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The mystery of the Fraser Island girls

Updated: Apr 13

Two young white girls are rescued from an Aboriginal tribe on Fraser Island, three years after their boat is ship-wrecked and all crew is lost.


As often happens when a major event takes place, rumours swirl around the facts of a story until truth is often lost to time's journey, possibly never to be recovered. This seems to be the case for two young girls discovered living with the Fraser Island tribe after the ship the Sea Belle met an untimely end.


In 1859 a report was made to Parliament that gave information of a daring rescue of two young white girls from an Aboriginal tribe living on Fraser Island. Over the previous three years, news had been coming from local natives of these young girls, so much so that the owner of the schooner Coquette, William Harry Sawyer, was commissioned by the Government to go and find them.


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The Sea Belle was a brig of one hundred and fifty-three tons which had sailed from Sydney early in February 1857, with cargo and passengers for Gladstone and Rockhampton. On the return voyage, she left Gladstone on 2 April 1857 for Sydney with Port Curtis' Chief Constable James Harty, wife and children on board, and was never seen again. It was after this time that reports were received from local Aborigines of a European woman and children on one of the islands off Gladstone, shortly after the vessel disappeared.


Breaksea Spit, on the north of Fraser's Island is the site of where the Sea Belle was shipwrecked. Courtesy: Queensland University


Captain Richard Arnold led the expedition on the Coquette to rescue, what he believed to be, a white woman and her children from the Aboriginal tribe living on Fraser Island. It appeared from the information he had received, a vessel had been wrecked on Breaksea Spit and the crew and passengers made it to shore by boat to the island. All men were killed by the local tribe, but the woman and children were spared.


The only description given to Captain Arnold of the woman was that one of her large toes had been injured before her arrival on the island; that she winked as though her eyes were bad, and that she had two rings on her finger and a spyglass in her possession. From the description given of the children. Captain Arnold supposed the eldest to be about ten or twelve years of age, and the younger about six years.



On 24th September 1859, the Coquette with Captain Arnold and Sawyer on board, headed down the Mary River. On 29 September, the crew saw Aborigines on the beach of a bay situated eleven miles southwest of Breaksea Spit. Through the exchange of tobacco, pipes and information the crew learnt there were two girls in the next camp, about six or seven miles southward.


Captain Richard Arnold. Courtesy Iris Pederick via Rewa Bates on Ancestry. Used with permission.


It was a number of days before the Coquette crew caught up with the tribe they were looking for. Two young girls, virtually naked and with fair skin, were discovered living among them and were presumed to be those Captain Arnold and crew were looking for. They couldn't speak a word of English, were covered in tattoos and it looked like their noses had been broken. It was believed the mother had died.


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The girls were quickly whisked off to Sydney and that's when the anomalies in the story started. Residents of Port Curtis said the Harty family consisted of Chief Constable James and his wife, young daughter Ellen and a son. While the younger girl could have been Ellen, there was no explanation as to who the older girl was. No young white boy was found. Some believed the girls to be albino Aboriginal children or even half-castes.



Whatever the true story, the two young girls never returned to Fraser Island. The older girl, who was given the name Kitty died a short time after being taken to Sydney, losing her reason and dying, as described in the newspapers, as an imbecile. The younger girl, named Maria, lived for another twenty years, eventually dying of consumption.


The final resting place of Captain Richard Arnold. Photo: Sandgate Cemetery


Captain Richard Arnold continued taking charge of vessels travelling between Sydney and Newcastle until his retirement around 1882. He eventually died in 1898 in Hamilton, near Newcastle and is buried at Sandgate cemetery.


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