First impressions

Note: The best book about Camden Harbour that I’ve ever read is now available here.

Readers scanning the eastern Australian newspapers of 25 August, 1864, would have seen reports of the latest situation in the American Civil War (“Desperate fighting near Spottsylvania courthouse”), along with the Maori wars and the Dano-German dispute. They would also have seen: “Western Australia: Intelligence from Perth to 26 July . . . the principal topic of the day is the proposed settlement of the Northern country. The reports of Grey, Martin and Panter leave no doubt as to its extent and fertility.” 


Camden Harbour, in Australia’s  West Kimberley region, is closer by 2,000 kilometres to Koepang in Timor than it is to the Western Australian capital of Perth. It is still in the 21st century inaccessible to all but the most determined adventurers.  At the height of its 12-metre tides it is to an inexperienced eye a superb shelter for shipping.

From the Dreamtime, Aborigines roamed its shores and drew wondrous, glowing paintings in caves not far inland from its mangroves. They fished, they lit fires to encourage new growth in the native grasses which in turn encouraged animal and bird life for them to hunt.  When the creeks dried under a burning sun, they knew where rock pools and springs hid reserves of cool water.

I have traversed large portions of Australia, but have seen no land, no scenery to equal it.

Yet it has defied settlement by whites. Native grasses and weatherbeaten red rock were not something early farming settlers could cope with. They were also unnerved at ebb tides when the huge drop of the receding sea uncovered thick, blue-grey mud and the nearest  green bushes revealed themselves as twisted mangroves.

God only knows how many of us will be spared or how many more will be left behind to take our final rest on Sheep Island.

However, the very first white explorers – who led the way for the farmers – were not dismayed by the awesome drop of a few tides. Those who came after the monsoons were more impressed by the rolling green ranges that lay beyond the top of the sandstone cliffs  lining part of the harbour. It seemed a gateway to fine pastoral country. They saw their hopes confirmed by expeditions inland and reported back to their governments and backers that here was fine land for the taking.

But 2,800 kilometres from Perth by sailing ship – and a climate and land they had never experienced – proved a formidable barrier to others .  .  .

Their dramatic history is told in There Were Three Ships – the story of the Camden Harbour Expedition 1864-65, by Australian writer Christopher Richards.  The award-winning book was first published in 1990 by University of Western Australia Press and is now in its fifth reprint.

Now an ebook on  Amazon KindleApple iBooks and Barnes&Noble.

Print edition available at  good book shops between the 15th and 17th parallels south latitude:

The Kimberley Bookshop

Drysdale River Station

Also at Outback specialists  Westprint Maps.

Walter Gee remembered

In 2019, caravanning home from a holiday with family, Joan Ward got to Karratha and said she wanted to go to Sheep Island.

Her daughter-in-law Margie Ward recalls that the woman on duty at the local tourist bureau explained they needed to retrace their steps – sort of – by around 2000 kilometres.

Joan’s great-grandfather was police constable Walter Gee, who died of wounds received in a skirmish with first inhabitants at Camden Harbour.

Joan’s grandmother was the baby who Mary Gee delivered not long after Walter died. Baby Mary Ann Gee, (much) later McIntyre.

Howard Ward, Joan’s son, and his wife Margie decided they had better try to get his mother to the island.

With the invaluable help of sports fisherman and fishing charter operator Peter Tucker, this eventually happened, in August 2021. Adding to the thrill of the venture was the fact that Peter is passionate about the area’s history.

The trip involved a boat plane from Broome to Kuri Bay, then a four-hour boat tour of Brecknock and Camden harbours, including the government settlement, Sheep Island and grave sites.

A family video of the event makes extensive use of original extracts from ‘There Were Three Ships’.

Exact details of the failed expedition of the 1800s are uncovered for the first and so far only time in this book, which followed exhaustive international research. Few modern users acknowledge this – and if they do any research of their own, grab the references from the book’s appendix. (Ouch). But history is only part of it – the story is told in an interesting narrative style, with the timeline of a multitude of contributing events clearly laid out. This led to the Fellowship of Australian Writers honouring ‘There Were Three Ships’ with an award as best local history.

By 1990, only the barest details of the Camden Harbour expedition were known. Joan notes that University of Western Australia Press – it published the book that year – still appears to believe it has permission rights over it. But the Press declined to reprint after a successful first run. The author took the publishing work on himself, and has done so ever since.

Hero skipper

Ballast stones from a shipwrecked sailing vessel, the Calliance, are still piled haphazardly on the shore of Camden Harbour in Australia’s last frontier – the isolated Kimberley.

Only five years before the ship ended its days when it smashed ashore on a rising tide, her captain had been hailed as a hero for an exceptionally courageous rescue.

In 1858, George Turnbull Brown was commanding another sailing ship, the Merchantman, carrying soldiers from the United Kingdom to Calcutta to reinforce the garrisons in Britain’s prime colony of India.

His medical officer became ill and Turnbull Brown  had to put in to Rio de Janeiro so the man could be treated.

Leaving once more for India, the Merchantman was a long way off its original course – a fact that saved the lives of 226 people bound for Australia.

These people – among 180 passengers and 47 crew of the vessel Eastern City, were bound from Liverpool to Australia. Sixty were women and children.

The Eastern City had a good run to the Equator. Leaving Liverpool on July 10, 1858, they crossed the equatorial line on August 11.

It looked like being a speedy passage.

But then came that most feared of disasters for a sailing ship in particular. Fire!

In high seas  on August 23 – after a half-gale the day before – smoke was seen coming from among goods in the forehold. The captain, Johnstone, rallied his passengers and crew, who fought valiantly all day and the following night to extinguish smoke and rising flames.

But they were unsuccessful. The ship was drifting in the white-caps, women crying around the calm and gallant captain at the wheel, as their menfolk doggedly but fruitlessly continued to empty  buckets of seawater down into the hold.

They were more than 600 miles from any land. The ship’s boats could only carry half its complement, and the seas were too high in any case for there to be a hope of survival.

Final farewells were being made, said a first-class passenger later, when a sail was sighted at 2.30pm. It was Turnbull Brown’s Merchantman.

He swung his ship close past the stern of the stricken vessel, conversing briefly with Johnstone by loud-speaker trumpets. Next, “coming about” in a stiff wind to return to the weeping 227 people, the Merchantman lowered boats into the high waves. By 8pm, all were safely off – except for a male passenger from the Isle of Skye who had gone below to recuperate from illness before the fire and was not seen again.

The rest were now safely aboard the Merchantman, and being cared for by soldiers and seamen.

“Captain Brown went among us like a father,” said a passenger. His wife was also on board. “On behalf of the female passengers . . . sincere thanks to Mrs Brown for her kind and considerate attention to them and their children.”  

In London months later,  a gold timepiece was presented to the hero captain by the Lords for Trade for his “gallant conduct” in the rescue.

A newspaper article said Captain Brown was now in command of the Calliance, from the port of Sunderland. His second and third mates, who had made great efforts in the rescue,  also gained positions on the Calliance as it prepared for its glamorous runs to, from and around Australia.