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FROM the VAULT – Palm Island’s Barki Sailor

Like any idyllic tropical setting, Bwgcolman, also known as Great Palm Island is occasionally battered by severe storms, and on May 13, 1939, gale force winds hammered the island group and caused big seas in Challenger Bay.  A vessel ‘Melody’ was on the bay that afternoon.  The vessel was owned by the Anglican Mission and carried 10 people, including a native policeman named Barki Sailor.  In 1938 it was reported that the 16,000 acre island community was ‘policed by a native constabulary of 25 men and two sergeants’, (The Telegraph, Brisbane, 21 May 1938).

Local church on Palm Island, Queensland, c1932. Image courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum.

Local church on Palm Island, Queensland, c1932. Image courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum.

The year before this storm, a journalist known as ‘Pilgrim’ wrote a one page article for The Telegraph Brisbane, partly produced here (the entire article is available in Trove (http://trove.nla.gov.au/);

A little to the northward of Townsville and about five hours sail from that city, lie the beautiful Palm Islands.  The group is comprised of about 20 islands and rocks lying off Halifax Bay, between Magnetic and Hinchinbrook Islands.  Great Palm, the largest of the group, is 8.5 miles long and from 1 to 4.5 miles wide, its densely wooded slopes rising abruptly to majestic Mount Bentley.  Here on this tropic isle, whose shores are washed with turquoise seas and beaches shaded by the gently swaying plumes of stately coconut palms, the Government has established an aboriginal settlement…

 The launch-master has charge of the waterfront generally, boat-building and repairs.  He also makes the bi-weekly run to Townsville in the 40ft launch Irex.  All punts and dinghies or other boats are built under his supervision by native workmen.  One is certainly surprised to see that most of their well-built boats are of maple.

Huts on a palm tree lined beach, Palm Island, Queensland, c1932. Image courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum.

Huts on a palm tree lined beach, Palm Island, Queensland, c1932. Image courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum.

Many references were made of the excellent workmanship shown by the local tribes when building, thatching, and sewing, saddlery and cropping for the authorities, showing high regard for their positions.  When island inhabitants, a combination of original locals and recent arrivals, were caught in a storm, the launch they clung to was overcome by the rough conditions and capsized, throwing all passengers into the water.  The young son of Barki was among them.  Driving rain and reef swells hampered all attempts by Mr Sailor to locate and save his child, and he tragically drowned in the bay.  The missionary men scrambling to stay afloat and swim to the closest shore, but Barki knew that would be futile because the nearest island was uninhabited with no provisions for warmth or medicine, so he swam towards the island of Great Palm where rescue boats and assistance could be secured.  The swim took three hours, and after more time spent walking several kilometres to raise help, Barki could finally report the incident and several motorised launches proceeded to the location to rescue any survivors.

The loss of his own young son and three men was tragic, but highlights the outstanding commitment Mr Sailor made to the survivors.  Recognition was given to Barki Sailor by presentation of the Royal Humane Society Certificate of Merit for his dangerous swim and land trek to alert help.

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This information has been supplied by the Queensland Police Museum from the best resources available.  The article was written by Museum Assistant Georgia Grier.  The Police Museum is open 9am to 4pm Monday to Thursday and 10am to 3pm on the last Sunday of the month (Feb-Nov) and is located on the Ground Floor of Police Headquarters at 200 Roma Street, Brisbane. Contact: E: museum@police.qld.gov.au

“FROM the VAULT- Palm Island’s Barki Sailor” by the Queensland Police Service is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 2.5 Australia Licence. Permissions may be available beyond the scope of this licence. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/au/legalcode

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