Aboriginal contact

Book page | Updated 2 years ago

Aboriginal interactions and sightings

As the first steamship on the coast, SS Xantho would have had a considerable visual impact on the Aboriginal populations with whom it came in contact. Also, it was also used to transport convicts from Rottnest island back from their homelands. Some of these would have been senior Aboriginal law men, prepared to stand up to the Europeans in the Roebourne and Cossack regions. Though he objected to the use of women as divers, Charles Broadhurst enlisted numerous Aboriginal men and women for work in the pearling industry - to the ultimate detriment to these populations. It is not surprising to find that rock art has been found that depicts his ship. The first known was located at an Aboriginal gallery Inthanoona Station inland of Cossack. There in 1985, archaeologist Robert Reynolds recognised the Xantho appears amongst other images showing men on horseback, sailing ships and a woman in a long dress. Archaeologist Alistair Paterson of UWA is of a similar opinion.

Rock art image of a ship

Aboriginal rock art of the Xantho.
Image copyright WA Museum

Comparison between the rock art and artist's impression of the Xantho ship

The Walga Rock painting and the archaeologist's impression of SS Xantho compared.
Image copyright WA Museum

'Malay's in the pearling industry

It has been said that,...'wherever nomadic societies crumbled or were destroyed, an immediate consequence was a severe and chronic labour shortage, leading to the importation of labourers from abroad, often in servile conditions'. As disease and maltreatment of the coastal Aborigines in the pearling and pastoral industry began to take their toll in the late 1860s, a number of European settlers began to look elsewhere for labour, eventually finding a source amongst the peoples living on the islands to Australia's north who were willing to be indentured for a time provided they were paid and then repatriated. Though coming from many places including Singapore, the Phillippines, Timor and present day Malaysia and Indonesia, these folk were generally, though incorrectly referred to as 'Malays'.

Charles Broadhurst brought over 140 'Malays' over for use in the north west pearling industry on board the SS Xantho. Though housing them in what were recognised as superior quarters at Banningarra, his 'Malays' were poor divers. When he lost the Xantho Broadhurst moved them all down to Shark Bay where pearls and shell could be had by 'dredging' i.e. without getting wet. There they were again well-housed and proved a great success under one of his managers a Mr Smith. When he moved down to Perth to take up his seat as an MLC Broadhurst appears not to have made proper arrangements for them and his nephew Daniel, their next manager did not pay them or repatriate them home. Many were left wandering about destitute, causing a great scandal. Some then entered the employ of other pearlers, others went into the pastoral industry and many remained in what is now the town of Denham.

Rock art inland at Walga Rock

Dr Ian Crawford (author of Art of the Wandjina) raised the possibility that a famous ship painting at Walga Rock inland on the Murchison River painting may not be a representation of either the Zuytdorp (1711) or the Batavia (1629), as once thought. He was struck by the possibilities that it could represent the Xantho - due to what was once thought to be a broken mast possibly being a large funnel. Perplexing Crawford and another anthropologist Dr Charlie Dortch, who was of a similar opinion, was the presence of gun ports along the vessel's side.

The artist Sammy Malay?

Sammy Malay (also known as Sammy Hassan) lived for a while on Dirk Hartog Island, giving his name to Sammy Well on the north east end. Mid West historian Stan Gratte has shown that around in 1917 he left Shark Bay and travelled to Walga Rock near Cue in the Murchison goldfields. He also dates the famous Walga Rock ship painting to that time and it is now understood that Sammy Hassan is responsible for the image. It is now believed to be almost certainly SS Xantho, for it was the only two-masted steamships on the coast and it certainly could have displayed false gunports. These were a common feature of ships of the time appearing in an image of the City of York shown aground at Rottnest Island in 1899.