Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

James Davis (1808–1889)

by Arthur Laurie

This article was published:

James Davis (1808-1889), absconder and shopkeeper, was born in Broomielaw, Scotland, and at 14 was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith at Old Wynd, Glasgow. Convicted two years later for stealing 2s. 6d. from a church box in Surrey, he was sentenced to be transported for seven years, and in August 1825 arrived in New South Wales in the Norfolk. His next appearance in court was at Patrick's Plains, where in 1828 he was charged with robbery and sentenced to three years at Moreton Bay as a doubly convicted felon. He arrived there on 18 February 1829 and absconded six weeks later with a companion. Their reasons remain unknown, although the commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, was notorious among convicts as a strict disciplinarian, excessive in use of the lash. The escapers soon met a party of Aboriginals whose chief, Pamby-Pamby, claimed Davis as his dead son returned to life as a white man. The mate was also protected but later killed for a breach of tribal law by destroying an Aboriginal grave in the branches of a tree.

As Duramboi, Davis took easily to tribal life. An honoured guest, he was allowed to move freely from one tribe to another, his travels taking him hundreds of miles from Brisbane. He had learnt the languages and customs of many tribes before he was found at Wide Bay in 1842 by Andrew Petrie and with difficulty assured that he could return safely to Brisbane as the convict settlement had ended. He had to relearn the English language and accustom himself again to work and clothes. He was employed at first by Dr Stephen Simpson, the land commissioner in Moreton Bay; later he set up as a blacksmith at Kangaroo Point. In 1864 he opened a crockery shop in George Street, Brisbane, where he made money, although literate enough only to sign his name. He had married Annie Shea on 3 November 1846. After her death in 1882, he married on 28 July 1883 Bridget Hayes, a widow of 49, born in Sligo, Ireland. He died on 7 May 1889.

His rehabilitation into acquisitive society included reform; from his accumulated estate the Brisbane General Hospital received £750 in 1889 and another £1100 in 1911. He guided settlers to good land in the Wide Bay area, and some public benefit came from his thirteen years with the Aboriginals. He was occasionally employed as a court interpreter, and in 1866 petitioned the governor to raise his salary to the £20 paid to Chinese and German interpreters, but his request was refused. He gave descriptions of some Aboriginal rites, but remained stubbornly reticent about one supposedly obscene ceremony.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Russell, The Genesis of Queensland (Syd, 1888)
  • J. J. Knight, In the Early Days (Brisb, 1895)
  • C. C. Petrie (ed), Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland (Brisb, 1904)
  • Week, supplement to Telegraph (Brisbane), 11 May 1889
  • convict records (Queensland State Archives)
  • Brisbane General Hospital records.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arthur Laurie, 'Davis, James (1808–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Duramboi

Broomielaw, Lanarkshire, Scotland


7 May, 1889 (aged ~ 81)
Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years