National Library of Australia

Mary Watson’s diary

Mary Watson (1860–1881)Diary fragments ‘3-11 September’, 1881

pencil on wove paper; each approx. 16.0 x 10.3cm


John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Diary fragments ‘3-11 September’, 1881

Mary Watson’s heartbreaking story is not widely known.

Mary (1860–1881) and her husband Robert, a bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fisherman, settled on Lizard Island, north-east of Cooktown. Poor fishing forced Robert to leave in search of new grounds, leaving behind him his three-month-old son (Thomas Ferrier Watson), Mary and two servants, Ah Leong and Ah Sam.

In his absence, a group of local Aboriginal people attacked, killing Ah Leong. It was a collision of two cultures: the island was, and remains, a site sacred to the Aboriginal people of this area.

Mary, Ferrier and Ah Sam escaped in a cut-down ship’s tank, used for boiling bêche-de-mer. Mary took provisions, but not enough water—understandable given that Ah Leong was killed while fetching water.

Four days later, they landed on No. 5 Island, about 60 kilometres north-west of Lizard Island.

They couldn’t find water.

Watson recorded their ordeal on some loose pages from her diary. The water-faded pencil-written entries are concise and factual, and bear no trace of self-pity. Watson’s last entry said: ‘No water. Nearly dead with thirst.’

Their bodies were found four months later.