Mercy for murder on Mulgrave

1878 – James Price was reported as “barbarously murdered’’ by natives when he was killed by a group of  blackbirded pearl divers in the Torres Strait.

Murdered at Mulgrave Island… I will have mercy and not judgement read the words at the bottom of James Price’s gravestone in the Thursday Island cemetery. Image Sharyn Moodie 2022.

Price, 37, along with  “two Malays and one Chinaman”, also crew of the  pearl-shelling boat Flying Scud,  lost their lives at Mulgrave Island, also known as Badu.

The remainder of the crew apparently “mutineed’’ and the ship’s mate, with a serious head wound, escaped after shooting  several of the “natives”.

It was reported that “fifteen natives and four lubra afterwards took to their boats, and are supposed to have made for Port Essington, to which place they belonged”.

Price had been tasked by Captain Francis Cadell, who is today described as a slave trader, to form a pearl-fishing station at the island.

The mutineers were on a one-year contract with Captain Cadell and “had only three months to serve, “ Commissioner of Police Chester wrote to Price’s brother when he sought details of the death.

“Their motivation was attributed to a desire to return home.”

“As they had several days head start, no immediate action was taken to apprehend the murderers, “ Chester wrote.

There was one report in September that the culprits had reached  the coast of New Guinea, several being killed by bushmen.

Price was temporarily buried on Mulgrave Island, then reinterred on Thursday Island.  His family organized a monument to be raised over his grave. Today, 144 years later, the words on his stone are difficult to read.

Murdered at Mulgrave Island… I will have mercy and not judgement

James Price’s headstone

It is a surprising sentiment from a family who had had another son murdered by convicts in Victoria.

While Price’s murderers were known, could he be more accurately be labelled a victim of his boss Captain Cadell?

Cadell “owned’’ the workers, who hailed from Port Essington, about 800km away, on the Cobourg Peninsula  north-east of Darwin. It had been set up as a military outpost to protect New Holland as a British settlement in 1838.

 The original inhabitants had more than a decade of close contact with Europeans, and the relations were marked for their lack of violence.

But those relationships meant nothing decades later when the  lure of cheap labour brought Captain Cadell to the area.

While there is no direct evidence the workers in this case were mistreated, Cadell had previously been charged with ill-treating his pearlers and fishermen.  Various reports of his personality have him a “wonderful man, choke full of vital energy… possessed of undaunted enterprise and courage”.  Yet another writer described him as pompous and bombastic. Wikipaedia describes him as a slave trader.

Cadell eventually met his maker when he was killed in his schooner Gem by the cook’s mate, who alleged Cadell had not paid him any wages for five years. The ship, with his body on board, was then scuttled.

Badu (Mulgrave Island), Queensland.

Sources: Australian Town and Country Journal, Saturday 14 September 1878, p 10

Evening News, Monday 9 September, p2

Mudie, Ian:  ‘Cadell, Francis (1822–1879)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cadell-francis-3136/text4675, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 6 November 2022.

The Cornwall Chronicle, Wednesday 4 September 1878, p2

The Brisbane Courier, Wednesday 10 September 1879, p5

Queensland State Archives

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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