Reprint: Queen of the Colonnies by Nettie Palmer

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Reading with great interest the description given in the "Courier" by "Nut Quad" of a voyage in 1861 from England to Australia, it did not take long before the name of the ship, "The Queen of the Colonies," roused quite another train of thought. To me, there will always be two n's in "Colonnies," because here, at Caloundra, the name is spelt so, carved on a tree. The tree is a shaky-looking old pandanus palm, exposed to the weather on the very edge of Moffatt's Headland. Those palms, though, seem to have the nine lives of a cat, holding on to the flimsiest of sandy soil long after their umbrella-like roots have been exposed to the air. The "Queen of the Colonnies" tree, then, embedded in grass and clay, may live there for centuries yet, if it is left untouched.

Nothing threatens its life, probably, so much as its extraordinary interest. People go to look at it, with its deeply carved inscription, and an impulse seems to make them want to knock the tree about; to carve something else on it, perhaps their own initials; or even to knock it down, though this has not been done yet. This tree's inscription goes back to the year before "Nut Quad's" description. In 1863 the "Queen of the Colonnies" was sailing in, when there was a death on hoard. For some reason it seemed better to have the burial on land so a boat put off for Moreton Island and the funeral took place there. When the boat set out on its return journey to the ship though it met with bad weather, so bad that it was driven right across to the mainland and wrecked near Caloundra Head. The boat's crew carved the name of their ship and the year 1863 on the tree. So far as as I can hear, they got away quite safely in the end, and the worst misfortune that happened to them has been that ever since every kind of false version of their adventure has been given. I may have some mistakes left in my version but at least I have given the barest bones of the story, and can hardly be far wrong. I have heard ten different accounts of it, I think. One, for instance printed last year in a Sydney paper with a photograph or the tree as it is at present, stated that the skipper's wife was buried at the foot of the tree, and that the boat was returning to the ship from Caloundra Head when it was wrecked. If this had been so, surely this inscription would have had some suggestion of an epitaph about it. At any rate, the other version does seem nearer the truth, and in any case it's a very exciting tree, standing there and staring over at South America.

Preservation of the Tree

What people now ask is, Who will guarantee the preservation of that tree? It stands on what is private property, I believe, but it is a place where everyone walks. It might be destroyed at   any time, as so many such accidental monuments are. What is the procedure for preserving them? They are best kept on their real position, though they would probably be safer in a museum. If they are to be left where they stand, with all the interest that is rent by their environment, I think they need to be put under some one's special care. It would be a loss to our already rather thin historical sense if such a link with the past were lost to Australia. Yet everything threatens it, from the universal small boy with his active tomahawk to the storms beating up from all sides on such a promontory.

Other Voyages

The account given by "Nut Quad" of life on such a sailing ship was very vivid, and makes our present-day voyages seem very artificially protected. I daresay there are a good many families in Australia which have kept a record of such a voyage. I can think of two: One is a voyage diary kept by a relative of mine, and presented in typescript to members of the family on the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival in Australia. Read such a journal, you are struck chiefly, I think, by the sense of adventure that sustains whole groups of travellers. Not even the bad food, and the fact that it was doled out in a ration which each group had to cook for themselves, could outweigh the romance of porpoises and flying fish and the New Australia. In the second volume of "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony" there is another account of such a voyage, not given in detail on the way, but with the conditions sketched while the boat as in port. One thing that we find hard to grasp now is that you took your cabin furniture with you, including a carpet, if you wished to be comfortable. If you brought a carpet home with you on your cabin floor nowadays, you'd merely be suspected of trying to evade the Customs.

The Spirit of Adventure.

In those days people carried to sea hearts that were both more adventurous and more anxious than ours are now. Not that we are always safe, but there is a sense of travelling to scheduled time, a fortnight behind one ship, a fortnight in front of another, and the waves seem to be ignored -- to say nothing of the winds, whose co-operation was done without long ago. If it is dangerous to go to sea now, that is because every way of living has its dangers. After the Titanic disaster, Joseph Conrad, the lover of solid old wooden sailing ships, wrote explaining that if people went to sea in a ship like a large-sized biscuit tin they might expect to be stove in by an iceberg! Most of us, though, are cheerfully willing to be hypnotised by the sense of safety on board a huge liner. It is only people of far inland countries, like Central Europeans, who have ever asked me nervously about the voyage from Australia, "and can you bear to be for five weeks in constant danger of death!" One can bear it. The "Queen of the Colonnies" bore it for something like five months. It is good to remember the courage and energy of those days. Will we seem as courageous, 70 years hence, when our descendants are flying overseas and wondering how we stood the boredom of a five-weeks' voyage?

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 10 December 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 31, 2012 9:13 AM.

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