September 28, 2015

The story of Mary Watson and Lizard Island


David Ellis with Roderick Eime

IT was 134 years ago this month, on October 12 1881, that young English woman Mary Watson died in the most horrendous of circumstances on a remote far north Queensland island, her agonising death writing her into history as our first and most extraordinarily courageous, yet little known, folk heroine…

Born in Cornwall in 1860, Mary migrated with her family to Maryborough in 1877. There, while still in her teens but with a good education, she ran a small private school for a short time before becoming governess to the children of a local publican, and later moving to remote Cooktown to open another private school there.

She met in Cooktown a Captain Robert Watson, a Scotsman who ran a beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishing business from Lizard Island some 100km away, and after a brief courtship the couple married, Mary giving birth to a son, Ferrier in June 1881.

In October, with Captain Watson away fishing, Mary was in the family hut when some mainland Aboriginal people landed on the island, and while what actually happened will never be known, the Watson's Chinese gardener, Ah Leong was speared to death and the house servant, Ah Sam severely wounded before the tribesmen withdrew when Mary fired a rifle into the air.

To the Aboriginal people, Lizard Island was revered in mythology and Dreamtime stories as a sacred place "owned" by the myriad goannas that abounded there, and which were a source of special food and medicine.

Realising the peril she was now in, Mary and the wounded Ah Sam loaded what food and water they could into a roughly 1300mm (51 inch) square by just 610mm (24 inch) deep cast iron water tank that Captain Watson used for boiling beche-de-mer, squeezed themselves and baby Ferrier aboard, and began paddling in search of a safer island.

For five days they paddled and drifted under a blazing tropical sun, occasionally landing on reefs and islands – but at each island, finding signs of Aboriginal life they moved on, critically unable to have collected fresh water. Finally on reaching the unoccupied No 5 Howick Island – an amazing 65 kilometres from where they had taken off in their water tank – they staggered ashore in the stifling heat, their water totally gone, little food remaining, and all in rapidly deteriorating condition.

Remarkably, throughout their ordeal Mary maintained a daily diary, cataloguing their journey with brief, unemotional and uncomplaining entries. And on October 12 1881, five days after landing on the island, she wrote her last tragic message: "Still no rain. Ah Sam preparing to die. Baby more cheerful.  Self nearly dead with thirst."

It was not until January 1882, three months later, that the crew of a small cargo ship seeking shelter from a storm found the body of Ah Sam on the beach, and those of Mary and Ferrier in the tank that was now full of rainwater.

All were taken back to Cooktown where 650 people attended their funerals; Mary Watson was just 21 years of age and her son 4 months. A diary she kept on Lizard Island and the one she wrote aboard their little water tank, are in the John Oxley Library within the State Library of Queensland, and the water tank itself in the Queensland Museum.

Today Lizard Island, 250km north-east of Cairns, is a protected National Park and home to one of the most luxurious resorts on the Great Barrier Reef. The resort occupies but a tiny portion of the island, with the remainder grass and woodlands, mangrove swamps, white sand beaches (twenty four) and a 'mountain' that rises 359m above sea level.

There is also a National Parks campground with toilets, picnic tables and gas barbecue – but campers or other visitors to the island are not permitted to enter the Resort.

Lizard Island Resort offers forty indulgent rooms and suites, a legendary spa, reef diving and snorkelling that's amongst the Barrier Reef's finest, game fishing, visits to an extraordinary 'Cod Hole' that's frequented by massive 100-plus kilogram Potato Cod, and beach and bush walking.

Access is by small plane only from Cairns or Cooktown, or private boat. Coral Princess Cruises also visits the island (not the Resort) weekly as part of Great Barrier Reef itineraries.

For more information



[] THE TINY water tank in which Mary Watson, baby Ferrier and house servant Ah Sam spent five days escaping from Lizard Island. (Queensland Museum)

[] PORTRAIT of Mary Watson – she was just 21 when she died. (Queensland Museum)

[] LIZARD Island as seen from atop its highest point. (Roderick Eime)

[] INDULGENCE: Lizard Island Resort is one of the most luxurious on the Great Barrier Reef. (supplied)

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