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James Morrill (1824–1865)

by G. C. Bolton

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James Morrill, by Wilder

James Morrill, by Wilder

State Library of Queensland, 13906

James Morrill (or Murrells) (1824-1865), sailor, recorded that he was born on 20 May 1824 at Abridge (but more likely Heybridge), near Maldon, Essex, England, second in a family of five children, his father being a millwright and engineer. Educated at the village’s National school, he went to sea at an early age, and was an able seaman in the Peruvian when she left Sydney for China on 27 February 1846. In a cyclonic gale the barque was wrecked nine days later on Booby or Minerva shoal, in the Coral Sea, west of New Caledonia. Twenty-one survivors took to a makeshift raft, on which they drifted for forty-two days, often coming within sight of the Australian coast but each time being driven off by contrary winds and tides. Morrill, an active and robust young man, did all he could to preserve the castaways by helping to catch fish and even sharks, which were eaten raw, but despite such efforts only seven people eventually survived the landing near Cape Cleveland.

Of these, two—George Wilmot and James Gooley—soon died. John Millar, the sailmaker, perished in an attempt to locate rescuers by paddling to civilization in an Aboriginal bark canoe found on the beach. An apprentice boy, White, succumbed to privations not long after the party was discovered. This left the master of the Peruvian, Captain George Pitkethly, his wife, and Morrill; people from the local Aboriginal nation adopted them and they soon conformed completely to the habits of life of their hosts. The Pitkethlys joined a band around Cape Cleveland but were both dead within two years. Morrill lived for seventeen years with neighbouring groups, centred on Mount Elliot and ranging between the Black and Burdekin rivers. They treated him kindly and he adjusted himself well.

With the opening of North Queensland for pastoral settlement in 1861, Morrill's cultural isolation was at an end. News of the interlopers was followed by one or two unpromising contacts. A white horseman murdered an Aboriginal man who was mourning his father. Later, the dead man’s companions killed the white man in retribution. But Morrill's wish to join his own people remained strong; his opportunity came on 25 January 1863 when he and a party hunting for kangaroo came to an outstation of a sheep property. Overcoming great shyness, Morrill left his companions, washed himself as clean as he could and revealed himself to two astonished station hands with a cry of: 'Don't shoot, mates, I'm a British object!' He was recognized as a white, and his adoptive band reluctantly parted with him.

Lionized in Brisbane, he was presented at Government House, but does not seem greatly to have interested Governor Sir George Bowen. Appointed to the Department of Customs at Bowen, Morrill returned to North Queensland, where his knowledge and experience of the Aboriginal life made him much in demand as interpreter and go-between and he often promoted peaceful conciliation. His knowledge of the country and its seasonal variations was often consulted by squatters and explorers. In January 1864 he accompanied George Dalrymple on the expedition to open the port of Cardwell, and in April 1865 he was aboard the Ariel in charge of the first cargo of bonded goods brought to the settlement on Cleveland Bay which later became Townsville. But his privations during his years of wandering had weakened his health, and on 30 October 1865 he died at Bowen and was buried in the local cemetery.

Morrill was married on 20 September 1864 in the Presbyterian Church, Bowen, to Eliza Ann Ross, a domestic servant employed by the police magistrate. She remarried after his death, and died at Charters Towers in 1923. The Morrills had one son, whose descendants, in 1966, were still living in the Burdekin Delta district of North Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Gregory (ed), Sketch of the Residence of James Morrill Among the Aboriginals of Northern Queensland for Seventeen Years (Brisb, 1866)
  • M. A. H. Clarke, Old Tales of a Young Country (Melb, 1871)
  • F. Reid, The Romance of the Great Barrier Reef (Syd, 1954)
  • D. Jones, Cardwell Shire Story (Brisb, 1961)
  • Bowen Historical Society, The Story of James Morrill (Bowen, 1964)
  • Port Denison Times, 26 Mar, 2 Apr 1864, 1 Nov 1865

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Morrill, James (1824–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Morrill, by Wilder

James Morrill, by Wilder

State Library of Queensland, 13906

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Murrills, James



30 October, 1865 (aged ~ 41)
Bowen, Queensland, Australia

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