‘Mermaid boab’ in Careening Bay in WA tells a story of discovery, error and mystery


The ship His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid is best known for its connection to a huge boab tree in a remote bay in Western Australia, but its voyages two centuries ago are an intriguing tale of discoveries, mistakes and mysteries.

HMC Mermaid found itself in Careening Bay, Kimberley, Wash., In 1820, on one of its trips to complete Matthew Flinders’ task of mapping Australia.

The ship was damaged, having struck a sandbar off the Queensland coast a few weeks earlier, and realizing it was sinking, the Commanding Officer, Lt. Phillip Parker King, stopped at Careening Bay to make repairs .

The ship’s carpenter carved the words “HMC Mermaid 1820” into the trunk of a boab to mark the crew’s presence, and today tourists make the trip to the secluded bay, accessible only by boat, to see the inscription on the 12-meter-wide “Mermaid Boab”.

King asked his crew to list the boab tree, in what he called Careening Bay, with the “HMC Mermaid 1820”.(Provided: Chris Done)

While stranded in Careening Bay for 18 days, Mermaid botanist Alan Cunningham took time to explore and came across one of Australia’s most iconic creatures, the Frilled Lizard .

Notre Dame University assistant professor Kevin Kenneally, who has researched the maritime history and settlement of the Kimberleys, said Cunningham collected the first known specimen of the charismatic reptile.

A frilled lizard with an open mouth
The first known specimen in Europe of a frilled lizard was collected at Careening Bay.(Provided: Kevin Coate)

“When I say first known, first known to Europeans, because obviously the Aboriginals had known [about it] much longer, ”he said.

“The frilled lizard was found in 1825 with Dr John Edward Gray, the keeper of zoology at the British Museum and he named it chlamydosaurus kingii in homage to King, even though it had been collected by Cunningham at Careening Bay. “

Missed opportunity

Cunningham was also the first to collect a boab specimen in Australia, but his discovery was never acknowledged due to a series of errors.

“He spotted it in the Gulf of Cambridge while sailing with King, but unfortunately he mistook it for another group of plants and called it a capparis,” Dr Kenneally said.

“He returned to England at the end of the travels and he did not include a description of this plant in King’s diary, so it remained unknown.”

A man stands leaning against a tree
Kevin Kenneally gave a talk on the “mermaid boab” at Notre Dame de Broome University. (ABC Kimberley: Madison Snow)

Cunningham eventually wrote an article comparing him to the African boab, but when his brother passed away suddenly and was asked to take his place as the New South Wales government botanist, his article was forgotten and never saw the light of day.

“Many years later, on one of the Australian expeditions, the famous Victorian botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller named it adansonia gregorii, in honor of Gregory who led the expedition,” said Dr Kenneally.

Who carved the altar?

Another lesser-known sculpture – a semicircular niche at the back of the mermaid tree – still baffles researchers today.

A small mihrab carved on the back of a boab tree
A mysterious altar carved into the mermaid tree may have been used for Islamic or Catholic services.(Provided: Chris Done)

Dr Kenneally said the theory was that it was a religious altar used by Makassans, or today’s Indonesians, who came to Careening Bay to treat the trepang.

“[Or] maybe it was to do with one of King’s crew who were Catholic.

“They may have conducted their service separately from the Church of the King of England’s Sabbath observance.”

Preserves break the monotony

A painting by Phillip Parker King.
Phillip Parker King, the son of the governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, eventually became Australia’s first rear admiral.(Provided)

The ship was also one of the first to carry canned food, first produced by Englishman Bryan Donkin in 1815.

“The preserved food helped break up the monotony of cookies, salt, meat and toddler and King also found it to prevent the excessive and painful thirst he had suffered on previous expeditions,” said the Dr Kenneally.

“In his gratitude, he named an item just behind Careening Bay Donkin’s Hill.”

Having canned goods on board not only added variety to the crew’s diet, but also helped prevent scurvy and protect the food from vermin.

Submerge the ship to drown rats and cockroaches

On one of the mermaid’s voyages, crew member John Septimus Roe wrote: whatever they could reach “.

To resolve the issue, King submerged the ship to drown the vermin, but it didn’t quite work:

First Australian to tour the continent

On board the HMC Mermaid for an earlier voyage was Bungaree, the first Australian to tour his native continent.

A Kuringgai man from New South Wales, Bungaree was part of the crew of British explorer Matthew Flinders.

“Bungaree was an interesting person,” said Dr. Kenneally.

A painting of a man wearing colonial attire.
Bungaree, the first Australian to tour the country, accompanied King on the HMC Mermaid’s maiden voyage. (By Augustus Earle. Provided: National Library of Australia)

“Flinders had described him as ‘a worthy and courageous man, and extremely helpful in coming into contact with other tribes’.”

Knowledge of Bungaree’s natural history and understanding of native plants helped ensure the survival of the ship’s crew.

A little-known explorer named Bundle

As Bungaree returned home from the mermaid’s first voyage, a man from Dharawal from New South Wales named Bundle took part in King’s fourth voyage to survey the Australian coast, aboard the mermaid’s replacement, HM Brig. Bathurst.

Bundle had been orphaned as a child, according to newspaper entries at the time; her father was “killed in action” and her mother was “bitten in half by a shark”.

Bundle assisted on many Colonial ships and according to King, “despite losing one eye from a spear injury, he was an active and quick-witted sailor.”

While Bungaree was the most represented Native at the time, there is no image of the Bundle and little more is known about his life once he leaves the ships.

As for the mermaid boab, which serves as a physical representation of the story, there are plans to ensure that a piece remains of it long after it falls.

“Former Kimberley Parks and Wildlife Director Chris Done, who sadly passed away this year, made some cuttings from the mermaid tree,” Dr Kenneally said.

Dr Kenneally said the cuttings would be planted, 201 years after HMC Mermaid was in Careening Bay.


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