The Bribie Puzzle
Let me start by listing the variations to the name “Bribie Island” that I’ve come across, in records from the 1830s to the 1870s:
Brisbane Island, Breiby’s Island, Bribey’s Island, Briby’s Island, Brieve’s Island, Brisbie Island, Brabies Island, Bribus’ Island, Bribie’s Island, Brady’s Island, Bribee’s Island, Bribe Island, Britie’s Island, Bribi Island, Bribic Island - and finally - Bribie Island.
Chronologically, the spelling evolved from predominantly "Breiby's Island" and "Bribey's island" in the mid-1830s to "Bribie's Island" in the 1840s and 50s, with the final name "Bribie Island" solidifying in the 1860s. But there were plenty of variations of the name, intentional or otherwise, well into the latter half of the century.
How can this be? We're talking about a prominent chunk of geography, in South-East Queensland, named by Europeans less than 200 years ago. It points to something unusual going on in those early days of the colony. The modern name emerged slowly, over a period of decades, apparently under a cloud of confusion.
In usual order, this simple question turned into minor compulsion with plenty of red herrings and side-tracks. I can’t claim to have cracked the case, but I do have some views on the existing theories, and a couple of new ones to offer. This will be a brief summary of the armchair research, with a hypothesis at the end.
The Basket Weaver
Most famously, Tom Petrie stated in the second-hand account recorded by his daughter that his father Andrew had a “vague recollection of a connection” between a convict by the name of Bribie, who was a basket maker, and the island. “Whether he was blown ashore there, or what, he does not know”(1). This event would have taken place in the first decade of the penal settlement, between 1825 and 1835.
Thomas Welsby picked up this flimsy strand, and with it, he weaved a fantastical tale of the ex-prisoner Bribie who fell in love with an aboriginal lady of the island tribe and settled there happily ever after, in Rousseauian bliss (2). But this is a romantic fiction. There is no “Bribie” in the Moreton Bay records, and with the Island being within the 50-mile restricted zone that surrounded the penal colony until about 1840, any attempt at free settlement would have been dealt with by the authorities.
Some texts claim that Flinders named the island during his trip through Moreton Bay in 1799. This is easy to disprove - Flinders travelled some way up Pumice Stone Passage, but he named it "Pumice Stone River”, and incorrectly surmised that Point Skirmish was located at the southern end of a peninsula (3).
Aboriginal origins 1 - “Boorabee”
It has been hypothesised that the name is derived from the word “Boorabee”, used by the nearby Ngugi tribe. Meston claimed that this was the name given to him during a visit in 1874 (4), but Steele points out that we word was not part of the Bribie vocabulary (5). Earlier accounts have the local Jindoobarrie name for the island as “Yarun” (6, 7).
Aboriginal origins 2 - ‘King Brady”
A letter by Commandant Foster Fyans, dated 1837, mentions four members of “Bribey’s tribe” who approached the settlement with information on escapees roaming their district (8).
This could be interpreted as “Bribey” being an aboriginal person, and possibly a chief of the Jindoobarrie tribe.
I’ve found no record of a “Bribey”, but a “King Brady” did live on this part of the coast in the 1800s. One source has Brady’s birth at about 1850(9), and another claims that he was “very old” by the time he walked into the Bribie Island mission to die in 1892 (10). There are good records of him in the Tewantin area in the late 1870s (11), but I’m not aware of his whereabouts at other times, or his birth tribe.
This lead became more interesting when I read a text from 1845, containing the journals of an 1842 expedition to Wide Bay by H. S. Russell, accompanied by no other than Andrew Petrie himself (12). The map drawn during this expedition has the name “Brady’s Island”.
This was the first survey of the coast, and the party busied themselves by baptising features of the coastline as they sailed past. At the time of the expedition the name “Breiby’s Island” was already in use, but it seems plausible that Petrie dictated the specific spelling ‘Brady’s Island”. And we know that Petrie was very familiar with the aboriginal tribes of the area.
So, is it possible that “Brady’s Island” refers to King Brady? If he was the originator of the name, then he would have been at least 75 years of age when he returned to his presumed native island to die in 1892 (13).
This one requires a backstory, so bear with me.
We’ve established that the first European name for the island was “Point Skirmish”, given by Flinders following a confrontation with the Jindoobarrie in 1799. Flinders also misnamed the tidal passage “Pumice Stone River”. A few years later in 1822, Captain Bingle travelled far enough up the Pumice Stone Passage to infer that the peninsula was, in fact, an island(14).
The final survey in preparation for settlement was undertaken in 1823 by John Oxley, who entered Moreton Bay from the north and found the castaway Pamphlet on Point Skirmish, before proceeding to map and name the River Brisbane. The penal settlement was established in Redcliffe in 1824 and moved up-river the following year.
Through all these events and until 1836, and despite evidence to the contrary, Bribie Island was referred to as Point Skirmish and Pumice Stone Passage as a “river”. I've found no evidence of European activity on the island during this time. As the 1830s dawned, Commandant Logan set out on a final expedition to reach Pumice Stone River from the West, but he was intercepted by aboriginal tribesmen and killed near Mount Hallen.
In 1836 Lieutenant Otter, a recent arrival from Sydney and the new Superintendent of Works, visited the island with a “surveying party” to hunt for turtles, and happened across two of the survivors of the Stirling Castle shipwreck. Among the flurry of correspondence surrounding the subsequent rescue of Eliza Fraser, Otter wrote in a letter to a relative:
The transcription is from the book “Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle” (15), and is claimed to be verbatim et literatim. But another transcribed letter from Otter, from the same year, stated (16):
So - we have two separate transcriptions of letters from the same writer, one referring to “Brisbane Island” and the other “Breiby’s Island”. These are the first known records of the name.
"Brisbane Island" shows up again in a newspaper report from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1846 (17), referring to Captain Wickham’ s survey of the Bay and of the island.
But again – other documentation by Wickham uses the name "Bribey’s Island". Another frustrating example of the lack of naming consistency.
And then there's the 1888 Aldine History of Queensland, compiled by the Sydney-based W. F. Morrison, which uses the rather contrived name “Brisbie Island" (18).
It appears that “Brisbane Island” was by used at least by some people in the first decades. We shall return to this shortly.
I give credit to Andrew Petrie’s accounts, and it seems entirely possible that a convict, or free person, suffered a shipwreck or was “blown onto” the island as Petrie recalled, and that the island became associated with this person. This would have happened before 1836 when the name "Breiby" was first used. Many have looked (including yours truly) and there is no "Bribey", "Breiby" or similar surname in the records of the penal settlement.
But let’s return to the map from “Exploring Excursions I Australia”, which shows the name “Brady’s Island”, which was possibly dictated by Andrew Petrie. If Brady was indeed a hapless sailor, are there any records of him? Well – how about this fellow (19):
James Brady arrived in Brisbane in 1826, sentenced to secondary transportation for absconding from his employer in Newcastle (20). He was listed as a seaman and reported as being involved in some mishap on the cutter “Glory”, journeying across the bay to Dunwich in 1829 (21). I haven’t been able to find anything more on this character but he makes for an interesting candidate, and in the right timeframe.
Putting all this together, I propose the following hypothesis for the botched baptism of Bribie Island.
When Captain Bingle returned to Sydney from his visit to Moreton in 1822, with news that Point Skirmish was probably an island, a view formed within the NSW Government that the island should (once its status had been confirmed) be named “’Brisbane”, in honour of the Governor. However, they missed the boat – in a literal sense. John Oxley left for Moreton Bay in October 1823, and a few weeks later he would find and name the river Brisbane. The name was thereby claimed, and it became even more entrenched when the penal settlement moved up-river and almost immediately became known as “Brisbane Town” (22). The name “Brisbane Island” remained in some records but was not used locally in Moreton Bay.
It is telling that Lieutenant Otter and Captain Wickham, both government officials, were quoted as using “’Brisbane Island”, at least in some accounts.
Meanwhile, an undocumented shipwreck on the island, or possibly the presence of a prominent aboriginal chief, gave rise to the colloquial name “Brady’s” and its many permutations. But this was problematic - islands were traditionally named after members of the aristocracy and not after some commoner or aboriginal chief. It took time for the popular name to solidify and become accepted. The final name “Bribie”, recorded for the first time in 1845 (23), may well incorporate both “Brisbane” and "Brady”.
The mystery needs a non-armchair researcher to put on the white gloves and dig deep into the colonial correspondence. Based on my contacts with the Bribie Island historical society, I’m pleased to report that this work is underway. I'll keep you posted.
1. Petrie, Constance C. 1904, Tom Petrie’s reminiscences of early Queensland.
2. Welsby, Thomas. 1937, Bribie the basket maker.
3. Flinders, M. 1814, Voyage to Terra Australis…
4. Meston reporting in: The Brisbane Courier, 20 Oct 1923.
5. Steele, J. G 1984, Aboriginal pathways on South East Queensland and the Richmond River.
6. Christopher Eipper of the German Mission, reporting in: The Colonial Observer (Sydney), 14 oct 1841.
7. Lang, J. D. 1847, Cooksland in North Eastern Australia, the future cotton field..,
8. Reproduced in: The Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 1976, The runaway convicts of Moreton Bay.
9. Queensland State Archives, Item ID 847067 82/2613
10. Queensland State Archives, Item ID 847447 92/13903
11. King Brady assisted W. Senior in a trip to Noosa Lakes, as described in: Senior, W. 1888, Near and far, an angler’s sketches of..,,
12. Russell, H. S., Exploring Excursions in Australia, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol 15, 1845.
13. Assuming Brady was at least 20 by the time "Breiby" was used for the first time, in 1836
14. Extract of the logbook from the ‘Sally”, reproduced in: Gill, J.C.H. 1968. In search of a river: two little-known voyages... Queensland Heritage.
15. Curtis, J. 1838, Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle containing…
16. Letter from Lieutenant Otter to Captain Fyans, 27 Aug 1836, transcribed in: Steele, J. G, 1975, Brisbane Town in Convict Days.
17. The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Aug 1946.
18. Morrison, W. 1888, The Aldine History of Queensland.
19. Queensland State Archives Series ID 5653, Chronological Register of Convicts at Moreton Bay.
20. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 13 Jan 1825.
21. Mentioned in: Index to Letters from the Colonial Secretary, SLQ-A2-Series-Roll-A2.4-2013-11.pdf
22. The first record found for “Brisbane Town” is in The Australian, 30 March 1826.
23. The first use of modern spelling “Bribie” found in The Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List, 16 Aug 1845