Mary Watson Diaries, January - October 1881: treasure collection of the John Oxley Library
Mary Watson (1860 – 1881) kept a personal diary while living on Lizard Island during 1881. Her husband Robert Watson operated a beche-de mer fishing business in partnership with Percy Fuller. Lizard Island was 35 kilometres from the mainland on the Great Barrier Reef and Cooktown was the nearest location for supplies.
To the Dingaal Aboriginal people of north Queensland, Lizard Island is a sacred place and is known as Jiigurru, or Dyiigurra.
The pages within Mary’s diary provide a unique record of her experiences and a first-hand account of the events that contributed greatly to the shaping of the “frontier” narrative in Queensland.
With her husband away exploring new fishing grounds and the death of Chinese workman Ah Leong following an attack by Aboriginal people from the mainland, Mary chose to flee with her four-month-old baby son and Chinese workman Ah Sam, who was wounded during the skirmish.
Mary’s diary includes a written account of the six days they drifted over the reef in a cut-down ship's tank that was used to boil beche-de-mer, until they reached an uninhabited island to the north-west in the Howick group of islands where they eventually perished. A series of reprisal attacks were conducted by colonists on Aboriginal people in the area, resulting in numerous deaths.
From the moment the news of Mary Watson’s demise became public, the story received substantial interest. Various articles, publications and public sculptures were dedicated to the legend of Mary Watson, feeding people’s ongoing fascination with the tragic and personal Queensland story.
Owing to the unique information contained in the diary and the remarkable fact that the physical pages survived, the Mary Watson diary is a highly significant item in the State Library of Queensland collection.
Read about other treasure collections from the John Oxley Library