Port Kennedy, 7 May 1893

One of the gentlemen who had gone ashore to visit the town had managed to find a hunting expert. He is said to be the best hunter on Thursday Island and was willing to lead us to a good spot where we could find easy prey of winged game. The goal of our expedition that started out early in the morning from the ship was this time Prince of Wales Island which we reached by the steam barge with boats in tow. We were looking for a place to land and finally discovered a bay. The water was indeed very shallow in a large area so that the barge had to stop soon but with the help of the small dinghy and the cleaning dinghy we were able to land.

The first thing that we found was a deserted camp ground of the natives where the remains of fish and tortoises, broken bottles and fire places were visible. Our guide told us that the savages have held here a big celebration and feast a few months ago which he had also attended. The most remarkable of the place was the grave of a chief, a hill, recognizable from far away by a row of three cut angled tree trunks whose number indicated a high rank of the dead, as such rudimentary decoration seemed to be made by the natives only for the graves of the bodies of noble persons. The grave hill which we visited was strangely covered with a multitude of bottles, colorful glass pieces, tins and other glittering things. Apparently the natives have a desire to decorate the graves as richly as possible to which purpose any available object is used as long as it is colorful or shiny.

Under the leadership of the hunting expert we entered into the forest alongside a ridge, as usual spread out in a line. At the start birds of various kinds showed themselves. I shot here a rare beautifully colored Bruce’s green pigeon, Prónay an enormously large nightjar. By and by the representatives of bird life became rarer and finally when the trees stood closer together and we were in a pretty valley forge with a stream flowing in its midst the hunt came to an end.

The hunting expert showed himself astonished and promised to guide us to a lagoon with much water fowl that promised better hunting opportunities for which purpose we marched a considerable far distance. Some kingfishers flew from tree to tree crying. One of the gentlemen also saw a cockatoo. Any moment the hunting expert assured us that the lagoon with much water fowl was only a few steps away until finally, after a further half an hour, we cross-examined the man and he admitted that he had been here some time ago and the lagoon had been here but must have dried up.

Perhaps the „guide“ had perceived the good hunting opportunity of the now invisible lagoon that he had boasted about so much at that native feast under the influence of the alcoholic beverages consumed. Whatever might be the case, the honest man had in vain led us in all directions, and it weren’t exactly words of praise that we shouted at him when we started the way home.

We had marched under the burning sun for 2 km before we reached again our landing place without having fired a shot. Here we were met with another surprise.

The low tide had arrived; as the tide is very strong here we found the place where we had landed in the morning was now separated by more than 600 paces of mud from the sea. Our boats were leaning at the landing place, a sad view. The barge, however, had evaded the tide and driven far out into the sea and only appeared as  a small point on the horizon.

Thus we decided to await the return of the tide, accepting the inevitable. Our sailors had in the mean time constructed a nice tent out of straps and sun coverings under a mangrove tree where we rested during the hottest hours and ate the provisions. A true plague were the myriads of flies that followed us in swarms and made every attempt of sleeping or resting completely illusionary. With true fervor they set upon their victims so that we had to defend ourselves all the time.

Later we examined the grave of the chief. Armed only with hunting knives some of the gentlemen started opening the hill wishing to discover gems or at least the skull of the dead man. But neither the ethnographic nor the anthropological collection on board of „Elisabeth“ received any additions from this dig; When all the bottles and tins had been cleared and we had, not without effort, dug down to the interior of the grave, we found only a few burnt bones and a large stone which we took as a souvenir despite its weight.

As the time had advanced we had to think about reaching our barge. Still the desired tide waves were not visible even though many hours had passed since our return from the hunt. Thus there was nothing left to but to relinquish the use of the boats for the passage and to remove our shoes and walk the the way up to the barge. This was no light undertaking given the considerable distance. We sank down to our knee into the deep mud at every step and our naked feet were cut by sharp shells and coral pieces. After some time we finally reached the steam barge totally wet, dirty and with bleeding feet. A part of the crew we had left behind at the stranded boats. Only towards 7 o’clock in the evening the tide was high enough so that our vehicles could be put to water and return.

I used the rest of the afternoon to visit Port Kennedy that made a friendly impression from afar, that is from the harbor. Up close, this disappears. One is looking at a most recently built town which everywhere carries signs of the incomplete, of hasty work. The only building material used is corrugated iron sheets. Roofs, walls, doors, everything is made out of this material with which one naturally quickly constructs a house. The surrounding of this stiff bare tin houses offers a desolate view. There are no gardens, no tree, everywhere there are sprawling weeds, The roads and paths are only marked and the garbage is accumulating in large heaps in front of the windows.

With a number of inhabitants of only 2000 souls, the great number of hotels, restaurants and billiard rooms which can be explained by the fact that Port Kennedy serves as the place of leisure for the mother of pearl fishermen who live here or on neighboring islands. For the last few years they have spent, even wasted notable amounts of their often considerable profits in the shortest of time. As mother of pearl fishing is an industry whose profits provides the entrepreneurs and merchants large sums of profit every year and these people ignore the finer pleasures but are no stranger to luxury they seek in Port Kennedy to empty the cup of pleasure as carefree as possible, as long as gold remains in their purses. Those fishermen whom fortune only gives now and then a few sovereigns intend, as humans tend to do, to copy the behavior of the rich in their luxurious life and waste their last shilling, without regard of their uncertain future.

A conglomerate of the most diverse peoples and humans is united in this small town. Ambling through the streets we met the strangest characters. The main contingent naturally were Australians, mother of pearl fishermen and squatters, among them many debauched suspicious looking guy with the common large hat on a shaggy head and the never absent revolver in his belt. Then there are Austral Negroes, South Sea Islanders, Chinese, Japanese and even Sinhalese.

Here I made for the first time the disagreeable acquaintance of overly strict provisions of the English Sunday. After our foot march through the streets of Port Kennedy, Gratzl and I wanted to drink a refreshment in the first hotel of the town and ordered a bottle of beer from the landlady that we wanted to drink on the hotel terrace and enjoy the view of the harbor. But she immediately explained that our plan to drink beer on the terrace would not be possible as, she added, on Sundays this would be considered a public nuisance. She could in the best case only permit us to drink alcoholic beverages in a closed room, even in the case of beer. Whether we liked it or not, we had to comply and drank our beer not in the open in the cool evening air but in a hot dark room. As much as I am used to respect any kind of religious customs, this subtle rigorousness seemed to me to go too far and make no sense.

We soon turned our back to the cool tin town with its strange inhabitants and rushed on board to where I had invited the resident to dinner. At the dinner I probably opened for our national goods a new sales territory. The resident was namely were pleased with our Gießhübler water and assured that he would immediately order a batch of this excellent fizzy mineral water for his personal use.

Mattonis Gießhübler Wasser

Viennese ad for Mattoni’s Gießhübler mineral water

In the evening a delegation of three persons of mother of pearl fishers came to deliver an address to me and offer at the same time various specimens of mother of pearl among them multiple with cut figures. The business of fishing mother of pearl is highly profitable here. The people own a whole fleet of small cutters with which they drive to suitable locations to have divers get the shells. The shells are then cleaned and are packaged and shipped. The price of a ton of mother of pearl is now around 1320 fl. in Austrian currency. Only rarely are pearls found here; it is after all only mother of pearl, the inner coating of the shell of the perl oyster which is collected. As the shallow places in the surrounding of Thursday island have mostly been fished empty, the divers have to go down to the considerable depths of 30 and 40 m, where there are many accidents. It is said that every month there are five to six fatalities on average.

Links

  • Location: Thursday Island
  • ANNO – on  07.05.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing Goethe’s „Faust“ and the k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing the opera “Merlin”.

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