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Castaways and Cannibals
meet in a tragic tale


This is the story of castaways from the Charles Eaton, a 313-ton barque wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, 40km off Cape Grenville on August 15, 1834. To be more exact, it's the story of two young boys, John Ireland and two-year-old William D'Oyley, who were adopted by Torres Strait Islanders after they had beheaded 22 survivors, including D'Oyley's parents. (Initially two other boys, William Sexton and D'Oyley's older brother, George, were spared but disappeared when the Islanders split into two groups and went separate ways after the massacre.)

It's hard to understand why they were spared. Writing of the massacre, 19th-century author, historian, explorer and government geologist, Robert Logan Jack, who survived a spear through the neck on one of his Cape York expeditions, wrote: "Growing boys have obviously some potential value, even among savages.

But some time into their two-year "adoption" in Torres Strait, the pair were swapped by their Aureed Island captors for a bunch of bananas each. Not much of a ransom, but an excellent deal for the boys because their new sponsors, an Islander named Duppar and his wife Pamoy, took them out of harm's way, back to their Murray Island home. They were well looked after on Murray, where young D'Oyley learned the local lingo as his only language and adapted well to island conditions. When they were eventually rescued, traded once again but this time for a couple of tomahawks, the now four-year-old D'Oyley was a reluctant participant, not wanting to leave his adopted mother or his home.

It would have been the end of a dramatic two years in which the boys had not only witnessed unaccustomed bloodshed, but meandered hundreds of kilometres through open ocean in all types of weather, first on a makeshift raft, and later in dugout canoes with their captors and later their adopted parents. The distance from the wreck off Cape York to their eventual home on Murray Island, high in the north-eastern Torres Strait, is more than 300km

.Ireland was the 12-year-old steward's boy on the Charles Eaton when the adventure began and was able to give rescuers many of the grim details of the shipwreck and the killings. Five of the ship’s crew had escaped the Charles Eaton in the only boat undamaged after the wreck. The other 26 passengers and crew remained aboard, hoping the barque could be refloated. (Four of the five survived the open boat voyage to Timor but were unable to alert the outside world of the disaster for more than a year.)

When it became clear the Charles Eaton would break up, two rafts were fashioned. The largest, carrying 17 people including Ireland, drifted north half-submerged and was found by Islanders in a dugout canoe on the morning of the third day. The Islanders appeared unarmed and friendly and the survivors went with them to Boydong Island, about 70km north-west of the wreck. There, with the exception of Ireland and Sexton, they were clubbed to death, although Ireland received an arrow wound to the shoulder. Soon after the massacre, the 15 corpses were beheaded and, according to Ireland, the eyes and cheeks eaten in what he judged to be a ritual.

The next day, the boys and severed heads were loaded into canoes and paddled to another island where there was a seasonal fishing camp. There the boys discovered a similar fate had befallen the other nine survivors, including the D'Oyley family, who had left the wreck a week earlier on a smaller raft. The seven adults had been slaughtered and beheaded and the two young D'Oyley boys, William and George, spared.

After two months the Islanders split into two groups, one taking Sexton and the older D'Oyley boy to oblivion, and the other taking Ireland and the D'Oyley child north. After months voyaging through Torres Strait and visiting many islands as far north as Darnley Island, the party returned to their home island, Aureed. There they were traded to the Murray Islanders and, in June 1836, eventual rescue by Captain C.M. Lewis aboard the schooner, Isabella.

After the rescue of Ireland and a very reluctant D'Oyley, Lewis went looking for the castaways' skulls. On Aureed Island, which was now deserted, he discovered a hut in which stood an ornate, mask-like shield approximately 1.5m by 0.7m. Its face was crafted from, among other things, tortoise and pearl shells, feathers and broken arrows. Tied to the perimeter of the ornament were 45 skulls, 17 of which were identified by a ship's surgeon as European. Many of the skulls bore marks of violence. The 17 European skulls are now entombed in a memorial to the shipwreck and massacre in Botany Bay cemetery.


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