Immediate recognition was given to them through the creation of a brass crescent shaped plaque around the necks, on which was inscribed

“ (Name)…Rewarded by the Governor for the assistance he afforded with several of his countrymen to the survivors of the wreck of the steamer Sovereign by rescuing them from the surf on Moreton Island, on the 11th March 1847, upon which melancholy occasion 46 persons were drowned, and by the aid of the natives 10 were saved.’

In 2007 a memorial was established at Amity Point to remember the passengers and rescuers of the ‘Sovereign.’ I cannot find ‘Captain Gainey’ anywhere, but I can find ‘Captain Funny-eye’ and I’m wondering if they are one in the same. From my research, I’d like to acknowledge the rescuers of the wreck of the ‘Sovereign’ as:


Jacky Jacky 

Woondi/Woondu .



Nu Ah Ju

Captain Funny-eye

I’m ever thankful that James Aird is working on the pilot boats at this time, around 1864 to 1866, as his diary captures detailed pictures of many parts of Moreton Bay that he visited and worked upon. James made an effort to meet the ‘locals’ and learn from them. And he’s opened a window to an ancient culture and to individual indigenous people finding a way to be alongside the new arrivals to their country and extending welcome and friendship.

I came to be very often among these blacks as duty led me to be camped once for three months at a time. I always found them very civil and obliging and glad to see me on a visit to their islands.      James Aird.

James Aird’s next journey will take us away from the Indigenous people of the islands of Moreton Bay and into the stories of the newly arrived Immigrants stranded on these same islands, banished here under Quarantine.

See you at the next chapter.


Telegraph, 19 February 1889
‘Wreck of the Sovereign,’ Telegraph, Brisbane, 20 March 1933
Mrs Broda Reynolds and Thomas Welsby, Brisbane Courier, 29/1/1921
Brisbane Courier 5th February 1921
The Queenslander ‘Sketcher’, Dunwich Celebrities who have passed away. 
Feature Image: Heide bakk – hansen, Flickr

3 thoughts on “1 night and 21,000 years on Stradbroke Island

  1. Great to see those indigenous rescuers referred to by name – or at least the names recorded for them.

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