By Peter Dewar
Want to know the human story behind Victoria’s origins? Ask the dead. The multicultural soup that is Williamstown Community and Education Centre’s Walking Group meanders along the promenade at Point Gellibrand. Fitting. Victoria started here, carved out of an unknown landscape by foreigners.
‘You are standing at the most important site in the history of Victoria,’ reads a sign. The seaport at Point Gellibrand, named William’s Town in a tilt to the King of England, began as the gateway to a new southern frontier. First Victorian permanent settlement. Landing place for the first wave of emigrants.
In the days of sailing ships, passengers were at sea for months to reach Australia. With rigging rattling in the breeze, they edged up the Bay. Etchings of the time show what would have been first sighting of a new home: Lighthouse through a crowd of anchored ships. Pier extending from a rocky shore.
For many, dreams of a better life were fulfilled down south in Australia Felix – ‘fortunate Australia’. But if you want Victoria’s full settlement/migration story, a reminder of how treacherous leaving a homeland can be, Point Gellibrand Coastal Heritage Park is the real deal.
A fading plaque, dedicated to the original Point Gellibrand cemetery, is embraced on three sides by a small blue-stone wall. Passers-by, joggers, bike riders and motorists are busy taking in the majesty of the Bay. No love for a humble memorial at water’s-edge. Except, of course, the sound of the sea.
Yet this stretch was the final resting place of pioneers: town-folk, convicts and sailors, not to mention the unfortunate who didn’t survive a journey by ship to the ‘land of milk and honey’. According to Buried by the Sea, a book by A. Lemon, M. Morgan and H. Doyle, one thousand were laid to rest at the seafront cemetery. All too often wrapped in a shroud of tragedy.
Parents of a child who died the night before reaching Williamstown finally found someone in the seaport bustle who knew where a cemetery was located. As for funeral arrangements? The stranger stretched out his arm and pointed to a store selling spades. On a lonely beachfront lashed by a southwesterly wind, what a wretched affair burials could be.
The Manlius was small: setting sail from Scotland with 245 bright-eyed passengers, the four month cramped journey was always going to be hellish. But by the time it approached the 300-strong seaport of Williamstown, a yellow fever flag had been raised – one quarter had passed away.
The ‘plague ship’ remained in isolation off Point Gellibrand awaiting quarantine. Dead aboard were the first official burials at the wind-swept cemetery. But not the last: the perilous sea journey of the time had a fatality rate of one in ten.
Discovery of gold near Ballarat changed everything for the southern colony. The migrant wave passing though Williamstown became a tsunami. ‘Gold fever’ coughed up an increase in crime: the era of Bush Rangers had arrived, and with prisons overflowing, hundreds ended up housed in wooden ships – prison hulks – floating off-shore at Point Gellibrand.
Punishment meant what it said. Days and nights shackled in chains on a diet of bread and water, deprived of conversation. Good behaviour was rewarded with a stint at the blue-stone beach quarry.
For a man at wits’ end, this was a chance to break free. In the 1850s, two ‘mutinies’ sent a tremor through town where ten percent were convicts. Best known is the vengeful murder of a notorious jailer, John Price.
A year earlier though, a young warder had his head bashed in and turfed over the side of a boat used for transferring prisoners to the Point Gellibrand quarry. Owen Owens was twenty-three years of age when he was buried by the sea.
Laying in nearby graves were convicts: companions in eternity, who even in death were harshly treated: ‘… forced into small graves just below the surface of the ground, manacles and chains in some cases still encircling the remains of the limbs. Actually pipes had been left between the jaws.’
Pub talk maybe – but locals say indigenous Australians were buried at the seafront. True or not, it was sad to discover a healthy coastal tribe had found Williamstown, ‘a congenial home and lived to a good age in it’. In a matter of decades they were gone – say for a few yarns – written out of history.
In 1899, Andrew Curtain, obviously disgusted by the cemetery’s condition, wrote in a prize-winning essay titled, Early History of Williamstown: ‘There, in the blank confusion with wild grass growing over them, lies grave after grave, headstones and railings dragged wantonly down and inscriptions hacked off in the spirit of mockery and devilment.’
One of Victoria’s first writers continues and bellows on the page: ‘The graves of pioneers ought to be the Westminster Abbey of Williamstown.’
In a painful irony to the story of souls laid to rest in Point Gellibrand’s boggy soil, their journeying had not ended. During the 1880s, the grisly job of exhuming bodies was carried out. Remains of 808 were scooped up and reinterred three kilometres away.
The restless bones lay at a modest memorial in a corner of Williamstown Cemetery. Today, nearby sections of the cemetery grounds are uneven. In the surrounding area, monuments lay broken, unidentifiable. Occasionally, heritage tours come by.
It’s as if destiny wants to forget.
Migrating down-under these days is seldom a matter of life and death. Chat a while with my walking group friends though, and through broken English, you learn about the impossibility of finding a job, surviving on a meagre income … fitting in. Venturing to a new land takes grit, even now.
Which only makes the story of the first ones to dare that adventure even more compelling. Good reason a trip back in time means heading down to Willi, instead of over the West Gate Bridge to gawk at stately colonial mansions.