February 2020

Pots, Pearls and the Perfect Storm.

During recent reef surveys on Ingram Island situated on the Barrier Reef between Cape Melville and Cooktown we discovered three unmarked beach burials and pottery fragments littering the area. We suspect the graves are associated with the pearling industry but we are hoping the pottery may give some clues to the origin of the bodies buried there.


A fragment of a Japanese Donabe cooking pot. Photo: Damien Fegan.

The path of Cyclone Mahina in March 1899, as published in a memorial book the same year. Image: public domain.

Most of the pottery fragments are a simple undecorated coarse ware, often used for cooking and water storage and it is very difficult to assign a date or place of origin to them.  One piece however is quite distinctive and appears to be part of a traditional Japanese Donabe cooking pot.

In the late 1800’s North Queensland was the site of a pearling industry employing hundreds of sailors and divers from across the Asia Pacific region. A major source of income was nacre or ‘mother of pearl’, the iridescent inside surface of abalone and pearl oyster shells. This was highly prized for inlay, carving and dress accessories such as buttons and buckles.  When Cyclone Mahina struck on March 4, 1899, a Japanese cutter anchored off Ingram Island was wrecked on the reef with no survivors.  The fragment of Donabe pot may well have come from that Japanese vessel. The burials may be from the crew or some of the hundreds of pearlers that drowned during the storm. Dozens of bodies were washed up on beaches across the region in the days after the storm.

Cyclone Mahina approached the Queensland coast from the North East and combined with a Monsoonal low coming in from the North West to produce one of the most intense storms ever recorded. A cyclone with a barometric pressure of less than 930 hPa in the centre is classified as the most severe category: category five. Pressure readings of 880 hPa taken by a ship captain who weathered the storm were dismissed at the time as unrealistic, but recent ‘super storms’ have caused a reassessment. The lowest modern reading was of Typhoon Tip (870 hPa) whih devastated the Philippines in 1979. In contrast, Cyclone Yasi which caused so much destruction to North Queensland in 2011 registered 929 hPa. Though it is difficult to get agreement on the exact pressure reading of Mahina and the height of the surge 120 years after the event, it is without doubt the most intense Super Storm in Queensland’s recorded history.

The devastation of the region the storm crossed was replete with reports of dead fish, marine mammals, wreckage of pearling boats, and bodies littering beaches, and in some places being washed several kilometres inland by a storm surge estimated to be as high as 13m. The rush of water was recorded at one place reaching up a 40 m slope nearly a kilometre inland. Dolphins and large fish were found dead in the tree tops and on top of cliffs on the coast.

In keeping with the attitudes of the time European or “whites” were identified and named in the reports the others were simply listed as “coloureds” or “divers.” The Brisbane Courier stated on the 18th of March 1899: “News received eighty-seven schooners and luggers lost and about 400 divers and fourteen white men." Many of the pearling fleet crew were not registered, so casualty figures can only be approximated, and even the total number of vessels lost is unclear.

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