The amazing Abrolhos Islands

View of part of the Abrolhos reefs from the plane

A few weeks ago I was a guest at the Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival in Geraldton.  This was the first writers festival I’ve been to, but other writers told me that it’s one of the best in the state. I can believe that. I certainly had a fantastic time.

One of the highlights for those of us taking part was a day trip to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, on the Thursday before the festival began. This chain of hundreds of small islands and coral reefs lies about eighty kilometres west of Geraldton. A few of the islands are home to cray fishermen and their families, but most are uninhabited.

We flew over the chain from south to north, with the pilot of the light plane providing a knowledgeable commentary. After about an hour, we landed on uninhabited East Wallabi island for a picnic lunch and a walking tour. Any nervousness I had about flying in a very small plane disappeared because it was all so fascinating. Most of us decided not to go snorkling after one of the pilots entertained us with his hair-raising stories. But those who braved the water said the reefs were fantastic.

Gripping scenery, grim history

Abrolhos is a contraction of the Portuguese phrase ‘open your eyes’. the name seems appropriate, given the number of ship wrecks that have occurred on the reefs. The most famous of these wrecks is the Batavia, which ran aground on Morning Reef on 4 June 1629 while on her maiden voyage. She was bound for Batavia (now Jakarta) with a cargo that included chests of silver coins. Aboard were about 340 people. Most were crew and soldiers (to guard the treasure) but some civilians were aboard, including a few women and children.

Longboat of the Batavia, which sailed from the Abrolhos to Indonesia seeking help.
Replica of the Batavia’s longboat outside the Geraldton Museum.
It was a very small boat for such a long journey.

After the ship struck the reef, Commander Francisco Pelsaert and forty-seven others took off in the ship’s longboat, hoping to reach Indonesia to find help. They made it to Java in just over a month. The rest of the passengers and crew who hadn’t drowned trying to reach land remained on several small islands, without shade or water. Eventually they found fresh water. But life must have been miserable on these completely flat, tree-less reefs in the middle of winter.

What followed was a mutiny in which the third in command, Jeronimus Cornelisz, took control. He and a few accomplices began a massacre of those he disliked or who opposed him. By the time Pelsaert returned to the Abrolhos three months later, over a hundred people had been murdered. Pelsaert executed Cornelisz and his chief allies, and took others prisoner back to Java. You can read the full story on the Western Australian Museum website.

(This is an edited version of an article from my monthly newsletter, The Scribbler. To receive your own copy directly to your email inbox, subscribe now.)

Big Sir John Forrest

I came across this item while looking for information about John Forrest and the mail shipping services in the 1890s. It appeared in the West Australian on 5 February 1895.

Sir John Forrest was both Premier and Treasurer of Western Australia at the time. He and his colleagues were in Hobart for the Postal Conference, after attending the Federal Council meeting.

No-one who had seen John Forrest in the flesh would doubt that he was a big man. He stood six feet tall. In his twenties he had led three surveying expeditions, crossing Western Australia from west to east, through uncharted territory. His ventures gave him the stature of a hero among the colonists. In those days he had been muscular, sturdy even.

John Forrest and his team leaving Geraldton for Adelaide in 1874
John Forrest and his team leaving Geraldton for Adelaide in 1874

But once he left exploring and entered politics he began to gain weight. By the time he became the first Premier of the West Australian colony in 1891, his size was already a cause for amused comment. In 1897, one newspaper reported that he weighed sixteen stone (102 kg).

John Forrest as portrayed by Julius Mendes Price for Vanity Fair, 1897
John Forrest as portrayed by Julius Mendes Price for Vanity Fair, 1897

To his credit, the climb up Mount Wellington (Kunanyi) wasn’t an easy stroll. The mount rises 1,271 metres above the Hobart port. Forrest and his party tackled it in the middle of summer. The Weekly Times of Melbourne reported that the ‘visit of the Premiers to the top of Mount Wellington at Hobart resolves itself into Sir John Forrest’s ascent alone. All the other Premiers declined the feat, and Westralia’s political leader was for the nonce monarch of ail he surveyed.’ Still, the West Australian was probably correct about him being the heaviest man to ever make the top.