Thursday, 12 May 2016

Portraits and Personalities of Townsville: James Morrill, wandering in the Tropics

From the James Morrill scrapbook:
Newspaper clipping from the Telegraph, Thursday 8 August 1963
One of the first to buy a land block in the new settlement of Cleveland Bay (later Townsville), was ‘wild white man’ James Morrill. James was an adventurous young English boy far from home when he decided to join the crew of the barque, the Peruvian, bound for China. Setting sail from Sydney on February 27, 1846, the ill-fated barque was caught in a cyclone and was thrown onto Horseshoe Reef in the Great Barrier Reef. He and another four survivors managed to make it to shore near Cape Bowling Green. Within two years he was the sole survivor. Adopted by the Birri-gubba people whose home country was around Mount Elliot, he lived and travelled between the Black and Burdekin Rivers for seventeen years. He rejoined European society in 1863.

As the small collection of newspaper cuttings in James Morrill scrapbook held in the Special Collections reveals, much of the writing about James Morrill and his experiences has been sensational, if not downright inaccurate. In recent times scholarship has endeavoured to reframe his contribution within a more accurate context. Emma Dortins points out that “Repeated interrogations of Morrill’s story from the 1860s to the present have allowed him a place (posthumously) in the discovery and civilisation of North Queensland and the success of the white man in the tropics.”

The Special Collection holds the James Morrill Scrapbook, which includes newspaper cuttings and photographs.


Dortins, Emma. 2012. “James Morrill Shipwreck survivor, Birri-gubba adoptee and explorer-in-retrospect,” History Australia 9(3): 67-88.

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui 
JCU PhD History Candidate

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