Flying Foam Massacre: Alex McRae’s Report

The Inquirer, 1 Apr 1868

Report of Mr McRae to R J Sholl, Esq., Government Resident, Roebourne
Roebourne, Feb 25, 1868

Sir,

I have to honour to report, for your information, the following proceedings of the party placed by you under my charge, to arrest the murderers of P.C. W Griffis, George Breem, and native assistant Peter, who were killed at Nickol Bay on the 7th Feb, by native known as Coolyerberri, Pordigin, and Woolgelgarry, together with eight others, for whose arrest warrants have been issued. the party under my charge consisted of Messrs S Hall, A E Anderson, F McRae, R Sholl, S H Meares, R Bax, assistant Tommy, and a native of the district – all volunteers, who were sworn in as special constables; the cutter Albert being chartered by the government, and placed under Mr Withnell’s directions, to cooperate with the land party, as the natives are supposed to have made for the islands at and about Flying Foam Harbour. We left Roebourne on the 14th Feb, and camped for the night on the Nickol River.

On the 15th we proceeded to the scene of the murder, and buried the remains of George Breem, and made a search for the man Jermyn, who is also supposed to have been killed – but without success. I think it probable he was chased into the mangroves and there met his end, as no tracks could be found in distance from the camp. Griffis and Peter’s saddles and bridles were found on the plain about half a mile from the camp, together with a chain,  some ammunition and pannicans. Camped for the night at the bottom of Nickol Bay.

On the 16th followed up the western shore of the Bay to Hearson Cove. Saw a number of native tracks leading to the west. Here we met the boat party, as previously arranged, and arranged to meet again in Mermaid Straits, opposite the Rosemary Islands. Followed the tracks to the west, which took us to a waterhole on the south shore of Mermaid Straits. Fires were noticed a quarter of a mile farther round the beach, but as it was after dark, we camped for the night.

On the 17th started on foot before daylight, to try and surround the native camp seen last night, as, by the number of tracks, it was supposed to be a large one, and likely to contain most of the men we wanted. They were camped on a clear sandy beach, a few yards from the mangroves; but before we could get within reach of them, they saw us, and made for the mangroves and the hills at the back of their camp. We cut some of them off, but they would not stop to be arrested; so we had no alternative but to fire upon them, when one of the murderers, Chilwell, was shot dead, and several others wounded. I regretted much to have to take this step with those misguided creatures, but we had no alternative for it, for if they cannot be arrested, their escape without a lesson what only lead to further outrages. We found many articles taken from the murdered men – a Crimean shirt and hat belonging to Griffis; also Peter’s cap, together with the quantity of pannicans, dishes, pots, knives, shot, and many other articles. Mr Withnell and some of his party who had landed near Dolphin Island, joined us. They succeeded in taking a lad, about ten years of age, on the way over, and learned from him that several of the murderers were in the camp we tried to surround, has some others on the islands farther to the north. He was put on board the cutter, but, I believe, afterwards absconded with a ship’s water bottle. After several hours in a fruitless scramble over the high rocky hills, led on by occasionally getting sight of some of the scattered natives, who as quickly disappeared among the rocks, we returned to camp.

On the 18th some of the party were left in camp to communicate with the cutter, the rest going out to the east, when we found that the natives had crossed the Straits to Dolphin Island, six of them having just reached the opposite shore as we got down. Returned to camp and found that the cutter had arrived. Mr Withnell shortly afterwards came on shore, and informed us that he had caught two natives on one of the islands, one of whom there was a warrant against, but they both managed to get loose and jump overboard the same evening. We shifted our camp a few miles to the east, where we were to meet the boat to be landed on Dolphin Island.

On the 19th met the boat, and were landed on the island, but found the natives had crossed to some of the islands in Flying Foam Harbour, so were again taken on board the cutter, when some natives were seen crossing the bay in canoes, and chase was given in a small boat, but we could not come up with them, so the party was ordered to fire upon them, as they were close to the island; and one was shot and the others got on the island, when many others were seen standing on the shore; but as they made for the mangroves upon our landing, we found it impossible to arrest any of them, although several were shot or wounded. Returned to our camp in the evening.

On the 20th started for the Maitland River, where we heard some of the natives had gone, Mr Withnell still remaining on the islands with this party, where he was afterwards nearly speared in a skirmish. Camped on the plains a few miles from the Maitland. Mr Hall, Bax and native Johnny returned to Roebourne.

On the 21st went to Mr Venn’s station, and found that his camp had been robbed during his absence a few days before. We also learned that the number of natives were camped at the mouth of the river, and started in pursuit, but only succeeded in capturing a man named Billy, in whose position we found some pipes taken from Mr Venn’s camp. The others got into the mangroves before we could get near them. Returned to Mr Venn’s camp in the evening.

On the 22nd started for Roebourne, first setting our prisoner at liberty, as there was no evidence to convict him with murder, or the robbery of Mr Venn’s camp.

I have now only to record my thanks to each member of the party, for the manner in which they assisted in the performance of the duties connected with this unpleasant trip.

I have, &c.,
A. McRAE

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