Saturday, June 06, 2009

Proud Mary: Maryborough prepares to down the hatch

Greetings from the small Queensland town of Maryborough which has New York in its sights as it attempts to break the world record for the most amount of people at a pub crawl. This is a familiar challenge to the town some 300km north of Brisbane which was the original holder of the Guinness World Record pub crawl in 2005. It lost the crown to London in 2006 before winning it back again with 2,758 people. It overcame Canadian efforts to bring the mark to 3,000 in 2008 before the Big Apple pushed it out to 3,163 in March. Now Maryborough is thirsty enough to want its crown back and is expecting up to 5,000 people for the fifth annual event tomorrow.

The crawl is a useful (if debilitating) addition to the social calendar of this atmospheric town, which is the third oldest settlement in Queensland. Lying some 20km from the coast, the town is built on a tidal bend of the Mary River along the migration path used by the Budjilla people between the Great Sandy Island (Fraser) and the bunya plantations which provided a rich addition to their diet every three years. Though there has been a town here since 1846, the Aboriginals and whites had mixed for at least 20 years prior to settlement.

When Captain Cook sailed up the north Queensland coast in 1770, his crew noticed the boat was being followed from the shores of the Wide Bay by a large tribe of natives. Cook didn’t go up the Wide Bay River thinking it was too dangerous with shifting sandbars and infested by sharks and crocodiles. But Cook’s voyage presaged the fact that thousands of years of solo Indigenous occupation was about to come to an end. There were roughly 300,000 Aborigines living in Australia before 1788 of which almost half lived in Queensland. The Protector of Aborigines Archibald Meston claimed that there were 2,000 natives in the Wide Bay region but an escaped white convict David Bracewell says there were a lot more. Bracewell said he had seen beaches on Fraser Island covered with tribespeople four miles long.

It was the convicts such as Bracewell that first brought contact between whites and blacks. John Oxley founded the Moreton Bay penal colony (now Brisbane) in 1824. Under martinet colony leader Captain Patrick Logan, prisoners received extraordinary punishment for the most trivial offences. Several convicts committed murder so they would be hanged - this was a preferable fate to living under Logan’s regime. Hundreds more escaped and fled to the Aboriginal communities. The majority of these were speared on site but some thrived in their new environment.

James Davis was one of those accepted into Indigenous society. Davis was a Scotsman who had drifted south. He was transported to Australia after stealing a half crown from a church plate in Surrey and then sent to Moreton Bay after he transgressed again in Sydney. He and another prisoner named John Downie escaped and headed north towards Wide Bay. An Aboriginal elder recognised Davis as the reincarnated spirit of one of their recently dead warriors. But while Davis was feted, Downie didn’t last long. When out collecting oysters he tipped out a bag of Aboriginal bones to store his catch. The tribesman saw his thoughtless act as a great sacrilege and immediately speared him to death.

Not all whites suffered this fate. And while cannibalism was relatively common, whites had a peculiar acquired taste. In 1864 George Beardmore noted that blacks told him that the flesh of white men was not so much in favour because as he said “too much salt – like it macon (bacon)". The salty Davis survived, took on an Aboriginal wife and even went through the painful Aboriginal manhood rituals by submitting to cicatrices on his chest. He was unaware the penal colony had been shut down in 1839 and lived on, like a Japanese second world war soldier on a Pacific Island, fighting a personal war long after the rest of the world had ended it. He was eventually brought back to white society by Moreton Bay’s new Supervisor of Works Andrew Petrie.

With Davis’s help, Petrie mapped out the Wide Bay region in 1842. But it was a few years yet before white people colonised the area. Edgar Aldridge and the two Palmer Brothers arrived from Brisbane to what was then known as the Wide Bay River in 1848. They found a man who had already set up shop in the vicinity. His name was George Furber, a publican from Ipswich who wanted to set up a wool reception centre for the squatters who had come to grab the lush grasslands north of Brisbane. Furber also built a wharf in 1847 where shipments of wool were loaded onto schooners and sailed away to markets.

In 1848 Governor Fitzroy demanded the name of the river be changed from Wide Bay to the Mary River in honour of his wife. It was an ill omen for Lady Mary Fitzroy. Barely three months later, she was in a carriage when the horses bolted and crashed down a hill. She was killed immediately when the carriage fell on top of her. Nevertheless the new borough by the Mary continued to thrive. By 1850, there were 200 people and 4 shanty pubs in the region. The town dealt in timber, tallow, wool and hides. Most people worked in timber; loggers, sawyers, axemen, bush carpenters and their families all made home in these new harsh surrounds. It was sometimes dangerous frontier living. Bullock drivers known as “bull punchers” swaggered up the streets in dirt-stained moleskins. The wife of Milne the Baker was known to deliver loaves of bread with a loaded revolver at her hip.

When a schooner ran aground for a week in 1851, it was the signal to move the town upstream to deeper waters. The town moved from a site near Baddow Island to its current location around a bend in the river. This city reach was called Moonaboola by the Budjilla people and meant the “river that twists and turns”. The town became a port of entry in the newly independent colony of Queensland in 1859 and sailing ships brought thousands of immigrants ashore at Wharf Street. From 1867 to the end of the century, the port was the landing place of 12,000 Kanakas from the Melanesian islands who were forced into indentured labour on the newly developing sugar plantations.

But it was the Gympie gold rush of 1867 that cemented the success of the port town. In three years, Maryborough exported £760,000 of the precious metal down the river. There is very little trace of the gold industry in the region today. Wool and sugar are still grown here but the port is now a plaything of yachts. Maryborough’s biggest earner in 2009 is tourism and the city makes much of its imposing 19th century heritage buildings. The pub crawl is an important event in the social calendar of the 26,000 population town. Maryborough marketing, tourism and events councillor Anne Nioa says the annual event had turned into a big town reunion, with many university students returning home to visit family and "celebrate" with mates. I’ll be there tomorrow to help the celebrations along and see if the old girl can knock New York off its pub perch.

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