18 Feb 1868: R J Sholl’s First Report

1868, Apr 1 Inquirer Newspaper

Resident Magistrate Robert Sholl’s Despatch to the Colonial Secretary

Roebourne, Feb 18, 1868


It is with great regret that I have to report the deaths of PC W. Griffis, the native Peter, his assistant, and of George Breem, a sailor, who were all speared by the natives at Nickol Bay on the morning of the 8th inst.

PC Griffis and Peter started from Roebourne on the 30th ult., intending to look after some natives who had stolen flour and other stores, the property of the master of the Pearl [1], a small boat engaged in pearl-shell fishing. It was also his intention to proceed to the Maitland and apprehend a native who had been guilty of some petty thefts. They were, as usual, well armed, Griffis having a revolver, Peter a carbine, and both carrying a good supply of ammunition. [2]

I heard no more of them until the morning of the 8th inst, when my son Horace, who had been dispatched to the landing for the mail per Albert, returned, stating that he had been informed by Capt Davis of the Lone Star, that Griffis, Peter, and Breem had been speared. I got this intelligence at 6 o’clock and sent a horse at once for Mr Davis, who arrived in the forenoon, having lost no time.

As there seems no doubt but that the intelligence was true, I ordered three coffins to be made. Our arms were also got out and cleaned and loaded.

It was also reported that Mr Jermyn, late Master of the wrecked boat Nautilus, had left the scene of the murder (twenty miles from here) the preceding morning, on his way to Roebourne, and that two men named Mason and Brown, had started from this with the team yesterday afternoon (7th inst), intending to proceed to Nickol Bay. As Jermyn had not arrived, we apprehended that some disaster had befallen him, and were anxious about the safety of the two other men.

Upon Capt Davis’s arrival I took his information on oath, a copy of which is forwarded, and I also took down the statements of Jacky and Johnny, two native lads, who swam off to the Lone Star, and came to Port Walcott in that vessel. Copies of their statements are also forwarded.

You will observe by these statements that Griffis and Peter had first gone to the Maitland (the westward) and returning to Nickol Bay, had secured one of the flour-stealers, a native named Coolyerberin, alias Entire; that they placed a chain round his neck, and went to Mr Jermyn’s tent; that the capture caused some excitement among the natives, and that they threatened to spear the whites; that the prisoner expected them to do so; that the men were all alive when Jermyn and his natives left to collect shells, or about 2 o’clock in the morning of the 7th instant, and that they were dead on their return before sunrise.[3] There is also evidence that Entire, Ned, and Charley threw the death spears, although there were many others assisting in the murder and subsequent robbery of the tent.

The coffins were not ready until 1.30 a.m. of the 8th instant, and at 2.15am the cart started with J Glover, George Seubert (volunteer) and the Swan River native Monkey. The native lad Johnny also went with the cart. The three men were armed.

At sunrise I started for Nickol Bay, accompanied by my son, Mr R F Sholl, and the Swan River native Jimmy. We arrived at the Nickol River at the same time, and halted there to feed and water the horses.

Mr Withnell came to us at about 10 AM, with Mr McLean and Tommy. They had slept near the scene of the murder, and just before daylight, had crept up to the native camp, where we had reason to believe the natives were still assembled, but they had left for the westward. They had seen no traces of Jermyn. I may hear state that Mason and Brown returned to Roebourne the preceding evening, having come back directly they saw the bodies. They reported having seen natives.

We all went on to Jermyn’s tent, which was about 7 miles from the buildings on the Nickol River. When within half a mile of the spot, the riding horses were unsaddled, and the party went on foot with the cart which conveyed the coffins. We proceeded along the bed of a saltwater creek running parallel with the narrow belt of mangroves which skirted the coast. Our course was about west. On one side of us, distant a few yards, was a belt of mangroves; on the other, low sandhills sloping down to the margin of the creek. As we proceeded onward, the hills became somewhat more elevated, and behind the tent there was a tolerably high hill sloping abruptly down, its base reaching the tent. Had danger been apprehended, it was a very badly chosen spot. From the slope, or even the summit of the hill, spears might be thrown with effect into the creek; while the mangrove belt, though thin, would afford cover for an attacking party. Even an armed party, prepared for an attack, would have to fight at a disadvantage in such a position; for it would either have to charge up the hill or enter the mangroves.

Nearly abreast of the tent was the wrecked boat Nautilus, which had been driven over the mangroves in a gale, and rendered unserviceable. She was too small and slight a boat for such work.

Leaving the boat, and following the creek for about 50 yards to the westward of the tent, and close to the mangroves, we saw the body of George Breem, one of the sailors of the Nautilus. It was that of a man who had been killed while running. He was lying on his face, with his arms stretched in front of him and somewhat apart, the hands being clenched. A spear was broken off under his left, a few inches of the shaft projecting. There was no corresponding wound on the other side. The spear must have penetrated the heart, and, from its position, must have been thrown from the mangroves by someone almost abreast, yet somewhat behind the fleeing man. The body was fearfully decomposed. The clothing – shirt, trousers, and socks – had not been removed, but had been burst by the swollen body. The remains of this ill-fated young man were too much distended to enable us to put them in the coffin, and we had no means of burying them; but I subsequently had them buried, and, as soon as possible, will have them exhumed, coffined, and brought to Roebourne.

Griffis’s body was not much swollen, although decomposed. He had been much mutilated, there being no vestige of a face below the eyes. He had been speared in the chest and about various parts of the body. He was quite naked. There was a wound on the left temple, but, from the decomposed state of the body, we could not see its nature or extent. The body was lying at the western entrance  of the tent, and outside. It was placed in the coffin, wrapped in a boat sail.

The body of Peter was lying at the eastern entrance of the tent, the features having been broken by blows, and the face (crawling with worms) a mass of corruption. He had been much battered. He was covered with bags and put into a coffin.

The stench was dreadful, and it made us all sick; even the Swan River natives were affected by the sight and smell.

Tracks of natives were seen in all directions; there must have been at least a hundred of them. They have trampled the ground like a flock of sheep. About were broken spears and one whole spear, which Tommy or Worbut, the Swan River natives, broke. Two dowarks were found – one with dried blood upon it. The tent, consisting of a sail thrown across a horizontal pole, the sides parallel to the mangrove and hill, with open ends to the east and west, had been partly broken down, and there had been reckless destruction. The clock had been thrown on the fire, but had slipped down the heap of ashes and was not burnt. It had stopped at 20 minutes to 4, and if, as is likely, it stopped when thrown down, we can form some idea of the time when the murder was committed. We put in the cart a sextant which was lying outside, and two handcuff keys. Brown and Mason had previously brought in three spurs and two belts, also one handcuff. I ordered the clock to be put into the cart and did not find that it had been left behind until the next day. We could not see Jermyn’s tracks, nor could we find the saddles and bridles. The horses came in the day before, the hobble straps having been apparently cut.

As the smell from the coffins was offensive, notwithstanding that they had been pitched over, the cart travelled through the night, depositing its load at the cemetery.

I did intend burying the bodies next day, but the ground was hard and the graves were not finished till the afternoon, when it rained heavily, besides there had been liquor landed from the Albert, and the effect was painfully visible. But the great cause of delay was the awfully sudden death of James White, the carpenter, who had been drinking deeply and who died from apoplexy, the result of intoxication. This occurred at half-past 5pm, during the heaviest of the rain. he was placed in the coffin which had made himself for Breem, and, another grave being dug, was removed to the cemetery on the 11th inst, when I read the service over his remains and those of the other poor men.

This duty being over, I availed myself of the presence of Mr A McRae, who had arrived that morning and secured his services to head the land party who proceeded in search of the native murderers.

As we were informed that they had gone to the Rosemary Islands, it became necessary to organise a sea expedition to co-operate with those on land, and I chartered the Albert at £2 per diem for this service. Mr J Withnell kindly consented to lead this party.

It took us until Friday evening (14th instant) before the horses were caught and shod, arms repaired, and provisions packed for the land party, which started at about 10 PM.

I had previously issued warrants for the apprehension of the principal murderers, those who assisted, and those who subsequently robbed the tent. Mr McRae, to whom the warrants were delivered, was sworn in as a special constable, as were also his companions. He had a written instructions for his guidance.

The following is a list of the members of the party:- Mr A McRae (leader), Messrs F McRae, W S Hall, S H Meares, R Bax, A E Anderson, and R F Sholl; also Woobat, a Swan River native, and Johnny, the native boy who swam off to the Lone Star. They were well mounted and armed, and were provisioned for 10 days.

The following members of the boat party were sworn in, viz., Messrs J Withnell (leader), G B Fauntleroy, R Rowland, G Seubert, and J Field – J Glover, and the Swan River native Monkey were also attached to this party, and others, I believe, joined, but I do not know their names. I made arrangements with the master of the ship to provision them at 2s per man per diem. The Albert sailed on the afternoon of Saturday, and I have not since had any tidings of either party.

I beg to forward copies of instructions given to Mr McRae and Mr Withnell. It is supposed that the natives will be found either on the mainland near the mouth of the Maitland, or on the adjacent islands and I hope the combined efforts of both parties will enable them to secure the most guilty of the offenders.

I requested Mr McRae to bury the body of George Breem, and to read the funeral service over his remains.

With reference to H Jermyn, I at first thought that he had died from heat and thirst, the day being very hot, the thermometer ranging as high as 107 degrees; but as we saw no traces of him, I am now inclined to believe that the natives followed him up, that he fled to the mangrove thicket for shelter, and was then speared. If so, we shall not find his body, except by accident, until some of the prisoners who may be captured by the expeditionary parties shall point out the spot.

P C Griffis’s loss will be much felt in this district. He was bold and fearless in the discharge of his duty, and was much dreaded by native offenders. He died while executing the law upon those who would, if not apprehended and punished, most probably have been more severely dealt with by those whom they had robbed, and possibly in that case the innocent would have suffered with the guilty.

Upon the return of the expedition, I will report to you the result.

R J Sholl
Government Resident

Katitjin Notes:

[1] The Pearl was owned by Kenneth McLean (1845-1881)
[2] Aboriginal sources claim that Griffis had raped a Yaburara woman and her husband was one of the captives. Griffis was killed as punishment for violence against Yaburara people. This theory is supported by a letter written by settler W A Taylor to the Colonial Secretary, who claimed that Griffis was killed “in consequence of the excesses he committed on the blacks…[and]…carrying off of two women”.
[3] There was a full-moon on the night of the 8th February, 1868, so the night would most likely have been bright enough to see the shells on the shoreline on the low tide.