Mary Watson (folk hero)

Mary Watson (1860–1881), was an Australian folk heroine.

Mary Watson was 21 years old and had been married less than eighteen months when she died of thirst on No. 5 Island in the Howick Group off Cape Flattery in Far North Queensland, Australia, in 1881. She, with her four-month-old baby, Ferrier, and a wounded Chinese workman, Ah Sam, had drifted for eight days and some forty miles in a cut-down ship's water tank, used for boiling sea slugs, after mainland Aborigines had attacked her absent husband's bêche de mer station on Lizard Island. Her diary describing their last days was found with their remains, and Mrs Watson became an emblem of pioneer heroism for many Queenslanders.

Mary was born at Fiddler's Green outside St Newlyn East near Truro, Cornwall, on 17 January 1860, the daughter of Mary Phillips and Thomas Oxnam, and migrated to Queensland with her family in 1877. Having accepted a position as a governess with an hotelier's family, at eighteen Mary travelled from Maryborough to the isolated port of Cooktown, where she met and married bêche de mer fisherman Robert F. Watson in May 1880. Watson took her with him to set up a fishing station on Lizard Island, then otherwise uninhabited. In September 1880, Watson left his wife and son behind with two Chinese servants known as Ah Sam and Ah Leung, while he and his partner Percy Fuller made an extended fishing trip in their luggers. A few weeks later a party of mainland Aborigines of the Guugu Yimmidir group made one of their habitual seasonal trips by canoe to the island, where Watson had set up his household in a stone structure close to a small creek, the island's only supply of fresh water. Mary had probably also trespassed on an indigenous ceremonial ground normally forbidden to women and children. The Aborigines attacked Ah Sam, who suffered seven spear wounds, and Ah Leung was killed in a vegetable garden he was tending. Mary Watson frightened off the group by firing a gun and then, with a small supply of food and water, put to sea in the iron tank, hoping to be picked up by a passing vessel. The party drifted from 2 to 7 October, occasionally landing on reefs and islets. Mary's final diary entry, (mistakenly dated September 11 instead of October 10), ended 'No water. Near dead with thirst.'

When passing fishing vessels reported the wreck of the stone cottage, and fires burning on the island, it was assumed that Captain Watson's wife had been kidnapped or killed. Mounted police and native troopers under Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald from Cooktown shot a number of coastal Cape York people—possibly as many as 150— from three mainland groups in retaliation. None of those shot, it would be claimed afterwards, was directly involved in the events.

The remains of Mary and her baby were found some months later among the mangroves on No. 5 Howick, still in the iron tank, but now covered with fresh rainwater from a recent tropical downpour. Ah Sam had died on the beach nearby. A concealed spring existed on the islet, but they had not found it. When the bodies were returned to Cooktown a procession of 650 escorted them to their burial at Two Mile Cemetery, on the road to the Palmer River goldfields.

In the intervening years Mrs Watson's story was retold in numerous newspaper and folk accounts, including heroic poems, usually with little attention given to the Aboriginal and Chinese aspect of the events. Five years later a public subscription was raised to fund a memorial marble drinking fountain in the main street, completed in 1886. The James Cook Museum in Cooktown holds a replica of the iron tank.

A highly dramatic version of the story the story has been told by Australian author Ion Idriess in one of his a lesser-known titles The Opium Smugglers (1948), and was touched upon by Robert Drewe in his novel The Savage Crows (1976). Australian painter Alan Oldfield's series of paintings 'The Story of Mrs Watson, 1881', begun in 1986 and exploring the spiritual dimensions of the events, are now in the permanent collection of the Cairns Art Gallery, North Queensland.


Lizard Island: The Story of Mary Watson Suzanne Falkiner and Alan Oldfield, Allen and Unwin 2000

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