James Davis, convict Queenslander

About the convict

"He was a great man to hunt for game, was always lucky in spearing kangaroo, and he was a good hand at spear and boomerang throwing." 

Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland

Role: Shopkeeper and adopted tribesman
Born: 1808 in Broomielaw, Scotland
Convicted: 19 July 1824, Surrey Quarter Sessions
Sentence: Transportation for life
Ship: Norfolk
Transported: Arrived in New South Wales on 18 August 1825
Died: 7 May 1889 in Brisbane. Buried in Toowong Cemetery
Notes: Sent to Moreton Bay 6 February 1829

Further reading

Transcribed from newspaper article in The Australian, 14 June 1842, p.3

An exploring party has just returned from the northward, having been absent in a boat from Brisbane, for three weeks. The following particulars you may rely on, as I have them from Mr. Petre, the gentleman who headed the expedition:
"On leaving the bay they coasted along to the northward for about two hundred and fifty miles, when they discovered a large river extending inland about fifty miles. It is navigable for vessels drawing eight feet water for thirty miles up, and terminates in one of the finest pastoral parts in New Holland. They have brought with them two runaways from the settlement, one of whom, James Davis, a native of Scotland, has been living with the blacks for fifteen or sixteen years; the other man named Bracewell, is the man who brought Mrs. Fraser off the island where the Stirling Castle was lost; he (Bracewell), having been absent at that time for seven years; and having again made good his retreat, he has been absent for upwards of three years. Davis, when found could only tell his name and place in the English language; he now however, begins to speak English pretty well. Davis had not seen a white man since he saw Bracewell, ten years before this. These men were found in saparate places. Davis is not more than thirty years of age, and was naked, besmeared and cut the same as the natives. He is equally as expert in climbing a tree, &c., as they are. Both the men can give much information to the Government, and as they have been the means of saving the lives of Mr. Petre and party, I doubt not but they will receive their free pardons."

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Transcribed from the newspaper The Week, 11 May 1889, p.14

Durrumboi or Davis

Close of a Remarkable Career

Fourteen Years with the Blacks

On Tuesday with the death of James Davis, better known years ago as Durrumboi, or as Mr. Stuart Russell spells it – Derhamboi, there ended a career without parallel in the history of the colonisation of Queensland. No equally graphic record of a wild white man exists, and the following incidents, collected from the "Genesis of Queensland," "The Picturesque Atlas of Australia," and other works on the colony, relating mainly as they do to that period of his life, when he was as one with the aboriginals, will be perused with interest:- Davis was the son of a Scotch blacksmith, who followed his calling at the Broomielaw, in the city of Glasgow, and was apprenticed to his father when 14 years of age in 1822. Being of a roving disposition, he soon deserted his forge, and, crossing the border, he made his way to the south of England. There, apparently, he fell into evil habits, for in 1824, with three other youths, he was convicted of stealing half a crown from a church in Surrey, and, along with his companions, transported to Botany Bay by the ship Minstrel. In his new life also he does not appear to have reformed, for in 1828 he was again transported to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay, where colonial sentenced felons only were sent. He was there employed at the forge along with a mate , and so liberal was Captain Logan, the commandant at that time, with the whip that preferring all hazards to the terrors of such merciless rule, the two convicts took to the bush. Proceeding northward, these absconders soon fell in with a numerous tribe of aborigines, by whom they were kindly received. Davis, by no means good-looking as a white man, was recognised a reincarnation of Derhamboi, a lamented member of their tribe, who had died some time before, and according to their superstitions returned to life again. He was immediately adopted by Pamby-Pamby, Derhamboi's father, and his wife, who was still alive, regularly supplied with provisions, and was safe from that moment. His less fortunate companion, however, perished ere long, killed in expiation of an accidental sacrilege in emptying the mortal remains of a deceased blackfellow from a native basket which he found in a tree and which he appropriated to carry oysters in. Shortly afterwards Davis himself very nearly fell a victim to the ferocity of his black associates. By some accidental means he killed the pet dog of his adopted mother, who was so enraged at this loss that she instigated her husband to murder him. The old man at first was not indisposed to do so, as he accused Davis of being a mawgooy or ghost, instead of Derhamboi, and as surely threatened to have killed him in accordance with their tribal customs. But Davis turned to and gave the old savage such a merciless drubbing with his fists that he not only subdued his murderous intentions but induced him to forgive the death of his pet dog. The Ginginbarrah tribe, in which Davis was naturalised, had their usual place of habitation at a considerable distance in the interior, and leaving them after some time he passed several years in sojourning amongst various tribes until he had reached as far as 500 miles to the northward of Moreton Bay. With all these savages he was treated as a blackfellow returned from the dead, and although he had learnt to become as one of themselves in their habits of everyday life, it was a matter of no small inconvenience to him to find that fresh recognitions awaited him with different tribes. He was Derhamboi in Wide Bay, but he had to accept the personality of someone else when he found another tribe, and occasionally his inability to recognise friends who had been intimate with him before his death; gave rise to awkward misgivings among those individuals. But it sometimes happened that no identification took place. On such occasions Davis had an answer pat. It was, he explained, so very long since he died that he had forgotten what his name had been prior to that event. After he had been 14 years amongst the blacks, and had long given up all thoughts of ever returning to the society of civilised men, he was found by Mr. Andrew Petrie amongst the Ginginbarrah triabe again in 1842, and brought back to Brisbane. On the 13th May of that year, Petrie's party, who had been exploring for the first time the Mary River, camped ashore, with the view of ascending the neighbouring hills on the following day. They then heard of a large gathering of hostile natives being in the neighbourhood with Davis amongst them. After some manoeuvring another absconder, Wandi or Bracetell, who had also spent seven years amongst the aborigines, with one of the Moreton Bay blacks managed unperceived to get in the midst of the encampment, and two convicts in Petrie's crew armed with guns then went forward with the view of securing Davis. So perilous was the adventure considered that the convicts were prepared for it on the understanding that if successful, their condition should be improved. When the wild white man and the tame black stole in upon the savages and had fairly got among them, and the former being recognised, had been received without clubbing or spearing, their two white attendants were detected at a distance, and an instant move made to spear them. But Wandi had by this time communicated with Derhamboi, and the two white savages prevailed on their black brothers to spare the trembling convicts. Davis, however, under the assurance of manumission, set off running towards the convicts, and surrendered himself to them, followed by Bracefell. A singular scene was then enacted by the brace of absconders, who seemed alternately swayed by their original training and their savage habits. Davis furiously accused Bracefell of having let the convicts to capture him with a view to procure a mitigation of his own sentence. He would credit none of Wandi's protestations, till the latter, moved to rage, became all blackfellow again, and passionately sang a war song at Deramboi. Thereupon Davis dashed off to the main body of whites. "I shall never," wrote Mr. Petrie in his diary, "forget his appearance when he arrived in our camp – a white man in a state of nudity, and actually a wild man of the woods; his eyes wild and unable to rest a moment on any one object. He had quite the same manner and gestures that the wildest blacks have got. He could not speak his 'mither's tongue,' as he called it. He could not pronounce English for some time, and when he did attempt it, all he could say was a few words, and those were often misapplied, breaking off abruptly in the middle of a sentence with the black gibberish, which he spoke very fluently. During the whole of our conversation his eyes and manner were completely wild, looking at us as if he had never seen a white man before. In fact, he told us he had forgotten all about the society of white men, and had forgotten all about his friends and relations for years past, and had I or someone else not brought him from among those savages he would never have left them".

Upon returning to Brisbane and receiving a pardon from the Government, Davis first entered the service of Land Commissioner Simpson at Woogaroo, and shortly afterwards joined Mr. Eales's manager, Mr. Joliffe, to take up land in the Wide Bay district. He was next engaged with a survey party, opening the road to Gympie, a task which took a considerable time to accomplish. Then he had charge of a search party, to ascertain the truth of a report that a man named Thomson with his wife and three other men, had fallen into the hands of the blacks up north, the men murdered, and the woman detained amongst the natives. Satisfying himself that the story was a false one, he returned to Brisbane and opened a farrier's shop at Kangaroo Point, marrying whilst there his first wife who lived with him until her death about seven years ago. After being in business several years he sold out, and, crossing the river, opened a second farrier's shop in George street, which he kept until 1864. He then gave up the smithy, and for over twenty years until his final retirement from business, dealt in crockery ware on the premises adjoining the Ipswich boarding house. Whilst residing in Brisbane, he was also engaged as aboriginal interpreter in the Supreme Court, travelling about the colony wherever a native unable to speak English was placed on his trial. His second wife was a person named Bridget Hayes. When first taken from the blacks, he had no hesitancy in relating his experiences amongst them, but of later years he became habitually reticent, and on rare occasions when willing to refer to his first adventures, at the first question he would abruptly stop in a snappish matter, and break off the conversation at once.

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Transcribed from the newspaper Brisbane Courier, 9 May 1889, p.6

Death of an old identity

A few days ago there passed away one whose name is associated with the earliest history of Queensland – namely, Mr. James Davis, generally known as "Durramboi." His career included some of the strangest experiences that have ever fallen, perhaps, to any man in this colony, and are on a par with those of the once famous "Crusoe" of Victoria. Davis was born, as he told Mr. Stuart Russell, the author of the "Genesis of Queensland," in 1824, his father being a blacksmith in the old Wynd, Glasgow, and was convicted and transported to Sydney and then sent on to the settlement of Moreton Bay. At this time the treatment of the unfortunate convicts was such that it induced Davis to abscond, preferring the privations and terrors of the bush to the hardships which were imposed by convict discipline. His absconding took place during the rule of Governor Logan, but the exact year is not ascertainable. Davis absconded in company with another convict, and together they reached Wide Bay, then a terra incognita; they soon fell in with a large tribe, by whom they were entertained hospitably. His companion, however, unfortunately profaned some of the rites shown to the dead by the tribe, and he was speared on the spot. The offence consisted in using one of the baskets in which the blacks placed the bones of their deceased relatives to carry oysters in, and Davis seems to have owed his life to a most curious chance. The blacks had observed that the few white men they fell in with from time to time invariably came from the sea, on the horizon of which the sun rose, and this, coupled by the effects produced by firearms, gave them the impression that the strangers were not ordinary beings, but the souls of deceased blackfellows returned from the sun. When a distinguished warrior died, honour was shown to his memory by eating the body, which was first scorched and then the outer was scrapped off with shells; when the process was complete the inner skin remained quite white. A certain resemblance to a deceased warrior named "Durramboi" led the blacks to believe that Davis was the scraped body of the departed one reanimated, and Davis was adopted by Durramboi's parents, and called by his name. He was momentarily in danger, when his ignorance of local customs betrayed him, and he was more than suspected of being an evil spirit. In the native superstitions, the spiritualistic and materialistic beliefs are so curiously combined that there seemed nothing strange to them in killing an evil spirit, and eating him afterwards. Davis passed from tribe to tribe, and was recognized as the ghost of numberless dead blacks; but he always succeeded in explaining that it was so long since he died that he had forgotten his name and habitation. His frequent journeys enabled him to gain valuable information respecting the then unexplored territory north of Moreton Bay. Davis was found in 1842 by Mr. Andrew Petrie, the father of Mr. John Petrie, while on an exploring expedition up to Wide Bay and the Mary River. It had been discovered that Davis was with the blacks at this place, and he was induced to return by a man named Bracefield, who had also absconded and lived with the blacks, and who was found near the same place during the expedition. He was with a tribe numbering several hundreds; but when he was satisfied that he should not be illtreated on his return to Brisbane he consented to go. When he arrived in the camp of the whites he was naked, and to all appearances a wild man of the woods, having all the appearance and gestures of a wild black. He had forgotten his mother tongue, and for some time could use only a few incoherent words, garnished with the dialect of his tribe, which he spoke very fluently. For many years after his return he was employed as native interpreter to the Crown, so thoroughly was he versed in the language of the blacks. Lately, however, he kept a small crockery shop in George-street, but for some months before his death, which occurred on Tuesday last, he had relinquished business. His age was 65 years.

Disclaimer: This has been transcribed directly from the original document. Any mistakes are from the original document.