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In the story of Mary Watson, three Cooktown groups meet in a tragedy: European settlers, the Chinese and the Aboriginal people.

Mary’s husband set up a beche de mer fishing station on Lizard Island and took her to live there in a small cottage close to a creek with the island’s only fresh water. He and his partner went off in their luggers and left Mary and their son behind with two Chinese servants, Ah Sam and Ah Leung. A few weeks later a party of mainland Aborigines of the Guugu Yimmidir group made one of their seasonal trips by canoe to the island. They attacked Ah Sam, who suffered seven spear wounds, and Ah Leung was killed as he worked in the vegetable garden. Mary Watson frightened them off by firing a gun, and then set out in a cut-down ship’s water tank, used for boiling sea slugs, with Ah Sam and her son, hoping to be picked up by a passing boat. They drifted for a week, occasionally landing on reefs and islets. Mary’s final diary entry reads “No water. Near dead with thirst.”

When fisherman reported that the stone cottage had been destroyed and that fires were burning on the island, people thought that Mary had been kidnapped or killed. Mounted police and native troopers under Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald from Cooktown shot a number of coastal Cape York people, possibly as many as 150, in retaliation. Later there were claims that the people shot were not involved in what happened on Lizard Island.

The remains of Mary and her baby were found some months later among the mangroves on No. 5 Howick, still in the iron tank, but now covered with fresh rainwater from a recent tropical downpour. Ah Sam had died on the beach nearby. A concealed spring existed on the islet, but they had not found it. When the bodies were returned to Cooktown, a procession of 650 escorted them to their burial at Two Mile Cemetery, on the road to the Palmer River goldfields.

I found the details of Mary Watson’s story in Wikipedia in an article with “some issues” after my interest was piqued by an elegant and very white drinking fountain in Cooktown’s main street, a memorial to “the heroine of Lizard Island”, with a poem telling part of her story. I’ve quoted Wikipedia pretty well exactly. This story is also told in a section of the Milbi Wall.