Library item of the month: The voyage of HMS Rattlesnake

Archives Assistant Victoria Syrett explores a collection of diaries, notes and drawings by Robert Gale (born 13 October 1816) who joined HMS Rattlesnake as Captain Owen Stanley’s steward for a voyage full of exploration, death and rescuing damsels in distress.

In the early 1840s it was the usual practice of vessels returning from the Australian Colonies, or from the South Sea, to proceed to India through the Torres Strait - most of those vessels preferring the chance of finding a convenient opening in the Barrier Reefs to the labour of frequent anchorage in the Inshore Passage.

Captain Owen Stanley was appointed to the command of HMS Rattlesnake (which had served in the Greek War of Independence and the First Anglo-Chinese War) for the purpose of making the approach to the Strait more secure and certain. It also as afforded the choice of another entrance farther to the northward in case of vessels overshooting the latitude of Raine Island by stress of wind or current.

Robert Gale's diaries


Collection of Robert Gale’s diaries, drawings and notes (JOD/284)
Collection of Robert Gale’s diaries, drawings and notes (JOD/284)

Like most people who keep diaries, Robert Gale started his with good intentions to write in it every day; however, the larger of the diaries (JOD/284/2) is mostly blank. He begins well, giving a full account of the first day and the purpose of this voyage, but after this it is blank and he only seems to use it again to describe the voyage back to Sydney at the end of their exploration.

The small diary (JOD/284/1) is mostly full, but the writing is so small that you need a magnifying glass to read it; and with Robert’s own version of pictography it makes for an interesting read. For example:

“ [picture of quill pen] till very late m d P [picture of envelope]” Which translates to “Wrote till very late my dear Phoebe’s letter.”

Robert Gale’s diary JOD.284.1
Robert Gale’s diary JOD.284.1

Robert Gale was fond of drawing throughout the expedition and took every opportunity to get some done in as much detail as possible. Below is a drawing titled ‘Virginia Tomb with a map and a Bamboo leaf taken from over Virginia Tomb’.

A detailed sketch of Virginia's Tomb, map and leaf from above the tomb by Robert Gale
A detailed sketch of Virginia's Tomb, map and leaf from above the tomb by Robert Gale

The lost party

One of HMS Rattlesnake’s most famous adventures is the journey inland of 1848 by Edmund Kennedy, together with 12 other men including a local native called Jacky. Though Robert Gale doesn’t mention what happens to the group he does note when Edward Kennedy makes himself ready for the journey inland at Rockingham Bay.

The discovery of Jacky alone on a beach and the three days it took them to locate what was left of the expedition is not recorded in the diaries. The only thing that gives away that something nefarious had occurred on the expedition is the hand-drawn picture of Edmund Kennedy who died after being wounded by three spears.

Drawing of Edward Kennedy by Robert Gale
Drawing of Edward Kennedy by Robert Gale JOD284.5.3

The damsel in distress

Another notable event occurred on 16 October 1849 when the Rattlesnake had stopped to gather fresh water at Evan Bay and discovered a woman on the shores asking for protection from local tribespeople from whom she had recently made her escape.

This woman turned out to be Barbara Thompson, born Barbara Crawford in Aberdeen, who had moved with her parents to New South Wales in around 1837. Seven years later she met and married William Thompson. Barbara, William and a few others went out by boat to salvage oil from a wreck when their vessel was caught on a reef. It is believed that all the men died trying to swim to shore, but Barbara was rescued by members of the Kaurareg tribe who at the time were feared for their cannibalism.

Not long before the shipwreck, the leader of the Kaurareg tribe, Chief Peaquee, had lost his daughter Gioma to the sea. Due to the fact that Barbara bore some resemblance to the Chief’s dead daughter and the tribe’s belief that white people were the ghosts of Aboriginal people, Barbara earned the protection of the chief and tribe as Gioma returned as a ghost.

For five years Barbara became known as Gioma, learning the language and ways of the tribe. Robert Gale relates in detail how the tribe followed her on to the ship as she told her tale, and how the Chief and his wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time, tried to convince her to go home with them. Barbara was eventually returned to Sydney and reunited with her parents, courtesy of HMS Rattlesnake and her crew.                       

Finally, the diary shows how the relationship between Robert Gale and Captain Owen Stanley fell apart during the voyage. Their relationship deteriorated so much so that Robert was dropped off at Sydney alongside Barbara. This is where Robert’s diaries stop, with one of the last entries mentioning a school of killer whales splashing alongside the ship.

Victoria Syrett, Archives Assistant

Find out more in the Caird Library & Archive