The letters of Caroline Landsborough

It is now three weeks since we left Sweers Island… I felt so ill when I left I really thought we would never meet again.

Caroline Landsborough, August 1868

So wrote Caroline Landsborough, from Batavia (modern day Jakarta, Indonesia) in August 1868 to her husband William. Caroline, who was suffering from tuberculosis, was en route to Sydney and had left her three children in the care of a friend on Sweers Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. She would never see her children again.

William Landsborough and his wife Caroline. Negative number 15202, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Carry (as she was known) had arrived in the Gulf in late 1866 with her two daughters — Lizzie and Jeanie. Her husband William Landsborough, explorer, police magistrate and customs official on Sweers Island, had preceded her, arriving in the Gulf town of Burketown in April 1866, where he found that many of the town’s residents had been struck down by a mystery illness — a virulent fever. Reportedly at Landsborough’s insistence, most of Burketown’s population relocated to Sweers Island off the coast in an effort to escape the fever.

Customs House on Sweers Island, 1871. Negative number 67337, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

It was here at this remote outpost in February 1868 that Carry gave birth to a third daughter — Sweersena. But within months Carry was ill. In July she left her family and set off on the long journey home to Sydney by sea. The first leg of the voyage, to Batavia, took 17 days. Upon arrival, Carry wrote to William:

the world is dreary to me when I have not you. I was very weak for the first two days but gradually gained strength every day and got up on deck… My cough has been very bad since I left and I have become very thin. The night sweats make me so weak.

Caroline Landsborough, 1868

Letter from Caroline Landsborough dated 5th August 1868. OM69-17/215 William Landsborough Papers 1856-1908, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Four months later Carry finally reached Sydney, to be cared for by her sister. She wrote to William with seemingly positive news of her health but the tone of her letter belied her frail condition:

I am now feeling much better and I think getting stronger but my cough is still very troublesome. Please God dear Will I may yet recover. I received your dear kind letters… I love to hear about my darling children and feel very grateful to Mrs Campbell for all her goodness to them.

Caroline Landsborough, 1868

Mrs Campbell — probably a family friend — proved to be a steadfast support for the Landsborough children, who must have pined dreadfully for their absent mother. Their father too was often away, on business, and indeed it was late February the following year before William made it to Sydney to visit his sick wife. But a pressing legal matter prompted William to leave Sydney for Rockhampton in May, and in June Carry wrote to him expressing dismay that he had not yet returned, telling him:

I miss you much and wish we were once more together with our little ones. I am so tired, dearest Willy. Your own loving wife Carry.

Caroline Landsborough, 1869

Perhaps sensing that she didn’t have long to live, Carry sent word to Mrs Campbell to bring the children to Sydney to see her. William returned to Sydney at the end of July 1869, but Carry died within days of his arrival, aged just 28. The Landsborough children, escorted by Mrs Campbell, did not arrive in Sydney until early November, only to be told the dreadful news — that their mother had succumbed to tuberculosis.

Caroline Landsborough, wife of William Landsborough, with her baby. Negative number 15187, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Carry’s letters to William survive in the William Landsborough Papers, held by John Oxley Library.

Trisha Fielding is an historian and author of the blogs North Queensland History and Women of the North; and in 2015 was a joint-winner of the John Oxley Library Award.

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Such a sad story. The tyranny of distance and separation in past times are
still relevant in this modern Covid Delta pandemic.